HC Deb 04 November 1986 vol 103 cc926-32

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

11.59 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

Ironically, the very success of Basildon in promoting itself as an attractive new town has largely contributed to the present pressures on our housing stock. Basildon has everything going for it at the moment — good community facilities, excellent communications, particularly now with the completion of the final part of the M25, increasing job opportunities, reducing unemployment, the largest covered shopping centre in Europe—and all that set in the heart of the beautiful Essex countryside.

Our slogan is "Basildon means business" and that we certainly do. On Monday 8 December for one week there will be an exhibition in the Palace of Westminster entitled "Basildon—a town of opportunity". It will be Basildon week in the House of Commons and the Commission for the New Towns will be promoting the event in order to stimulate even further interest in our town. So the commitment to permanently securing Basildon's position as the finest new town in the country is as strong as ever. [HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."] Nevertheless, if that is to be achieved, it is essential that housing policy in Basildon is directed in such a way as to meet people's evolving needs.

Most hon. Members, however long they have served in the House, would agree that the number one problem that appears time after time in their postbags is that of housing. [HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."' It is often said that an Englishman's home is his castle. If that is so, experience has shown me that everyone wants to live in as pleasant a castle as possible.

Mr. Walter Harrison (Wakefield)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My parliamentary colleagues keep shouting out "Reading, reading" and I am unable to listen to the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) giving us the good information that he tries to do. Is it possible for you to bring order to the place?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for protecting the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess).

Mr. Amess

The purpose for which new towns were established is well known and in Basildon's case it was largely for the purpose of easing housing pressures from the east end of London—the area from which I hail. In that objective there can be no question but that the Commission for the New Towns has certainly been successful. I only regret that some of the London boroughs, having been given that opportunity, continue to pursue misguided housing policies which only seem to make matters worse and people's lives miserable.

I doubt whether there is any town in the country where the Government's housing policies have been so successful as in Basildon. The right-to-buy legislation has transformed our town. I can tell my hon. Friend the Minister how much my constituents welcome the latest legislation which we discussed only last night which increases still further the discount on the sale of council and commission properties and the reduction in the period before one can resell a property thus purchased. Record sales of council and corporation property have been achieved in Basildon. All that in spite of intense opposition to our right-to-buy legislation from the three Socialist parties—Labour, Social Democrat and Liberal. I still find it extraordinary that Socialist councillors can purchase their council or corporation property while supporting parties which do not approve of such an opportunity for the general public. Such behaviour is hypocritical.

While on the question of the right to buy, I want to make my first specific point to the Minister. It seems unfair to me that constituents who desperately wish to purchase their property are being denied that opportunity because their homes are regarded as unfit for a mortgage, particularly due to the problem of clay heave in Basildon following the drought that we experienced some years ago which has meant that a number of properties still require underpinning. There seems to be a great reluctance among the financial institutions to grant mortgages on such properties and my constituents are being deprived of their right to buy.

Let me also say at this point how greatly my constituents look forward to the Government's recently announced initiative on the right to rent. There is no properly established rented sector in Basildon and encouragement in that area is welcomed by my constituents. In the 1960s a number of high-speed system-built properties were developed in Basildon. About 1,000 such properties were built in the Vange area of the town. Roughly half of these are now owner-occupied and the other half are still rented. Over the past two or three years, structural problems have arisen and the houses are now known widely as suffering from concrete cancer. I understand that the builder who was responsible for using faulty components is now bankrupt.

People who originally purchased those properties from the corporation or the council have found it impossible to sell them. A blight has been put on them by the financial institutions and the Vange housing action group has been formed under the leadership of Mr. Williamson. I pay tribute to the group for its efforts in getting the matter resolved. The Under-Secretary has not only seen the properties, but has seen a deputation at the Department.

I understand that the Housing Defects Act 1984 does not cover these properties. I fully appreciate the compexities of this matter, but I have to tell the Minister that the patience of my constituents seems to be wearing a little thin. The circumstances of the people concerned are different, but all of them are clamouring for action and they are looking to me in particular to provide it. They want to know what arrangements are being made for examining each property to ascertain what, if anything, is wrong with it. If there are faults, the tenants want to know whether the property will be repaired or bought back and at what price. They have also said that if a dwelling is given a clean bill of health it is essential that some direction be given to the financial institutions and estate agents to lift the blight that hangs over the properties.

We all realise that, strictly speaking, the responsibility lies with the purchaser and the surveyor, if an independent structural survey were carried out. However, I have made it clear that the Government, who rightly introduced legislation enabling stock to be purchased, accept responsibility in this matter. I ask for a clear and precise statement about the future of these properties, and an assurance that individual counselling be given after that announcement has been made.

Another worry about housing in Basildon is the speculation, much of it mischievous, about the disposal of the 16,000 properties presently under the management of the commission. Despite the fact that before its demise the development corporation made it clear that for the immediate future there would be no change for tenants, the management was passed to the new town commission. The then Socialist council, without direction, decided at great expense to the ratepayers to embark on a so-called consultation exercise with the commission tenants. This is quite disgraceful, but what can one expect from a body that is now involved in a consultation process about local education, a service provided exclusively by Essex county council? Of course, it all has to do with political posturing and an attempt to cause divisions where none should exist.

It is intolerable that rumours have been spread causing alarm, especially to the elderly, suggesting that if a body other than the council takes over the houses, repairs and the like will not be carried out. At present, a high proportion of the housing stock is in public ownership. As the future ownership of the 16,000 dwellings is considered, our prime responsibility will surely he to determine who is best able to manage those properties and who would have the necessary financial support to bring them up to the high standard that we hope they will reach.

I now come to the final matter that I wish to bring to the Minister's attention—the problem of housing single people in Basildon. I want to take the opportunity of this debate to launch a campaign for a building programme to house them. They are the forgotten many.

Just about every conceivable building design has been tried in Basildon and I shudder when I hear that some of the designers are receiving awards for estates which have since suffered appalling problems. In two such developments—Langdon hills and Felmore— action groups have been formed to try to sort out the district heating systems.

Sheltered housing in Basildon, however, enjoys an extremely high reputation throughout the country. It has even been used as an advertisement in a party political broadcast. There is constant demand from the elderly to be given the opportunity to live in Basildon. I pay tribute to all the assistance that Essex county council, the Commission for the New Towns and the Government give the elderly in Basildon, and deservedly so, and the tremendous assistance that is received from voluntary organisations.

Unfortunately, I have a never-ending stream of young people coming to my surgeries who desperately need accommodation either to rent or purchase. These are second or third generation Basildonians. Their parents came originally to the town on the understanding that their children would be housed, but, alas, the demand has not been met. There is constant frustration locally about the points system, which has been changed with the result that applicants feel that the goalposts are continually being shifted.

Some of my constituents have commented that if they become pregnant and have a baby they will he housed. What a spirit in which to take on the responsibility of bringing a child into the world. I have a high proportion of single-parent families in Basildon, who desperately need support and proper accommodation. I have always maintained that I do not want any more of our local countryside lost to building programmes, but there are clearly certain areas still where specific building programmes could be undertaken for single people. I am sure that my constituents would welcome an extension of the highly successful shared ownership scheme and the provision of flats and bed-sits.

Another possibility that could be explored is the provision of the university complex type of accommodation at reasonable rents, or community studio apartments. There is a need also for a sophisticated version of YMCA-type accommodation for young people who face tension and difficulties at home and yet are not quite ready for the responsibility of independent accommodation. There are no tower blocks such as those in London which could be decanted and used for accommodation for single people, even if the equation were as simple as that. There are no doubt parts of estates, however, that could be usefully reserved for those with special housing needs. The possibilities are endless and all avenues should be explored in an effort to improve matters.

I started by extolling the virtues of Basildon as a new town and a place of opportunity. Young people are its lifeblood. We owe it to them, while recalling the visit of Lord Stockton to the town in the early 1950s, to provide a base from which they can flourish.

12.12 am
The Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction (Mr. John Patten)

Lord Stockton's successor by many removes, who is standing at the Dispatch Box, visited Basildon, in the company of his hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess), not so long ago, and saw the realisation of the dream of his noble Friend. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of housing in Basildon and for giving me the opportunity to put on record what the Government are doing to try to help Basildon.

I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon on his exemplary and persistent performance in putting across to the Government the concerns and views of his constituents. I went to Basildon with him, as I have said, to hear some of them at first hand. My hon. Friend is an advocate for Basildon and its people, and they should realise that.

This evening my hon. Friend has concentrated on housing issues that affect his new town. As he said, it is ironic that a new town which was set up in response to housing problems should now be having problems of its own. My hon. Friend has raised four main groups of problems, the last one being the need for better provision for single people in the town. I hope that time will allow me to deal with that issue. If not, I should like to write immediately after the debate to let him know what we are doing on shared ownership and in a number of other directions which may be of help.

I shall concentrate on the activities of Basildon council under Socialist control, what can be done to help those suffering from clay heave and what I have decided to do to help in the Vange area. What Basildon did when it was under Socialist control to try to put the frighteners on its tenants was a scandalous misuse of public money and a politically immoral act of a particularly savage kind. It tried to put across inaccurate information to frighten tenants, some of them elderly, about their future. There is no basis for what was done. The Government and people of most political views deplore such actions.

Yesterday, during the almost closing stages of the Housing and Planning Bill, Labour Members said that it is important not to tell lies about Government policy. I congratulate those on the Opposition Benches who said that. I only wish that the message had filtered through to those on Basildon council who have done so much damage not just to their standards as councillors, but to those living in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Some people living there find that their houses suffer from considerable problems of ground movement and clay heave. My hon. Friend has mentioned dwellings that have suffered ground movement. I understand that that in itself should not prevent subsequent mortgageability. There is no particular reason why it should do so, provided that reasonable remedial action has been taken. The development corporation devised a thorough system of underpinning, and I understand that houses repaired in this way have subsequently been sold to tenants, with finance coming from building societies.

My hon. Friend and I both strongly support the right to buy. If my hon. Friend has specific, named cases of building societies that will not accept otherwise traditional houses that have been underpinned by the new town corporation, perhaps he will write to me giving me chapter and verse, so that I can have the matter looked into further. We have evidence that houses properly underpinned under the scheme have been sold satisfactorily.

I know that the welfare of people in the Vange area has greatly concerned my hon. Friend since the matter came to light two years ago. I must go into this in some detail, and it is the kind of detail that Mr. Williamson and his friends on the action group, whose work I admire, will want to look at carefully in Hansard. Subject to certain conditions, the Commission for the New Towns should be authorised to offer to buy owner-occupied HSSB houses and flats at 95 per cent. of what their value would be in the absence of faults or potential faults associated with the use of the HSSB system in Basildon.

The percentage has been adopted by analogy with the provisions of part XVI of the Housing Act 1985, formerly the Housing Defects Act 1984, although the dwellings are not being designated under that Act. It is important to get these details down. The offer will be open only to owner-occupiers who bought their HSSB dwellings before the date of this announcement today. The commission will be authorised to buy only in cases where an owner-occupier will on completion offer vacant possession to the commission. Ample notice would be given to remaining eligible owner-occupiers of any closing date for the scheme, and in practice I expect it to operate for several years.

The faults, or potential faults, associated directly with the HSSB system which will be disregarded for the purposes of arriving at prices to be offered by the commission to owner-occupiers are, first, any defects in the structural connections between the concrete components and, secondly, actual or potential corrosion of steel reinforcement in structural concrete components. In all other respects valuation will reflect the actual condition of the dwelling.

The HSSB dwellings, both owner-occupied and tenanted, are, I am told, mostly very satisfactory and pleasant homes. The main problem for owner-occupiers arises from the general reluctance of building societies and others to lend on these dwellings, in view of the possible risk of defects developing later in the concrete components as a result of building methods that were employed at that time. The commission is carrying out investigations to see whether precautionary measures may be advisable to reduce any risk of structural problems arising in the shorter term. The commission will indeed inform the HSSB residents in due course about any such measures. Owners who sell to the commission will remain subject to the normal rules on repayment of discount.

I do not want to burden the House with too much detail, but it is important to put a few further facts before my hon. Friend and the House. Discount will be repayable if an owner purchased at a discount and if, at the date of sale to the commission, a period of less than five years — or three years, once the relevant provisions in the Housing and Planning Bill have taken effect — has elapsed since that earlier transaction. An owner's reasonable costs for conveyance of the property to the commission, incurred after the commission has notified the owner of the particular proposed terms for purchase of his home, will be met by the commission. I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes that provision.

To spread the cost and to alleviate practical problems, the commission may have to arrange applications from owners wishing to sell to it in order of priority. Clearly it cannot all be done at once. Priority will be decided on personal circumstances—for example, medical or social difficulties, or the need to move for reasons of employment elsewhere in the country or abroad. I must stress that each purchase by the commission will, of course, reflect the prevailing conditions in the housing market at the time that the transaction takes place.

Those who are now tenants of HSSB houses and fiats in Basildon and who have the right to buy under the Housing Act 1985 will retain that right. Any future purchases of HSSB dwellings from the commission or any other owner will, however, be at the purchaser's own risk. It is very important that my hon. Friend's constituents understand that after the date of my announcement any future purchases of HSSB dwellings from the commission or any other owner will be entirely at the purchaser's own risk. Such purchasers must be aware that they may be unable to sell their homes at a future date and that they will not be eligible for repurchase of their homes by the commission.

I hope that on reflection my hon. Friend will feel that he is able to welcome the announcement that I have made in considerable detail, for which I apologise both to him and to the House. However, I know that if I had not made the announcement in considerable detail, my hon. Friend would have been inundated with requests for details from his constituents. I am sure that Mr. Williamson and others will welcome this news. If anything that I have said is not clear on the record, my hon. Friend knows that he has only to write to me for elucidation.

In the three or four minutes of this Adjournment debate that remain. I turn to the fourth and last point that my hon. Friend raised—the problems encountered by young home seekers in Basildon and the relationship of these people to our right-to-buy, but, more importantly, to our right-to-rent policies. Their problems are typical of those faced by their contemporaries elsewhere, particularly in the south of England. The Government's response must be to try to create a favourable climate for the forms of private investment which will be the best solution to those problems. The need to find permanent owners for the new town housing in Basildon may itself help to create a favourable climate for new housing initiatives in the town.

That is a broad-brush generalisation, but it will probably turn out to be true. If, for example, housing transfer leads to a widening of the present narrow housing association base in that part of the country, there might be reason for optimism about Basildon's ability to draw in private investment to tackle today's housing problems and tomorrow's housing expectations.

The armoury of new weapons that the Government are giving themselves to try to help is considerable. We need to encourage City institutions and building societies to provide housing for rent. The Building Societies Act 1986 and the Housing and Planning Bill certainly enable us to make significant moves in that direction.

Shared ownership will be of great importance. The shared tenancies that we are developing, again in cooperation with the private sector, will be important in widening the basis of rented and part-rented, part-owned homes in Basildon and elsewhere. Last week, I announced that I was pursuing an initiative of particular relevance to young people who move away to take up jobs. This is the flat share scheme which we are discussing with building societies and housing associations. Under this scheme, young people will get newly-built or well-converted flats that are especially designed for sharers at affordable rents. I hope that by referring to these three or four schemes my hon. Friend will see that we are developing as fast as we can, in a totally new look at the overall rented sector, ways of helping people who are faced with the sorts of problems he so clearly discussed.

There is hope for the future in the rented sector and the part-owned, part-rented sector and there is help at present for those people who live in the Vange area who have battled so hard for the scheme. I am pleased to take the opportunity presented by my hon. Friend's admirable speech to announce this scheme.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Twelve o'clock.