HC Deb 06 May 1971 vol 816 cc1805-16

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

11.38 p.m.

Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Middleton and Prestwich)

I am most grateful for the opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the problems which are experienced in connection with the Langley Estate in my constituency. I do not imply that Langley is a problem area, to be looked on with condescension or pity. People there would not thank anyone for that, and, indeed, it would be a travesty of the truth. It is just that the people living on the Langley Estate have been placed in a situation which presents many difficulties. Other hon. Members who have similar housing estates in their constituencies may well find in their own experience an echo of the matters which I have to relate.

Langley is an overspill housing estate built in Middleton by the Manchester Corporation. It is one of a number of housing estates which have been planned to cope with the city's enormous slum clearance programme. Apart from some private development which need not concern us here and which is not significant in totality, the estate comprises, in the main, 4,800 corporation dwellings accommodating between 16,000 and 17,000 people. There are one main and three sub-shopping centres, and letting commenced in 1953.

That is a prosaic description of the Langley Estate. The overspill concept must have seemed at the outset a quite reasonable solution to Manchester's problem. Theoretically, it was straightforward enough, but in practice it has led to entirely novel problems. I believe that these problems have been overlooked so far by the central Government.

In actuality, Langley is a huge transit camp, which has not become fully integrated with Middleton. It elects councillors to the Middleton Council. It pays rents to Manchester. For many people coming from the slum and twilight areas of the old Manchester, finding the rent looms largest in their lives. This orientates them naturally to Manchester Corporation. They are Mancunians. Many still work in Manchester and, therefore, there are few pressures on them or their families to think in terms of being Middletonians.

Langley is a huge transit camp because the system militates against it becoming a stable community. As children grow up and marry, their expectation is not to be able to live in the area in which they were brought up. The likelihood is that they will have to go to another part of Middleton or elsewhere. The house on which they may have their eye is required for another family on Manchester's long waiting list. As one clergyman on the estate has said to me, when he shakes hands with a young couple after he has married them, he is saying goodbye.

I quite understand Manchester's point of view in such a case, but I still have to ask how a settled community can be expected to emerge in such conditions. There is no steady second and third generation build-up. The result is a constantly shifting society which tends not to generate many leaders.

From this basic position there are other consequences which are unsatisfactory. Head teachers have complained that the schools in the district fail to show a rising level of achievement as each year goes by. Improvement is naturally what they would expect. They regard it as helpful to the sound development of a school that children should be coming to the same place that their parents attended. Equally, there is likely to be more interest on the part of parents in a school if it is one with which they themselves have had some direct contact. The absence of such interest is suspected to be one of the basic causes for the high level of truancy on the Langley Estate, and truancy is seen by many of the social workers as the pathway to delinquency.

A tremendous amount of social work is required on the estate. It is provided not only by the officially appointed social workers but also by the nuns from the Assumption Convent. I have the highest admiration for the selfless work they do, in love and devotion, to help the people on the estate. Yet this is not enough, because head teachers, doctors, councillors and the police all find themselves involved in what is essentially social work. In ordinary circumstances a lot of this help would come from within the family or from close relatives, but arrangements on the estate militate against any such thing. Families are inevitably dispersed by the system.

In the short time that I have been a Member of the House, I have been deeply disturbed by the number of cases in which elderly people who find it increasingly difficult to look after themselves are seeking to be near a son or daughter somewhere in Manchester, and yet, despite the Manchester Housing Department's best and often extremely sympathetic efforts, some transfers take a long time to achieve.

This sort of situation will not improve whilst Langley remains, in effect, a transit area. As a family moves into Langley, the mother, dealing with her child, will find that inhibiting factors which she has normally called in aid have been left behind. Previously she may have kept her small son under control by threatening to tell granny, auntie or uncle about misbehaviour. This possibility is now removed and the community, being unsettled, offers no alternative restraints.

The same can be said of delinquency and crime. It is no particular deterrent to a young person that his conduct may be reported in the pages of the Middleton Guardian. He is amongst strangers and Langley residents do not regard the Guardian as their paper. The resulting crime rate, although not high by national standards, is higher than for the rest of Middleton, and the local police relate this to the lack of stability in the community.

In government and control Langley falls between Manchester and Middleton, and I do not believe that this split can be right. First, Langley is not being developed as an integral part of Middleton, and, second, Manchester is too remote to understand some of the day-to-day problems. Langley people come as Mancunians. Although certain services are provided by Middleton, everything to do with their house and home has to be taken up with Manchester. So what concerns them most, inevitably, orientates them towards Manchester. With new families arriving all the time, what prospect is there that Langley will ever become or see itself as part of Middleton?

This situation provokes a reaction from the remainder of Middleton. They also see Langley as a separate entity and do not always look on the inhabitants of Langley too kindly. Langley gets accorded a certain reputation, fairly or unfairly, and maybe it assimilates with its reputation. There is nothing to draw people from other parts of Middleton to Langley, and a division therefore exists in the town, and this is unhealthy for the town.

A tribute should be paid to the many people in civic life who have tried valiantly to break down this division, but I fear that the system is against them. The second aspect of dual control is that in many respects Manchester is cut off from Langley. People do not elect representatives to Manchester City Council. No one sitting in the Manchester Council Chamber has the sole purpose of looking after the interests of the people of Langley. Therefore, it falls to Middleton councillors, without the direct access to Manchester, to do their best to speak for their Langley electors at meetings, inevitably non-regular, with representatives of the Manchester City Council or Housing Committee. With the best will in the world, it is hard to remove an element of confrontation from such occasions and the psychology governing the meetings is all wrong.

What sort of thing happens in practice on the Langley Estate? Let us take the matter of rent collection. It is Manchester's practice to collect rents fortnightly. For a long time the City Council has failed to recognise that there are many householders which have real difficulty in budgeting over a two-week period. Here is a human problem of which authority has taken no cognisance for a long time. The consequence is that assistance to these families has come from the Little Sisters of the Assumption, social workers, and even probation officers, who have gone round collecting rent money weekly, thus putting it out of spending reach until it is time for the rent man to call.

I know that some people find it hard to believe that such a problem could exist, but the problem does exist. Belatedly now, Manchester is making a rent office available on the estate at which rents can be paid. This will only partially relieve the problem.

There are also many people living at Langley who are entitled to social security payments of one sort or another. The offices to which they are sometimes required to go are now, through a process of rationalisation and reorganisation, spread far apart. The journey often requires two buses. This is a real handicap for mothers with small children and for the elderly. Unless we can get to grips with these everyday difficulties, how can we ever improve the quality of living for this minority of our citizens?

My purpose in bringing these matters to the attention of the House is to illustrate as graphically as I can the kind of sociological problems which can occur on overspill estates, and which have occurred in full measure on the Langley Estate. In a Written Answer at the end of last year my hon. Friend said that he did not think that there was a need for an inquiry into such problems. I hope to be able to persuade him that both in scope and magnitude they most certainly merit investigation, and that such an investigation should take place before local government reorganisation.

It is easy enough to state that the problems could be solved by the Middleton Borough Council taking over full responsibility for Langley. Indeed, they could, but this would overlook two essential points. First, the financial scale of such an operation would be entirely beyond Middleton's means. Second, Manchester still has a severe housing shortage, which it is trying its hardest to overcome.

However, with local government reorganisation in the air a fresh possibility arises. Middleton with Langley will find itself undoubtedly in a new metropolitan district. Manchester will form a separate and neighbouring metropolitan district. Both will be related to the same metropolitan county. Amidst all this change there is bound to be some reallocation of assets. The opportunity should be taken to bring all local authority housing stock under the control of the metropolitan district in which it is geographically situated. There could be an agreement between the two metropolitan districts, the one containing Middleton and Langley and the other containing Manchester, that the former will have so many families each year for rehousing from the latter, but these people could be dispersed wherever suitable in the receiving metropolitan district and not just concentrated into one area, with the difficulties I have tried to outline. They would be fitting into more established areas throughout the metropolitan district, and Langley would have the opportunity gradually to acquire its own roots.

I believe that this would be the best of all worlds. A unique opportunity to put such a plan into effect is at hand. Langley would then cease to think of itself, or be thought of, as in any way an under-privileged area. I await my hon. Friend's comments with interest. Middleton may be a place to the far north of here, but I hope that he will demonstrate that his Department understands our problems.

11.53 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Paul Channon)

The whole House will agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Mr. Haselhurst) has done us a service tonight by raising this extremely important matter about overspill. Having known him some 15 years, I am not at all surprised by his devotion to his constituency and his keen efforts to deal with the problems of his constituents by raising such matters.

I well understand my hon. Friend's concern for the well-being of his constituents who live on the Langley Estate. I understand, too, his desire that in the reform of local government an opportunity should be taken to create a situation in which their local government services can, if possible, be improved. I know that my hon. Friend has been concerned for some time with the problems that arise for people living in overspill housing estates, and particularly with their relationship with the local authority in whose areas the estates have been sited.

I certainly would not deny that difficulties can arise. It is true that a tenant in an overspill estate not owned by the council of the area in which it is situated is at a potential disadvantage as compared with the ordinary council tenant who can go to his own councillor, because the local councillor to whom he would normally go is not a member of the landlord authority. This was one of the factors in the mind of the then Minister when the Town Development Act, 1952 was passed.

But not all overspill development falls within that Act. There are also the new towns and the many overspill estates built by housing authorities under their normal housing powers, of which the Langley Estate is one. It is one of a number where the houses have been built and are owned and managed by the Manchester Corporation outside the city. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) also represents one of them.

I am sure that hon. Members will not wish to be over-critical of this form of development in principle. It has gone on for many years and has been of great help in providing relief for our overcrowded and hard-pressed larger towns.

The basic problem with which we are concerned tonight is, in a sense, the same, whether the chosen method of meeting the housing problems of one of our larger cities is through the New Towns Act, the Town Development Act or, as in this case, the Housing Act. It is to create conditions in which people uprooted from familiar surroundings can make a new life in a new community to which they can quickly feel that they belong.

It is not an easy matter. In a way, the special machinery of the new towns and the town expansion schemes makes solutions easier, though we know that there have been criticisms of lateness in the provision of social and recreational facilities in new towns. Whatever the machinery, it is essentially a matter of good will and co-operation between the authorities and the people who live on the estate.

A sub-committee of the Central Housing Advisory Committee published a Report in 1967 on the Needs of New Communities. The point was made in it that in certain ways it was difficult to distinguish between the different types of new communities. It went on to say that the assessment of the social needs and the planning and provision of the necessary services and facilities are in many respects the same as those in new and expanding towns.

The report also shows how such developments vary enormously in the range and quality of their community facilities. Some of the best certainly equal the new towns, while some of the worst are real social deserts. I imagine that my hon. Friend has seen this Report. If he has not, I will gladly send him a copy.

I do not wish to try to put the Langley Estate into any particular category. I do not think that in this kind of problem it is right to try to set general standards or categories, because the right solutions will vary depending on the many different locations and circumstances of these so-called overspill estates.

There is a great need for close and willing co-operation between the local authorities concerned. There will usually be three of them; the urban authority with the housing problem which builds and owns the houses, and the local and county councils in whose area the development is situated. In Langley, there is the Manchester Corporation, the provider and owner of the houses; there is Middleton Borough Council, which is responsible for local services; and there is the Lancashire County Council, which is the education authority. The Langley Estate is a very large one, developed by Manchester Corporation largely between 1952 and 1968 and with a population now of some 20,000—over one-third of the population of Middleton.

In this kind of situation, it would be surprising if there were not problems, and my hon. Friend is right to say that there have been. I am sure that none of the authorities concerned would claim that the situation is perfect. But it is fair to say that they have done a good deal to provide for the social and recreational needs of the people living on the Langley Estate. There is a liaison committee, consisting of members of the Manchester Corporation and the Middleton Borough Council, which was set up to consider problems and complaints relating to the estate. There is close and continuous liaison at officer level.

I believe that, through these arrangements, some provision has been made for second-generation families, the importance of which my hon. Friend was right to emphasise. I understand that Middleton is now satisfied with the arrangements which have been made for securing the allocation of tenancies to the children of families who have moved to Middleton from Manchester and who have grown to adulthood there. I am sure that that is a matter of crucial importance. It is never an easy matter, given the conflict of need which is bound to arise between the exporting and receiving areas. I hope that the arrangements agreed between the authorities in this case will secure a marked improvement. There is also a community centre and a health centre, following a detailed survey of the estate by the Lancashire County Council in the 1950s, and there are a number of other facilities, details of which I do not have time to give tonight.

I give all this information not to deny that there are problems. There are. I do it to show that the authorities concerned have made and are making efforts to see that the people who live on the estate can feel part of the local com- munity and do not need to look backwards to Manchester. I accept that the success of these efforts may be limited so far, but I do not think that this is a situation where one can expect problems to be solved overnight. Perhaps one encouraging feature is that a resident of the estate has already been Mayor of Middleton.

It is absolutely crucial that there should be the provision of a suitable range of social and recreational facilities, especially for young people. It is, I am sure, most important for fostering good behaviour.

My hon. Friend chided me for saying in the Answer I gave him on 8th December, 1970, that I did not think that an inquiry into the special problems of overspill estates was necessary. Perhaps I could just expand a little on that. First, my hon. Friend mentioned rent collection. He says that the tenants would like to pay weekly, and I understand that. This is a question which has been studied. It has been said that the collection of rent fortnightly is economical and that where it has been introduced the evidence is that there has been no significant increase in arrears. I hope that will be true in Langley and that the new rent office will make a substantial difference in the way these matters are conducted on the estate.

The Centre for Urban and Regional Studies at Birmingham University is engaged on the wider study of sociological problems. In 1967 it received a Government grant from the Social Science Research Council to enable a start to be made in a study of the planning of new communities, initially in three, Redditch, Tamworth, and Chelmsley Wood, a very large peripheral urban development by Birmingham, This was followed in 1968 by a further grant for a three-year research project entitled "The Planning Process and the Development of New Communities". I am sure that when it is complete the results will be of help in approaching the real problems we are discussing tonight.

I was very interested in my hon. Friend's remarks about the effect which local government reorganisation will make in dealing with the problems he has described this evening. My hon. and radical as the Board. The fate of the Will have their attention drawn to what has been said tonight.

As my hon. Friend knows, we consider that a metropolitan county structure is the most appropriate one for his area. We set out our proposals for the boundaries of the new metropolitan county and the metropolitan districts in a recent circular. Under those proposals the Borough of Middleton, Oldham County Borough and some of the surrounding urban districts would come together to form a new and powerful metropolitan district with a population of about 279,000.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that this in itself will assist his constituents on the Langley Estate.

Mr. Haselhurst

I ought to make it clear that Middleton has not committed itself to that particular metropolitan district. I was talking about a metropolitan district.

Mr. Channon

I understand that. They have until 31st May to make any suggestions they have about the area. There will be a metropolitan district and that is the one suggested at the moment.

The present structure of local government creates additional difficulties for councillors, officers and local people. The new authority we propose will have strong resources and will be responsible not only for the housing of the area and a wide range of local services but also for education and the personal social services. That will be of great help in dealing with some of the problems my hon. Friend has raised.

I have certainly noted my hon. Friend's suggestions about the ownership of the Langley Estate and the other points he raised. There are many detailed matters which we shall discuss with the local authority associations before reaching conclusions. This question of the future of "out-county" estates, if I may use that description, is one such question to be considered. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are considering it and that I shall take full account of what he has said. I am sure he will understand in the circumstance why I cannot comment on the matter at this stage.

I cannot go further than that tonight because discussions have not been concluded with local authority associations. This is a very difficult matter and it is one of the things which will have to be given careful study. What my hon. Friend has said will be carefully noted by all those who are responsible for the reform of local government.

On his wider point about the extreme importance of considering the sociological problems of these overspill estates, there has been a certain amount of research and more is under way. I hope that the result of that research will show that the Government are keenly interested in the sort of problems my hon. Friend has in mind and in the welfare of his constituents, which he has been right to raise this evening.

My hon. Friend has done a service in pointing out the importance of the problems involved in large overspill estates. I assure him that in considering problems in future my right hon. Friend will pay the closest attention to the matters my hon. Friend has raised. I hope that he and his constituents will feel that this debate has been worthwhile because this is an extremely important topic which the Government intend to take very seriously indeed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Twelve o'clock.