HC Deb 17 February 1994 vol 237 cc1161-8

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

10 pm

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

First, may I thank you, Madam Speaker, for allowing this debate to take place and for giving me the opportunity to draw the attention of the House to the serious problems being encountered by applicants for home improvement grants on Merseyside?

Let me first describe the genesis of the problem. Hon. Members may recall the massive 1960s and 1970s clearance programmes, when hundreds of thousands of homes were bulldozed, when communities were decimated and the heart was torn out of countless neighbourhoods. Family life was left in tatters as people were uprooted and scattered to overspill estates to which many did not want to go.

As a young city councillor in Liverpool in 1972, I was first elected for the Low Hill ward and fought my first election campaign on a pledge to stop the bulldozers in their tracks. When I became chairman of the city's housing committee in 1978, I was able to announce at my first committee meeting that we were pensioning off the bulldozer and to declare the largest ever housing action area programme in Britain. Thousands of homes in Liverpool were improved and many "Coronation Street" communities were given a new lease of life.

Since then, it has become axiomatic to declare a preference for renewal rather than demolition, so much so that, throughout the five district councils that comprise Merseyside, just 90 properties have been demolished in the past 12 months. Hon. Members in all parts of the House will embrace that principle.

No one expected all sub-standard housing to disappear overnight, but the hope was that homes would gradually be improved and that communities and neighbourhoods would be kept together.

On 29 November last year, a group of councillors and officials from the five district councils on Merseyside travelled to Westminster to bring me and other Merseyside Members of Parliament up to date with how those hopes are turning into fears.

Lest the Minister assume that I am making some narrow point, let me emphasise that the political representation was all-party and was of a very high calibre. The points I am raising tonight reflect that same all-party concern. They also reflect the concern of the local housing association movement. The Minister has had a copy of the representations from the housing associations and the local housing forum representing the five district councils.

Let me summarise the present position. Throughout the north-west, some 10 per cent. of housing stock is deemed to be unfit. On Merseyside the percentage is considerably higher—16.8 per cent. in Liverpool, 20 per cent. in Wirral and 23.5 per cent. in St. Helens. In addition, the local authorities estimate that a further 21.8 per cent. of properties across the country need renovation. Parliament lays a statutory duty on the local authorities to deal with unfit properties. We require them by law either to provide a renovation grant or to demolish an unfit property. Clearly, that requires resources.

Last year, the Government made available £32.5 million. The five local authorities, however, estimate that they need some £132.7 million to meet the duty that the House of Commons places on them. St. Helens requires £10.8 million; Sefton, £4.6 million; Knowsley, £5.3 million; Liverpool, £74 million; and Wirral, some £38 million. In other words, there is a shortfall of more than £100 million, and the local authorities are failing dramatically to discharge their responsibility to provide grants within six months of the application being received.

In fact, the waiting lists are so long that some families on Merseyside have been waiting a staggering eight years since their application for a house improvement grant was lodged. Constituents of mine living in Wavertree and other areas, such as Aigburth, Edge Hill, Kensington Fields and the Allerton road area, have been waiting for intolerably long periods to get grants for basic home improvements. The current average waiting time throughout the country is four years and five months.

My colleague, Councillor Frank Doran, the Kensington councillor and a member of Liverpool city council's housing committee, was told in answer to a question at]last month's city council meeting that, since 1990 in Liverpool, 12,360 inquiry forms and 3,559 tests of resources had been issued; 3,377 inquiries had been passed on for initial inspection; 2,153 applications had been determined as complete; and that only 25 initial inspections took place each week on average.

The current renovation grant regime is means-tested. As the Minister well knows, a new £20,000 ceiling applies to all mandatory grant applications submitted after 14 January. The information from the Greater Liverpool area underlines the fact that the majority of grants approved are going to the poorest households, living at or close to income support levels. In every authority, the majority of grants went to people who were unable to make, a contribution: in St. Helens, 54 per cent.; Sefton, 73 per cent.; Knowsley, 67 per cent.; Wirral, 60 per cent.; and Liverpool, 75 per cent. Those figures represent people applying for house improvement grants who were unable to make a contribution, such were their incomes.

Now that the £20,000 limit has been imposed, undoubtedly the poorest people living in the worst housing will be the most adversely affected. Last year, 31 per cent. of people in St. Helens, 4 per cent. in Sefton, 3 per cent. in Knowsley, 18 per cent. in Liverpool and 18 per cent. in Wirral, all received grants above the £20,000 limit, such was the extent and cost of the work that needed to be done. Those families, who have to apply for grants higher than the new mandatory limit, will not be able to find the resources to fund the additional work that is required.

That acute situation has been made even worse by the Government's notification of funding levels for housing renewal in the current financial year. Across Merseyside, specified capital grant levels have been cut by 23 per cent. in one authority and, at worst, 40 per cent. in another, with average cuts of 29.4 per cent. across the county. Yet, paradoxically, at the time when those cuts are being made in funds for housing in the area, the European Community has given the area the dubious status of an objective 1 region.

The casual observer might be excused some cynicism in contemplating cuts of nearly a third in the money available for house improvement grants, and cuts of £17 million in Liverpool alone in funds for day-to-day programmes, at the very moment when we are being assured that the area's pressing needs will be recognised and addressed.

I am also disappointed that, in a letter sent to me today, the Minister's colleague the Earl of Arran has refused to meet the same delegation that came here to meet the cross-party group of Members of Parliament, and to listen to their arguments. That simply will not do. I am grateful to the Minister for being present this evening; I hope that he will assure me that his door is open, and that he will be prepared to meet the delegation to discuss these serious problems.

Some 12,388 renovation grants are now restricted by lack of finance on Merseyside—879 in St. Helens, 731 in Sefton, 925 in Knowsley, 5,148 in Wirral and 4,705 in Liverpool. That backlog will continue to grow. Homes will again have to be demolished as the spectre of new demolition and new clearance programmes appears on the horizon.

In 1989, the Government recognised the need for a more strategic approach by introducing housing renewal areas; I welcomed that at the time. Eight renewal areas were declared on Merseyside—11 per cent. of the total throughout the country. But, because home improvement grants are demand-led, councils are debarred from directing their limited funds to those areas. The result is "pepperpotting", and a consequential patchwork quilt with dereliction on one side and renovation on the other. In the same street, a beautifully improved home may be cheek by jowl with a derelict eyesore.

In Liverpool alone, there are more than 7,000 empty properties in the private sector, many in need of improvement. The renewal areas, therefore, are an embarrassment. Virtually none of the grants are even going to properties in those areas. The failure to target specific neighbourhoods contrasts sharply with the successful experience of the housing action areas and housing action trusts in the public sector. I hope that the Minister will consider that in the review of procedures that is currently under way.

I was brought up in a home without basic amenities. Over the 21 years in which I have represented people in Liverpool—either as a councillor, or in the 15 years for which I have had the privilege to represent them in the House—I have seen the misery that bad housing can create; but I have also seen the radical improvements in people's lives that home improvements can bring. No end of men with building skills are currently unemployed: we should match their skills with people's needs, and tackle the decay of perfectly good housing before it is too late.

10.12 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) on securing the debate, and on his commitment to his constituency. I do not entirely agree with all his figures, but I do entirely agree that we must make much better use of the housing stock that we already have—whether it is in the private or the public sector, and whether it is on Merseyside or elsewhere. I also agree that we must seek to improve both private and public housing stock that is in poor condition.

It may be helpful to set the hon. Gentleman's concerns in context. In September last year, the English house condition survey of 1991 was published. That survey represents the most up-to-date information available on unfit dwellings. The introduction of the 1991 data has made it clear that significant changes have taken place in the distribution of unfit dwellings.

The survey showed that, after allowance had been made for the change in definition of the fitness standard, there had been a reduction in the number of unfit dwellings across the country, and that that reduction had not taken place evenly. In the context of this debate, it is worth noting that areas such as Merseyside—which had significant concentrations of unfit dwellings in 1986—showed a much greater improvement in conditions than areas with lower levels of unfitness.

Therefore, although I fully appreciate the hon. Gentleman's worries, I think that one should not lose sight of the fact that there has been a significant improvement in housing in Liverpool between the last survey and the most recent English housing conditions survey.

That improvement in housing conditions was largely due to the effective targeting and investment of resources. Between 1986 and 1991, about £100 million of public money was spent on private sector renewal in Merseyside—not public sector, only private sector renewal—and that has had a direct effect on the reduction in unfitness.

Moreover, people's homes today are generally better equipped, better heated, better insulated and in a better state of repair than ever before. Those improvements resulted partly from building new homes and partly from demolishing the worst homes, but mainly from investment by public and private landlords, and especially by individual home owners in the improvement of their own homes. I am sure that the hon. Member will have seen for himself—as I have—the great improvements that have been made in many parts of Merseyside: for example, in Kirkby and Stockbridge Village in Knowsley, the Vauxhall area of north Liverpool and many of the estate action areas such as Netherley and Belle Vale.

Although those improvements are welcome, I acknowledge that there is more to be done to improve homes that are still in poor condition. I readily acknowledge that, for someone who lives in housing that is in poor condition, it is of little consolation to be told by a Minister that much has been done elsewhere. However, in the private sector, that must, in the first instance, be the responsibility of home owners. It is up to us, in the Government, to ensure that public spending is used to tackle the worst conditions and, in both the private and social rented sectors, resources are being targeted more effectively exactly to do that—to tackle the housing that requires that help most.

It is worth noting that the housing conditions survey shows that many households in the worst owner-occupied stock are not on low incomes, so the new emphasis on housing investment programme strategies will provide the right framework. Private sector renovation is already focusing on the worst housing and on those people most in need and, in the social rented sector, estate action and housing action trusts, such as the one in Liverpool, are tackling the worst social housing problems.

In 1991–92, a total of £17.5 million of capital grant was made available by the Government to the Merseyside authorities towards the costs of renovation grants to improve privately owned properties. In the event, the Merseyside authorities spent £20.6 million. All those figures are large because all the figures in relation to Liverpool and Merseyside are large, but they spent £20.6 million. In 1992–93, we made available £19.3 million and in that year the authorities spent £23.5 million of grant. So, as they had spent more than had been anticipated, the Merseyside authorities were given an extra allocation of grant, totalling £2.65 million. In the current year, the grant allocation was £19.54 million, and the local authorities' estimate of spend is £24 million.

The Government have already met 95 per cent. of the difference by giving extra allocations. The point is that the amounts of money allocated to Liverpool in particular and to Merseyside authorities in general have been substantial. Year on year, the authorities have overrun their allocations, but, even so, they have received extra help in recognition of their needs. Indeed, the resources have enabled 20,000 Merseyside homes to be improved. Let me explain how that worked this year for the city of Liverpool.

Liverpool was given a grant guideline of £9.99 million for 1993–94. Its estimate for the full year's spending sent to the Department on the claim form last October was £13.85 million. On the face of it, that suggests a potential shortfall of £3.86 million. The Government have already responded: in December last year, an extra supplementary credit approval totalling £3.57 million—almost 93 per cent. of that potential shortfall—was made available. That was the largest allocation to any authority in the country.

Many millions of pounds were allocated to meet the local authority's needs and an extra supplementary credit approval was also granted. That is the action of a Government committed to meeting the demand for grant support in Liverpool and across Merseyside and responding to the very needs to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Local authorities are always concerned that resources for next year may not be as great as they were. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the whole House will be aware that there is pressure on public spending. Clearly, local authority capital spending cannot be immune from such pressure. Nevertheless, £20 million has again been set aside for 1994–95 to add to sums from underspending authorities elsewhere in the country in order to allocate extra money most effectively to those authorities where demand is greatest—undoubtedly those such as Liverpool.

Mr. Alton

As the Minister has challenged some of my figures, may I draw to his attention a letter from John Simm, assistant manager of private sector initiatives of St. Helens borough council? He writes: The problems we face have recently become more acute in light of the recent notification of levels of funding for this activity for financial year 1994–95. Across Merseyside Specified Capital Grant levels have been cut at best by 23 per cent. in one authority and at worst by 40 per cent. in another, with average cut of 29.4 per cent. across the region. Surely the Minister accepts that, given such dramatic reductions in the money available, it is inevitable that many houses will not be improved. That will be a cost on the public sector in future when homes are demolished and people have to be rehoused.

Mr. Baldry

As I have already said, it is clear that, year on year, we are, and have been, investing considerable sums in supporting private sector refurbishment and renovation in Liverpool and all of Merseyside. Notwithstanding the pressures on public spending, we have this year alone set aside a further £20 million which will, of course, be added to the sums from authorities that do not spend their full quota.

That money will be allocated for extra resources to local authorities that have the greatest needs. It is not unreasonable to infer that, as Liverpool has tended to have the largest allocation of such funding for private house renewal investment, it will have a not insignificant share of any further such investment. We are talking about significant sums overall.

We have also recognised some of the funding pressures that arise from the current system of mandatory renovation grants. That current system has been monitored carefully since its introduction in July 1990. We issued a consultation paper last summer on various possible changes to improve the system.

Not surprisingly, because it is a matter of considerable interest, the paper attracted more than 400 responses, and I am well aware of the keen interest of the Merseyside private sector forum and its strongly held views about resources—views which the hon. Member has fairly reflected this evening—about the benefits of a targeted approach and about standards, and the range of suggestions in its response to the consultation exercise. Its views are being carefully considered, and I would expect a further announcement about longer-term changes to the mandatory renovation grant system to be made shortly.

The hon. Member will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction announced some short-term changes last November. There were three options to consider: a reduction in the grant limit, changes to the means test and a reduction in the level of Exchequer support.

There was widespread support for a reduction in the grant limit, although there was reluctance to see changes in the means test regulations or a reduction in the level of Exchequer support. That is understandable, and I think that it would probably be the case in any context, but, in the spirit of the consultation exercise, the grant limit for mandatory renovation and disabled facilities grant was reduced from £50,000 to £20,000, which means that the money available can be allocated to more homes for more families; but the level of grant support and the means lest were left unchanged.

It is also important to put the amount of money that is being invested in the private sector in Liverpool into the context of the full range of housing activity on Merseyside that the Government are supporting, since it might be thought that the figures that I have mentioned so far are the totality of Government's support for housing on Merseyside; that is not the case.

We are investing in and supporting many housing initiatives in Merseyside. For example, the estate action programme has enabled large sums of money to come to the area. Over the past three years alone, over £100 million has gone into improving nearly 20,000 local authority dwellings, and many more millions from the private sector and from housing associations have contributed to the dramatic improvement of many estates across the area. The hon. Member will be familiar with many of the estates in Liverpool that have benefited.

I am also glad to see that the estate action program me has encouraged many tenants, especially in areas of Liverpool, to get together and work towards managing their own estates. We have already seen the first tenant-management co-operative in the Colwell area of Liverpool, and there are other groups there and in the Wirral that are developing plans for estate management boards.

The hon. Member mentioned the HAT—the housing action trust—and he was right to do so because Liverpool has the largest HAT in the country. It has taken over 67 high-rise blocks in the city, a total of 5,337 homes. Several of those blocks are in the hon. Member's constituency. A very large sum of money will be needed to improve the flats and the living conditions in them and to put in place a better management service, and we have made it perfectly clear that large sums of money will be made available.

For example, this year alone, an allocation of £16 million has been made. Most of it is being used to achieve the HAT's immediate priority of catching up on outstanding repairs. That is a £20 million two-year programme to ensure that all the homes are warm, secure and watertight. Such a programme is a considerable commitment by the Government.

We also have the Merseyside development corporation, which has played an important role in supporting the provision of new homes for both rent and sale. It has provided land, cleared and prepared for development, which has enabled opportunities for new-build schemes. In north Liverpool, the continuing redevelopment of the Vauxhall area through private developers, housing associations and housing co-operatives is extremely welcome. The Eldonian housing co-operative development, for example, on the old Tate and Lyle site is not only well but flourishing.

I also emphasise a special allocation for Merseyside, again supported by the Government. In the current year, that special allocation—it is unique in the country because no area other than Merseyside has it—totalled £20 million and it has been used to take on empty local authority stock in poor condition and improve it for rent. In Liverpool, the vacant stock initiative is tackling 1,300 properties by refurbishing or converting vacant houses and flats for sale or for rent through housing associations.

Merseyside has also secured three city challenge areas. It means over £110 million of spending power over a five-year period.

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.