HC Deb 24 March 1983 vol 39 cc1064-82

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

6.58 pm
Mr. Joseph Dean (Leeds, West)

I rise to introduce the debate on the problems of housing built by industrial and semi-industrial systems, not in a spirit of outright criticism of the Government or in any attempt to blame the Government for the position in which we find ourselves. The Government's problem is one of inheritance. Moreover, I do not speak only from hindsight, because I was one of those who predicted that the introduction of such a system would eventually produce the difficulties in which we now find ourselves. In assuming the role of chairman of the housing committee in Manchester in 1971 my first action was to formulate and implement a policy decision to discontinue the use of such systems and revert to building solely by traditional means.

The attempt over the years to use industrial and semi-industrial housing to supplement the traditional method of building houses for the public sector in order to cure our housing problems—for example, slum clearance and gross over-crowding—is now shown to have failed abysmally. In fact, it may be said to have almost killed the patient.

Evidence mounts weekly—almost daily—that few if any of the systems that were mainly introduced after the second world war are standing the test of time or giving value for money. More and more local authorities are being faced with the decision of either spending large sums of money to rectify structural defects that have appeared or are appearing, or cutting their losses and deciding to demolish the properties even though some of the developments have run only 15 of the statutory loan period of 60 years.

It would be no good highlighting the problem without examining what went wrong and where and to whom we must apportion the blame. I say that not in an attempt to become involved in a witch hunt, but to ensure that, as most of the buildings are disgorged from our housing stock, as they will have to be, we turn to the more traditional building materials—bricks and mortar—which are superior in value both in financial and aesthetic terms.

The main factor in creating the position in which we now find ourselves was the policy of successive Governments of both colours who, to accelerate the building programme, turned to system-built houses to top up the then target of 300,000 houses or flats per year to 400,000. Despite strong objections from local authority representatives and officers on a wide scale, local authorities were cajoled, induced, or, by means of the adjustment of the subsidy system, blackmailed into adopting these forms of building, with the resultant problems.

One other factor that was used to persuade people to follow that course of action was the prediction that, as the programmes got under way, the cost per unit would eventually be cheaper than building by the traditional methods. Even that premise was finally proved false, because when the final costings were produced for the system-built programmes the cost was on average approximately 20 per cent. higher than the traditionally built counterpart.

In apportioning blame it is obvious that a considerable responsibility must lie with the building companies that designed, built and marketed the systems, with the full approval of successive Governments of, as I said, both colours, and there is no comfort in telling the local authorities that are now faced with the immense problems with which the failure of these building systems leaves them that, at the time of erection, they had full Government and ministerial approval. Somebody has to pick up the bill for this fiasco and it ought not to be council house tenants, who, unless the Government intervene financially, will have to bear the cost on their rents—in some cases for the next 40 to 50 years.

Let me illustrate the financial consequences of the policy. The Hunslet Grange development is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), who is in the Chamber. That development was built 14 years ago at a cost of £4.93 million—almost £5 million. Over 15 years there have been remedial costs of £1.5 million, making a total of £6 million-plus. The decision was taken last year to demolish those properties as they were no longer lettable and were deemed to be structually dangerous. The outstanding loan debt is £4.76 million. In replacement terms that is £863,000 per year from the Leeds city council housing revenue account and 22p per week on every council house rent in Leeds for the next 40 years. That is for just one development in the city of Leeds, excluding payments to people who have been inconvenienced. Almost every other local authority with large housing stocks has inherited a similar problem, including Hull, Sheffield, Bristol, Leicester and Manchester, which, in using the Bison and Camus systems, had a problem two and a half to three times greater than that being experienced in Leeds.

In an Adjournment debate last June I warned the Minister that the problems now emerging in the properties that I have mentioned, which are all deck-access flats, were but the tip of an iceberg that was surfacing fast and that low-rise system-built dwellings would follow suit sooner or later. I said that a conservative estimate of the cost of dealing with the problem would be a minimum of £3,000 million. Although I have recently stated that figure again in the House, the Minister has not seen fit to deny it. There was an extensive article in Building, I think in February, quoting figures that made £3,000 million look insignificant. That is the size of the problem that is now upon us.

Since that Adjournment debate the Government have accepted responsibility for the Airey houses and there has been a ministerial statement on the deterioration of Orlit houses. Although those two systems were amongst the first to be used, they will not see out the agreed loan period unless vast sums of money are made available for remedial purposes. Other systems developed and used much more recently are already showing rapid deterioration and serious defects and will have to be dealt with sooner or later.

This is the most urgent housing problem facing future Governments and should have the highest priority for resources and finance. The Government should accept some of the financial liability for those mistakes, as they were the main driving force in introducing those types of buildings. I say "the Government" but of course I mean not the present Government, but preceding Governments. They should not offload the cost solely on to council house rents. By any standards it would be grossly unfair to expect present council house tenants, and future ones, to carry the financial burden for the situation that has arisen and for which they were in no way responsible.

I have persistently requested the Minister to deal with this problem in an evenhanded manner and, having accepted responsibility to provide financial assistance to people who have bought Airey houses from their local authorities, to extend that aid to people who have purchased non-Airey homes from local authorities.

I cite two cases involving my constituents. Names and addresses are available if required, but I know that the House will accept that these are genuine cases. One bought a Caspen-type house six years ago and now finds himself with a bill approaching £10,000 to remedy structural defects. That is not an isolated case. In my constituency there are several people with a similar problem, both on that estate and on another one. I predict that some hon. Members present tonight will hear from some of their constituents who are experiencing the same problem.

The next case that I quote is of a constituent who bought a house from the local authority 15 years ago. He is now desirous of selling and has had the property valued. It is on the market for sale at £2,000 less than the recommended market value price, but as yet has not had one offer, because the house is system-built. Does the Minister agree that the policy of selling council houses in such cases has landed those people with an albatross round their necks for the rest of their lives? It is clear that all system-built houses are suspect. No one investing money or life savings would even look at buying such houses.

Finally, let me deal with the problems facing local authorities with such accommodation in their stock. The Minister gave what I considered to be a totally unsatisfactory answer to the question that I put to him on this subject yesterday, when he said that Leeds had received an additional £9 million for capitalised repairs. He said that Leeds had accepted that. It has got to accept it, because it has no other means of raising money.

Is it not a fact that this money will have to be raised by Leeds by increasing council rents or rates substantially, or both? In other words, Leeds is being given permission to spend more of its own money. My contention is that it ought to be Government grant in real cash terms and not just permission for increased spending. To ensure that I was right on this subject I raised the question this morning by telephone with the chief executive of Leeds city council, who assured me that my interpretation was right.

The Under-Secretary some time ago said in the House in answer to a question that I put to him that Leeds could have found this money by increasing council rents in accordance with the Government's diktats. I maintain that it would be grossly unfair to place this burden on people who had no say in decisions that have brought about the present position. It means that young people getting married, who hope to be council tenants, will be expected to carry the burden on obtaining the tenancy of a house in the city of Leeds. That is an obscene idea by any standards.

This is the most serious housing problem with which Members have to deal. Future Governments will be faced with it for some time to come. I hope that the debate tonight will go some way towards focusing the nation's mind on this serious problem.

7.14 pm
Mr. Chris Patten (Bath)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) for giving hon. Members an opportunity of debating this extremely important subject. He made a thoughtful speech. He has spoken on this subject on several occasions in the past. He has given me the opportunity of raising one aspect of this matter which is of considerable concern to the Bath city council—the local authority in my constituency—and to several of my constituents who live in Unity-type dwellings as tenants and those who have bought Unity-type dwellings.

I shall be brief in setting out the sad history of this issue. Between 1947 and 1958 235 Unity dwellings were built in my constituency. The construction of those homes was the result of the Government's encouragement of prefabricated systems for precisely the reasons adduced by the hon. Member for Leeds, West. The Unity homes were on the Ministry of Works approved list when the Bath city council opted, in those days, for that system and began construction. By May of last year 59 of those Unity dwellings had been sold to their then tenants, a matter which, at least until the defects were discovered would, I imagine, have gladdened all our hearts including that of my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Mr. Stanley).

The faults in the system came to light as the result of the issue by the Building Research Establishment of guidance on the inspection of structural columns in relation to the Airey houses. The Airey houses had no special relevance to my constituency because it contains none of them. But the director of the estates management department in Bath and the estates committee, showing great prudence— I quote from the report which went to the estates committee in November of last year—believed that it was important to apply the principles of concrete analysis as set out in the BRE guidelines to the Unity-type dwellings which appeared somewhat similar in construction". The results of the subsequent investigations showed the corrosion of the reinforcement embedded in the concrete because of excessive levels of chloride and carbonation. That is a story with which several hon. Members are, sadly, all too familiar.

Of the 230-odd Unity dwellings in the city, 59 were found to be more or less satisfactory after investigation, and of those 59, 53 were owned by the city with tenants living in them and six by the families who lived in them. The number of houses that were in a bad or doubtful condition was 171. Of those 118 were owned by the city council and 53 were owner-occupied.

The city council concluded that the damage could only be made good either by the complete replacement of the affected columns or by the substitution of those columns by some other form of construction. In carrying out that type of rehabilitation work, it is not possible in every circumstance to distinguish between a house that is owned by the council and one that is owner-occupied. Where there are semi-detached homes, often one is owned by the city council and the house next door owned by the family who live in it. It is quite impossible to carry out work on one of those two houses. Work must be carried out on both. Therefore, one cannot make a hard and fast distinction between the homes owned by the city council and those that are owner-occupied. Whether the home is rehabilitated by the city council or by the owner-occupier, and whichever of the methods suggested by the city council is used, it is a mighty expensive business. It is expensive for the council, and causes considerable hardship to tenants while the work is being carried out. For owner-occupiers, it is of course extremely expensive. An appalling bill is hanging over the heads of the 53 owner-occupiers of Unity homes.

Those people were properly encouraged by the Government to purchase homes that previous Governments had encouraged the local authority to build. Caveat emptor is all very well as a principle, but the history of this issue shows that successive Governments also needed a bit of watching. I went with a delegation from Bath to see my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young). He met us most civilly and courteously with his officials, just as one would expect of him. Since that meeting the Minister has announced an investigation into system-built housing throughout the country. That is a considerable task, but I hope that it can be carried out as soon as possible.

My main point is that Unity home owners and tenants should be relieved of their anxiety as quickly as possible. As soon as we can we should make it clear that we intend to treat Unity home owners, and councils that have Unity system dwellings, in exactly the same way as we have treated Airey home owners and councils with many of those dwellings. In other words, we need to treat Unity housing with the same generosity as the Minister displayed in his announcement in September towards Airey home owners and towards councils with many Airey homes. It would need much more evidence than has so far been given me or, indeed, exists, to convince me that Airey and Unity homes are in completely different categories.

I realise that the Minister has used such words as "exceptional" and "unique" when talking about the Airey case. However, some of the distinctions that are made between Airey and Unity houses fall well within the realms of casuistry. The main reason for the defects in Unity houses is the same as that for the defects in Airey houses. It is the carbonation of concrete and the presence of chlorides. An additional factor—the third factor mentioned by the Building Research Establishment—is the lack of concrete cover to the reinforcing tube, but arguably that is not a design fault. In many cases, it has arisen because of the misplacement of the tube during the manufacture of the column. Several other distinctions between Airey and Unity homes are mentioned. For example, it is said that deterioration could lead to the collapse of an Airey house without warning and that since the Airey defects are the result of a fundamental design error, they apply to all Airey homes.

When the delegation from Bath of which I was a member went to see the Minister, it gave him a good deal of evidence disputing both of those propositions. I shall not go into all the details now of some of the more arcane matters concerning concrete technology, about which I am all too inexpert. However, I should like to raise one point concerning the variations in the construction of Airey homes. Some have internal concrete blockwork linings, just like the Unity homes in my constituency. I understand that the Building Research Establishment argues that such an inner lining provides additional stability. Presumably, the additional stability applies to Airey as well as to Unity homes. However, that argument is used against the proposition that Unity homes should be given the same help as Airey homes. It is curious, unconvincing and wholly unacceptable.

This House has an old and quite proper prejudice against hybridity in our legislation. We properly believe that the law should apply equally to everyone. Similarly, the administrative decisions taken by Departments should apply equally to everyone. We cannot treat one group with appropriate generosity—as my hon. Friend the Minister has done in the case of Airey home owners—and then deny similar treatment to a group that to all intents and purposes is in exactly the same position. I realise that it would be expensive to treat other groups in the same way as the Airey home owners and as those councils that have many Airey homes in their areas. However, it is perfectly possible to find the money. I do not want to go over the arguments about the Budget, or to point out, once again, that ours is the tightest fiscal stance of any country in the OECD. Those are subjects that can be discussed on other occasions, but they are legitimate points to make.

It is also reasonable to point out that a little more assistance for the construction industry might come in handy, particularly in those areas in which it still needs the kiss of life.

The important point is that the Department of the Environment has established a precedent. I am sure that it will want—or will be obliged by the House—to act on it when cases similar to that of Airey housing arise. I hope that the investigation of the Building Research Establishment will be concluded as rapidly as possible. Following that, I also hope that an early decision will be made to increase the HIP allocation in local authority areas such as Bath that are faced with substantial bills. After the investigation, I hope that we shall give Unity owners the same rights as the owners of Airey houses and that all that can be done quickly. Indeed, I appeal to the Minister to ensure that it is done quickly. Many people are worried about the bills that face them and we should set their minds at rest as soon as possible.

7.27 pm
Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) on having the initiative to introduce this debate. As he rightly explained, this issue has now become an overriding housing priority. I was very privileged to become a member of Manchester city council in 1971, when my hon. Friend was the chairman of the housing committee. He was instrumental in a policy decision not to build any more of those high-rise, deck-access, system-built developments, and Manchester is very grateful for that.

Our direct works department began the building of low-rise, traditional brick and mortar housing, and there was great demand for it. It certainly offered better prospects than the rubbishy system-built housing. Indeed, maintenance of the monstrosities built in the 1950s and 1960s was subsidised by direct works housing. Slum clearance has accounted for about 80,000 homes and we in Manchester are proud of our housing.

Like most major authorities, we had these system-built estates thrust upon us. We have major estates on the south side of Manchester: the Hulme estate, developed in the Regency style, the Moss Side development, and Turkey lane, a split-level Italian design estate. They are now a joke. They are falling around people's shoulders. The Turkey lane estate is fighting for survival.

Above all, we have the notorious Bison development. It was nicknamed "the forts" because it resembled battlements. It looks as though it could be blown down but my constituents are demanding that it be blown up. Bison Concrete (Northern) Limited built the Wellington street housing estate between 1969 and 1973. That development was already in the pipeline and could not be stopped. If we had had the power to stop it, I am sure that, under the leadership and guidance of people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West, we would have done. It was a package contract based on outline drawings, prepared by the then director of housing, and detailed drawings and specifications prepared by the contractor.

The estate was completed in 1973. It is no exaggeration to say that it has been an utter disaster. At the time, the system was presented as the solution to the problem of mass housing needs. It was foisted on local councils by, it is right to say, different Governments. It has failed miserably.

The building of these monstrosities involved the use of industrialised, factory-based construction of new designs and materials. When people were confronted with the balsa wood models and architects' impressions of the new estates, they felt that they were walking into a new Utopia. They have had a douche of cold water.

These systems were referred to by the experts and our advisers at that time as the panacea for all our housing problems. We have ended up with a complete disaster. At that time there were great profits to be made. There were lucrative killings to be made and the people's housing needs became secondary. Now, ten years later, Manchester realises that it has been taken for a ride by the bandwagon of hastily drawn-up plans and untried methods.

The policy committee took the brave decision to demolish the buildings when it realised that it could not save the Wellington estate. The demolition of an estate which was built only ten years ago is a disgrace.

On my way from Manchester to London, I pass prefabs that were built during the war. They were supposed to have a ten-year life. They are still up today. We are talking about knocking down a system-built estate which was supposed to last for at least 40 or 50 years. During the time that the estate has been up there has been a catastrophic catalogue of repairs. Out of 1,018 dwellings on that estate, 450 complaints have been received about rain coming in through the roofs and balconies. No fewer than 320 out of 400 concrete supports have now cracked. Window frames have rotted and had to be replaced. Almost the whole of the front of the flats has had to be replaced. The replacement of one is extremely costly. The drainage was ineffective. Condensation and dampness were widespread. This is an immense problem with system-built houses.

I can give an example of a man dying from cancer in one of our local hospitals. His wife came to see me at my advice bureau. She said, "I cannot allow him to die in disgraceful conditions like this." I went to see the flat. The walls and ceiling were covered with fungus. I did not think it right that a man should die in such conditions. We brought in the direct labour department to clean the flat with a fungicidal wash so that a man could die with some dignity. That is an example of some of the problems brought about by this rubbishy building.

Some of the worst structural faults were not at ground level but six floors up—sixty feet above the ground. Architects have suggested extensive remedial work, design improvements, entryphone systems, lift barriers, heating systems, including central heating, cladding and extra caretakers, but all to no avail. It has placed a burden of enormous costs on the city of Manchester.

The city architect estimated that it would cost a further £9 million and that even that sum could not guarantee success. The decison was then taken to demolish the estate. However, social costs outweigh financial costs. Tenants have paid the price in intolerable living conditions and ill health. We have a tragic yet predictable position. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West said, while the monstrous, shoddy nature of this type of housing is now generally accepted—except by Bison, which thinks that there is no need for alarm—there has been no commitment by the Government to tackle the problem and put right the injustices suffered by council tenants.

There are over 30,000 Bison dwellings in Great Britain. I sent a letter to the Secretary of State for the Environment in which I pointed out: The Manchester dilemma can be experienced right across the country, in Brent, Hillingdon, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bradford and many other places. The Bison Wall-Frame system has been proved a disaster and cost untold million of pounds to taxpayers and ratepayers in this country. Local government faces the problem of deciding whether to continue throwing good money away by trying to rectify the latent difficulties which, in Manchester, have proved to be irreparable or demolish them and continue to pay the loan debt charge for the next 50 years, plus the cost of replacing these new homes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West was correct when he said that Governments have played a key role in promoting industrialised building. They coerced and cajoled local authorities into believing that they were the new Jerusalem.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Is it not right also that the local authorities took the decision and accepted the responsibility when they put these buildings up?

Mr. Litherland

Yes, if one accepts that ultimately it is the responsibility of elected representatives. However, a great deal of pressure was put on local authorities to provide high density housing. There were grants, and the local authorities were pressurised. There were massive lobbies. There were officers and experts telling local councillors—

Mr. Joseph Dean

Is it not a fact that the Governments of the day—I blame no particular party—were responsible for altering the subsidy systems to a high density subsidy which introduced maisonettes and this type of development? People were told that if they wished to stay and live in the city, which was their traditional birth place, this was the only way they could do so. Some of us maintained that this was wrong. Unfortunately, we lost the argument.

Mr. Litherland

My hon. Friend is right. I cannot elaborate on what he says. There was extra money for high-density living.

The Government also subsidised the big builders in this bonanza. Every right-thinking person must surely believe that it is right that they face up to their social responsibilities. Homes should not be a commodity produced for private profit. They should fulfil a basic human need.

I have raised this matter previously in the Chamber and in Committee. I have sent letters to the Minister. Delegations have been to see the Minister. There have been two forms of approach. The first is that the Government should find ways and means of helping to meet the costs involved. The second is that the Government, faced by this national scandal, should at least hold a public inquiry into the Bison group. Justice should be done by placing the blame firmly where it belongs—on the jerry builders and designers who have caused so much suffering and made so much profit.

7.41 pm
Sir Albert Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

I wish that I could follow the hon. Member for Manchester. Central (Mr. Litherland) in his detailed analysis of these regrettable flats in Manchester. However, as I do not possess a detailed knowledge of the matter, I cannot pursue his remarks. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the name of Bison. My mind turns immediately to the Bison floor, a concrete floor that has enjoyed a tremendous reputation over a number of years. If my memory serves me right, some of the products are to be found in the building where we now stand. I would wish to know more about those who designed the houses and flats that have been mentioned and the reasons for the design that was adopted.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Central spoilt his case by saying that private enterprise should not play a part in housing and that this activity should be left to local authorities. I am proud to say that more than 50 hon. Members live in Dolphin square in flats designed by private enterprise for which I take some responsibility. Those flats have given no trouble for over 50 years, apart from half a dozen bricks being out of place. That type of building could have been repeated time and again if the then Socialist Government had undertaken to do something about the Rent Acts. However, as tonight's debate is not concerned with that, I leave it to one side.

The debate relates to what has loosely been called prefabricated building. I think that I know more about prefabricated building than any hon. Member and also many people in the Minister's Department. The reason why I know about it is that at the time that Nye Bevan was Minister of Health, at the end of the war, I was given a special assignment advising on the building of prefabricated accommodation. If hon. Members have any doubts, I refer them to the debate in the House on 15 March 1944. I shall not delay the House by reading from that debate—

Mr. Joseph Dean

Without being churlish, may I correct the hon. Gentleman? Nye Bevan was not Minister of Health during the war.

Sir Albert Costain

I am talking about 1944. Nye Bevan was responsible for housing. That is a matter of fact. I may have made a mistake about the Ministry. I was under the impression that at that time he was Minister of Health. I had many interviews with Nye Bevan. It is immaterial. We are not discussing who was Minister of Health. We are discussing how the housing problem was tackled. The war was coming to an end. Those who read the debate will see that Lady Megan Lloyd-George pointed out that when war broke out a large number of skilled tradesmen in the building industry were aged over 65. At the end of the war there was a shortage of skills. There had been no training of skilled bricklayers.

There was an enormous shortage of housing, due to the bombing, to meet the needs of returning soldiers from the war. Nye Bevan's one ambition was to build the maximum number of houses as quickly as possible. An exhibition of prefabricated houses, concrete houses and other types were displayed at an exhibition at Northolt, where members of local authorities were able to examine them. Following the exhibition, firms were invited to put forward proposals.

It is interesting that the debate should have been initiated by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean). One of the houses mentioned was the Airey house, then partly developed. Edward Airey was a Leeds man. He had established a reputation for building houses after the first world war. The first houses that he built were constructed at Bootle. He produced a concrete block, which was known at the time as the Airey block. One of the specifications of the Airey house was that it could be built by unskilled labour. The idea behind the Airey house was that it could be built in rural areas where there was even less skilled labour available. My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) was wrong in a number of his assertions. The Airey house was made from precision moulds. The moulds were made of aluminium.

A great deal of aluminium was in stock for the building of aircraft. The Government wanted a use for the aluminium, so that if war broke out again it could immediately be put back into aircraft factories. Prisoners of war were put to work on the construction of houses, under British supervisors. This was the only type of work to which prisoners of war could be assigned. They could not be involved in anything concerned with war preparations. About 20,000 houses were built in rural areas. They were designed primarily to be erected as a temporary measure. A great deal of thought was put into the design of the houses so that, in due time, when the structures were taken down, the foundations and services would be available for new traditional housing. A great deal has been said about the cover of the tube and the amount of chemicals in the concrete.

I shall not bore the House with all of the details. But if anyone doubts that good concrete can be produced he should consider the very Airey factory where the railway sleepers that are used throughout the British Rail system were produced. I admit that we learnt a great deal during the development of the concrete that was used in the Airey sleepers. It is wrong to suggest that the concrete will necessarily deteriorate. Those sleepers are used throughout the world—in Russia, Australia, Canada and Britain, for example. If anyone travels on British Rail he will see my name on the bottom of the sleeper. When I was chairman of the company we did not put the name "Costain" on them; we used the "CCC" symbol. I know what railway trains do to sleepers and I did not want my name defaced.

When we assess the problem and try to draw conclusions, as I have the benefit of 40 years hindsight I ask the House to bear in mind that there was a shortage of 4 million houses just after the second world war. Moreover, there were no bricklayers, as none had been trained. Every method of building houses was being considered. I agree that there has been a bonanza, that the houses on exhibition at Northholt set the industry full of bright ideas and that several systems did not survive, but it is not fair to say that there is no good system-built housing. The no fines concrete house system which started its life at Northolt was used to build houses of the kind that are still being built today, and they are the only ones that building societies will mortgage. When the factory at Childerdich was being closed, we considered in great detail whether to continue to build for sale. The building societies did a complete survey of the houses and said that they had a limited life and did not want to mortgage them.

People who live in Airey houses should not be too alarmed. One of the reasons for their failure is that some of the posts have dropped and cracked. I erected a building in my garden many years ago which is as good now as it was then. I also spread several fencing posts around the garden which were never intended for that use, and I have taken a great deal of trouble to see how they deteriorate.

I know that the debate is limited for time and I do not want to hog it all. However, we must get the subject into perspective. It is good that the hon. Member for Leeds, West raised the subject in the stillness of the evenng. When my hon. Friend the Minister considers the subject, I urge him to bear in mind the fact that not all prefabricated or system-built houses are bad. Indeed, a good number of them are jolly good.

7.53 pm
Mr. John Spellar (Birmingham, Northfield)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) on persisting with his campaign on the ever-increasing problem of industrialised building. With all due respect to the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain) how we got into our present circumstances is not especially relevant. We must address ourselves to what we shall do about it and who will pick up the tab. The problem associated with houses that have been purchased is that many of the owners are approaching pension age and often face a massive bill of £10,000 or £12,000.

I should like to raise two special problems that occur in Birmingham, which is the largest housing authority in Europe. It has a substantial quantity of industrialised buildings, mainly because of Birmingham's dramatic development during and after the second world war because of the car industry and the engineering boom.

The first category is those industrialised buildings that look like industrially-built buildings. They are the concrete slab and, especially, walk-up flats in the inner city that are becoming increasingly difficult to let. The problems with them are enormous. There is water penetration from outside, excessive dampness from inside which is often caused by major condensation and fungus that spreads over the walls. Families are often able to use only one room and many of the bedrooms are not habitable because of dampness and fungus.

Of course, other social factors have recently contributed to the problem. Increasing levels of unemployment have reduced family income so that it is more difficult for people to heat their properties. Dramatic increases in fuel prices since the oil crisis have also contributed to that problem. Nevertheless, those problems have drawn attention to the inherent unsuitability of concrete buildings to the British climate. In brick-built buildings, people are still able to maintain a decent standard of warmth and living conditions, but concrete buildings are increasingly showing that basic weakness. That has a major effect on morale, the standard of the estates and, above all, the health of the families who inhabit them. On two major system-built estates in my constituency, two young children have died recently. Medical opinion has said that their deaths were exacerbated substantially by the conditions in which they lived. Children are dying from bronchial complaints partly because of the conditions in those dwellings.

The other category is the system-built houses that do not look like industrialised buildings from the outside because they are brick clad. They are called Smith houses. There are about 1,500 of them in the city of Birmingham—about 800 of them are in my constituency—of which 230 have been sold to the occupiers. Interest in the problem was demonstrated by the size of a public meeting in my constituency on Friday night which is not normally the best time for a public meeting. People are being surprised by gatherings of 600 or 700 at public meetings during critical by-elections. Perhaps the 400 people who attended my public meeting show the extent of the anxiety about Smith properties.

The problem with those houses has been exacerbated by the use of untreated colliery shale for the fill in the foundations. As the water has reacted with the shale, the resulting pressure has caused cracks in floors, ceilings and walls. Obviously, the basic structure has been affected. One man told me that he can shake hands with his neighbour without having to go outside. I suppose that if one gets next door's post it is convenient to be able to stick it through the wall, but the conditions are clearly unsatisfactory.

Three groups of inhabitants face those problems. First, there are those who have bought the property and are faced with bills of up to £10,000 to make their homes safe. Moreover, they have difficulty if they want to sell their property. Not all Smith houses face the same problems but there is considerable anxiety about their stability and viability so that if some people wish to move to another part of the country, others are reluctant to buy them. As many of the properties were built in the early 1950s, most of the inhabitants are pensioners and have no chance of getting the money to make them sound.

Many tenants are worried as they have put a great deal of money into making the properties into decent homes. They are worried that if major refurbishment must take place, even if it is paid for by the council, they will never be able to find the money to bring them up to standard. Many of them are of pensionable age and want to see out their lives in homes that they have made themselves.

I regret to say that the council is still encouraging some people to buy their property, but it is not giving the necessary warnings to tenants. The Minister must investigate councils that are still putting those industrially built properties on the market, caveat emptor or not.

Mr. Joseph Dean

This is one of the most important aspects of the debate. If the local authorities had the funds, they would keep those houses and repair them. If the repairs were financed by the Government, the problem would be solved.

Mr. Spellar

We must ask ourselves who will pick up the tab. As several hon. Members have said, the local councils, the council tenants as a group and the owner-occupiers should not bear the burden. Central Government must assume much responsibility. That is not a partisan point, because the evidence from the memoirs of both Harold Macmillan and Richard Crossman is that there was enormous pressure on them, through the system of housing subsidy, and from architects and building companies, to introduce system-built housing. The Government, having created much of that pressure, must pick up the tab and not force the expense onto the groups that I have mentioned.

This is a major economic and social problem. We must recognise that all Governments have made mistakes and we must give some relief to all those concerned.

8.1 pm

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

When I first went to the Department of the Environment, what impressed me, and I think my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain), was the sheer size of the officialdom that looked after houses. The Department was festooned with planning divisions, and we were surrounded by building regulations people. In every local authority there were masses of people whose job it was to tell other people how to build houses, how to look after them properly and how to get the systems and the designs right.

The rule seems to be that the more officials and regulations we have, the worse job we do in providing what people need, which is comfortable, inexpensive, warn' and attractive housing. It is deplorable that, since the second world war, we have had more legislation, more officials and more regulations, but that we have produced the worst low-cost housing of almost any industrialised Western country. There is a lesson in that. With other goods, such as motor cars or television sets, where there is competition, private enterprise and less Government regulation, there are no shortages, fewer design faults, fewer things going wrong and no debates in the House about who is responsible.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe said, it would be wrong to condemn prefabs and industrialised housing out of hand, because some of it is very good. In Bury St. Edmunds a group of prefabs that were built in about 1945 or 1946 are well-designed, comfortable and warm. In other parts of Britain, such prefab housing was destroyed because it went out of fashion. However, in my little town, people queue to live in those houses. I do not wish the message to go out from the House that we are turning our backs on the benefits of system-built housing. However, we must ask ourselves where and why we have gone wrong. Although some prefabs are good, others are horribly bad. The worst that I have seen are in Moscow, where the entire city is littered with the worst looking houses that I have ever seen, all constructed by system builders with the backing of the Soviet Government.

Hon. Members who have spoken in this debate have dodged the question of where the responsibility lies. It lies on central Government to the extent that they used subsidies, circulars and encouragement to cajole local authorities into introducing system-built housing. However, ultimately local authorities decided to introduce this housing, partly because they believed that it was cheaper, partly because they believed that it was quicker—there was a shortage of housing and they wished to put roofs over people's heads—and partly because we were all taken in by a fad. The architects, planners and intelligentsia of the day believed that system building was the answer to all our problems. To a great extent, local authorities must accept that they helped to create the problem about which they now complain. None of us can duck the responsibility.

I can make only a modest contribution to this debate, but I believe that the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) is on the right track. We need a nationwide systematic examination of what has gone wrong. We have the statistical means to do that, the ability to assemble information and to draw conclusions. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister is organising such a survey. However, we do not want wholesale new-fangled notions about what is right and what is wrong. We want practical and constructive attention to the details of each case, such as the one described by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten). The survey may be piecemeal and conceptual, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister has taken note of what has been said and will tell us what he proposes to do.

8.7 pm

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

I do not entirely accept the thesis of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) that the fewer Department of the Environment officials we have, the better housing we shall have. However, if that thesis is correct, without doubt we are now building the best quality houses ever.

The House will agree that the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) has introduced a matter that is of wide and increasing concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is certainly important to the Government and to me. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that defective housing and how best to deal with it, both technically and financially, is very much in our minds. I also agree that the problems are growing. The hon. Gentleman has been sedulous and persistent in articulating his constituents' anxiety, as have other hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) has been especially persistent in vigorously and forcefully representing the interests of the small groups of his constituents who have purchased Unity houses.

We all appreciated the expert and technical contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain). He has a reservoir of technical knowledge about the earlier types of system-built houses in the immediate post-war period which is probably greater than that of the rest of the House put together.

One of the sobering features of this debate, and of the wider debate taking place in the housing and design world, is the almost unanimous agreement now that the perceived wisdom about houses which were thought to be desirable and attractive, and in which people wanted to live only 15 or 20 years ago, has been thrown overboard and shown to be profoundly faulty. Of all the range of problems that inevitably come on to a Minister's desk there is not one problem that has exercised me more in terms of technical difficulty than the growing awareness of the extent and severity of the problem that we face of defective housing, including defective housing only recently built.

Some of the most distressing visits that I have made are when I have been, for example in the north-west, to see multi-million-pound blocks of system-built houses, built at prodigious ratepayers' and taxpayers' expense in the past 15 years. In some cases, they are vandalised, difficult to let, quarter-empty, half-empty, or even wholly empty. Sometimes they have to be demolished entirely. When one is concerned to get the best possible use of the available housing money, it is distressing and disturbing to see the wastage of funds involved in demolishing those enormously expensive blocks of houses that have been built only recently.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the reasons why many of his supporters so strongly back his efforts on improvement grants is because there at least money is being spent on things that one knows works well rather than upon these grandiose schemes that do not?

Mr. Stanley

My hon. Friend is right. It is an interesting reflection, particularly for hon. Members who represent inner city seats—such as the hon. Members for Leeds, West and for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Spellar)—that if we had put perhaps a fraction of the money that we spent in the 1960s and early 1970s on these massive clearance industrialised building schemes into rehabilitation, upgrading and modernising some of the stock which we are now so successfully doing with enveloping schemes in places such as Birmingham, we should have had more satisfactory living conditions for many more people.

I have not merely been exercised about the defect problem. I have tried to do what I can to see that when my successors in 20 or 30 years come to look at the building carried out under this Administration they will not find that we have built in a great deal more additional defects. I was struck by the fact that until this Government there had not been any systematic procedure within the Department of the Environment or any of its predecessor Departments to assemble and bring together information about defects from local authorities, assessing that in a co-ordinated structure and getting back to the local authorities as fast as possible this information about defects. That was a serious deficiency, and that is why we have set up the defects prevention unit in the Building Research Establishment. It may sound as if one is closing the stable door after heaven knows how many hordes of horses have got out, but it is better to try to do something now to see that we are not repeating the same problems.

One of the factors that has been brought home to me is that, long after certain defects and the problems of certain systems had become identified many local authorities continued to build the same types of houses. There has been a serious lack of information about defects available among local authorities. We have tried to do something significant by setting up the defects prevention unit. It is now producing defect action sheets, copies of which we are putting in the Library. There is now a system for not merely monitoring incidence of defects, but also a steady programme of highlighting to local authorities the aspects that can result in defects.

The second conclusion that I draw about the past is that it is imperative that those who have responsibility for designing houses, whether in social living terms or technical terms, and whether or not central Government are giving any advice or guidance, keep in touch with those who live in the properties. That is one reason why I urge local authorities to ensure, as a matter of course, that in each and every building scheme they have a survey. It is worth while two years after the building has been completed to have a detailed survey of the tenants to find out the things that are right or wrong so that we can all learn by experience.

My third point about the past relates to what the hon. Member for Leeds, West said about responsibility. That matter will be better decided by the historians writing the social history of the latter half of this century, but I could not accept the premise behind his remarks, which was that responsibility wholly lies with central Government and the private building industry. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds that it is not possible to say that local authorities had no responsibility in this matter. Some systems were wholly created by local authorities, as the hon. Member for Leeds, West will know. The Yorkshire development group, which brought together four major urban authorities, designed a system. It chose to go it alone, independent of central Government.

Even for those local authorities that built to systems that may have been through the National Building Agency approval system, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds rightly pointed out, and as I remind the hon. Member for Leeds, West, each and every system through the 1960s and 1970s, and each housing scheme, whether industrially built, system-built or conventionally built, carried with it a certificate signed by the local authority certifying various things about the scheme. I have brought with me, because I thought it might be of interest to hon. Members, the certificate given by Leeds council in October 1966 on a form TC1. It is about the Hunslet scheme, for Leek street, where 440 dwellings of the Yorkshire development group mark 1 type were to be developed. The certificate is signed by the city architect, who says: I hereby certify that the dwellings to be built… (d) Are not inconsistent in any respects with the provisions of the building byelaws in force in the district and the materials and form of construction are of a type appropriate to a building which is to have a life of 60 years or more. Every local authority under the subsidy system certified in that way.

Mr. Joseph Dean

Is it not a fact that almost every scheme during the period about which I am talking had to carry a certificate of approval from the National Building Agency? It is no good saying with hindsight that it was a mistake to approve the sanctions, because the sanctions were granted and there is ministerial responsibility.

Mr. Stanley

I do not deny that the National Building Agency was performing its function. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the whole issue was one of central Government's responsibility. He made no mention of the responsibility of local authorities. Every local authority with schemes attracting housing subsidies certified, through a senior technical officer, that the building, house or scheme would have a life of 60 years or more.

We accept that the problems are increasing. For specific systems we have introduced a scheme of financial assistance for the private owners of Airey houses. That scheme came into effect on 14 February.

In my statement to the House on 8 February, I said that the Government were asking the local authorities for information about the numbers and tenures of prefabricated reinforced concrete houses in their areas which were built before the end of the 1950s. The Building Research Establishment is now carrying out inspections and technical assessments in co-operation with local authorities. Initially, they are concentrating on six types of prefabricated reinforced concrete houses: Boot, Cornish Unit, Wates, Unity—to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) referred—Orlit and Woolaway. The results of that research will be published as soon as possible, and I expect that to happen in the next few months.

On the question of a possible extension of the scheme of financial assistance that we have brought in for private owners of Airey houses, I am afraid that I cannot add today to what I said in the House on 8 February. Clearly, we have to complete the technical work first and assess the implications, but I assure the House and those hon. Members who have spoken, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Spellar) who has a particular problem, that we are very much aware of how worried some private owners are about their property. We are trying to get the technical work done as quickly as possible.

The hon. Member for Northfield referred to the Smith houses in Birmingham. His speech illustrated a point that I have to make to him and to my hon. Friend the Member for Bath. We are now dealing with a problem that is much wider than the problem that originally faced us. Originally, it was a matter of the Airey houses, whose defects came to light following a fortuitous fire in Barnsley. As a result of investigations into other houses of the same vintage, also built under various industrialised systems, we now find that the problem may be much wider. We are now having to deal with a multiplicity of systems. The particular system to which the hon. Member for Northfield referred is not even a prefabricated reinforced concrete house. Even though that system is not one of the six on which it is concentrating, I have asked the Building Research Establishment, following my statement on 8 February, to examine the technical evidence that Birmingham has provided. As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, I have arranged a meeting next week for him and other Members in the area—my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Bevan) and for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre). I hope that we shall have further discussions about the Smith houses on that occasion.

On later industrialised building systems, the BRE does not have to carry out a full-scale systematic investigation, because in most cases that has already been done by the local authorities. It will be for the authorities to decide in each case whether the right solution is to be a major improvement or demolition—or, if the whole block is vacant, there may even be scope for sale.

In considering the solutions, it is advisable to consider the possibilities of changing management methods. The House will be aware of the Department's priority estates project, which has shown the remarkable results that can be achieved by increasing the attractiveness of estates and the attractiveness of lettability to the new management forms that are demonstrated by that project.

We have taken a number of steps to help with the financial problems of authorities with significant defective houses. We brought in the Airey house scheme, as I mentioned. We have also changed the subsidy rules so that they now operate more favourably for authorities that have these problems. We have abolished the 30-year rule. We have brought capitalised repairs within the scope of subsidy. That means that the costs of improvements to dwellings built within the past 30 years now count in the subsidy calculation. So, too, do the costs of repair works that are financed by borrowing. Previously, both categories were excluded from any subsidy support.

I accept, of course, that many authorities are now coming out of subsidy, but a significant proportion of authorities with defective housing problems appear to be among those that are still likely to be entitled to subsidy—certainly next year, and for some years beyond. For those authorities, the measures that we have already taken represent an important financial help.

On the capital side, I have already made it clear that we shall take account of the costs of dealing with these problems in making the HIP allocations. This year, We gave authorities the opportunity to bid for additional capital allocations. The hon. Member for Leeds, West spoke about the £9 million additional allocation to Leeds. I take his point that an authority will have to bear the debt charges on that amount if it is out of subsidy, but many authorities—over 200—have thought it worth their while to take additional allocations, totalling more than £170 million this year, which suggests that they are of some help.

Authorities that are facing high additional costs because of problems with defects in system-built houses should obviously also do all they can to maximise their capital receipts by pressing on with council sales, land sales, and transfers of mortgages to the building societies. In addition, on the capital side, as I told the House yesterday, I shall be discussing with the local authority associations the treatment of capital expenditure needs for defective housing in the context of our discussions with them on the HIP allocation methodology for 1984–85.

On the current expenditure implications of capital spending to remedy defects, it is not true, as the hon. Member for Leeds, West suggested, that the expenditure need fall exclusively on council tenants. Councils have a variety of choices open to them. They can, of course, finance the work by borrowing and increasing rents if they wish, to cover the loan charges on the sums borrowed. That is just one option; there are others. They can use capital receipts. They can meet the financing costs of the borrowing by a higher rate fund contribution. So local authorities have a real choice in the ways they distribute the burden between their council tenants and the general body of ratepayers. Each authority must make a judgment. I note that in Leeds the average rent at present is slightly below the regional average rent, and quite a long way below the national average rent.

In conclusion, I am sure that the House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, West for initiating this debate. I can assure him and other hon. Members who have spoken that we are taking the problem seriously. We have intensive technical work in hand which we are anxious to complete rapidly. On later occasions we shall want to keep the House fully informed about our progress with the technical work. I assure the House that we shall be discussing the financial issues for authorities with substantial defect problems with the local authority associations. We shall inform the House as soon as we can about the outcome of the technical studies that we have in hand.

Mr. Joseph Dean

May I thank the Minister for his full reply to the important and detailed debate? He is unfortunate in that he is the first Minister who has had to deal with this problem. No doubt his successors, whether from his party or from mine, for a long time to come will be grappling with the problem. The Minister referred—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not make another speech. He may only intervene.

Mr. Dean

In thanking the Minister, I must point out that this is the first special debate on this subject. Because of the immensity of the problem I hope that it will be the forerunner of many.

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