HC Deb 25 July 1986 vol 102 cc877-86 11.50 am
Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

I welcome this opportunity to deal with housing in my constituency in south Tyneside. May I preface my remarks by saying that today is the last day for the last steel plant in my constituency? The rolling mill in Jarrow closes today and 250 men will join the already too long dole queues in my constituency. It is rather ironic that today is the 50th anniversary of the Jarrow march, as a result of which industries were eventually sited in Jarrow.

Housing is a problem in Britain, not just in Jarrow or south Tyneside. In 1986, over 1 million British households are living in homes considered unfit for human habitation. A further 250,000 have nowhere to call a home. Many more live in homes that are considered habitable but with leaky roofs, damp walls and serious overflow.

If Britain were too poor to provide for those families, that would be a misfortune, but not only is this nation rich in economic and human resources, but millions of pounds are held by local authorities which they are not allowed to spend, even though they raised it for the specific purpose of investing in public and private housing stock.

There are in Britain 1.2 million people on the council waiting list; 250,000 are registered as homeless; and there is £3.5 billion in the banks from the sale of council houses. Almost 500,000 construction workers are unemployed and the total cost of dealing with disrepair, unfitness and defects in our total housing stock is estimated at about £50 billion.

The Secretary of State for the Environment is visiting my constituency today. Unfortunately, he will not be looking at the housing stock. He is going for another purpose. I applied for this Adjournment debate to draw to the Government's attention the deteriorating position of housing in south Tyneside where my constituency lies, as does the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). Both he and I have frequent meetings with the authority to discuss this particular concern.

The Government have constantly argued that they need to control local government spending. They have particularly argued that they need to control local authority spending on houses. They claim that to provide homes for those who need them is wrong because it leads to inflation. I disagree with that argument. It is eminently suitable to provide homes for those who need them. I go further. I regard a decent home as a right for everyone. A decent home is a basic need like proper food or good health and to claim that we should not build homes for people who need them because it may lead to inflation is morally indefensible. The Government seem to have no moral scruples and base this matter on purely financial grounds.

But it is not true to say that housebuilding by local authorities leads to inflation. Local authorities do not contribute to inflation by using their own capital and revenue to build homes for their own people on their own land using their own labour. Yet the Government pretend they must prevent councils doing that.

In south Tyneside there are 7,200 applicants on the council waiting lists. That does not mean 7,200 people; it means that 7,200 families require accommodation. That includes individuals, single-parent families, pensioners and others. They are desperately looking for someone to help them get a decent home. If South Tyneside local authority was allowed to do so, it would provide homes as it has been providing well designed, soundly built and traditionally constructed homes for many years. These would he homes for families, single persons and the elderly. The authority has provided 34,000 homes. Last year, because of Government restrictions, the authority built the magnificent total of 47 houses.

When I was chairman of the housing committee less than 10 years ago, the council built more than 7,000 houses a year. That made an impact on the waiting list. Under this Government, the authority built only 47 houses last year and this year it will complete 26. There is no shortage of labour, as there are plenty of unemployed tradesmen. There is no shortage of expertise. The record shows that houses can be built under a decent Government. There is no shortage of land. The council has sold land to private builders because the Government will not allow the authority to develop that land. Indeed, one of the prime sites in Jarrow, the Croft terrace school site, has been sold to private builders for development. That site would have been ideal for pensioners' bungalows as it is in the centre of town, near the shopping centre. However, because of Government restrictions, the authority has not been allowed to build and the land was advertised for sale to private builders.

What can the Minister tell the 7,200 applicants on the waiting list? Will he tell them that the Government think that they should wait a little longer? At the current rate of building, they will have to wait 276 years for a house. I appreciate, as a former chairman of the housing committee, that the waiting list is not static. I accept that waiting lists change. However, the Government are hoping that waiting lists will magically disappear when everyone becomes a house owner. The Government are determined to make house ownership compulsory.

I have no objection to people owning their own home. I built my own home. It took me 15 months. I worked in the shipyards during the day and I left every night and at the weekends to build my own home. That was quite an achievement and it gave me a lot of satisfaction. However, not everyone can do that.

South Tyneside council has sold 4,300 council houses. If it had been able to re-use the money from the sale of those houses, it would have been able to provide more homes for those on the housing list. The Government have said that it cannot do that. If the problem was simply the 7,200 applicants on the waiting list, that would he bad enough, but that is not the only aspect of the problem. Last year, the council rehoused 800 families from the waiting list on relets, yet they built only 47 houses. A further 1,310 families joined the waiting list. The list was increased by 510 families. The current building rate and the relets will not even meet the annual increase.

Not only are fewer houses being built; the existing houses are getting older. The sale of the better houses means that fewer houses are available for relets. The long-term, traditionally built houses are becoming defective and must be demolished. The council is being hampered in carrying out that operation because of the cut in its housing investment programme allocation. In 1986–87, the HIP allocation for south Tyneside was £5,840,000. That was a reduction of £560,000 on the 1985–86 allocation.

That may not appear to be a large amount, but it is a vast change when viewed in the context of the allocation of £14.3 million in 1979–80 when I was chairman of the housing committee. Since then, the HIP allocations have been reduced every year. In order to keep pace with inflation, south Tyneside would have needed £27 million in 1986–87 in comparison to the 1979–80 figure. In all, the authority has lost £69 million over the years. In addition, the council received £7 million in subsidies in 1980–81. Today, it has not received a penny in subsidies.

Recently the Department of the Environment asked authorities to complete a questionnaire about defective buildings. That revealed that, nationally, approximately £20 billion must be spent to improve housing. South Tyneside requires £15 million. More than 99 per cent. of dwellings in south Tyneside are currently occupied. That is a credit to the housing department and to housing management. There is a void rate of less than 1,000. In the private sector, the void rate is 4 per cent., according to the figures released by the Department of the Environment. Virtually all the buildings provide accommodation for someone, but it is not all satisfactory accommodation. Those buildings may count as housing units in the Government's statistics, but they will never be homes. I am talking not about statistics or housing units, but about families of people in the homes to which they have a right.

Precast concrete housing of the Orlit, Airey and Dorvians type were built on the cheap to make profits for industry. South Tyneside has 2,700 houses of this type and the council has already demolished 450 Orlit houses. The problems caused by that type of housing show the foolishness of building down to a price rather than up to a standard. That is the result when pound notes are regarded as more important than human beings. That is where Governments—I do not blame this Government alone — went wrong, making councils build precast industrialised housing with flat roofs. When I was leader of Jarrow council and chairman of the housing committee, we were told by the Government, and by the Labour Government, to build housing with flat roofs because it would save £147 per house. Councils are now having to live with the results of that foolishness.

Penny pinching by Governments has created the problem that local authorities have to put right today. To deal with the 2,700 precast concrete houses in south Tyneside would cost at least £25 million. Those dwellings need to be substantially renovated or demolished, as the Government apparently agree — but only for private owners lucky enough to receive grants from the council's dwindling HIP allocation. When will the Government acknowledge that authorities must be given the resources to deal with the problems of the houses that they own before the buildings literally fall down around their ears?

Another problem on south Tyneside is defective wall ties caused by the use of black ash mortar in the 1920s and 1930s. The cost of putting that right is at least £1,000 per house and if the outside leaf has to be taken down the cost is at least £7,000. I am informed that it would cost £6 million to put those houses right.

Jarrow has only one high-rise concrete block in the centre of the town and another in Hebburn, but there are many medium-rise blocks with concrete stairs, communal entrances, ramps and refuse areas. The council needs finance to put those problems right, but the Government's only response is to set up yet another body of experts—the urban housing renewal unit — to collect expertise from authorities and consolidate it in a glossy magazine. Funds are then distributed to authorities prepared to sell council housing stock to private builders. That money comes from the local authorities in any case. More than £50 million of the national HIP allocation has been creamed off by authorities politically responsive to the Government's offer.

The Government claim to be committed to a policy of rehabilitation rather than new building. They maintain that the preservation of communities in improved dwellings is infinitely preferable to bulldozing them to make way for new housing, and to some extent I agree. Indeed, that is one of the first things that we did; in 1979 I had the honour on behalf of the council to receive from the then Minister an award for the St. Paul's road development in Jarrow. The council has rehabilitated many of its houses as well as building new ones.

More than 800 private tenants in south Tyneside still have to boil kettles for a bath and more than 1,200 occupiers of private dwellings still have outside WCs. That is only a small proportion of the 1 million dwellings in the country that lack amenities, and an even smaller proportion of the 3 million dwellings that are known to be in a state of gross disrepair. Those people look to the Government and the local authorities for help, but unfortunately receive none.

Because of the cut in the HIP allocation, south Tyneside has had to restrict improvement grants to owner-occupiers — those in private dwellings. There is a six-month backlog. The council allocates only £1.5 million for mandatory grants or repair grants, so 500 people are waiting to improve their houses. Because of the restriction on finance, south Tyneside has to tell them that there is a six-months delay.

The stupidity of all that, apart from the human misery, is that it does not make economic sense to stop giving grants. Many houses in the older areas could make good family homes. Many have already been improved with grant-aid, but potential for further improvement and finance already invested is being put at risk by the Government's shortsighted policies. The Government claimed to be committed to housing improvement and the need to improve inner city areas, but they misled the local authorities on that. The Government encouraged authorities to embark on improvement programmes, but now apparently they have changed their mind. Previously, the local authority could help private tenants when the private landlord refused to face up to his responsibility for a sub-standard house. As a last resort, the local authority could purchase the dwelling by agreement or by compulsion, and then improve it. Now authorities are forbidden to purchase by agreement. In any case, they do not have the resources to do so.

Also related to improvement aid previously given to provide basic amenities is mortgage assistance. In South Tyneside and, indeed, in many areas in our region there is a type of house called the Tyneside flat, consisting of two-storey terraces with a separate flat on each floor. Traditionally, they were sold in pairs so that the owner-occupier of one was the landlord of the other. Many have been handed down through the generations and many are owned by the elderly. South Tyneside, by providing council mortgages, has assisted many of those elderly owners to repair and improve their property. Because the building societies would not give mortgages for that type of house, those people had to rely on the council, but since the reduction in funds the council's finances have been too limited to continue assistance through mortgaging.

Because of the restriction in finance and the cutback on house building, the authorities have attempted to use existing stock to the best advantage, but again that has been hindered. In south Tyneside there are 3,506 households in council stock that is unsuitable for their needs. Elderly tenants in three-bedroomed houses would like bungalows. I have a surgery tomorrow in Jarrow, and I have no doubt that many elderly people will come to me and say, "Can I put my name down for one of the bungalows in Burn Bede road?" They want a bungalow, but the council is prohibited from building those houses. The council could use the larger houses for families. Many of the elderly people who come to see me at my surgery are too frail to manage the stairs and want bungalow accommodation, but it is not being provided by the council because of the Government's cutback. Thus two sets of households suffer. There are many single people occupying a family house in my area. For example, when her family has left, a widow might still be in the family home. Such people want a decent bungalow in the area where they have lived all their life. That is the sort of thing that south Tyneside wishes to provide.

South Tyneside has a massive housing problem. As I said, 7,200 families are waiting for houses and 3,506 families are waiting for transfers. The council has the officers who are capable of designing and managing those houses. It has the construction workers, who are now on the dole, who are capable of building those homes. It has the councillors who wish to provide homes for those who need them. All that is required is for the Government to release finance or let the council use the finance that it has raised from the many council houses that it has sold. If the Government were to do that, the council could get on with the job.

Councillor Elliott, the chairman of the housing committee, and Mr. Jack Brown, the housing director in south Tyneside, are doing a magnificent job with the resources available. The councillors are doing a magnificent job, and so are the housing officers, architectural staff and everyone else. However, finance is needed. I offer an invitation for the Minister to pass on to his hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction. We would welcome a visit to south Tyneside so that the Minister responsible for housing can look at the magnificent job that those people are doing with the limited resources. They require some Government finance or, perhaps, the release of their own finance so that they can provide houses for the people in south Tyneside.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) on the way in which he has presented his constituents' case and on drawing the attention of the House to the housing problems in his constituency. I shall of course pass on his invitation to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction. I know that if he can fit it into his diary he will be delighted to visit the area.

Before I turn to the specific problems of Jarrow, I shall deal with some of the more general points touched on by the hon. Gentleman in his opening remarks. The hon. Gentleman is a fair man and I am sure that he will agree that the problems of disrepair, especially in the public sector stock, have not simply arisen over the past few years. Sadly, they are the result of many years of underspending on management, maintenance and repair. Because of the concern we felt, we initiated a survey last year, through the local authorities, which came up with the figure of £19 billion to put the disrepair right. We then increased the provision for housing investment this year by £200 million to take account of the backlog and to try to make a start in putting it right.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about reductions in public sector investment in housing. The major reductions in public sector investment in housing took place under the previous Administration. The figures he used, which contrasted the allocations for 1978–79 with the allocations for the current year, left out of account capital receipts. As he said, there have been substantial capital receipts and the local authority can supplement its HIP allocation with the prescribed proportion of capital receipts. That factor is far bigger than it was in 1978–79. Simply comparing the allocations between now and then ignores that and gives a somewhat distorted picture.

The hon. Gentleman also fairly pointed out the decline in the number of new houses built by local authorities. It is generally accepted by both sides of the House that the real emphasis should now be on making better use of the stock we have, tackling the problems of disrepair and improving and converting the existing stock rather than embarking on a somewhat expensive programme of new build. Given that many properties are empty, the top priority is to bring those back into use and restore the missing amenities, about which the hon. Gentleman spoke movingly, rather than, as I said, embarking on a new programme of build for rent.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about specific groups such as the homeless, the elderly and the disabled. We have asked the local authority to concentrate its resources on those groups for whom it is difficult for the private sector to make proper provision.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about unemployment. One interesting development over the past few years has been the growth of community refurbishment schemes whereby those who are unemployed can, through the community programme, work on improving their estate, sometimes doing unskilled building work or environmental work or installing security systems. That is one area that the Government are interested in pursuing.

I shall now move to the more specific problems that the hon. Gentleman touched on. Jarrow shares many characteristics with the rest of the South Tyneside borough council. I am heartened by the sensible and constructive attitude of the borough council towards the improvement of housing conditions and diversification of housing opportunities within its area.

The borough council has clearly set out policy objectives. One of the main objectives is eliminating substandard housing and ensuring an adequate provision of new housing. That includes widening the housing choice in the borough and encouraging self-help groups.

In south Tyneside at present, nearly 50 per cent. of the housing stock is in local authority ownership. Therefore, there is scope for private sector resources to be harnessed and used to help finance the improvements and rehabilitation required and the borough council has adopted and demonstrated a pioneering approach.

South Tyneside was the first authority to launch a self-build programme and the hon. Gentleman explained how he had built his house. In his area there are a number of schemes whereby skilled tradesmen and labourers work together as a team to build each other's houses. The final cost of the houses is some 25 per cent. lower than similar houses on the open market. In that way people can be taken off the council waiting list and, through their own endeavours, become house owners. The borough council started the eighth such scheme in March 1986 and has recognised the approach as an alternative method of financing housing construction.

South Tyneside has also shown a positive approach towards tackling the problems of difficult-to-let estates. Some six years ago the borough council converted unpopular three-storey flats and maisonettes at Queens road, Jarrow, to two-storey self-contained terraced houses with gardens at front and rear. At the same time it improved housing management techniques, remodelled the estate layout and improved the environment by landscaping and other works. Some properties were improved for sale, with priority given to existing tenants. The advantage is that the local authority gets some money from the sale of the properties and it meets its housing needs because existing tenants are offered the properties, so it gets a useful relet without expending part of its valuable HIP allocation.

Mr. Dixon

When I was chairman of the housing committee the Queens road area was a difficult-to-let area. The houses had flat roofs, so the council erected pitched roofs and improved the area, so that it is now a success. I appreciate the Minister's comments about it. However, south Tyneside council still has many houses with flat roofs which cause problems, and give tenants all sorts of anxieties.

Sir George Young

I hope that it will be possible to pursue that approach elsewhere. If some of the properties can be improved for sale, the demand on the council's HIP allocations will be less than if they are improved for rent. I understand that the scheme has been successful and has transformed a run-down estate, resulting in popular dwellings in a good environment.

By releasing land for the private sector to develop low-cost starter homes and small family homes specifically targeted at first-time buyers, the council has further helped to widen the choice of tenure. In that way it has been able to offer people on housing waiting lists the opportunity to own their home.

In 1985 the private sector started 292 new dwellings and completed 346. If one considers the total picture, it is fair to include private sector starts, together with public sector starts. Nationally known builders, such as Barratts, are providing a range of housing types, and local developers, such as Lemmington Estates, are building low-cost starter homes and small family homes.

At the other end of the market an attractive large site for detached and semi-detached executive housing at Cleadon park is to be released by the local authority. It will be the first such development in south Tyneside and will be within the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Its release will further widen the housing choices available within the area.

The borough council has a long record of allowing tenants the right to buy. Since April 1979 it has sold almost 4,700 council houses, more than 13 per cent. of its original housing stock. The capital value tied up in both land and houses has thus been realised, and the council has been able to reinvest the prescribed proportions of those receipts in its capital expenditure programme. The hon. Gentleman argued that it should be able to spend more. He may know that at present we are considering the whole system of capital allocations for local government to see whether we can come up with a better system.

The Government are committed to widening the opportunities for home ownership. I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman endorse the philosophy of home ownership. It results in advantages for individuals in a property-owning democracy. The success of those measures demonstrates that the people of south Tyneside and Jarrow agree with our philosophy and are willing to take responsibilities to meet their housing needs, given the choice and opportunity.

Mr. Dixon

The reason why 7,200 people are on the waiting list is that they cannot buy a house and do not have a mortgage. They require rented accommodation which is why they have applied to the council for it. Unfortunately, the council has not been allowed to build rented accommodation for them.

Sir George Young

The approach that I have tried to outline is that if the local authority can make available to builders in the private sector land upon which to build, on condition that the properties are offered either to people on the housing waiting list or to existing council tenants, the council gets the benefit of the relets or of the reduced pressure on the waiting list without having to dig into its own housing investment programme allocation. That is the kind of approach that the Government have suggested, and in fairness to south Tyneside it has adopted it. I suspect that there are quite a lot of tenants in south Tyneside who are interested in becoming home owners but who do not necessarily want to buy the property in which they live. That kind of approach has considerable possibilities for them.

As for the public sector housing stock, we want, if possible, to reduce reliance upon public sector expenditure and subsidies by encouraging private sector involvement in housing renewal. In that way we can bring resources to bear more quickly and help to tackle problems at an early stage. The hon. Member for Jarrow referred to the urban housing renewal unit in my Department which I set up a year ago to try to engage the interest and resources of the public sector to turn round some of the difficult-to-let local authority estates. There has been a good response to that initiative from local authorities of all political persuasions.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that this is not just about privatisation. Of the 25,000 properties that have been helped or that are about to be helped under the scheme, privatisation encompasses only about 1,000, so we are interested in proposals for improving the estates. It is not a precondition that any part of an estate should be sold off. We are not dogmatic about it and I hope that the local authorities will not be dogmatic about it.

An early example of the type of scheme which the urban housing renewal unit is advocating was undertaken by South Tyneside borough council at the Hepscott estate, to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his speech. Here several terraces of 1880s houses in local authority ownership had become unpopular because of poor location and structural faults. Having considered various options, the council decided to sell the estate to a private builder for refurbishment and sale at low cost.

The developers, Bellways, were able to remove unsatisfactory prefrabricated extensions, knock two units into one to create larger dwellings, repair the structure and services and instal new bathrooms and kitchens. Externally, private back gardens were created and traffic was diverted away from the estate. All the houses were sold quickly to first-time buyers. That scheme was described in the glossy publication to which the hon. Gentleman referred, the booklet entitled "New Homes for Old." It illustrates very well the progress that can be made when a local authority is prepared to join forces with the private sector to tackle the problems of run-down housing.

Members of my unit team visited south Tyneside in October last year and were very impressed by the Hepscott estate and also by the intensive management arrangements at Cumberland court in Hebburn new town which has improved a difficult-to-let eight-storey block of flats. In December, the unit invited south Tyneside to apply for an additional HIP allocation — the £50 million represents additional resources, not something that is provided at the expense of the basic allocations—relating to the capital expenditure element of any housing improvement scheme that is approved by the unit. I understand that an application for a grant towards the cost of renovating the flats and maisonettes in the Grange court—North court development in Jarrow is under consideration.

That initiative by the unit will enable local authorities to combine capital funding from an additional HIP allocation with, in some cases, urban programme funding and, in other cases, funding under the community refurbishment scheme. This harnessing of expenditure programmes to tackle the problems of an area is imaginative and it is not new to south Tyneside. We have pursued it elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman referred to specific problems, and first to wall tie failures. He rightly pointed out that the failure of the metal wall ties between the inner and outer leaves of cavity walls of traditionlly built dwellings is now a major problem in the district and that early estimates of the replacement cost are about £6 million. The hon. Gentleman also referred to system-built housing. The borough council inherited about 2,750 non-traditional housing units, one of the highest totals in the northern region, including Orlit, Sheppards, Myton, Skarne dwellings, Wimpey Mo Fines, Spooner, BISF and Airey. You name it, south Tyneside appears to have it. The majority of the Orlit houses have been demolished. The council's policies for most of the other types have yet to be decided, but, as with the wall tie failures, these are matters that we shall take into account in the discussions that are beginning with council officials about the HIP allocations for next year.

Assistance to private housing development is also available through urban development grants. A scheme of 18 flats for sale at Mill dam on the riverside at South Shields is being built by the Northern Rock housing trust with the help of an urban development grant. Another large private housing project is being considered for a site in Hebburn, but no urban development grant application has yet been submitted to my Department.

The hon. Gentleman said that there has been a considerable reduction in resources for capital spending on housing. As I said a moment ago, gross provision for local authority capital expenditure was increased by £200 million to £2.5 billion for the current year. However, because of the need to allow for the increasing spending power available to authorities from their capital receipts, the national total for HIP allocations was reduced from £1,600 million to £1,465 million.

We recognise the special problems of south Tyneside, not least those associated with system-built dwellings and the council's responsibilities under the Housing Defects Act. The HIP allocation of £5.8 million was a lower reduction compared with the regional allocation as a whole. I must say that £5.8 million is a considerable sum of money. A proportion of it can be used to lever in private sector funding to help tackle many of the problems described by the hon. Gentleman. The borough council of South Tyneside has already demonstrated many different approaches to tackling the problems.

Officers of my Department in the urban housing renewal unit are always available for further talks with the local authority to promote good housing initiatives. In the light of what the hon. Gentleman said, I shall take a special interest in the HIP allocations for south Tyneside in 1987–88.