HC Deb 14 November 1974 vol 881 cc742-52

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Frank Hatton (Manchester, Moss Side)

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to call attention this evening to a situation which causes hardship and distress to many of my constituents. I believe that the problem I wish to raise also exists extensively outside my constituency. Indeed, there are other areas of my city which contain housing accommodation which I can only describe as an architectural disaster. The same is true, I believe, of other large urban conurbations.

In spite of what I would call these ugly blots on the landscape I wish to pay tribute to my native city of Manchester, because for 20 years it has been engaged in a mammoth task of removing over 80,000 unfit houses. The re-housing of the occupants and the subsequent redevelopment of the cleared land has been a major priority of the city. I believe that the city holds a place second to none in terms of local authority achievement. Manchester has an outstanding record of slum clearance and housing redevelopment, and I am glad to have the opportunity tonight of paying tribute to it

I want to approach the subject of the problem of families living in multi-storey and "deck access" housing developments in a constructive way, seeking to urge measures which I hope will go some way to mitigate the social and human effects of trying to exist in high-rise and "deck access" flats.

I have within my constituency two areas, in Hulme and Moss Side, where these monstrosities to which I refer have been built. It is not difficult for me to describe the anger, bitterness and frustration of tenants who reside in this type of accommodation. I receive their cries of anguish in my daily postbag and when I meet them in my constituency at the weekend. It is the herding of people together in an inhuman way which causes so much distress and dissatisfaction. It is this upon which I will enlarge tonight.

Very recently Mr. Richard Seifert, a well-known architect of high-rise flats was quoted as saying, of this type of development that externally most of them were excessively ugly. They consisted of regimented repetitions of machine-made materials and were the rock-bottom of architectural practice. In terms of design they leave a good deal to be desired.

Lift access in many instances is not sufficient and it is difficult to provide a lift service with an acceptable degree of reliability. In most instances, too, arrangements for the disposal of domestic refuse are totally unsatisfactory. In human terms Mr. Seifert believes that: these kinds of blocks have created a claustrophobic and depressing environment leading to serious crime, loneliness, unhappiness and mental disturbance. A constituent of mine living in this type of accommodation says: Morale in these dwellings is so low that distrust and hatred are noticeable. When going round to these dwellings it was noticeable that 50 per cent. of the people spoke through the letterbox before answering. The occupants are keeping themselves to themselves and staying inside the building hoping that a letter may come telling them that there is a house vacant for them. Being alone and withdrawn can have its repercussions. To feel completely alone and isolated leads to mental disintegration just as physical starvation leads to death. There are other serious factors in this type of development which lead to the unhappiness and misery of which I have spoken. There is a high degree of rodent and insect infestation. I have dealt extensively with many complaints from constituents who have suffered from this inconvenience. I will quote briefly from a letter which the Manchester Director of Environmental Health wrote in June after I had made many complaints about the conditions in which my constituents are living: One of the main problems in this area is related to the eradication of infestations in multi-storey dwellings which by their mode of construction facilitate the spread of any infestation and make it difficult both to limit the infestation to an individual dwelling and to apply appropriate rodenticides or insecticides in the positions where they will be most effective. The planning of the development in question was done in close consultation with the officers of the Regional Office of the Department. The description of the City Architect of Manchester in the brief on the development was that it was subject to detailed development and agreement was recorded on all aspects of the design.

This type of accommodation is totally unsuited to families with young children. It should be redesigned and converted for non-family use. Pensioners, disabled persons, pregnant mothers and young children are trapped in this accommodation. I appeal to the Minister, who I know has a very kind heart and is sympathetic towards these problems, and his Department vigorously to assist the Manchester local authority to make a valiant attempt to rescue the people who are trapped within the accommodation and to redesign and convert it for non-family use.

Displaced families would need to be accommodated in more conventional two-storey housing. Amongst those who are suffering greatly are the elderly who are so lonely and unhappy in this type of accommodation. Special study and research is needed into the social problems produced by development of this type. I ask the Department to use all its resources—it should not be beyond the wit of man—to redesign the accommodation. The development was built within the last five years and bears a 60-year loan debt. We cannot blow it up tomorrow. It must be redesigned and made more suitable for people who have no young children. I urge the Department to use its technical know-how and finance to assist the Manchester local authority to redesign this disastrous development in my constituency and similar developments in other parts of the country.

I want to refer to a suggestion for a more suitable use for this type of accommodation. We have in Manchester one of the largest student populations in the country, and there is a crying need for single bedroom accommodation. Great demands are being made on the purse of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, but I urge the two Departments to look at this matter together to see whether some of this accommodation cannot be made available to some of the students within the city when it is relinquished, as I hope it will be speedily, by those families with young children and by the elderly, both in my constituency and elsewhere.

10.51 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gerald Kaufman)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Hatton) on raising a subject which is not only a serious housing problem but a serious social problem, and I pay tribute to him for all that he has done since he came to the House to help his constituents involved in this kind of depressing situation.

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work of the Manchester City Council in dealing with the appalling housing problem with which it has to cope. He is absolutely right when he says that Manchester is pre-eminent, both proportionately and in absolute terms, among all local authorities in the country in its building programme. If other local authorities were building satisfactory homes on the scale that Manchester is building them, the housing problem would be a great deal nearer solution. Therefore, I agree that, in considering these very serious human problems, we should do so within the context of the major and remarkably successful effort that the City of Manchester has made to deal with its general housing problem.

My hon. Friend is also my neighbour as a Manchester Member. Our constituencies abut. We share a common concern in these problems and over the need to alleviate their consequences and to find a solution to them. He is only too accurate when he tells us that many of the families living in the deck-access housing developments are victims of an architectural vogue whose originators meant well but who did not think through the implications of the concept they created.

They wished to combine high density multi-storey dwellings with the advantages of the traditional terraced communities they were replacing, and so they created what were called "streets in the sky". But streets on top of each other are not the same as streets next to each other.

It is true that the new developments have great advantages in many ways over the terraces they replaced. Tenants who live in houses without baths or indoor sanitation and with no hot water are delighted to move into bright new flats and maisonettes, with indoor plumbing, with baths, and accommodation which has more rooms and far better kitchen facilities and central heating, even though they sometimes grumble at the cost of that central heating. But although we can build a new housing development, we cannot easily recreate the warm community spirit which has vanished with the terraces which have been demolished. There is the noise from neighbours on the deck above and the deck below. The wind-swept balconies along which tenants have to walk are not as cosy as the streets from which they have come. Those welcoming corner shops, with their bright lights on winter evenings, have gone, and sometimes a new development has no new shops for too long a period. Even when they come, there are not enough of them.

The scale of the buildings is often daunting. I have in mind Fort Beswick and Fort Ardwick in my own constituency. The design is frequently all too forbidding. That is why the two estates are called "Forts". "I am on the Fort", constituents tell me. Such developments are often unsightly. The approaches are not attractively landscaped and are often strewn with litter and debris.

Refuse disposal is too often haphazard and infrequent, and this can lead to the proliferation of insects and vermin which are already fostered by design defects. There was a penetrating article recently in The Guardian pointing this out. The caretaker service often is insufficient to meet the needs, where the service exists at all. Too many developments in my own constituency and that of my hon. Friend have no caretaker service. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks) is here. He has one of the biggest developments of all in his constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side spoke about lifts constantly breaking down due to abuse of them, often by people who do not live in the estates, especially by children from neighbouring schools who play in them. When they work, all to often they are fouled by people from round about and disfigured by graffiti. These conditions naturally breed vandalism, which in turn reduces still further the morale of the people living there.

When the tenants of these development have lived in cosy old houses, however inadequate they were in terms of physical provision, they are bitterly disappointed by the shortcomings of new property which they have looked forward to occupying. In the case of Fort Ardwick, when it was being completed I was besieged by people wanting to live there, and they were delighted to be allotted flats, houses or maisonettes in the development. Once they found what living there was like, they were very disillusioned when they took into account that very likely they would have to live there for the rest of their lives.

Morale is even lower in the pre-war walk-up flats, some of which have degenerated past rescue.

Mr. Kenneth Marks (Manchester, Gorton)

indicated assent——

Mr. Kaufman

I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Gorton agrees with me. He works very hard to help his constituents in Brook House.

Both as a constituency Member and as a Minister in my Department, I am deeply aware of the problems to which my hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side has drawn attention within the context of his general tribute to the housing policies of Manchester Corporation. Like him, I am deeply concerned about these problems.

The despair of some tenants can be summed up in a remark made to me by a lady who lives on Coverdale Crescent, more commonly known as "Fort Ardwick", which is now perhaps the best known deck access development in Britain. A few weeks ago, on one of my visits to see the estate, I had a long discussion with a number of the residents. One of them said to me, "If Labour wins the election, it ought to do two things: abolish the House of Lords, and demolish Fort Ardwick." I should not for a moment dispute the logic behind both the lady's objectives, but I have to point out that developments costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, or even millions of pounds, cannot be demolished as soon as they are built, despite their depressing appearance and sometimes dreadful shortcomings.

We have to try to improve the quality of life in these buildings, and that is the aim of my hon. Friend in raising this subject tonight. It is also the aim of the City of Manchester, and I think my hon. Friend will agree that the efforts that have been made so far in Hulme by the city show what can be done if a determined effort is made to try to deal with these problems. When I was in my hon. Friend's constituency during the election I was able to compare the situation at Hulme now with what it was at the time of an earlier by-election, and I found that there had been a most heartening transformation.

My hon. Friend asked that the Department should carry out some research on the problems that he has mentioned. I am glad to tell him that in the Department we are busily engaged on a number of important studies which, when they are completed, could help us to give advice to local authorities which could ease the position.

We are engaged on a study of difficult-to-let accommodation. All hon. Members present tonight know that this difficult-to-let accommodation exists in many parts of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean), who has a distinguished history in Manchester, knows that even in Leeds there is that kind of problem.

We are engaged on this study of difficult-to-let accommodation—property which is so unpopular that even those in great housing need refuse to accept tenancies there. We are trying to track down the reasons for this unpopularity, in the hope that local authorities will be in a position to rehabilitate their reputation. This project is expected to take about a year, and I am following its progress closely.

We are also carrying out research, in collaboration with the Home Office, on vandalism, and we are looking at a number of housing schemes in two London boroughs—at their design, their social composition and other factors.

We are surveying the problems of children living off the ground, and here again we hope to be able to produce useful guidance. We have embarked, in addition, upon a particularly important research project, an in-depth investigation of multi-storey housing estates with some deck access blocks. The project that we have undertaken is in London, but its lessons will be available for other parts of the country.

Mr. Joseph Dean (Leeds, West)

Does my hon. Friend agree that these deck access flats which maintain or recreate some of the problems which they were supposed to get rid of were not the project of Ministers at the time but were the product of those who wished to accelerate the building figures and therefore indulged in this kind of expensive gimmickry?

In every major city people have moved away from this type of development because they have seen the disastrous results that flow from it. As has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Hatton), the average English family wants a traditional two-storey home and is not satisfied with anything else, and never will be.

We should be very careful when some-body is trailing his coat and throwing his hat in the ring. It would be disastrous if we were to embark upon another kind of gimmickry in the form of industrialised temporary accommodation.

Mr. Kaufman

The problem with developments such as this in Hulme, Moss Side. Ardwick, Beswick and other parts of the country is that they are architects' fantasies in which families have to live. There was a period during which the Department of the Environment, or the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, tried to persuade local authorities that high rise developments were the best solution to their problems, but it was the local authorities which commissioned them, which had them de-signed and which built them, and they must, therefore, take full responsibility for them. For better or worse, it was Manchester City Council which, with great pride, undertook the Hulme development, and the fact that it has failed is not the responsibility of anyone else.

As I said, we are studying the need for and the provision of community services and facilities and the scope for improving tenant-council relations in this kind of development. My hon. Friend has called attention to the Government's responsibility. We are conscious of our need to advise and assist where possible. In this connection, I would particularly draw attention to the allowances reckonable for subsidy which are available from the Department towards the cost of providing, on new housing schemes, outdoor spaces suitable for unsupervised play. Not enough local authorities are making use of this aid and I would certainly like to see our recommended standards of play provision as the minimum provision on all new housing schemes. But this applies to existing housing schemes as well as to those to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention, because existing schemes with a lack of adequate play provision can also benefit from Government aid.

The cost of providing or improving play spaces on existing estates is reckonable for subsidy. On a large estate the subsidy could run to many thousands of pounds. But while we make the subsidy available, we cannot compel local authorities to take it up, and in the end the very real problems to which my hon. Friend drew attention have to be solved by the local authorities which build these developments and are responsible for their management.

Even within the present stringent financial situation, management can be more efficient and run more economically. It is for the local authorities to ensure that refuse is regularly collected and that the estates are kept tidy, to ensure that the lifts and the lighting are properly maintained and that repairs are promptly carried out rather than complaints ignored. Too often, they neglect some or all of these duties. Too often they do not respond with sufficient awareness or alertness to justified complaints.

It is for the corporations to maintain the morale and standards of their estates. Nothing demoralises tenants more than a belief that their estate or block of flats is being used as a dumping ground for problem families. This practice is fair neither to the tenants nor to the problem families and it can lead to hopeless deterioration of the estates.

Above all, the best way to rescue and regenerate these housing developments is to involve the tenants far more in their management. Too often tenants and council have no relationship apart from rent payment and collection. I would like to see tenants involved in the management of their estates—in deciding priorities for expenditure on repairs and amenities. If they were told what budget was available, they would be more aware of the stringencies affecting local authorities, but at least they would decide what came first on their estates—a playground, a wash house or a community centre. Moreover, if the tenants were genuinely involved in running the estates, they would ensure that neighbours who left too much litter about or abused the lift or in any other way caused the environment to deteriorate would be made aware of the need to improve standards in the interests of everybody.

The problems of these estates are immensely serious. Upon their solution rests the future of our inner cities—whether they are to survive and flourish or to degenerate as we have seen across the Atlantic. In raising this subject, my hon. Friend has done a service not only to his constituents but to hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.