HC Deb 08 February 1983 vol 36 cc889-96

4.5 pm

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. John Stanley)

Following my announcement on 3 September last year about potential defects in Orlit houses, the Scottish Special Housing Association has examined 30 houses in three sites in the west of Scotland and has found signs of deterioration of the reinforced concrete structure resulting from carbonation and the use of chlorides. Further tests on two Orlit houses in north-east Scotland confirmed this finding. Similar deterioration has been reported in some other types of prefabricated houses using structural reinforced concrete.

Although the Building Research Establishment has advised that this process of deterioration is gradual, I am asking the Building Research Establishment, in co-operation with selected local authorities, to gather detailed data in order to provide technical information and guidance. I am also asking local authorities to provide information about prefabricated reinforced concrete houses in their areas that were built between the wars and during the 1940s and 1950s. There are estimated to be about 150,000 such houses, of several different types of design and construction.

The House will understand the importance for both public and private owners of such houses that fuller technical data must be obtained to establish, with more certainty than is possible on present evidence, in what types of houses and to what degree deterioration may occur. Although on the evidence at present available the combination of circumstances is not the same as that which was sought to justify assistance for the owners of Airey houses, I shall of course be ready to consider any new factors that may emerge in the light of the technical data now being sought.

Meanwhile, a prospective purchaser of prefabricated reinforced concrete houses built between the wars and during the 1940s and 1950s should pay particular attention to the condition and durability of the structure before proceeding with the purchase. Local authorities and other public owners should certainly do this before valuing a house for sale, and my Department is advising them accordingly.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Don't buy.

Mr. Stanley

I am also arranging for letters to be sent to the Building Societies Association, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyers, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Institution of Structural Engineers asked that their members should be made fully aware of the need for special care in assessing the condition of those houses for valuation or other purposes.

My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Wales, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are taking similar action. A copy of the letter being sent today to local authorities has been placed in the Library.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Bolton, West)

Is the Minister aware that the House will be grateful for the information that he has given so far? What does he intend to do to ensure that funds are available for both private and public owners of Orlit houses who must remedy the defects in their homes? What advice will he give to local authorities such as Bolton, which has embarked on programmes of improvements to Orlit properties? Will the Minister say clearly whether he intends to extend the compensation that he recently made available to owners of Airey properties and, if so, will he make funds available to local authorities on an equal basis?

Does the Minister realise that his statement proves that he was completely wrong when he said that the problems that face Airey house owners were unique, as he has now said that there are another 150,000 reinforced concrete houses that could have structural defects? In view of the growing anxiety about these problems, will the Minister institute a full inquiry into all system-built accommodation as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Stanley

With regard to an extension of the Airey house scheme to supply funds for the houses that are in private ownership, I cannot add to what I have already said. It is evident that a great deal more technical information should be made available. We shall consider the results of that technical data. With regard to the public sector, as the hon. Lady knows, local authorities substantially underspent this year and last year. Next year, there is a significant increase in real terms in housing provision for local authorities.

We shall be going through the normal housing investment process for the year after that, and local authorities will be able to make their HIP bids to us in the normal way. The hon. Lady said that I said that the problem with Airey houses was unique. I should like to make it quite clear that there are unique features of the Airey house system with regard to its design.

Following further work that is taking place through the Scottish Special Housing Associaton and being evaluated by the Building Research Establishment, it is clear that there is a wider problem with regard to deterioration of prefabricated reinforced concrete houses. I received the technical appraisal by the Building Research Establishment on Orlit houses in Scotland only a short while ago, at the end of January. I have taken the earliest possible opportunity to give the House the information that is available to us.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

Will my hon. Friend accept that this is a serious matter for many people who live in these houses? Does he agree that both sides of the House are responsible for the problem? Will he ensure that the people who purchased those houses and local authorities which own them are given information about how to put the houses right as quickly as possible?

Mr. Stanley

My hon. Friend is entirely right when he refers to the seriousness of the problem for the people who bought their homes. I fully recognise that. He is entirely right to say that the seeds of the problem go back over a considerable period. We are now concerned with houses that were built between 30 and 60 years ago. We fully accept that the Government have a responsibility to deal with the problem. That is why I have made a statement. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall make available and publicise the technical information as it becomes available to us. We shall make it as widely available as we can.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

Is the Minister aware that in Clarkston, in my constituency, those people who lived in prefab houses would have been happy to remain there if the local authority had undertaken a progamme of rehabilitation? Is he aware that, far from underspending, the local authority found that the Scottish Office was simply not willing to make capital available? Will the Minister bear that in mind? Will he also bear in mind that local authorities want to make some of these houses viable and permanently habitable? Will he assist them and the construction industry?

Mr. Stanley

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland is present and will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said. My reference to underspending related only to English housing authorities.

Mr. Chris Patten (Bath)

What about Unity home owners? When will the Minister be able to make a statement about compensation for them?

Mr. Stanley

I can confirm that Unity homes are among the homes that the Building Research Establishment will be taking a special and early look at. They are of a similar type of construction to Orlit houses. As I made clear in my statement, I am not able to go further than I have already. We shall consider the results of the new technical surveys that we shall be carrying out.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford East)

Is the Minister aware that hundreds of thousands of families are living in intolerable conditions because of damp in industrially built houses that have been constructed in the past 20 years? Is he prepared to consider extending the grant—it should be a 100 per cent. grant—to local authorities to renovate these properties? Does he agree that it was not their fault that the properties were built but that they were taken for a ride by Governments of both political colours, building companies and architects?

Mr. Stanley

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have changed the subsidy rules so that capitalised repairs expenditure by local authorities on houses that were built in the past 30 years have, as a result of action that the Government have taken, now become eligible for subsidy. Condensation in system-built flats and houses that were built in the 1960s and 1970s is outside the scope of this statement.

Mr. John Heddle (Lichfield and Tamworth)

Does my hon. Friend agree that properties about which he is talking were built under the "homes fit for heroes" schemes and that he has had the courage to come to the House at the earliest possible opportunity to bring the issue to the public's attention? Will he confirm that tenants of Orlit and other prefabricated houses will have the benefit, under the right-to-buy provisions of the Housing Act 1980, to transfer from their present properties to others?

Mr. Stanley

My hon. Friend is entirely right. We are discussing houses that were built from the 1920s to the end of the 1950s. Assuming that the houses are part V houses—the bulk of them will be—secure tenants who are moved will be able to count the time that they have spent as secure tenants towards their right-to-buy qualification for discount.

Mr. Joseph Dean (Leeds, West)

Is the Minister aware that during an Adjournment debate in December I warned him that his decision to deal with Airey houses was only the tip of a rapidly surfacing iceberg? I predicted that to deal with all the deteriorating industrial houses he might have to spend a minimum of £3,000 million. Why will he not include houses in my constituency that were built under the Caspon system, eight of which have been bought from the local authority and the owners of which each face a bill of £10,000 for structural defects? He is offering them no assistance. Why is he being so selective in his assistance? Does he agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) that the problem is the Government's responsibility and is due to the failures of successive Governments? Does he accept the principle that he must underwrite the cost of putting right the defects?

Mr. Stanley

The hon. Gentleman must be aware that we are discussing a large number of systems that were built at different times and used a great variety of materials. It is essential, if we are to have any consistency, to do detailed technical work. Only then can we see the extent of the technical problems, whether they are peculiar to some systems and whether some systems are free from such problems. We must improve our technical base urgently. I am talking in terms of months to examine the 150,000 properties that I have mentioned.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Will the Minister accept that his statement today reinforces the view of many Opposition Members, and probably of many Members on the Government side, that there is a need to maintain publicly financed, independent building research? Has not this been highlighted by what has happened? Will he reimburse local authorities for the losses in which they will be involved in carrying out the research he asks for? What about the people whose houses are blighted by the statement he has made today? Are they to be helped?

Mr. Stanley

On the question of blight, the hon. Member is quite right. This was our dilemma. I fully recognise that the statement I have made today will have an impact on those who have bought properties. I must make it quite clear that these properties have not been bought in just the past two or three years. They will have passed into the private sector over a period of probably 10 or 15 years, under successive Governments. However, we have an inescapable obligation to those who may be contemplating buying these properties in the next few weeks or months. We have now received technical information which, in the Government's view, it is totally incumbent upon us to disclose at the earliest opportunity. That I have done. While I recognise the impact on those who have already bought, I would have been failing seriously in my duty had I not taken the action I have today.

Mr. Den Dover (Chorley)

Could the Minister advise the House whether the dwellings concerned are single or two-storey, what sort of failure has been evidenced, and if there is any imminent danger from structural collapse?

Mr. Stanley

At the moment we do not possess a detailed description of the various house types and this is one of the things we shall be getting from local authorities. However, as a broad generalisation, it would be right to say that it is low-rise housing. As to the nature of possible defects, we foresee a process of gradual deterioration of the reinforced concrete structural members. That is the essential problem. On the advice I have at the moment, therefore, it will be a gradual process rather than a risk of sudden collapse. Obviously, if I receive further advice, based on the technical evaluation that we shall now be doing, that there is a safety risk in respect of a particular group of houses, I would make that known and take the appropriate action at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. John Evans (Newton)

Is the Minister aware that the statement he has made today indicates either incompetance in his Department, at worst, or a considerable lack of co-operation? Is he aware that only a fortnight ago, on 24 January, the Under-Secretary of State, in answer to questions from all parts of the House, told us when we raised the question of other forms of housing that Airey houses were unique? We now know that they are not unique. Will the Minister also tell the House why he is stopping at 1950 and not going on to the 1960s and 1970s, because those houses will be coming next? Will he confirm that I have given him information about Parkinson-framed houses over the past 12 months which offers plenty of evidence that this type of housing is inadequate and liable to fall on the heads of those who occupy it? Will he also confirm that his statement today can only be construed as telling those people who live in this type of housing not to buy it?

Mr. Stanley

First, when the hon. Member refers to the comment made by the Under-Secretary of State, my colleague was quite right, as I have told the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor), to say that there are particular features of Airey houses that are special in terms of the design factor.

As to why we are not going beyond the 1950s, the advice I have is that the particular group of system-built houses that we are concerned with today—the reinforced concrete prefabricated houses—built to the particular standards of reinforced concrete construction that have given rise to these problems was built from the 1920s to the end of the 1950s. Since then knowledge of concrete and of this problem has improved. The use of chlorides, for example, has been reduced. The advice I must give the House today is that it is this group, up to the end of the 1950s, that appears at the moment possibly to be at risk.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich, East)

While the deterioration of the multi-storey, system-built blocks of flats put up under the industrialised building boom of the 1960s is clearly beyond the scope of the Minister's statement—

Mr. Frank Allaun


Mr. Cartwright

—may I ask whether he would, nevertheless, accept that the problems it poses for hundreds of thousands of families living in those properties are pressing and severe? Will he give that matter a much higher priority than it has received in recent years?

Mr. Stanley

I fully recognise the problems created in certain of those blocks but I must also tell the hon. Member that the local authorities concerned bear a very real responsibility, although in most cases it is probably the predecessors of the present-day authorities which took those basic design and construction decisions in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Private builders were responsible.

Mr. Stanley

I am very much aware of the problem. It is not simply a matter of design; there are also major issues of management. As far as the latter is concerned, we have, through the priority estate project, produced some very constructive, radical and efficient proposals for dealing more satisfactorily with management problems in high-density estates.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

Whilst my hon. Friend's statement will be regarded as a welcome step in the right direction, is he aware that there are many owners of Orlit houses in the London borough of Sutton in my constituency who have been concerned about this for a long time? Since the condition of Orlit houses is, to all intents and purposes, very similar to those of Airey houses, could he give an undertaking that this study will be concluded in the very near future so that action can be taken?

Mr. Stanley

I am well aware of the interest in Orlit houses in my hon. Friend's constituency. I will give him the assurance I have given previously, that I very much recognise the uncertainty and difficulty created for those who have purchased Orlit houses over the past 10 or 15 years. It will be our objective to try to reach some early conclusions and to make technical data available as early as possible.

Several Hon. Members


The Speaker

Order. I propose to call the four hon. Members who have been seeking to catch my eye throughout, and then to move on.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

Does the Minister recall that I recently wrote to him about 900 houses in my constituency, which are affected by the same problems as these houses? Will he give a categorical assurance that the 27 individuals who bought houses in Leicester under the Government's right-to-buy scheme will receive financial compensation at least as generous as that given to people who bought Airey houses?

Mr. Stanley

As I have said to other hon. Members, it is not possible today to approach this piecemeal. [HON. MEMBERS: "That is what you are doing."] It is essential to look at the broad group of properties that have been constructed in this way. However, I can assure the hon. Member that the houses about which he is concerned in his constituency—the Henry Boot houses—along with the Unity houses, will be among those we shall be looking at in the first phase of the technical studies by the Building Research Establishment.

Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central)

Is the Minister aware that the Under-Secretary of State will be visiting my constituency tomorrow, when he will be told of an estate of 1,000 dwellings built by Bison Northern Concrete only 11 years ago that is now being demolished? Does he not think it a national scandal? Should not someone, those who have made vast amounts of money, be called to account? Does he not agree that there should be a public inquiry?

Mr. Stanley

The Bison system is completely different from those referred to here. The hon. Member will also have to ask himself why the local authority to which he refers decided to construct those houses some 10 years ago.

Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)

Does not the Minister think this is only the tip of an iceberg and that there should be continual probing of these matters? Does not he accept that the treatment of the local authorities is very shabby indeed, and that, when the Minister talks about the HIP allocation, this is money that is borrowed and has to be paid back with interest, with the result that if any HIP allocation takes into consideration the Airey-type houses it means that the allocation is far lower than first expected? Is he aware that revenue grant is caught in "Heseltine's clawback" and, with capital receipts, some local authorities wish to use these in another manner, with the result that the housing programme is greatly affected?

Mr. Stanley

If the hon. Member is saying that his local authority wants to use housing receipts for non-housing purposes, that is a judgment—[Interruption]—it is free to make.

Mr. McKay

I did not say that and the Minister knows it.

Mr. Stanley

It is up to the local authorities to use the housing receipts or non-housing receipts in whatever way they choose. I come back to what I said previously, which is that nationally—and it is true of a very high proportion of English authorities—local authorities went into this financial year with very substantial unspent housing capital receipts, about £800 million worth. This year they have generated more housing capital receipts. For this year, 1982–83, we are going into another significant underspend and we have increased the allocations for next year. I believe the great majority of local authorities have a very substantial capacity to increase their expenditure.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

Is the Minister aware that his statement touches the fringe of a major, widespread problem and that local authorities will have to bear the cost of demolishing many system-built houses with design faults? Will he undertake to wipe off the debt charges on such properties where they exist for local authorities? Is the Minister aware also that he is storing up similar problems for some future Minister for Housing and Construction by abandoning Parker Morris standards, by proposing the privatisation of building regulations, by cutting maintenance moneys to local authorities and by supporting the widespread use of new systems such as timber-framed houses and no fines?

Mr. Stanley

I disagree wholly with what the hon. Gentleman said about storing up problems for the future. The general level of house building is much higher, and has been during the 1970s and 1980s, than during the period about which we are talking. Building technology has advanced enormously since the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, which is the period with which we are dealing today. Unlike any previous Government, we have taken detailed administrative steps at the Building Research Establishment to set up on a systematic basis the identification of possible defects and the dissemination of information about defects to local authorities. If that had been done earlier, a great deal of unnecessary expenditure might have been saved.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

Will the Minister return to the first question he was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor) about the possibility of a wide-ranging inquiry, because, if we do not have a comprehensive examination of what is plainly a serious occurrence, will he not be stumbling back to the Dispatch Box again and again with depressing news similar to that which we have had today?

Presumably, the Minister will be dealing with the Scottish aspect of this problem as well. How many Orlit houses are there in Scotland? I understand that it is in the region of 6,000, but I should be grateful if he would confirm that. Is the Minister aware that in the city of Glasgow alone there are 960, of which almost half have been modernised during the past year or two? In Scotland the housing revenue account figures have dropped in real terms by about 27 per cent. during the past three years. It will certainly fall substantially again this year. An additional burden on capital spending as a result of the deterioration in this type of houses will be bad news for Glasgow and tenants in Glasgow. If extra expenditure is needed, we expect direct and adequate help from central Government.

Mr. Stanley

I can confirm the hon. Gentleman's figure for Orlit houses distributed in Great Britain. We estimate that there are some 6,000 Orlit houses in Scotland. There are approximately 9,000 Orlit houses in England and Wales. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said about revenue consequences. On the subject of an inquiry, I believe that the crucial need is to try to make certain that we have a much more satisfactory data base for the group of houses that have been the subject of my statement.

It has been recognised on both sides of the House that the effect of making the statement will be to create difficulties for those who have been buying these houses for the past 10 or 15 years. It is essential to reach conclusions and have the necessary technical data for this significant group of 150,000 houses. It may well be that there has to be further examination of other types of industrialised building. If that is the case, we shall have to do it. The immediate requirement is to improve the technical data base on this group and to reach conclusions.

Forward to