HL Deb 05 December 1991 vol 533 cc387-91

7.5 p.m.

Viscount Astor rose to move that the draft order laid before the House on 21st October be approved [1st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, this is the second order designating a housing action trust. The House approved the order for the North Hull housing action trust in July. At that time, the ballot for the proposed housing action trust in Waltham Forest was about to start. The proposal was overwhelmingly approved and I am therefore delighted to be able to commend this order to the House.

The draft order relates to four estates in the London Borough of Waltham Forest: Boundary Road, Cathall Road, Chingford Hall and Oliver Close. All four illustrate the problems of the system-built housing constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. There are major design and structural problems with the buildings themselves, which consist of tower blocks, with extensive podium areas on two of the estates, and all are large panel concrete constructions. There are also major social and economic problems: high rates of unemployment, substantial numbers of tenants on housing benefit and/or income support and problems of crime and fear of crime. There is certainly also scope to improve the housing management.

A great deal of work has already been done to consider the best way of tackling the physical problems of the estates. The London Borough of Waltham Forest has studied alternative options to refurbish the estates or to demolish and rebuild them with low rise housing on a traditional street pattern. It is quite clear there is no "do nothing" option. In a major consultation exercise in 1988, the council succeeded in contacting more than 80 per cent. of the tenants, over 90 per cent. of whom supported complete redevelopment.

Following discussions with the then Minister with responsibility for housing, the council and the tenants agreed to consider the possibility of a housing action trust. The necessary feasibility studies were undertaken in 1990, together with extensive consultation with representatives of the tenants.

When I commended the Hull order to the House, I said: The essence of the HAT is a good working relationship between all interested parties". [Official Report, 10/7/91; col. 1461.] I emphasised the key role of the tenants, who have to be willing to vote for the HAT to enable it to go ahead. That depends on a full process of consultation before the ballot and of participation afterwards in the work of the HAT.

I am pleased to be able to report to the House that all this has been fully reflected in Waltham Forest both before and since the ballot. My department and the chairman of the shadow HAT, John Chumrow, have worked closely with the tenants' steering groups for each estate and the joint steering group at which tenants from all four estates come together. This partnership led to production of a tenants' expectations document, setting out what tenants would wish to see a HAT do and how they would wish it to work. This document, happily christened TED, was signed by my honourable friend the Minister, Sir George Young, the shadow chairman and the tenants in April.

This was the basis for the ballot, which took place in July. On a 75 per cent. turnout on the four estates, there was an 81 per cent. vote overall in favour of the HAT, ranging from 69 per cent. in favour on Boundary Road to 84 per cent. on Cathall Road.

I know that the chairman of the HAT is keen to maintain this close working relationship with the steering groups as well as with individual tenants. Since the ballot, constructive discussions have continued and tenants have attended shadow board meetings.

A shadow board of six members has been appointed, with John Chumrow as chairman, and five other members with experience of housing, management and consultancy. The Minister announced yesterday in another place his intention to appoint Councillor David Shepherd, the council's nominee, in the near future.

The Government have also agreed that the remaining four members should be residents, one from each estate. Ballots are currently taking place to select nominees for my right honourable friend, the Secretary of State to consider. I hope the full hoard will be appointed before Christmas with the all important inclusion of the four residents.

This is a major investment by the Government in redeveloping rundown estates. We will be spending £170 million over eight years in the Waltham Forest HAT. The Government's HAT programme is fast gathering speed. We already have Hull and Waltham Forest will be the second HAT. Discussions are in hand with Liverpool, Tower Hamlets and Brent. My honourable friend the Minister will soon make a statement in another place on the programme as a whole. The designation of the Waltham Forest HAT is a key step in that programme, and I commend the draft order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 21st October be approved [1st Report from the Joint Committee].—(Viscount Astor.)

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I do not for one moment intend to oppose the order that is before us. I am grateful for the Minister's detailed explanation of the events that have occurred so far. However, the tenants that are now having to opt for HATs are rather like a person who enters a restaurant and finds there i; only one item on the menu. Therefore he is obliged to choose that item; there is no alternative.

The Minister referred to system-built houses. I believe I was the first Member in another place to initiate a debate on system-built houses and the disasters they had turned out to be. For my sins I was the person who coined the term "forts" in relation to the system-built dwellings in Manchester. Successive governments, both Labour and Conservative, had caused those dwellings to be built. Those developments were purely concrete jungles.

It would be easy for me just to say that I accept this order and then sit down. However, I believe I should comment further on these appalling developments. A long time ago local authorities should have been given the financial means to tackle these developments. It is not insignificant that the first time a local authority was allocated funds to tackle these developments occurred not as a result of my debate in the House of Commons but after a plea was made by a Conservative Member of another place. Unfortunately he is no longer with us. Certain financial arrangements were made by the Government on that occasion as a result of that plea.

During the debate on system-built dwellings in another place, I obtained the full support of a Member who was then on the Back-Benches. I obtained the support of Mr. Christopher Patten who is the present chairman of the Conservative Party. Mr. Patten pleaded for another kind of system-built dwelling to be incluied in any grants that were to be allocated.

At that time tenants had already started to buy some of the system-built dwellings. Some of my then constituents in the Leeds West constituency had bought those dwellings but found at a later stage they could not sell them. One block of dwellings was known as the Smith houses and another block was known as the area houses. I do not have the entire list with me at the moment. The Government introduced a system under which a maximum grant of about £9,000 was allowed to any tenant who had bought a particular type of system-built dwelling, to enable him to carry out the extensive remedial treatment that such a dwelling required.

In another place I referred to the unfairness of that system. I believe this matter has also been mentioned in your Lordships' House. I said it was unfair that council house tenants who remained tenants in system-built houses did not have access to the grant. Local authorities such as Leeds or Manchester that wished to improve the system-built dwellings still under their control had to bear the full cost of that through the housing revenue account. That meant such local authorities would have to use the rents paid by council house tenants to pursue such a course of action.

The Minister said this is the second HAT and that the programme is fast gathering speed. That is like saying I can run as fast as an Olympic sprinter. The Waltham Forest HAT is only the second HAT to be established over a long period. There is no indication of a rush of HAT programmes. Some people are deciding to choose that option because it is the only option on the table. The Minister said that over £100 million will be spent over a given period on this measure. Dare I suggest that if local authorities with system-built housing developments had been allowed access to finance on that scale, we would not have needed HATs in the first place?

I have tried to trace a little of the history of system-built dwellings. When I go to the station in Manchester I pass a development that is known as Fort Ardwick. There is also a development known as Fort Beswick. Those two developments between them constitute 2,000 units of accommodation, but they are totally empty. Nevertheless, they are still a burden on the other council house tenants in Manchester who have not received a penny from this Government to recompense them for the blunders that successive governments have made with the housing subsidy structure.

The right honourable Member for Morley and South Leeds, Mr. Merlyn Rees, had a system-built development known as Hunslet Grange in his constituency. That has now been demolished, but I understand it is still a burden on the housing revenue account in Leeds. It is a burden to the tune of over three-quarters of a million pounds per year. That sum will have to be paid until the 60 year loan period has passed. I do not have exact figures but I believe that Manchester is presently having to find £3 to £4 million a year—funded by its present council house tenants—to cover expenses on its system-built dwellings. Every city has these developments. Sheffield, Liverpool and every other major city has this type of dwelling which should never have been built. These developments are empty and in some cases have been demolished.

The Government have once again produced a programme that I would term an acceptable gimmick. People are grabbing at that gimmick because there is nothing else on the menu. I have spoken for a little longer than Lexpected to do. However, I was involved in this matter from its beginning. From the very beginning I was opposed to system-built dwellings. I have been proved right. All we in Manchester asked for was the finance to refurbish these dwellings. The Government have taken this action rather late in the day.

I welcome the fact that some people are opting for HATs because it is obvious from the Autumn Statement on finance and the Secretary of State for Scotland's Statement in the other place yesterday that there will be no extra money for housing in Scotland. I believe that the same problem must to some extent exist in Scotland.

Having put on the record why I believe that this situation could have been avoided, I accept the proposals which the Government have put forward today because there is nothing else on the table. If the Government wanted people in local authority housing to be treated properly, instead of going through all the nonsense of HATs, they could have solved the problem more quickly by allowing authorities which have run-down accommodation with poor facilities the finance to get on with the job of bringing that accommodation up to acceptable standards. If they had done that this exercise involving HATs would have been unnecessary.

Having said that I have no desire to oppose the order the Minister has placed before the House.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord's support for the order. I fully understand his anxieties about housing. In no way do the Government disagree with much of what he has said. That is why we are taking this action.

It was a little unfair of the noble Lord, Lord Dean, to say that housing action trusts are a gimmick. Spending £170 million over eight years is not a gimmick. It is the result of genuine concern.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, my point is not that that is a gimmick; denying local authorities access to money to deal with the problem before HATs became necessary is what I regard as a gimmick.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I apologise if I misunderstood the noble Lord. It is important to note that housing action trusts are not concerned solely with the expenditure of public money. They represent a fresh approach to the development and management of very difficult estates, which involves partnership with tenants and all those concerned.

We invited local authorities to put proposals to the department on HATs at the end of September and we are considering other proposals. It is important to note that our policy towards these very difficult estates is not just a question of money; it is a question of a fresh approach. That is what we intend with the HATs.

On Question, Motion agreed to.