HC Deb 01 March 1984 vol 55 cc502-8

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

11.41 pm
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I am grateful for the opportunity to draw to the attention of the House, and of the Minister, the shabby treatment by Wirral council of past and present residents of two streets in my constituency, Dacre street and Marion street. Before I present to the Minister the grievance to which I wish him to reply, it is necessary for me to supply him with two important pieces of background information. I hope that the Minister realises that I have not sought the Adjournment debate without trying to exhaust the normal channels that are open to Members of Parliament where a local grievance occurs. I wish to tell the Minister of the steps we have taken to secure justice for these groups of residents.

The area is served effectively by a community association, appropriately, the Jubilee association, and its full-time worker, David Davies. He has been actively involved in the area, as has the parish priest, Canon Byrne, who, as on so many issues, gives a courageous lead. I have been working with the three local councillors who represent the area, Councillors Bill Longley, Arthur Smith and Bill Craig. Despite the various pressures that we have brought to bear on Wirral council, we have failed to win a satisfactory settlement for the residents.

Secondly, it is important that the Minister understands something about Birkenhead, and, knowing the Minister, I am sure that he has asked his Department to brief him on the matter. Birkenhead, like other areas of the country, has an ever rising tide of unemployment. To illustrate the unemployment facts, in the first couple of years of the Government's life the number of redundancies was only—and I emphasise only, because it is relative—in the region of 1,500. In the following three years, the number of redundancies totalled almost 20,000. The Minister will not be surprised to know, therefore, that the official unemployment figure, including the travel-to-work area, which extends way beyond my constituency, is approximately 20 per cent. A survey recently conducted by a local newspaper in a street not far from the ones that we are discussing tonight found only one person in work, but that person was soon to lose his job.

Much of the centre of Birkenhead has been flattened. If at any time the Minister wishes to take people to, or point people in the direction of, an area that has had all the disadvantages of planning thrust upon it, Birkenhead is the one to visit. The centre of the town was torn out, and most of the residents expelled to surrounding areas. The land adjoining Dacre street and Marion street is known as the Oak and Eldon garden site, which became notorious because it was occupied by the first tower blocks to be pulled down by way of explosion. In many ways, that illustrates the lack of imagination of officials in the council, in that attempts were not made to try to find new ways of interesting and housing people in the area. The solution was to blow it up and leave the area desolate. More recently, the council signed a contract with Leech Homes to build in that area, and Leech Homes gave a public undertaking to build 90 homes by last summer. However, it was far short of meeting that target last weekend, when I walked—as I always do on Sunday mornings—round the area.

The two streets that we are discussing are in a peculiar area, not because the residents are peculiar but because it was one of the first areas in the country, first, to be declared an improvement area, and then a slum clearance area. I shall relate a few of the facts that the residents have given to me so that the Minister can think about them before he replies. All the residents are adamant that the problems bagan in the two streets, not when there was a survey of the condition of the soil, but when a housing association sent in workers to "repair" two of the houses in one street. The centres of the houses were torn out—the workers believing that they were preparing for demolition rather than repairing them—and, with the domino theory, the street began to move towards the centre and houses began to show problems.

After that the area ceased to be an improvement area and the local authority asked for slum clearance powers. As in all such areas, as residents were persuaded to leave, houses were boarded up.

To the council's credit, when the policy was changed, several public meetings were held, and senior officials of the council promised publicly that the compulsory purchase orders would be used in such a way that each resident would get a fair price for his property—"fair" not only in terms of the value of his house but in the sense that the money could buy him an equivalent house elsewhere in the borough.

Tenants became worried when, after that promise was given, their campaign leader was awarded a settlement of £7,900, which was the largest sum paid. I am not saying that that person was a party to improper action; had I been him, I should have accepted the deal. However, it removed from the area the person who was putting the greatest pressure on the council for a fair deal. On the documents that I have seen, prepared by the council, that person's home was described inaccurately. They said that a kitchen extension had been added, that it had a new roof and that extensive re-wiring had been done. Photographs of the house, and the statements of Canon Byrne, show that to be untrue. However, the owners of other houses in the area, which the tenants maintain are in better condition — with, for instance, new roofs — have been offered only about £2,400.

In conclusion, may I put three things to the Minister. First, I come back to the houses that have been boarded up. The tenants and residents claim that the council—largely because of measures that they have taken—says that many of the properties are unsafe. As a result, the boarding-up policy has ceased and demolition has started. How would the Minister or I feel if the houses around us were demolished? The residents there feel that it is another way of roughing them up, trying to get their agreement to a settlement which they believe is unfair. So I ask the Minister to use his good offices to stop the council's policy, which is little short of pushing some of my constituents into making decisions which they are not yet willing to make.

Secondly, I want the Minister to take a personal interest in the offers that are being made by the council. It is important for the Minister to do that, particularly after the debate that we have just had on Northern Ireland. Certainly, there are advantages in direct rule, at least in the way that Ministers can be made accountable for almost anything that goes on in the Province. I should like to see similar treatment extended to my constituents, particularly after the clear public declaration that the settlements would be fair — so fair that they would be able to buy equivalent houses elsewhere in my constituency.

Thirdly — here I think that the Minister needs no encouragement to take an interest—there is a national aspect to the problem. If my constituents are being treated unfairly—as I believe they are—the chances are that other citizens elsewhere in the country will receive similar unfair treatment when they get compulsory purchase orders. I hope that the Minister will look at the settlements that have been offered by the Wirral council to my constituents in Birkenhead, and see whether they are fair. If they are fair, they surely raise an important question about the amount of compensation that we in central Government are prepared to offer people who lose their homes under compulsory purchase orders.

I end with a statement that all the residents wish me to put to the Minister. They said—and I agree—that they have behaved in a way of which the Prime Minister would approve. They have saved hard to buy their homes, and many of them are now heading towards retirement, or have already retired. Because of the inadequate compensation, the people who are near retirement age cannot get mortgages because of the level of compensation, and they have had to move back into rented accommodation. They thought that they had provided for their old age, only to find that they had been robbed.

I do not believe that the treatment that has been handed out by the Wirral council is treatment that I or the Minister would find acceptable. If it is not satisfactory for me or the Minister, I do not believe that it is satisfactory for my constituents.

11.53 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has raised important points on behalf of his residents, in particular on behalf of the residents in the Dacre street and Marion street area of his constituency, who have good cause to be grateful to him.

The hon. Gentleman raised one or two matters that I shall want to consider closely. If I cannot answer them in great detail this evening, he will understand and that I may need to check certain things and let him have answers in the fullness of time.

At the outset of his comments, the hon. Gentleman touched on the background and the historical problems facing his constituents, involving the disadvantages of planning—to use his phrase. I should like to know some more details of that and to have the hon. Member's interpretation and definition of the disadvantages of planning because I have responsibilities for those important issues in the Department of the Environment. We all have much to learn about some of the problems that occurred 15 or 20 years ago and the legacy that they have left for the current generation. I hope that the hon. Member will let me have some of those details. I have taken note of the three points that he has raised and I shall come to those in due course, if I may.

Before coming to the compensation questions, which were the main ones raised by the hon. Member, I should rehearse, for the benefit of the House, the history of the Dacre street compulsory purchase order. This order—there is just one order in point — has had an ususual history. The area of Birkenhead to which it relates was originally intended for slum clearance by the former Birkenhead county borough council some 10 or 12 years ago.

After local government reorganisation in 1974, however, the new Wirral borough council resolved on a policy of improvement and in 1979 confirmed the Dacre street general improvement area covering the 80 houses in the present order. This new policy was widely supported, but the rate of improvement was slow and the Maritime Housing Association became involved in a programme of acquiring houses for improvement.

A number of houses were improved, and others were acquired, but then the association uncovered problems of structural instability which it felt were serious, and a structural and soil survey was commissioned. The survey, in the local authority's opinion, showed that the extent and nature of the structural problems made improvement the wrong policy, and the council therefore rescinded the general improvement area declaration in July 1981. It reverted to a policy of clearance and the Dacre street order, including properties in Marion street and Conway street, was made on 17 December 1981 by the council under its powers in part III of the 1957 Housing Act.

The order comprised 60 houses the council considered unfit, in three clearance areas, and 33 other properies, mostly houses with one or two vacant plots. The purpose of the order was the clearance of the area as a whole and the council intended that it then be made available for private residential developmet. All this is known to the hon. Gentleman. A large adjoining area had already been made available for the same purpose. All residents displaced by clearance and requiring rehousing were to be rehoused on various estates throughout the borough.

The order provoked objections in respect of 22 houses in the clearance areas and seven of the other properties. A public local inquiry was held on 20 and 21 July 1982. This is the all-important historical background to the problem that we now face and that so affects the hon. Gentleman's constituents. A number of technical problems prevented the issue of a decision until the following March when the Secretary of State confirmed the order with modifications, the more important of which excluded a terrace of properties in Conway street: This terrace contained a number of active businesses, and it was considered that clearance was undesirable in their case.

Wirral borough council published its notice of confirmation of the order on 15 April 1983 and the order became operative towards the end of May on expiry of the statutory period for challenge. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, once the Secretary of State has taken his decision on an order he has no further jurisdiction in relation to it. In the circumstances it would, therefore be improper for me to comment on the merits or demerits of this particular order, the implementation of which and any consequential matters fall to the local council. That is the important aspect of the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment debate this evening. His speech and comments will be read outside the House and will have an impact on the people who have jurisdiction in this matter locally.

I understand, however, that the council has now brought into force a general vesting declaration, thus speeding the procedure following confirmation of the order. At the risk of boring the House I must make it clear that the general vesting declaration is an alternative to serving notice to treat and has three principal advantages over the normal conveyancing procedure. First, the authority can obtain title to the land with the minimum of delay. Secondly, all interests in the land, except for minor and expiring tenancies, are vested in the authority by one instrument alone. Thirdly, it is simpler than conveyancing and therefore saves time and expense.

Those points are of particular importance when land has been acquired with a view to its disposal, for example, as in this instance, and subsequent sale for private residential development. If the normal conveyancing procedure were followed, the authority could not sell until it had finally obtained title, and that may often only be after completion of long and complicated procedures. However, it is important to bear in mind that use of the general vesting declaration procedure does not in any way affect the rights of the individual owners and occupiers to compensation.

I understand that some of the site has now been cleared. The hon. Gentleman has referred to the fact that there are a number of disputes with residents over the amount of compensation payable. Compensation is entirely a matter to be settled between the parties concerned—between residents, owners and the local council. It is not a matter in which the Secretary of State can intervene, and in particular it would be wrong for me to comment on individual cases. Owners and owner-occupiers will generally employ professional help in making claims for compensation. Indeed, they are often advised to seek such help.

The general rule for non-house owners is that they will qualify for home loss or some other disturbance payment. The position for owners is more complicated. Under the compensation code, laid down by statute, it is a fundamental principle of the compensation code that in all cases except one the owner should receive the full market value of the property. The single exception is that compensation for an unfit house is basically restricted to site value only, the structure itself being regarded as worthless. That is the problem upon which the hon. Gentleman has touched.

However, subject to certain conditions being satisfied, the owner of an unfit house compulsorily acquired may be entitled to a supplementary payment to bring his compensation up to full market value. The main condition is that the house must have been occupied by the owner, or a member of his or her family, for a qualifying period of two years ending on the date of declaration of the clearance area. Alternatively, where there is no entitlement to an owner-occupier's supplement, a payment additional to site value may still be made if an unfit house, notwithstanding its inherent defects, has been well maintained in whole or in part.

The system of supplementary payments was introduced because of the considerable hardship that might otherwise be caused to those who have sunk their savings in providing a house for themselves and their families. We recognise that there are cases where the site value rule proves harsh and has caused considerable concern. We have undertaken to look at the operation of that rule when a suitable legislative opportunity arises.

The hon. Gentleman has explained that those of his constituents who are concerned about compensation are all, in fact, owner-occupiers. Provided that they meet the conditions, in particular the two-year occupancy rule, they would appear to be entitled to full market value. Therefore, if they are complaining that what they are offered is insufficient, I cannot comment on that because they have the right to take that issue to the Lands Tribunal.

It would also be wrong for me to comment on the differences between what people have been offered for their properties. That can only be for a detailed investigation of the individual circumstances of each case —the size of house, cubic capacity, location and so on. Again, it would be a matter which could be considered by the Lands Tribunal. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate my position. However, I hope that he will feel he has had the chance to put his constituents' concerns fairly before the House, and that he has had a fair reply so far. He has raised several points that I shall want to explore further and I shall contact him in due course. The real sadness of this case is that the policy of improvement, which seemed to have so much to offer to the residents of the area, should so late in the day have foundered, and that I regret. However, I can take further many points that he has raised. Whether I can satisfy him and his constituents only time will tell, but I believe that we have provided a fair hearing in response to his constituents' case that he has put fairly before the House this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Twelve o' clock.

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