HC Deb 23 July 1991 vol 195 cc1131-40 9.32 pm
Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)

I should like to convey through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my thanks to Mr. Speaker for allowing me this second Adjournment debate, which was a pleasant surprise. I also thank the Minister, who is responsible for housing in Scotland, for giving me the opportunity to talk about a matter that is important to me. Like most Glaswegians of my generation, I was brought up in an old tenement building, in a room and kitchen with an outside toilet. Therefore, throughout my life in public office, I have always felt it important that people get a decent home and decent shelter.

Many of us in the city of Glasgow felt that, when everyone had a home with adequate rooms and a bathroom, all problems would be solved. However, we know from the housing situation not only in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom that people need more than that for their housing needs. I hope to highlight some of the problems that have arisen in my constituency. As the debate is about housing in Glasgow, the problems in my constituency are relevant to those in any Glasgow constituency. I am glad to see that, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Dunnachie) and for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster) are here. My hon. Friend knows a great deal about local authority housing. He is a former leader of the Renfrewshire district local authority.

Both Glasgow district councillors and officials take pride in trying to give a good service to council tenants. When I was a Glasgow district councillor, I found that the local ward councillor could solve tenants' minor problems by making representations to the housing manager. If there was any difficulty with the housing manager, the local ward councillor could ask to see the convener of housing. If there was any difficulty with him, the local ward councillor could appeal to the leader of the group or to the committee. However, problems that could be solved in that way when I was a councillor cannot be dealt with in the same way by the present councillors. They are experiencing great difficulties, due to the fact that the Government are starving local authorities, particularly the housing authorities, of the money they need.

The houses in Broomknowes road in my constituency were built in the inter-war period. It is referred to as intermediate housing. They are grey sandstone buildings. Although they are old, they are in better condition than some of the houses that were built in the 1960s. I have spoken to a tenant who lives in Broomknowes road who went to live there when she was a young girl. She is now in her fifties. The standard in those tenements is so high that they are a credit to the local authority and to the people who live there.

Only one thing is needed. The windows are deteriorating. Consequently, those properties are not properly draught-proofed. Ten or 15 years ago, the Minister knows that the local authority could have said, "Let's get this through the budget. It's a 50-year-old property. The people who live there are good tenants. We want to encourage them to continue what they have been doing, in some cases for generations." The Minister's aim must surely be to provide decent housing. If tenants take a pride in their properties, they ought to be encouraged.

The people who live in Broomknowes road cannot get double-glazed windows for their properties, even though that is a standard provision in other houses. They need double-glazed windows because their houses are on a main road, with heavy buses passing by. The houses ought to be insulated against noise as well as against cold in winter.

Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a false economy, and that it is to be found in Glasgow and elsewhere? As the Government have starved housing authorities of the necessary funds, replacement windows cannot be provided for tenants. Windows just have to be patched up. Over 15 years, that is a false economy. It would be cheaper to replace the windows than have to keep patching them up. However, that option is not available to housing authorities. They do not have the funds for that purpose.

Mr. Martin

My hon. Friend is correct. One of my constituents in that area told me that the council could carry out only minor repairs to a window sash. One part of the window was repaired. The tradesman went away and did not return until weeks later to repair another part of the same window. Someone has to pay that tradesman. His wages come from public funds. If the work were properly carried out, morale in the area would be raised. A problem that could have been solved easily in a councillor's surgery has led to the tenants' association making representations to the community council and to the community council holding a public meeting.

When I travelled from Westminster to Glasgow to speak there, members of the regional council were present to support the district councillors. The local housing manager was also there. The starvation of funds has led to the involvement of Uncle Tom Cobley and all in a problem that should be easily resolved. I think that the people of Broomknowes road are entitled to a better deal.

I had not intended to refer again to the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn). In various housing debates, however, the hon. and learned Gentleman has refered to the big, empty, soulless housing units that Labour-controlled authorities had built on the outskirts of Glasgow. I assume that he was referring to Drumchapel, Easterhouse, Castlemilk and Priesthill.

If the hon. and learned Gentleman had been brought up in the tenements in which I was brought up, he would know that, in the 1950s, people told lies to get into housing in those areas. So high were family standards then that brothers and sisters who slept in the same room never saw each other unclothed. On winter nights, boys would have to be dressed if one of their sisters wanted to wash at the sink. When the Drumchapel and Easterhouse accommodation became available, a mother and father could have their own room, and brothers and sisters could live separately in a flat with a bath. It was like winning the pools.

If the hon. Members who talk of soulless communities knew anything about housing in Glasgow, they would appreciate that such peripheral schemes gave those in the city centre a breathing space. Those schemes were similar to the current "merchant city" scheme. That scheme would not have been possible if people had not been rehoused away from the centre of the city. Not every peripheral scheme involves a bad housing estate. I have mentioned the Balornock and Barrmullock schemes before, and I am sure that there are high-demand schemes in every constituency that contains good council housing stock.

The Minister has failed to help the local authorities in one regard. Many of the estates were started up in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when men and women finished their army service and started families. Now, those people are pensioners. They have lived and built up communities on those estates. They should be given flats designed for elderly people in the surroundings where they brought up their families.

If we are serious about creating communities and keeping them stable, why cannot we accommodate such people? They brought up their families in four or five-apartment tenements or houses with front and back doors, but now they need smaller accommodation. Why can they not be accommodated by one of the schemes that I mentioned earlier? Let me cite a specific case: it may be appropriate for me to do so on a day when a Minister has talked about doing away with regiments in the British Army.

Some members of that family are now dead. A man came to see me who had been a prisoner of war, having been captured at Dunkirk when with the Cameron Highlanders. He could not accept a proper job after the war because, having been in Poland and exposed to severe cold without a proper diet, he was not as robust as he had been when a young soldier.

The main political parties talk about patriotism and how we must wrap ourselves in the union jack, and nowadays we talk about the great tradition of the British regiments. The man who came to see me in that case had come out of the forces and wanted a decent home, and I am pleased to say that he got one. Unfortunately—it must have been a million-to-one chance—the tragedy that occurred to his family was dreadful. In his old age, he, his wife and his son—three people in the same house—contracted cancer. I know that certain members of that family died. They all may be dead by now.

I felt a sense of failure on behalf of society at that time. Although that family had lived in that house since 1945 —in a community in which I lived—with the minister, priest, home helps and neighbours aware of their plight and visiting them because they knew that they needed support, society let them down when they needed alternative housing. Because they needed a bathroom on the ground floor, they were told, "You have plenty of points for another home, but you will have to move away from your present community."

We all carry some responsibility for letting that family down. We must not simply heap all the blame on the local authority. I hope that families such as that will not be forced, by circumstances beyond their control, to move from the local communities they love and have played a part in creating.

Much is said about multi-storey flats. In my constituency I have the 32-storey Red road flats, among the highest in Europe. They were built by the father of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell). I remember him well. He was a building manager with Glasgow corporation, and I knew him when I served as a young councillor. I recall working with him on various committees. I had the highest regard for him.

Although in England they are called flats, we in Scotland refer to them as houses, even though they may be in high-rise blocks. Such flats suit some people—particularly, say, married couples with teenagers, when everybody in the household is out working. Such homes are easy to decorate and are sometimes more secure. When people come home after a day's work, such flats are usually warm, and the people living in them may not want homes with front and back doors and the bother of looking after a garden.

A big problem with some multi-storey flats is security. Many multi-storey flats were built not just by local authorities but as a result of decisions taken by Government. Both Labour and Conservative Governments of the past told local authorities, "If you don't build multi-storey dwellings, you will not get grant." Local authorities had people pounding on their town hall doors demanding to get out of the slums in city centres —in places such as Anderson, where I was brought up, Old Springburn and the Old Gorbals. People were demanding, "Get us out of these rat-infested places." Local authorities were told by central Government to build non-traditional houses.

As a result of what happened in the past, we still have multi-storey flats, and I could take the Minister to some developments in my constituency which are absolutely beautiful. One could literally eat off the floor in the entrance hall. The lifts are well cared for and in superb condition. Other multi-storey flats, on the other hand, are not so good, and the reason is usually lack of security.

It is clear that multi-storey properties will be with us for a long time to come, and I fear that we are, as it were, spoiling the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar. We have spent a fortune on such housing and we have employed caretakers, but they are not there 24 hours a day. We spend a lot of money on lifts, sound insulation and so on, but we need a concierge service to provide security and stop vandals coming into the building and causing havoc. In an ordinary tenement dwelling, the worst that can happen is that someone can put graffiti on the wall. However, if a vandal gets into a multi-storey flat and damages the lift, it may mean that someone with a heart disorder might be required to walk up 18 floors.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

What if there is a fire?

Mr. Martin

Yes, it could cause problems in any emergency. An ambulance may be needed or a doctor may have come to call. A concierge service has been introduced in some multi-storey flats in Glasgow and I hope that the Minister will be prepared to expand that service.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pollock served with me on the local authority when we said that there should be some experiments on the sale of council housing. Therefore, I speak as a Labour Member who was not frightened to say that we should look at the sale of council housing. However, we should not have embarked upon the wholesale selling of council housing. In my constituency, the best housing stock has been bought and the worst is left lying there, sometimes derelict.

If, in the 1950s, people were glad of their corporation house to rent, why should not the same apply to young couples in the 1990s? Circumstances change. Now, young couples who have lived all their days in one community are being told that they cannot have a house. In fact, strangely, a lady in my constituency came to see me and said, "My Sandra can't get a house." I said, "Your Sandra can't get a house because you have bought your house, the woman next door has bought her house and so has everybody else." The Sandras of this world should be able to get decent housing in their community.

Fair enough—by the sale of council housing we have given people the bargain of a lifetime. People are proud of their homes, and I can see the improvements that they make to them. However, there should be new housing for young couples who are not sitting tenants and who do not have an opportunity to buy their house. The problem is that people have to be tenants before they can buy their council house. How are young couples to become tenants if there are no houses to rent?

The Minister might say that the housing association movement is receiving a fortune from the Scottish Office and is rehabilitating the tenements throughout Glasgow. I am proud of the work that is being done by the housing associations in my constituency. I was a founder member of one of them. There is the Springburn Possilpark housing association, Milnbank and Reidvale. In fact, a photograph of one of the back courts of the Reidvale tenements in the Dennistown area appears in Prince Charles's book, "A Vision for Britain", as he was so impressed by the beautiful way in which it has been done up.

However, there are problems in the housing association movement. It does a good job, but there is a lack of accountability. The Minister has often talked of local authorities being accountable, but he fails to highlight the fact that the housing associations have a great deal of autonomy. They have general management committee meetings, but the Minister knows that full membership consists only of tenants and householders. They alone can attend an AGM. At least within local authorities everyone over the age of 18 in a house can have a say in whether the council is doing a good job. Sometimes, the associations disregard decisions made at the committees' AGMs. They are becoming remote, and the Minister should consider ways of encouraging those associations to become more involved in the community. I cite an example.

Possilpark in Springburn wanted, with the help of public grants, to take over Springburn public hall, which has lain derelict, to sandblast it, to do it up internally and to sell it to the private sector. I said that I did not mind a bit of it going to the private sector, but that as it was a public hall, surely it had some function for social activities such as weddings and dance classes, so that the community would get something back from the urban aid money put into the project.

I was told that the community would have a nice clean building and that the housing association would have its value added tax paid from the profit it made from the sale of the building. I could not convince the housing association that the real function of a community-based association was not always to have foremost in its mind the worry of getting wages for the staff and keeping the association going—it should be to ensure that the community got the best deal.

Flats are being built in my constituency, and everyone says that that is great, because Springburn has lain derelict and its planning has been in a state of decline. However, when one-bedroomed flats are sold for £42,000, it is not the 8,000 local unemployed people in my constituency who will buy them. If they are one-bedroomed flats, families will not buy them—at best, they will go to a couple.

The Minister has a responsibility through Scottish Homes to ensure that the committees are more accountable to the public whom they serve. The waiting list system is a puzzle to me. I have complained before that, when a constituent of mine asked to be put on the waiting list, she was told that the list was closed. She then discovered that her neighbour was put on the list a week later. When I inquired about that, I was told that the first constituent had tried to be put on the list on Monday the 22nd and that the neighbour tried on Tuesday 23rd, and on Tuesday the 23rd the list was reopened for a day.

That leads to abuse. I am not saying that anyone is dishonest, but if someone phones Jeannie to say that the list will be open first thing at 9 am, I know that Jeannie will try to put her name on the list. That is unfair to the person who, the day before, had appeared on the scene and wanted to put her name on the list. If public money is involved, everyone should have a fair chance. Nobody would tolerate the circumstances that I have described if a local authority were involved.

I welcome the private sector in places such as Springburn. I believe that there is room for everyone to be involved in housing, and that there should be a social mix. The private sector can always move quickly, and I am pleased that it has done so in the centre of my constituency in parts of Dennistown and in Portland Dash, where the famous Speirs wharf is being built. The people there might be in the high-income bracket and therefore not after council housing, but they bring in a population which can serve schools, churches and community groups, which can all benefit. I am happy to see the private sector coming in.

I do not want to stray wide of the subject of housing, but people from the private sector raise problems with me involving not only housing but planning in general. Developers often feel that, with the two-tier local authority system in Glasgow, sometimes they get—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Martin

I shall be brief now, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I have nearly finished.

Private developers often feel that, with the two-tier planning authority structure, they get permission from Glasgow district council to build houses, offices or commercial developments, only to discover that the region has called the plan in. Developers sometimes feel that it would be best to let the region consider the matter—perhaps it has a legitimate right to consider it—only to discover that the district council has appealed against the call-in, as it is legally entitled to.

If someone has £3 million to invest in property in my constituency, and the property market is fluctuating because of business rates, bank rates and all the rest, that person will be getting nervous. It would be understandable if such a developer decided to invest in a new town next time, not in a city with two planning authority structures. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind.

I finish by thanking you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your time, and the Minister for listening.

10.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) for having spoken effectively in the debate. I have greatly enjoyed visiting his constituency several times, and I know that he has taken a keen interest in housing, in seeing housing associations develop and in generally improving conditions for his constituents.

It will amuse the hon. Gentleman to know that a year or so ago, just before the end of the year, I was in a position to make a supplementary allocation of about £3 million. We ascertained that Glasgow could make full use of such a sum, so it was almost all given to that city. To my surprise, I saw in the evening paper the headline, "Insult to Glasgow". I read the article and suddenly realised that the award had been thought to be the main allocation, although it was only a supplementary allocation. I received an apology shortly afterwards.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall take the needs of Glasgow seriously into account. The city is the largest public sector landlord in western Europe, and has the biggest and most pressing problems. I do not wish the hon. Member to doubt that I see Glasgow as a great city. I have enormously enjoyed visiting it since I was a boy, when I used to be taken to the dentist there. The dentist was a lay preacher and I learnt much about Christianity when I had no chance to answer. The campaign, "Glasgow's Miles Better" has an enormous impact. The city has now been brought forward tremendously. Not only the People's Palace but the Burrell collection, the garden festival and a stream of other successes have put Glasgow firmly on the European map as a city of culture.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should concentrate not only on the problems of the merchant city but on the peripheral housing schemes—the hon. Gentleman mentioned specifically the problems of high rise flats. Many of the points that he covered are matters for the district council, and I have no doubt that it is acting on many of them.

Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie (Glasgow, Pollok)

What about money?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The hon. Gentleman asks about money. I will make available as many public sector resources as I possibly can, but if there is a shortfall between what is intended for the local communities concerned and 'what is available in public resources, all the other possible sources of funding need to be considered, including funding from housing associations—Scottish Homes—and the private sector. Let me give an example.

Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South)

I endorse all that the Minister says about the turn-around in Glasgow, which I also praise. I seek an assurance from him, however, that, given that he proposes to do all this for Glasgow, he will not take the money away from authorities such as Renfrew district, which not only have peripheral housing estates but which are on the periphery of Glasgow and should not be forgotten.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Last Thursday, I made an extra allocation of £128,000 to his district council. I realise that it was for environmental improvements, not in Foxbar but in Ferguslie Park, but I hope that the money will help, and we will bear the needs of Foxbar particularly in mind. I made the chairman of Scottish Homes aware of the visit that I paid with the hon. Gentleman to his constituency, and I am certain that the discussions on that matter will be taken forward.

We envisage the urban regeneration schemes developing much further, into smaller urban renewal initiatives of which there are now three in Scotland—Alloa, Kilmarnock and Falkirk. We hope that there will be three more before very long. The hon. Gentleman is quite right in saying that we must give additional attention to the peripheral housing schemes in his constituency and elsewhere in Scotland. The Greve report stressed the importance of looking at an empty property and considering the possibility of disposals and the housing association movement has a strong role to play.

The hon. Member for Springburn mentioned the valuable example of Speirs Wharf which, if not in his constituency, is on the edge of it. He is absolutely right. However, I stress that that project was undertaken not just between the district council and the SDA. It also involved Historic Scotland, which has given more than £12 million in grants to historic churches in Scotland and to historic buildings generally. Although it is a small part of the picture, if the hon. Gentleman has historic buildings in his constituency, he should contact that body. I am sure that his proposals will be considered sympathetically.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the position of the Gordon Highlander. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence made it clear earlier today that housing needs must be addressed—

Mr. Martin

Cameron Highlander.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

That is an important correction. I myself was a Cameronian, and that institution, too, was founded by a Cameron.

I regard the officials in Glasgow as giving a very good service. One example of the way in which they have excelled is to be found in the Hamish Allan centre for the homeless. When young people—or anyone with a problem that has caused them to be homeless—go there, they are really well treated. They are made to feel at home and there is no element of stigma attached to going to the centre. It is performing an extremely valuable role, and I believe that other councils in Scotland would be well advised to look at the excellence of the service that it has provided with a view to following its example. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have made an additional allocation to Glasgow in respect of homelessness projects and I believe that Glasgow is proceeding with such projects successfully and effectively.

The hon. Gentleman is obviously interested in what the local authority can do to help to enhance its resources. There are two things that it could do. If right-to-buy sales were processed within six months rather than 12, that would result in many hundreds of thousands of pounds extra coming into the system. Let me give the example of the rents-to-mortgages scheme: a quarter of all the expressions of interest have come from the Glasgow area. If a small number of tenants—say 50—buy under the rents-to-mortgages scheme, that will bring in £500,000 of receipts which will go an immense distance towards renewing the window frames in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. If one of the district council's priorities is to build houses, that is an absolutely legitimate aim; the council is entirely within its rights to pursue that aim—if it is the council's priority. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Dunnachie) must appreciate that one of the problems facing Glasgow is whether it should spread the funds available to it thinly or concentrate on specific upgradings. I understand that it is doing the latter and that is a matter for Glasgow and not for me.

With regard to housing associations, Glasgow has had spent on it almost half the total available for the whole of Scotland. It has had about £500 million spent on it. Much of that may have gone to the inner city, but that will spread outwards in future and will concentrate increasingly on peripheral housing schemes.

Mr. Dunnachie

What about the private sector?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I realise that there is a strong prejudice in Glasgow against the private rented sector, but I believe that the best landlord that a man can have is himself. If Glasgow wants to enhance its receipts, having a voluntary rents-to-mortgage scheme will undoubtedly improve the amount of funds that it can spend on its public sector stock.

Mr. Dunnachie

I have raised the matter before, but received no answer.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

That was about a completely different point on repair grants. I have written to the hon. Gentleman fully about that and, I understand, action has been taken.

This year, £82 million is being spent by Scottish Homes in Glasgow. In spite of that, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) calls for its abolition. That is seriously irresponsible. Scottish Homes is performing an extremely valuable role, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) has recognised. I believe that it should be strongly supported.

Mr. McMaster

I would not defend the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars). I want to refer to the use of capital receipts of the sale of houses to fund the ideas referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin). However, the arithmetic does not work out if we carry it to its logical conclusion. Where there is a diminishing housing stock and the best houses are sold and the loan debt must still be financed with fewer tenants, eventually all the council's receipts will be used to finance the loan debt which has not decreased.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that £1,600 million has been made available to spend on public sector stock as a result of right to buy sales. The receipt from right to buy is much higher than the outstanding debt on each house which varies from area to area. It may be £4,500 or £6,000. The average council house sale varies between £10,000 and £12,000, and that is well above the average outstanding debt in Scotland. The great strength of right to buy is that it benefits everyone, not just the aspiring tenant who wishes to own, but the public sector.

Scottish Homes has been spending those huge sums in Glasgow this year and it is also giving priority to homelessness projects and to urban regeneration initiatives. Such initiatives affect Castlemilk and North Forgewood in Motherwell. I believe that that role will increase. I am glad that the hon. Member for Springburn has struck up such a good relationship with Scottish Homes. His particular point on the whole is not so much a point for me as one for him to pursue with the chairman of Scottish Homes and at a local level. I hope that a suitable arrangement can be worked out.

Housing projects are successful where well-established agreements are worked out at community level. It would be easy for us to go faster, but if we did that we would not have the support of local communities, and the housing projects concerned would not stand the test of time.

I have mentioned that Glasgow can do a lot more to enhance receipts by shortening the processing time for council house sales and by considering a voluntary programme from rents to mortgage. I regard the other call that was recently made in Glasgow—again it was by the Scottish National party; I think that it was the hon. Member for Govan—that £976 million of capital debt should be written off as totally inappropriate. That sum would have to be raised either by extra taxation or through borrowing. It follows that any decision along those lines would have to be considered most carefully and would require legislation, and we have no such proposals.

As for resources to Glasgow, I must make it clear that, before we make allocations, we look first and foremost at Glasgow, because it is far and away the biggest public sector landlord not only in Scotland but in western Europe. Its needs are greatest and we must therefore look at them carefully. I receive complaints that too much is going to Glasgow and not enough is going to the rest of Scotland, but, objectively, the needs are greater. The hon. Member for Pollok is shaking his head. Needs are greater in Glasgow than in many other parts of Scotland. However much he is given, the hon. Gentleman will try for more. Whatever Government are in power, Glasgow will not get everything that it wants. It must make the best of the opportunities before it. The Greve report recommended the disposal of empty stock. I recommend that the possibilities should be effectively followed up.

On resources for this year, the provisional housing revenue account capital allocation of £92 million includes more than £4 million to honour commitments given to fund the costs of approved innovative projects in Castlemilk. Excluding that, the gross allocation gives the council an allocation of £616 per council house, which is above the Scottish average of £559. The council's net allocation of £60.5 million is 11 per cent. higher than the corresponding allocation for last year. That increase, together with resources of £60 million, which the council expects to draw from its covenant scheme, should enable the council to sustain its substantial capital programme.

Again I congratulate the hon. Member for Springburn on his success in the ballot. I also congratulate Glasgow on its many successes. I stress that Glasgow's success is in the interests of Scotland's success. I should like not only much better housing in Glasgow but more job opportunities in Glasgow. We must work for that as well.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Ten o'clock.