§ Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)
I am glad to have the opportunity to open this debate on the defects in system-built houses. I do not intend to press political points, or to allocate political blame for what has developed and for the problems that I believe need highlighting, and have been highlighted in two excellent reports from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. I am sure that the Minister for Housing and Construction, who is to reply, is aware of those reports and of the serious problems that exist.
This debate is both timely and welcome. It concerns an important subject and is a major source of concern to everyone. It is a pressing and urgent problem for local authorities, which now have massive repair bills as well as other worries about the suitability of this accommodation. The subject is important also for the people who live in the defective dwellings—rather, I should say suffer in them. It is important, too, for central Government, and has major implications for housing policy. I am sure, also, that the professions and the whole construction industry are concerned.
Our debate today should focus not only on the financial implications of industrialised and system building, but on the way in which we should assess future building methods so that they, too, are not defective. Our debate should focus, too, on how to put an end to the slump, boom, slump, boom pattern of housing investment, which appears to be the major cause of rushing into new housing methods.
We go back to the early 1960s to trace some of the major causes of the system building epidemic. The AMA report, "Defects in Housing Part II—Industrialised and system built dwellings of the 1960s and 1970s", does an excellent job in tracing the role of Government and putting the matter into a political context. Immediately after the second world war, housing was very much on the political agenda. Everyone recognised that a massive house building programme was necessary. Not surprisingly, the traditional building industry could not cope with rapid expansion, and non-traditional methods were seen as a way of rapidly boosting housing output.
Of course, at that time a lot of munition factories were underemployed, and some of them were turned over to house building. Factories that had successfully produced weapons of war were turned over to producing the fruits of peace. Output rapidly accelerated. Not only were more than 150,000 temporary prefabs produced, but by 1955 500,000 permanent prefabs or non-traditional dwellings, as they were known, had been completed. House building targets was the name of the game, and the Conservative Government were re-elected in 1951 with the promise to build 300,000 new houses a year, which must have played a major part in their success. Indeed, to that Government's credit, they reached their target in 1954. That output has never been matched since.
However, with hindsight, there is no doubt that the nontraditional building boom was taken too far and too quickly. Houses were not properly assessed in advance, and they were not monitored after completion. In fact, they have now been found to be defective, and the AMA's first report, which dealt with the non-traditional dwellings of the 1940s and 1950s, estimates that the repair costs of 53 those dwellings alone would be £5,000 million and, as the Building Research Establishment completes its work on behalf of the Government, and assesses prefabricated reinforced concrete dwellings in particular, the AMA's estimates are gradually being confirmed.
Following that immediate success by the two immediate post-war Governments, the heat went out of the housing debate, and housing slipped down the political agenda. To put the matter crudely, there were fewer votes in it. However, as housing performance declined, housing was allowed, almost unnoticed, to get worse and worse. It is true that there was not such an acute shortage of houses, but there was a backlog of unsatisfactory older properties, and a massive slum clearance programme had to be mounted. However, people had to be rehoused and new households were beginning to emerge even faster.
In the early 1960s, therefore, housing was back on the policial agenda, and both major parties saw the need rapidly to expand housing output. Again, the traditional building industry could not cope, and Governments in the early 1960s looked again for new methods. This time they went for industrial methods and, unlike the earlier nontraditional boom, it meant high-density, high-rise dwellings, which not only subsequently proved defective, but were immediately unpopular with the people who lived in them. Many would say that we simply replaced slums with new slums.
The AMA estimated that 1 million industrialised and system-built dwellings were built, and I very much doubt whether the Government would seriously question that figure. Again, I commend the AMA report for detailing the Government's role in promoting and sponsoring system building. Up to 1964, the Tory Government had a target of 350,000 new houses a year, and from 1964 the Labour Government attempted to reach a target of 500,000 a year. From 1956, the housing subsidy system was used to encourage high-rise dwellings with higher subsidies for the higher they were built. However, the Government's encouragement became far more direct, with housing authorities having to agree housing programmes which included industrialised methods and being set individual targets. In fact, 40 per cent. of all house building was meant to be industrialised by 1970. Authorities using industrialised methods were given higher allocations, and their schemes were given special treatment. Competitive tendering was thrown out of the window, as the Ministry of Housing and Local Government regional officers arranged contracts with large builders.
The role of the National Building Agency, now wound up, was the most disturbing aspect of that period. It was a company that was limited by guarantee, but to all intents and purposes it was a Government agency. The National Building Agency was responsible for appraising those schemes and for advising local government generally about the best methods and practices. It assured local authorities that it had appraised the systems and, in fact, issued 89 certificates as a guarantee that the system wassound and suitable for a 60 year loan sanction".In fact, local authorities were specifically told not to carry out their own appraisals as this would be unnecessary duplication. We, of course, know now how poor those appraisals were and how negligent the National Building Agency had been. But does this not also mean that the Government were also negligent and failed in their duty to protect local government as they had promised?
54 The AMA report has concentrated on the role of the Government. I was pleased to see, however, that it acknowledged that local authorities were not blameless. I have spent a long time in local government myself, and I entirely concur with that view. Some local authorities were too-willing and too-compliant partners in the industrialised building drive. Others were enthusiastic pioneers and were also irresponsible as their enthusiasm seemed to inhibit their common sense. I also suggest that there was a deal of bad practice which pervaded the industry at the time and in which both central and local government was to a greater or lesser extent involved.
Perhaps the AMA could have devoted more time and criticism to the construction industry and the professions. The construction industry was chasing profits. It saw in the new high levels of output a chance to make a killing. It also saw a chance to break the hold of some of the established trade unions and de-skill the whole building process. It was very keen to turn the building industry over to a factory industry which could use more semi-skilled labour. It wanted to get away from work on the building site to work in the factories out of the elements and where they were less dependent upon the vagaries of the weather.
Nobody can tell me that architects do not have a lot to answer for. Architects have always been more concerned with what a building looks like and whether it has a pretty shape and a nice colour rather than how well it works in practice. That was particularly true in the 1960s when they were after making a name for themselves with bold new conceptions that changed the pattern of our cities and were monuments to their own egos.
However, while criticism can be undoubtedly levelled at all agencies and all sections of the building and construction industry, without the positive support, encouragement and sponsorship from the Government there would never have been such a massive explosion of system and industrialised building methods. It could not have happened on anything like the same scale without the hand of Government directing and controlling the drive. It was noticeable that when the Government withdrew their support from the later 1960s onwards the whole movement went into reverse, just as it had done in the mid-1950s after the boom in non-traditional housing methods.
The AMA report brings out clearly how widespread are the defects in a whole range of industrialised and system-buildings. I have no doubt that every hon. Member will have horrific examples, as I have, within their constituencies. It is now commonplace to see stories of multi-million pound remedial works schemes and even demolition of buildings that are only 15 years old.
The AMA says that 10,000 dwellings have already been demolished or are scheduled for demolition. However, I think that that figure is based upon its members' experience and I suspect that throughout the country the figure is probably higher than that. We should be appalled at dwellings being demolished only 10 or 15 years after completion. But perhaps we are so used to it that it no longer rouses us as it should do. The costs are appalling, not simply in monetary terms, but in the misery that is caused to thousands of families.
I want to illustrate the problems by reference to my experience as a former chairman of the housing committee of Wakefield metropolitan district council. Wakefield is a mixture of rural and urban areas, and, despite being about the tenth largest housing department in the country, 55 it will probably have relatively lower proportions of system-built dwellings. Nevertheless, the numbers are still substantial and virtually every type has given rise to serious problems. I am well aware that' other hon. Members who want to take part in the debate will be able to give examples from their constituencies. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) will be attempting to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as he has many such problems in his constituency.
The problem, as the AMA rightly suggests, is not confined to medium and high-rise dwellings. Several years ago I was alerted late one night by the fact that 16 complete roofs had blown off two-storey houses in the Shinwell estate, at Upton. It was a miracle that nobody was hurt or killed. Those dwellings were built between 1965 and 1967 and eventually we decided to demolish our entire stock of 120. They were, on average, 13 years old.
The dwellings had a low-pitched steel sheeted roof which was evidently not tied on properly to the house walls. But by the time the roofs blew off, the dwellings had already been severely criticised by the tenants. The roofs gave one of the biggest sources of complaint. Because they were low pitched, inadequately ventilated, and steel sheeted, it was almost impossible to prevent moisture going into the roof space, condensing on the underside of the sheet roof and dripping back down into the dwelling. Therefore, when the roofs blew off we were already faced with remedial works, and we considered putting on a traditional pitched roof. However, the walls were of an unusual lightweight framed structure and would not take the weight of a traditional roof. It would have been very expensive to stiffen the structure.
At the same time, we found that the first floors, which were a prefabricated unit, were always flexing and damaging the tenants' decorations, cracking ceilings, and so on. There were numerous other problems, such as rotting window frames because of poor detailing and inadequate wall insulation. The heating system had also been designed especially for the dwellings. It was peculiar and, by and large, worn out. The catalogue of difficulties grew and grew until eventually we decided to cut our losses and demolish the houses.
Those houses were known locally as British Ropes houses because, as I understand it, they were built by that firm in Sheffield. I do not think that British Ropes had a long history of house-building, but it was obviously keen to get in on the system-building act. From the AMA report, it now appears that these houses were known as Building Systems Limited and were given an appraisal certificate. In other words, the Government agency had assured the local authority that the dwellings would last at least 60 years. The local authorities were told not to question that assessment.
What would be the position if the NBA had not been wound up? Indeed, is there any legal liability now attaching to Government? The dwellings which we demolished would have had a current value of £3 million. As it is, the Wakefield district council, which no longer receives an Exchequer subsidy towards its housing revenue account costs, will continue paying the loan debt until the year 2027.
Our experience in Wakefield of high-rise dwellings was not much brighter. I think that every multi-storey block in Wakefield has now been the subject of substantial 56 structural repairs. A particular problem was the differential expansion between the brickwork cladding and the concrete frame of the multi-storeys. Differential expansion meant that lumps of brick or concrete fell to the ground from 14 storeys up. On each floor, the remedial work included the cutting of an expansion joint between the brickwork and the concrete frame, and then the tying in of the brickwork panels with special stainless steel straps. That work cost more than £100,000 per block. I am assured that the problem of differential movement was known about at the time the dwellings were built, and yet the Government agency that appraised them apparently did not point this out and it was never included in the specification.
Other examples of problems with multi-storeys and indeed some medium-rise dwellings were found even closer to my home in Knottingley and Pontefract. In those cases, it seems that there was inadequate cover to the reinforcement in the concrete and over a period of time the reinforcement had gone rusty and expanded and the external concrete faces had literally blown off. The entire blocks have had to be scaffolded, all the unstable concrete removed and replaced, and new protection given to the reinforcement.
A further example was found with another low-rise system in my constituency under which many houses were built. The dwellings have given rise to continuous problems, including rapid fire spread, which was the subject of many tenant demonstrations and action. A great deal of work has been carried out on these dwellings, including the complete replacement of the flue system, which in many cases was in a dangerous condition. These houses were given an Agrément appraisal certificate by the National Building Agency on behalf of central Government, and they were guaranteed as sound houses.
I have looked a little at the past, and have given examples of the problems that the country faces with this type of dwelling. It is now right to look at what should be done. I know that the AMA has written to the Government, with a request that consideration be given to its report, and that a meeting be held to discuss compensation and other arrangements. I have no doubt that similar representations have come from other quarters. I believe that the Association of District Councils is also concerned about the matter. I am pleased to note that this has at no time been presented on a party political basis. Indeed, the policy committee of the AMA unanimously endorsed the conclusions of the reports to which I have referred. I hope, therefore, that the Government will respond positively today, and subsequently in their discussions with the local authority associations. I hope that the Government will not think it necessary immediately to go on the defensive.
Local authorities naturally want the money to be able to deal with these problems. They need the capital to carry out the repairs. It should be borne in mind that housing investment programmes have been cut back in real terms by more than 50 per cent. in the last four years, with further reductions envisaged for 1984–85, and for the following financial year. It must be asked whether we are going in the right direction in this matter.
However, this is not a problem of capital moneys only. We must ask why local authorities should have to pick up even more loan charges when borrowing on capital money, because the tenants will have to meet these charges ultimately. Nobody can argue that the tenants 57 were responsible for the schemes in the first place, or for the development of these system-built methods. By and large, the tenants were opposed to them, and have always found it unacceptable to live in such places. Something must be done, therefore, to assist local authority revenue costs. I believe that it is a question of agreeing appropriate compensation levels.
The Government have begun to recognise their responsibilities in relation to non-traditional dwellings, and to compensate tenants who bought their houses and found subsequently that they were defective. I hope that the Government now accept that discrimination cannot continue, and that tenants and public sector owners are equally entitled to have their houses repaired. I emphasise that, if the money is not available, the problem will get worse, and will cost far more in the long term.
However, I do not think that the argument should concentrate on money only. When considering the effort that central Government put into developing and promoting these systems, we must ask what effort is being put into appraising what went wrong, and into developing systems of remedial works. What practical help is being given to public sector owners and, indeed, to private owners? I believe central Government have a great responsibility to apply their minds to sorting out these problems with as much vigour as they demonstrated when they introduced the systems.
It will be patently obvious to all hon. Members that the country is in a housing slump. I know that the private sector house building market is relatively buoyant, but there is inadequate investment in the public sector new-build programmes for which there is still a steady and rising demand, and there are tremendous problems of unfitness and disrepair in the private sector stock. According to the English house condition survey for 1981, unfitness and disrepair are steadily increasing. The public sector stock has all kinds of problems, of which defects in system building are just one. I know of at least one northern authority that, at the present rate of progress, dictated by the housing investment programme allocation, will take another 20 years to improve its pre-war housing stock. One wonders how on earth it will look at anything other than the most urgent problems in the post-war stock.
It should therefore be firmly understood that the cutback in the housing investment programme that has taken place over the last few years is unrealistic, and will result in an upsurge when the housing situation reaches crisis point. There is no doubt that that upsurge will produce all kinds of problems, and it is possible that we will be forced to re-consider system building. Let us therefore step up housing investment to a realistic level to secure housing standards over the long term. This will ensure that the traditional building materials producers can expand steadily, that there is an adequate supply of skilled labour, and that all elements of the construction industry are geared up to an adequate level.
We must also ask whether sufficient time and money is spent in appraising new methods of building, and new components and materials. As an example, the Agrément certificate procedure is very weak, and gives little real assessment of how building will work out in practice. There is virtually no long-term monitoring of buildings. I suspect that we spend more time, money and effort in this country in developing and improving washing machines than in developing and improving houses. The car industry, which does not have such a brilliant track record, 58 spends a great deal more on prototypes and development work generally. To illustrate the point, I refer to a brochure advertising a system-built method which can compete with timber frames. It suggests that the method competes with timber frames for speed and insulation. The system is now on the market, and available. I wonder how many hon. Members can guess the main component of the new system. It is polystyrene. This already has a Agrément certificate. I should emphasise that I have no way of knowing whether this is the best idea since sliced bread, or whether it is just another half-baked idea—none of us really knows yet it is currently on sale with some sort of official approval. I ask the Government not simply to accept and note the AMA reports, but to take a positive lead in solving the problems, and to ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated in future. If the Government fail to do so, I consider that they will be negligent in carrying out their duties.
§ Mr. Christopher Chope (Southampton, Itchen)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) for initiating this important debate. I wish to concentrate on one narrow aspect of it concerning the prefabricated, reinforced concrete houses in Southampton.
On 28 October 1983 the Department of the Environment indicated that 1,677 such houses were built in Southampton in the 1940s and 1950s. From the latest figures that I have seen, I believe that that is an underestimate and takes no account of the many houses that have been sold. The latest figures that I have show that there were 178 Cornish unit houses, 102 Unity houses and 284 Wates houses and that, of those, 306 have been sold; and there were 18 Unity flats and 120 Cornish unit fiats.
In Southampton there are 1,680 Reema houses and 672 flats, of which 686 have been sold. That means that there are more than 3,000 units in Southampton, of which about 1,000 have been sold. I have a letter from the assistant director of housing in Southampton dated 9 March, in which he comments on the structural state of these houses and says:Fortunately, there do not appear to be any serious structural problems with any of the system-built dwellings in Southampton.That welcome news is confirmed by a letter that I have received about Reema houses from the managing director of Reema Construction, which is based just outside Southampton.
About a year ago that company organised an independent technical survey on two of its houses built just after the war in Romsey. The result of that detailed technical survey was encouraging, the conclusions of which included this comment:Neither of the two premises examined showed any fault or signs of deterioration of the concrete components and we are informed that none have been reported with 'Reema' houses. The results indicate that structural deterioration of the load bearing in situ concrete will not occur in the foreseeable future. The results indicate that deterioration of the non-load bearing precast panels and precast beams is unlikely. Continued thorough routine maintenance of the properties will, in our opinion, ensure satisfactory performance.Mr. Johnston, managing director of the Reema company, tells me that to the best of his knowledge there are no faults in Reema houses similar to those found in Airey and Orlit houses and that a large number of people who bought particularly from the council have made representations to him, but that their concern is not with 59 the condition of the houses, but with the blight that has been put on them by the way in which the issue has been bandied about in the press and the attitude—this is the most serious aspect of the matter—that is being taken by building societies to structurally sound prefabricated concrete houses, on which they are not prepared to lend.
That is the major concern that has been expressed to me by Southampton city council, confirmed by a number of constituents, who have found to their horror in recent months that the Halifax building society has had a policy of saying "A plague on your house" to everybody with a concrete house, regardless of its structural condition. That is a thoroughly irresponsible attitude for a building society to take, for there seems to be much evidence that many of these houses have years of life in them. Speaking for the Reema properties, and not prejudging the report that is to be published later this month, it appears that few problems have been found in those houses and that such problems as there are can be dealt with by maintenance and repair.
I was amazed to learn from the managing director of Reema — who, as I say, had an independent survey carried out on two of his company's houses—that his firm was not approached by the BRE during the six months of its investigation into Reema houses. I am amazed that the Building Research Establishment has not had the courtesy to contact the Reema company—which built the houses and is still in existence—because its report will obviously be of tremendous significance.
The best evidence that exists of what I would describe as the deplorable attitude of the building societies—in particular the Halifax—is contained in a letter which the Halifax sent to the city council saying that it wasunable to consider any mortgage applications or further advances on properties of reinforced concrete construction.It defines its approach as "cautious". In my submission, this approach is unfair to the owners of these properties —about 1,000 people in Southampton have bought such homes—who are unable to sell them if they wish to do so. If there is ever to be a self-fulfilling prophecy to the effect that in the end everybody will have to sell his house back to the Government or local authority at tremendous public expense, it will be brought about by the blight that is being put on these houses by building societies refusing to lend on them.
I hope that the building societies will develop a policy on the matter. I inquired of the Building Societies Association and was informed that that body had no policy on the subject. I should have thought that a large organisation which operates virtually a cartel in the home ownership market would have formulated a policy by now on this important issue. At present it seems to have a "wait and see" attitude. I am concerned about the effect that this is having on people who, for understandable reasons, want to sell their properties urgently.
I appreciate that a Bill is shortly to be introduced in relation to some defective houses, but what will be the attitude of the building societies after that? The societies should be getting together and saying, "We have funds. We believe in maintaining Britain's housing stock. We shall come forward with proposals to enable the money that we have to be recycled so that properties can, so far as possible, be maintained so that they do not crumble with neglect".
60 I am concerned about the public expenditure implications of what is involved with so-called defective housing. I implore the building societies to take a positive approach and remove the blight that they have imposed on everybody who bought Reema houses in Southampton or, I gather, anywhere else.
In a statement to the House last November the Minister for Housing and Construction said:The processes of carbonation and attack by chlorides are likely to affect all prefabricated reinforced concrete houses built before 1960. There are about 170,000 such houses in the United Kingdom which were built by public bodies. Approximately 16,500 have been sold, mostly to sitting tenants. —[Official Report, 10 November 1983; Vol. 48, c. 422.]The Reema houses examined by the Yarsley technical centre led to the conclusion that there was no deterioration of the steel reinforcement, that no such deterioration had occurred in 35 years since those buildings were constructed, and that other significant factors affecting the risk of corrosion, such as dampness and carbonated concrete, were not present in the two houses that were examined.
I implore the Minister not to generalise about this whole matter. He will have an opportunity, not only in replying to this debate but when the statement comes in relation to the report on Reema houses, to put the Government's position about the attitude that owner-occupiers should adopt towards houses of reinforced concrete construction. He should say whether they are all blighted or whether some are deteriorating more rapidly than others. It is obvious that any house will deteriorate. The attitude of the building societies towards these houses has, in my view, resulted from some of the generalisations that have been made about the subject.
On Friday the Minister spoke to one of those principally concerned with Reema houses. I hope that when the announcement is made about that company's houses—if it turns out, as the Reema report shows, that not all houses are tarred with the same brush — the Minister will encourage the building societies to adopt a more realistic lending policy towards these houses.
§ 6.9 pm
§ Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) on being lucky in the ballot and his initiative in debating this subject. Such a debate is needed. I suspect that this is the original chickens-come-home-to-roost debate since I have been a Member. That period is not far short of 10 years. I believe that everyone knows the problem. Hon. Members will not so much discuss how we reached our present position but will ask the Government where we shall go from now.
The background to the problem is not unfamiliar. For the past 20 or 30 years, the entire establishment of British politics, the building industry, surveyors and architects have believed that the solution to the housing problem was industrial building. That was the conventional view. I am glad that I am just young enough not to have taken any responsibility for that view. In our urban areas and where there are large concentrations of population, housing has been built which is not waterproof or soundproof and has endless problems with condensation. Some of those houses have fallen down, and some only 15 years old have been knocked down. Those houses are ludicrously expensive to heat. The final irony is that people refuse to live in them, unless they have nowhere else to go.
61 The House must concentrate on the scale of those problems. I believe it is an historical fact that the revival of the Liberal party in some urban areas can be traced to the fact that its members were the first publicly to admit that this type of housing provision was a problem. I suspect that some of the establishment in our urban centres knew that this was a problem but were too embarrassed to admit that they were involved in the original decision.
The Government's response during the past four or five years will not solve the problem. Since 1979–80, the housing investment grant has been reduced by 40 per cent. The problem will not be solved by reduced expenditure. What do the Government intend to do, given the problems? I have read the requests to the Government of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. I should have thought the AMA was being a shade optimistic in hoping that the Government would commit themselves to meeting some of its requests. A percentage of the AMA's requests must be acceded to if we are to overcome this problem. The AMA proposes that the Government take over existing loan debts on demolished dwellings. I believe that the Government should take over some of that debt, but an open-ended commitment, as argued by the AMA, would encourage local authorities to knock down blocks of flats even faster. We must recognise that the Government should take on at least a portion of the loan debt on those properties which, inevitably, must be demolished. That must occur if we are to make a serious contribution towards solving the problem.
To date, Government action revolves around the discovery of the tragedy of Airey built houses. The Government have made some response, thereby recognising the problem and contributing to its solution. Their response has been narrower than I would argue for, but at least it is an initial action. Local authorities which sold Airey homes, and those included in the umbrella of that description, might need to buy them back or provide repair grants to the individuals who purchased them. As far as it goes, that is a fairly satisfactory response, but it begs more questions that the Minister must answer if we are to move forward.
What about the properties still owned by the councils? Those houses comprise the vast bulk of the grand total. That is not an insignificant number. What about the properties which were never owned by the councils? There are a number of those properties in the south-west region, and other hon. Members can probably point to similar properties in their home areas. I was pleased at the Government's response, but it is not sufficient. The Minister should tell us how much further he wishes to go.
The Cornish unit houses are the most prevalent in my area, as hon. Members may not be surprised to hear. They were prefabricated mainly within my constituency by the large English China Clays company. I do not believe that those houses are as bad as some reports have made out. I agree with the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope) that, in many ways, the largest problem with some of these houses — we must stop the umbrella description of calling all those houses Airey houses—is the building societies' attitude. Individuals have come to me raising certain complaints. On visiting their homes I have been told that architects and those who can make a judgment on this matter have said that the houses, which are in reasonable condition, are condemned, not because of their structure but because of the building societies' attitude. I regret the fact that the building societies do not 62 have a pooled system of information whereby they can make a collective judgment on this matter. I am not certain that I want the building societies to act as a blanket, because then building societies generally would pass all buildings or condemn them all. An individualistic approach must be developed so that buildings are inspected and considered on their individual merits. Properties then would not be put on the black side or red side of the line, as building societies tend to do. Problems occurred—they may still do—when building societies in effect drew a line around certain houses and said that no money would be lent on those properties. The Minister should encourage building societies to adopt a more thoughtful and better response to this problem and to deal with the real problem, not the problem suggested by emotion because of publicity.
§ Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)
Is my hon. Friend aware that another problem is that the building societies take a cautious view about houses similar to Airey houses but which do not suffer the same defects? The result is that some people, including elderly couples, who wish to move out of their homes because they can no longer cope can neither sell them on the open market nor, because of the problems between local authorities and the Department of the Environment, sell them back to the local councils. Those people are stuck. Some of my constituents are paying a mortgage and a rent because they are in that position. That point illustrates the cautiousness of the building societies.
§ Mr. Penhaligon
That was an interesting observation. That particular problem has not been brought to my attention, but I hope that the Minister will add it to the problems he will consider when he replies or in correspondence. I recognise that some of these problems are complex. I do not underestimate their importance. They require a carefully thought out departmental response.
I am fortunate in that I live in a part of the country which is not surrounded by great tower blocks of flats, where the largest and insurmountable problems are created. I appeal to hon. Members not to turn this debate into an argument about who is responsible—the local councils or central Government. Both should make some contribution towards the responsibilities, as the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford said. That is an academic argument and a pointless dispute. It wastes our time and exploits people's misery, and that would not make a useful contribution to the debate or a useful line for the Government to follow.
The magnitude of this incredible tragedy faces us. Somehow we have managed to perpetrate and impose this problem on the great mass of people who live in the urban areas. My question is simple but involves expense. We do not want the Minister to talk around the point. Given the tragedy in the urban areas which will be outlined by hon. Members, which was reported by the AMA and which anyone with two eyes in his head can see, the question is: what will the Government do? They are the only people with the resources that the problem will demand. Action is clearly required. The sooner we get on with it the better.
§ Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. 63 Lofthouse) on initiating the debate, which is of tremendous importance to many local authorities which are facing problems with prefabricated and system-built houses. There is a national problem of substandard, decaying prefabricated dwellings, but, unfortunately, the only answer that we have received from the Government has been substandard and prefabricated.
The vast majority of the houses involved are in the public sector. They were built with the active encouragement of the then Government, of whatever political colour. Local authorities were persuaded to build houses by the National Building Agency — a Government-sponsored body — and it was guaranteed that they would provide homes which would last for 60 years. Local authorities were forced to borrow money over a 60-year period to build them. The building systems approved by the Government were defective, the buildings are deteriorating and some of them are structurally dangerous. At one time the phrase used to be, "As safe as houses". Some of my constituents who are living in old houses feel that the phrase should be changed to, "As safe as the Titanic," or, to use a more up-to-date metaphor, "As safe as the Belgrano".
My local authority has decided to demolish 150 of these latterday slums. It has been forced into that action following a thorough examination of the structures. The local authority will have to rehouse the tenants, which means that the 7,600 families who are already on the council waiting list will have to wait a great deal longer to obtain a council house. As the Government have seriously curtailed the finance available for new house building, the future for housing applicants is bleak.
The Government have recognised that there is a problem, and in October last year they recognised the problem as urgent and promised a statement. The statement has been made, and a statutory duty was placed upon local authorities to provide assistance. The Government recognised the difficult position brought to light by various structural surveys. The Government's intention is to introduce a scheme of assistance at the earliest possible opportunity. So far so good. Those are praiseworthy intentions, but the Government have failed to provide assistance to fulfil those measures, promises, assurances and good intentions for those who live in public sector houses. Ninety per cent. of people who live in prefabricated, system-built houses live in local authority dwellings. Unfortunately, they can expect little from a Government who have slashed housing expenditure and forced local authorities to increase rents and waiting lists.
It is significant that, for the first time, the amount of subsidy given by way of tax relief on mortgages exceeds the total national housing investment allocation programme. On 10 November last year, the Government said that they would take into account the problems local authorities faced with prefabricated dwellings when they determined the HIP allocation for this year.
My local authority owns 2,500 prefabricated houses, but the most pressing problem concerns 390 Orlit houses. The Government have promised that those who have bought their houses will be assisted. However, of the 390 old houses in south Tyneside, only 12 have been purchased. The remaining 378 households will have to wait to see how the Government will take their problems into account. How much will the local authority receive 64 as an additional HIP allocation to deal with the problem — £1 million, £2 million or £3 million? South Tyneside's HIP allocation was cut by over £1 million this year.
When tenants come to my surgery, how can I explain to them the way in which their problems will be tackled when the local authority, with all its other problems, does not have the resources available to do anything about Orlit houses? None of the other housing problems in south Tyneside has declined so as to enable the local authority to deal with the problem of prefabricated system-built houses. The council's HIP allocation is overstretched. It is barely adequate to deal with the maintenance of the council's stock of traditional houses. It cannot keep pace with providing even a limited number of houses for those in greatest need.
I have no doubt the Minister will tell us that we should use our capital receipts. South Tyneside has already used its capital receipts. For 1984–85, it has decided to use £3 million of its capital receipts to supplement the miserable HIP allocation that the Government have decided it can have. Rents this year will increase by £2 a week and rates have been increased by 15 per cent., yet the Government will say, "Sell more houses." How can south Tyneside sell more houses and obtain more capital receipts when 40 per cent. of council house tenants are on rent rebate and cannot afford to pay the rents, let alone to buy their houses?
If the present proposals for a 60 per cent. discount on the sale of council houses goes through, it will mean that the south Tyneside local authority will require £4 million if it decides to demolish the 150 Orlit houses. That is equivalent to selling 600 traditionally-built houses. That is the nonsense that we are hearing. That is the problem that we face in south Tyneside.
The Government's approach to the problem is bad enough, but it does not make economic sense when our area has 25 per cent. unemployment. That is almost as high as the unemployment in the present Cabinet. Skilled construction workers —those who can lay bricks, put roofs on houses and dig out foundations—are out of work. There are 7,600 families waiting for houses, and it is nonsense to say, as the Government have said, that the local authority cannot have the resources and capital to build houses.
Out-of-work skilled construction workers are commiserating with their friends who live in council houses. They say that it is hard lines that they have cracked ceilings, bulging walls and streaming condensation, but the Government will not provide the money to enable them to work and make the houses fit to live in.
During the past decade, south Tyneside has approached the borough's housing problem with thought and vigour. Before 1979, the Government made the resources available to the local authority. South Tyneside demolished 3,800 slums and built new houses. It is now faced with the problem of ill-conceived, ill-designed and badly constructed prefabricated houses. That is the fault not of the local authority, but of the then Government.
It is about time that the Government accepted responsibility and provided the resources for the local authority so that it can put those problems right. If the Minister cannot make a direct grant, he should make the capital resources or subsidies available, and allow the local authorities to put right their problems by rehousing and providing decent houses for the people that they represent.
§ Mr. Steve Norris (Oxford, East)
As other hon. Members have done, I express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) for raising this important subject.
I draw the Minister's attention to the problem of the Howard type of system-built house, of which there are several hundred in my constituency, particularly on the Rosehill and Barton estates. The correspondence that I have had with the Minister's Department shows that that type of house is not considered to be in the same category as those that have been examined by the Building Research Establishment. However, I should like to draw the distinction to the Minister's attention, because it is a fine distinction, and the damage to the reputation of those houses is as great as the damage to the reputation of the Airey, Orlit and the other houses that have been mentioned.
Apparently the difference between the Howard house and the Airey house is that, whereas the Airey house has reinforced concrete cross members acting as main supports, the Howard house has a steel frame that is sunk into a concrete plinth. As a result, the Howard house shows many of the symptoms of damage to which system-built houses are prone. The Oxford city council has put together a considerable report, with plenty of evidence of damage to those houses. I understand that some local authorities elsewhere have pulled them down on the basis that it was simpler to clear the site than to spend the considerable amounts of money that might have been necessary to put them back in order.
In his statement the Minister accepted that some houses, if not beyond repair, fell into the category for which he felt the Government should take responsibility. Like those houses, the Howard type was built at the end of the war. Those houses are very much system-built. They display all the symptoms of system building to which hon. Members have referred.
I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope) and the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon). Whether for right or wrong reasons, certainly in respect of owner-occupied houses, building societies are not making the distinction which in a perfect world they should draw, but which it is not unreasonable for them not to draw. They believe that system-built houses are not attractive for mortgage lending. In Oxford it has become extremely difficult, if not impossible, to obtain assistance from building societies for these houses. That means not so much that houses cannot be bought, but that they cannot be sold. Those who wish to move up or down the scale, for whatever reasons, cannot do so.
It has been suggested that purchasers in that situation should remember the doctrine of caveat emptor, on the basis that they had an opportunity to examine the properties that they were buying before they completed the purchase, but I do not believe that that advice necessarily holds in this case. In many instances the local authority itself provided the finance for the purchase, so the entire transaction was in the hands of the local authority.
Normally, if a purchaser were buying property at arm's length, a survey would be done and he would be able to look at the survey. The vendor would then be able to say, "I am sorry. You had every opportunity to inspect the dwelling, so I am not responsible for faults that may 66 subsequently arise." However, in this case the council virtually acted as both vendor and purchaser. Thus, new owners were denied some of the knowledge that they might have received had they been in a normal situation. That factor must be considered, as well as the general principle which I was pleased the Minister accepted. As the Government have encouraged purchasers to buy those houses — I naturally support the Government's efforts, particularly those of the Minister in that regard—that lays an extra duty on local authorities and the Government when faults are discovered.
Owners in my constituency are faced with a particular problem. They will not qualify for a mandatory grant, according to the latest advice that I have received from the Department. They may face the prospect of a discretionary grant, but my local authority has not evinced any great enthusiasm for making such grants. I say in all honesty that I am not surprised at and do not blame the local authority for taking that attitude. It is hard pressed for funds and there is no evidence that it is likely to be compensated in full for the discretionary grants that it gives. The distinction between "mandatory" and "discretionary" seems to disadvantage some classes of purchasers who, it is admitted, suffer the same problems as those who are covered by mandatory grants but, on a technicality, cannot claim the grants in full. I urge the Minister to reflect on that problem if he cannot give an answer in the debate. I ask him to reflect on the potential inequity for owners of such property.
If we do not tackle the problem honestly and squarely and ensure that there is equity on all sides for owners of such property, owner-occupiers will lose confidence in the Government, which would be a tragedy. They would lose confidence in the very Government who rightly gave them the opportunity to buy those properties and a right which we want to extend and which the general public want to see extended. It would be tragic to cast a shadow over that and to discourage people because of the difficulties that owners in my constituency face.
§ Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) on initiating this debate on non-traditional housing. He referred to the fact that there is a substantial problem in Leeds. I shall illustrate that problem further in my speech.
My hon. Friend was right to set the debate in a certain context and to say that the pressure for system-built housing came from the Government. Local authorities responded to it, some with greater enthusiasm than others. That pressure came from Governments of both political parties. The Minister of Public Building and Works said in July 1963:My ministry is now specifically charged with the responsibility for encouraging and developing generally the use of new and rapid methods of construction, standardising the use and production of building components to the greatest possible extent and securing the widespread dissemination of the best modern practices.Those words were said by a Conservative Minister in 1963. Two years later the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, in circular 21/65, made exactly the same points. It asked for greater weight to be given to nontraditional housing methods. So great was the pressure that it said in conclusion that unless the non-traditional methods were used, 67housebuilding programmes would have to be set lower than they should be.The pressure from central Government on local government was to use industrialised non-traditional building methods. That pressure should be recognised by the Government. Local government responded to it, but it was the Government who pushed local authorities towards the use of non-traditional methods. My own city of Leeds responded with great enthusiasm to that pressure. It saw in non-traditional building the opportunity to get rid of the major back-to-back problem in the city. It was seen as an opportunity to clear slums and provide attractive housing for families. So great was the enthusiasm that 15 per cent. of the current stock of 94,000 dwellings were constructed by non-traditional methods, mostly of prefabricated reinforced concrete but some with timber frames.
The legacy of the 1960s housing policy is clear enough. About 13,000 houses in Leeds may suffer from serious structural defects and the occupants live in fear that their houses are unsafe as well as in conditions which are often unsatisfactory due to draughts, condensation and so on.
If the local authority assumed responsibility for repairing all 13,000 houses, the cost would be astronomical, even assuming a modest figure of £8,000 per house. Some say that that is too modest. The Shelter report referred to £16,000 per house. Nevertheless, taking the figure of £8,000 which the local authority uses as the cost of repairing an Airey house, the repair programme will cost the ratepayers of Leeds a staggering £104 million.
Those figures must be seen in the context of regular Government cuts in the housing investment allocation in recent years. For 1984–85 Leeds will receive about £28 million. How can the authority possibly assume responsibility for repairing 13,000 potentially defective houses at a cost of £104 million? The scale of the problem becomes apparent when one compares the HIP allocation and the cost of repairing Airey houses. Given the present allocation, it will take Leeds 15 years to repair the Airey houses alone, without starting on other prefabricated concrete or timber-frame houses. The problem is especially severe in Leeds, but it occurs in many other areas.
The response to our difficulties is typical of the Minister and the Government — indifferent and uncaring. The Minister tells us that the HIP allocation includes provision for dealing with problems of this type. That is typical of a Government utterly unconcerned about housing standards throughout the country, as the successive cuts in the allocations have shown. With the money provided by the Government through the HIP allocation, it will take 50 years to deal with defective housing in Leeds alone. By then, many of the houses will have fallen down, so the problem will have disappeared — no thanks to the Government, but due to their inactivity and uncaring attitude. It may be suggested that we should spend more of the HIP allocation or even the entire £28 million on repairing these houses, but that would be at the expense of modernisation and new building in the city and it takes no account of the fact that in the 1980s Leeds still has 20,000 back-to-back houses. It is a scandal for any Government to be happy or complacent about such a situation.
What help have the Government given? Reference has been made to the help provided for owners of Airey houses. That has caused various problems, not least 68 because it extends only to a limited number of properties. Other owner-occupiers who have been persuaded by the Government's policies to buy system-built council properties will receive no assistance at all.
Hon. Members have referred to the attitude taken by building societies. I have had correspondence with Mrs. Hudson, who lives on the Osmandthorpe estate in my constituency. Having bought her council house with a local authority mortgage, she applied to the Leeds Permanent building society for funds to build an extension. She filled in all the forms, but when she said that it was a cast-built timber-framed house the building society said that it was not prepared to touch the business and could not provide a loan on such property. Mrs. Hudson wrote to me as follows:I was astounded at this information. When I asked Leeds Permanent what would happen if I decided to put my house on the market I was informed that any prospective buyers would be unable to receive a mortgage for this type of property.Under the influence of the Government and the Minister, Mrs. Hudson had decided that it was sensible to buy her council house. The Government talk about helping owner-occupiers. I doubt whether Mrs. Hudson sees it that way now.
Several of the Conservative Members who have been prepared to take part in the debate have tried to put the blame on the building societies, but would they risk other people's money on system-built housing if they were building society managers? I suspect that they would not. Mrs. Hudson and many thousands like her want a guarantee from the Government that a safe and effective system will be devised and funds made available so that these houses can be safely repaired and the owners can then go to the building society secure in the knowledge that they can sell their houses and use their assets.
The assistance scheme for Airey houses discriminates in two other ways. It discriminates totally against people living in council houses. Help is provided for the owner-occupier but not for the council tenant. That sums up the Government's philosophy. They discriminate in simple class and status terms. It is not a question of standards. Tenure is the issue for the Government. If they were really concerned about people living in Airey homes, they would not confine assistance to owner-occupiers and exclude council tenants who suffer equally in such accommodation.
Another problem in the Airey scheme is especially clear in Leeds. The Leeds public works department—not, I suspect, a cause close to the Minister's heart—devised a scheme to repair Airey houses to an acceptable standard at a cost of £8,000 per house. If, however, the council repairs a house which it still owns in a semi-detached block of two, the present regulations do not allow it to take the responsibility of repairing the other house for the owner-occupier. The council cannot repair the other house. Is not that ridiculous? The public works department devises a system. The owner-occupier may have to use that system. The tenant can make use of it, but, because of the ideology and dogma of the Government, the owner-occupier cannot make use of it because the service will be provided from the public sector. The Airey scheme presents problems over the question of who is to do the work and over the discrimination against council tenants. Furthermore, the number of owner-occupiers is tightly defined, so that the benefit is limited and is not provided to all who live in system-built houses.
69 A number of hon. Members have suggested that this burden should be assumed by central Government. It was created by the activities of central Government and the pressures that they have applied.
What should be done? Unless the Government grasp their responsibility, there will be a deterioration in housing standards and those who live in system-built houses will be impoverished. First, there should be a commitment from the Government to finance a programme to repair system-built houses. The programme must be financed outside the normal HIP allocation. That is the only way in which Leeds could deal with its problems of defective housing. Furthermore, such a programme might help to provide work for the construction workers who are currently on the dole.
Secondly, the Government should finance research by the Building Research Establishment to find repair methods that are acceptable to the building societies, so that the building societies will make loans available to owner-occupiers and to those who wish to extend or to modernise their houses.
There is an overwhelming and proven case for Government assistance in relation to defective housing. There is a specific case in Leeds. I look to the Minister to help the tenants, owner-occupiers and ratepayers of Leeds. I realise that, in making this plea, I may be following a sterile path, but the people of Leeds will be waiting for the Minister's response, and I urge him to take action to end the misery and the potential impoverishment caused by this type of housing.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
I join many hon. Members in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) for giving us the opportunity to debate defective housing. My hon. Friend, like me, comes from a mining area. I have no doubt that his area contains housing of the type that exists in Rother Valley—namely, Reema housing. There are many hundreds of such dwellings in my constituency. Indeed, for 14 years I lived in one.
Because of the National Coal Board's policy of selling houses to employees or to those occupying its houses, hundreds of my constituents have bought such houses. They sought to take advantage of the discount offer of 50 per cent. on the current market price. Those of my constituents who are now trying to sell those houses—in order, in some cases, to move into better properties—have found that they are unable to do so.
Conservative Members have claimed that the building societies are nasty and wrong to refuse to grant mortgages on those houses. It is all very well to blame the building societies, but we should remember that in November 1983 the Minister for Housing and Construction, making a statement on defective housing, said:The processes of carbonation and attack by chlorides are likely to affect all prefabricated reinforced concrete houses built before 1960."—[Official Report, 10 November 1983; Vol. 48, c. 422.]The Minister explained that there were about 170,000 such houses, of which about 16,500 had been sold. In using such phrases, the Minister hardly gave a stamp of approval to system-built houses. Perhaps it is not surprising that the building societies should be reluctant to give mortgages to those who are still willing to buy such houses.
What do the Government propose to do about the situation created in my constituency and in many others? 70 We have been waiting now for four months for a further statement from the Minister. It is four months since he put the cat among the pigeons. What type of legislation is envisaged? When will it be brought before the House? When will people be able to benefit?
There are urgent cases in my constituency. There are people who cannot afford to maintain their houses, but they cannot sell them. I am in contact with a solicitor in my constituency about a house on the estate on which I used to live. The owner is unable to sell it. The matter is in the hands of a solicitor, but he is at a loss to know what to do. Two people have attempted to get mortgages on the house, but they have been refused.
I hope that the Minister will regard this as a matter of urgency. It is four months since his statement and no legislation has yet been introduced. Meanwhile, people are suffering hardship.
What is the position of the local authorities and of the National Coal Board, which either own or have sold such houses in my constituency? My constituents fear that they have been sold a pup by the National Coal Board. Can the Minister put their fears at rest? Nothing can be done unless the Government move quickly.
§ Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) has done a service not only to the House but to millions of our constituents by raising the subject of system-built housing. I hope that the comments that have been made about the general problem of housing in so many areas will not have been completely unheard by the Minister.
The Association of Metropolitan Authorities recently issued two reports. One was entitled "Defects in Housing". Part I of the report dealt with non-traditional dwellings of the 1940s and 1950s. It pointed out that there were half a million such dwellings in the country and that it would cost £5 billion to repair them.
On 10 November 1983, the Minister for Housing and Construction said that the Government intended to give financial assistance to private purhasers of seven types of non-traditional dwellings bought from the public sector which were discovered to have defects. However, not seven, but 150 types of non-traditional dwelling have been constructed during the past few decades.
I wish to draw the attention of the Minister to defects in the Truscan RD27 low-rise system. I have recently tabled two questions to the Minister on this subject. Fewer than 700 such houses have been built in this country. In a sense, therefore, the problem is not quite as extensive as with other non-traditional buildings.
The problem of 18 houses in Storrington avenue in my constituency has come to my notice. They can hardly be described as timber-framed as they look more like timber houses. They have occasionally been referred to as Swedish-style houses. They are built in two terraces. The two support walls are timber in a configuration known as cross-wall construction. The internal walls appear to be plywood. They were built in 1959. A recent survey found severe wet rot in several of them. There are clear signs that almost all of them are now affected. The wet rot allows the penetration of water into the interior. It comes in over the windows of several rooms in most of the houses, and the damage to the exterior timber is obvious to anyone who 71 walks along the avenue. It is possible to see the black telltale marks of wet rot, although the houses are set back from the main road. If they were in a better area, they would be described as being in an ideal location as they are not overlooked and have views over the playing fields at the back.
Weather penetration of the timbers is causing doors to warp so that they do not close properly. The houses are therefore not secure. Moreover, the houses are in an area in which break-ins are not unknown. In some cases the damage to the panelling is so bad that daylight is visible through the walls. The houses are wet and draughty and must endanger the health of the inhabitants. I am informed by the chief fire officer of Merseyside that the fire authority requires no certificate, although I suspect that the houses could be a serious fire risk. I understand that only at the request of Liverpool city council would the Merseyside fire authority carry out an investigation.
Although most of the houses are tenanted and the local authority has promised to carry out extensive refurbishment soon, the fact remains that three former council tenants have purchased their homes and sales activity has commenced in four other cases. I understand, however, that the four other tenants might now be having second thoughts. If they took my advice, they would never consider buying their houses.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) said, many people have been encouraged to buy their houses by the Government's council house sales policy. I oppose the sale of council houses in areas of real housing need. Liverpool has 29,000 unmet housing needs. Most of those people subsist on supplementary benefit and will never in a month of Sundays receive a positive response from a building society if they ask for a mortgage. However, that is not my reason for saying that it is damnable for anyone to expect people to buy the houses in Storrington avenue. They stand a great risk of never being able to sell their houses, as I cannot believe that any reputable building society will advance a mortgage for them.
I know that, like the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Norris), we could tell our constituents to bear in mind the words "caveat emptor", but the seven households who have or are considering buying their homes have found that the negotiations have been carried out by the local authority. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) mentioned similar cases in his constituency. The local authority has sold and provided the finance for the purchase. It seems less than just that such local authorities might be left with the grant aid that the Minister envisaged when he spoke about future legislation on 10 November 1983. I hope that the legislation will not restrict assistance to people who have purchased. It should consider also tenants of system-built or non-traditional houses. The Minister should also examine carefully the cases of people who live in Truscan RD27 property.
Liverpool city council has properly claimed that it is under no obligation to people who have bought their homes. Responsibility now lies with the owner-occupiers. The council regards itself as having only limited statutory obligations towards people who have applied to purchase their homes, and therefore appeals by such people to the local ombudsman have brought no joy. I ask the Minister 72 to carry out a fuller investigation with a view to giving some redress to sufferers of the system that I have described.
Some of the points that have been raised today might be the subject of a more substantial debate at another time. Areas such as Liverpool suffer enormous social distress, and it is no answer to the legacy of high-rise flats, such as the infamous piggeries, to sell them off to private enterprise which then provides homes for people who can afford to buy. A Minister attended the opening of Myrtle gardens in Liverpool. That development was refurbished by a private firm and sold to people who could afford to buy. That might be all right for the leafier areas of the country that are perhaps best known to Conservative Members. The Minister represents Eastbourne. It may be that few of the problems that I have described occur there.
§ Mr. Richard Ottaway (Nottingham, North)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is possible to buy a council house in the city of Nottingham for less than the cost of renting it? It is erroneous for the hon. Gentleman to talk of buying houses in the leafier glades of the country.
§ Mr. Wareing
The hon. Gentleman has a point.
There is great suspicion in Liverpool that the Government's policy of forcing higher rents on council tenants will make many of them think about buying when they would never have thought about it before. Many people in my constituency, during the general election campaign, rushed on to the streets to tell me that, although they were now owner-occupiers of council houses, they would still vote for me because half of their families had been made unemployed by the Government's economic policies.
I agree that, because rents in Liverpool are higher than anywhere else outside London, there may be an impulse to purchase. However, few building societies will offer mortgages to the 140.000 people on Merseyside who are now without jobs, and, in many cases, have been for over 12 months.
Liverpool is well known for its two great cathedrals.
§ Mr. Wareing
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central, who comes from a city of no mean soccer repute, should comment on our football teams.
Liverpool spent well over 70 years building an Anglican cathedral—a beautiful edifice. I wish only that we had exercised the same care—not over 70 years, of course—building the houses in which we expect our citizens to live.
It is of no use considering the matter by examining statistics. Therefore, I make the same offer to the Minister as I made to the Secretary of State for the Environment —to come to Liverpool and see the housing conditions, not simply by driving down the main road, but by stopping and getting out of the car. I shall be only too happy to escort him round some of the problem houses and flats in my constituency. Some months ago the Minister sent me a letter, in which he noted that the sister of one of his constituents lived in my constituency in a low-rise flat surrounded by flats which were entirely empty because of lack of maintenance.
I must not omit to point out that in Liverpool, which is being pilloried and penalised by the Government under 73 the rate support grant, the council has designated 17 priority areas for rehousing. It is making a great endeavour to do what the Liberal party, when it had control in the city, failed to do — namely, to let houses and flats quickly as they become vacant. Nevertheless, 5,000 dwellings are empty. Yet many people are on the housing waiting list. It is clearly time for the Government to tackle the problem, but it cannot be tackled without finance.
In the past, Governments have written off the debts of nationalised industries. The time has come for cities, such as Liverpool, which have grave housing problems and huge housing debts, to have those debts written off. There should be a new system of finance, which does not depend on high interest rates, to ensure that people have a proper standard of housing. Most people in Liverpool pay high rents because of the high interest on dwellings which have recently been built. People who have lived in council accommodation for 40 or 50 years now pay the highest rents to finance the interest on loans for houses which have been built recently. Many of those dwellings have been built on the low-rise and high-rise non-traditional systems which we are debating.
Will the Minister consider carefully what has been said? Will he look at the actual buildings, not simply the plans? Will he come and see the houses about which I have spoken and ask himself whether he would buy such a dwelling?
§ 7.5 pm
§ Mr. Richard Ottaway (Nottingham, North)
I apologise to the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) and to other hon. Members for not being present at the beginning of the debate. I was detained elsewhere.
A Swiss gentleman named Corbusier conceived the concept of the radial city high-rise blocks and apartments surrounded by open fields. He suggested the concept in the 1930s and we became seduced by it in the 1960s. One development only was built strictly following his lines. It was built in Marseilles and was known as the unite d'habitation. I apologise for my French. A distinguished architect told me this afternoon that even that development is being converted.
In Nottingham we became seduced by the concept in the 1960s and, with the support of Governments of all parties, we embarked on two developments, with disastrous consequences. In 1966 we started the Balloon Woods development, which was completed in 1970. It is a medium-rise, system-built development. It must now be demolished and was emptied only last year because of defects found in the concrete. The contract for its demolition has just been signed and demolition will start soon.
The second development became known as the Basford flats. They were started in 1967 and completed in May 1971. Again it was system-built, but, unlike Balloon Woods, its problems are terrible humidity, water penetration and, as a result, high heating costs. We have great difficulty in letting the high-rise blocks in the middle of the city, which is not used to such accommodation. About two years ago we emptied one of the blocks and allowed Wimpey to carry out tests on its structure to see whether it could be rehabilitated. That proved to be impossible and it seemed that the whole site would have to be demolished. Like the Balloon Wood site, demolition will go ahead and is due to start soon.
74 Hon. Members should be wary of condemning totally the concept of high-rise flats as an unacceptable way in which to live. When the problem was faced in New York, the authorities there, instead of walking away from the problem and demolishing the block, plastered all the staircases, laid carpets, fitted brass handrails and introduced a security system at the entrance. It has turned out to be a success. Vandalism has stopped and people are happy to live there again.
In the city of London people live happily in the Barbican high-rise blocks, primarily because they are of higher quality and have a good security system.
The problem in Nottingham is what to do with the land that will be vacated when we demolish those two sites. The citizens of Nottingham are disappointed that the sites must be demolished, because Nottingham is a city with a ring of confidence about it. Unlike many cities, people wish to live in its inner areas. It cannot sell new homes fast enough. There are three new housing developments in the heart of the city that have been constructed with the aid of urban development grants, and I was told the other day that one development is completely sold out even before it has been completed. Those developments are a classic example of the success of urban development grants.
Why do people want to live in the middle of Nottingham? It has excellent theatres and facilities, and it has two first division football teams, although one of them was knocked out of the cup on Saturday by Everton. The spirit of the city is highlighted by the fact that it produced two people who won gold medals at the winter Olympics —Torvill and Dean. During the decades, both Labour and Conservative-controlled councils have pursued moderate housing policies. However, I fear for the future of the city, because the dead hand of the ultra-Left wing of the Labour party is now at work in the council. A minority of councillors have taken control and unacceptable policies are being imposed upon the ratepayers.
It is accepted by all parties on the council that the two sites to which I have referred will be replaced with two-storey, good quality accommodation. The question is, who will pay for it? The Labour-controlled council is refusing to apply for an urban development grant because it wants to retain the sites for council housing. That means that the ratepayers must bear the entire cost, and the council is putting forward——
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. I must draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that we are debating defects in local authority system-built housing. I hope that he will relate his remarks more closely to that subject.
§ Mr. Ottaway
I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am trying to draw attention to what will replace the defects in accommodation that was sanctioned by various Governments in the 1960s. I shall try to confine my remarks to the problem.
When the system-built houses and flats are demolished next year, the ratepayers must pay for their replacements. It will take 60 years to repay the debts of the first developments, yet the council is inviting us to pay yet again for the replacements. The remedy is simple: we must allow the developers who are queueing up to take aver the sites to do so, at no cost to the ratepayers.
75 As I told the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), people are queueing to buy houses in the middle of Nottingham. There will be no shortage of acceptable housing there.
One consequence of the demolition of such housing is that local traders are suffering. Local shops are losing money, and many companies have gone into liquidation. The local authority has powers under the Local Government Finance Act 1982 to compensate those companies, but the council has decided, in its wisdom, not to apply to the Department for funds to compensate those who will be out of work because their companies have gone into liquidation. When my hon. Friend the Minister considers the problems of system-built housing, will he bear in mind this problem? I understand the reluctance of the local authority to set a precedent by allowing compensation to local traders. I hope that he will examine the problem both nationally and as a local matter that involves relatively little money.
§ Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) for choosing this subject to debate today, because it has caused major problems for council tenants in many parts of Britain. I share the view of many hon. Members that who was to blame for such property being built is of no consequence. The fact is that it was built, and that Governments of both political parties encouraged local councils, with financial inducements, to erect such industrialised, high-rise buildings in the 1960s and 1970s. It is certain that the tenants of those buildings do not care who was to blame. They want action, they want the problem resolved, the defects eradicated and decent housing provided.
That is their right, and we who alone can do it have a duty to ensure that the Government, help local authorities to tackle the job. As hon. Members said, councils will be paying for 60 years the debts incurred for such properties, but in many cases the buildings must be demolished because major defects cannot be remedied. I hope that something will be done to ensure that the problems do not recur. Many Opposition Members believe that timber frames will create problems in the 1990s similar to those that occurred in the industrialised buildings of the 1960s and 1970s.
In Manchester in the 1960s, when the Government were encouraging councils to build those units, in my office at Labour party headquarters I had a planning brief for Hulme redevelopment. It was to be called the Bath of the north, with sweeping crescents with Regency names such as John Nash crescent and John Barry crescent. However, if anyone visits those developments now and asks the tenants what relationship they have to Bath or the Regency period, the answer would not be polite. In the enormous Bison developments, known as Fort Ardwick and Fort Beswick, there have been major problems with condensation, dampness and panels falling down. That has been shown on television programmes. If I were a tenant in those properties, I should be afraid to walk near them in case a large concrete block fell on my head. I am sure that the Minister would also take care when walking near them. I 76 recognise the problems that Manchester must face in tackling those defects, but it cannot tackle them unless it is given massive Government financial support.
In Burnley, which is just north of Manchester, we are a little more fortunate and the problem is not so great. We have one development of deck access properties built by Wimpeys, which does not have as many problems as do the Bison properties. There are problems with all deck access properties and the council needs money to introduce compartmentalisation.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Ottaway) referred to the steps that have been taken in America to improve such properties. Burnley borough council is trying to introduce a scheme of compartmentalisation that will restrict access to those who live in the Trafalgar gardens development and to improve the general environment there. That costs money, and the council has already had to pay for major developments to replace all the glass panels on the balconies with new, tougher, supposedly vandal-proof concrete panels in the hope that they will prevent further damage such as that which has happened in the past.
It is a major problem, particularly for a council such as Burnley, which has major problems in its pre-war council house stock that it cannot tackle because of the problems with its HIP allocation. I have referred before to the difficulties in a town such as Burnley, which also has a high percentage of old terraced housing that needs improvement and repair grants. The council has insufficient resources to meet the demands being made on it and has had to restrict grants.
It is difficult to deal with the problems of system-built housing. One of the problems that has not been mentioned today is that not only do we have to have new build to replace such houses, but some houses have had system-built improvements that now need to be replaced. For example, in Burnley system-built bathroom units were added on to the back of some of the pre-war council houses. The practice was quite widespread in the Liverpool and Merseyside area. The units came on lorries, were assembled and built on to the backs of the houses. Now the units have had to be demolished because of structural faults and corrosion of the metal framework. There is the massive cost of having to add new bathrooms to the houses and flats in the traditional way of building. This problem is quite widespread in the north-west, and a major drain on the financial resources of local government.
The Government fail to recognise that such properties are not the ones that are being sold, certainly in Burnley. There is no great rush of applications to buy properties in Trafalgar gardens. In the borough as a whole, one eighth of our housing stock has been sold, which for a council that opposed council house sales and was on the Government's black list for a long time is a reasonable percentage.
We are selling all our best houses and the cost of improving and developing properties and the problems of industrial built systems is borne by a smaller number of tenants. That forces council rents up at an ever-increasing rate. If the council cannot put such costs on the rent, they have to go on the rates and we all know what the Government are doing about rates. We have had holdback, clawback, penalties and now there is ratecapping for next year. That will mean that many councils, even if they thought that that was the better course for dealing with the problems, will not be able to take it anyway.
77 The answer is clearly and simply in the Government's hands. They have to say that they will provide money to local government to tackle this problem. It must be tackled speedily. It is not right that anybody should have to live in such properties, and if people looked at the Bison-type properties in Manchester they would not wish to live in them. It was not the planners and the architects who designed Hulme, called it the Bath of the north and said how beautiful it would he who ended up living in there. If they are not prepared to live in those properties themselves, such properties are not suitable for other people to live in. In the present condition of many such properties, the only solution is demolition and new build.
Not all this applies to Burnley properties, but we do not have the money to deal with the problem. Our case is not as bad as that of Manchester, but we need Government assistance if we are to tackle the problem and make these properties suitable and reasonable homes. Trafalgar gardens is not fully let because it is not the type of property into which people wish to move. However, they are basically reasonable homes that need jobs done on them. For example, condensation needs to be dealt with, and condensation is a major problem. There is one man who works in the housing department in Burnley whom the councillors and the tenants call Mr. Condensation because everywhere he goes he blames the condensation. He says that the tenants need more heat and more windows open, and this is on new properties.
In Trafalgar gardens, we are trying experiments to deal with the problems, but we need Government assistance if they are to be tackled properly. I hope that the Minister will recognise the serious concern of all Labour Members, and I hope of all Conservative Members, about this serious problem. Let us see action and a speedy resolution to this problem.
§ Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) on his choice of this important subject. I preface my remarks by saying that I shall not use the words non-traditional and system-built industrialised as terms of art when I refer to those dwellings set out in the AMA report.
I agree with many hon. Members that the faults in non-traditional building are not universal. In my constituency, there are some pentagon blocks — pentagon in shape rather than in intention—which have been successful and are used as warden-controlled old persons' accommodation. We should be wrong to stigmatise all non-traditional building by the gross faults that have become apparent in some of it.
However, having said that, there is a shock-horror story, beginning with the shock of the progressive collapse of Ronan point in 1969, and ending with the latest episode —the publication of the AMA report about defects in non-traditional building systems which have emerged in houses built since the 1960s. The scale of the problem is immense. There are 1.5 million non-traditional homes, not all of them defective, but the AMA, which is a responsible body, says that the total cost of repairs or demolition is likely to be about £10 billion. One commentator—not the AMA—put the cost of dealing with Bison blocks alone at £1.4 billion. To put it in context, the figures about which we are talking for curing the problems of non-traditional housing amount to four years of the current, 78 deflated expenditure on all public housing and improvement and repair grants. In other words, every kind of Government support for housing would be taken up for four years in dealing with the problems of non-traditional housing. It is a land-based story of the Titanic, except that one can substitute for icebergs the traditional elements of British weather—cold, damp, humidity, and so forth.
The catalogue of problems is terrifying. There is rain penetration not just from the roof, but from cracks in the construction. There is condensation. Hardly any hon. Member can have been in his advice bureau for a week without somebody coming to talk about the problems of condensation in system-built housing. There is rotting woodwork, cracking concrete, structural collapse, loosening joints, disintegrating balconies. The flats are too cold and too expensive to heat. If one does not have a fire hazard, one has an asbestos hazard. There is rusting of steel framework, often because the alkilinity of the concrete surrounding it has been decreased by chloride quickening processes. Everything seems to go wrong from the roof to the drains.
I agree that the political responsibility does not rest on one party or the other for the construction of properties in the past, but there is a heavy responsibility on the Government as a whole. We are concerned not about what happened in the past, but about what we must do in the future.
The first lesson that I would draw is to beware of experts. Some of the experts are well known firms, such as Wates. There are many Wates-built houses in my constituency and people cannot sell them because of alleged defects, although I think that the reactions of building societies have contributed to the crisis. The name Wates did not underwrite the safety of those properties.
Architects, too, have much to answer for in the design, materials and professional prestige that went into nontraditional housing. Experts may tell us that nuclear waste wrapped up in concrete will be safe, or that nuclear power stations built in a certain manner are bound to be absolutely safe, even to cope with a half life of several tens of thousands of years. However, after the experience of 20 years of the use of concrete in industrial housing, I would exercise more suspicion than exists at the moment about the expertise of other people who talk about the use of concrete in different circumstances. That is one of the first lessons that we should learn.
I spoke to a housing director today who told me that in one slab-built industrialised system, after only a few years, the couplings, which consist of a female on one side and a male on the other, have the characteristic that as the female gets bigger the male gets smaller. I am sure that if when those premises were built one had said in a housing committee that such a problem would arise as the building swayed in the wind, one would have been dismissed as a fussy bigot. I am backed by a strange phenomenon—a Government Whip, the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson)—if only from a sedentary position. As I said, one would have been treated as a fusspot.
The Department of the Environment bears a heavy responsibility because it actively discouraged people from being over-fussy about testing these systems. In fact, a circular warned people about being too exacting in the examinations that they applied to the systems. Moreover, Government Departments in the past gave appraisal certificates to the systems, gave favourable subsidy 79 arrangements, and almost imposed quotas on non-traditional housing by giving speedy approvals to loan sanctions, and so on. There was direct criticism by the Government of any excessive zeal by councillors and their officials in testing non-traditional housing systems. Therefore, the Government now have a special responsibility, which they should not neglect. In some aspects of building technology, all that the Government have done is to give us the slums of the future, after about 10 to 50 years of life, chopping off perhaps between 70 and 50 years from the time that Victorian-built houses took to become slums.
One reason for the boom in private house construction is the use of the timber frame. It would be quite wrong to panic people away from using timber frame housing or to stigmatise that construction method across the board. On the other hand, the Government have a special responsibility, since they claim credit for increased start figures in the private sector, to see that the same mistakes are not repeated with timber framed houses as were perpetrated with concrete construction. Let us not trust the experts. Let us have much more testing in future.
The second lesson is that the Government should allow widespread testing and research. In the past, they were dismissive of local authorities which wanted to test non-traditional systems. The Government bear a heavy responsibility for the appraisal certificates that were given by the National Building Agency.
The next lesson is that we should not neglect skill in the construction industry. One reason why non-traditional housing ballooned was that it was a way to build homes without using skilled manpower. It was a response to a crisis. There were two responses. One response was after the war, when Governments quite properly wanted to get on with providing homes for people. There was a further response in the 1950s and 1960s, when the former Harold Macmillan wanted to get on with a big housing programme. It is not possible to carry out such programmes effectively in the long run without using skilled manpower and proper materials.
Another reason for the problems is that not enough skill was put into the assembly of system-built housing in this country. This is not the only country that has system-built housing. It is widely used in Scandinavia. I have seen many Scandinavian system-built estates. Moreover, it is widely used in north America. One difference is that in those countries skilled manpower was used to put the systems together on site. In this country we thought that we could get away with using unskilled manpower to assemble on site. Therefore, it is necessary to use and develop skills.
The next lesson to be learnt is that we cannot run the construction industry on the basis of responding to a housing crisis at one moment and then shutting it down in response to monetary policy at another time. The industry cannot be run on a stop-go basis. The development of skills, training programmes, and so on, must take place in an industry that is not run on a stop-go basis. Here, too, the Department of the Environment has a special responsibility. It cannot distance itself from the matter by failing to produce a housing strategy for the public sector, failing to forecast a need in the public sector—as it refuses to do at present—or failing to give a lead—as it also refuses to do at present.
80 I turn now to the action that the Government should take. The Government cannot leave local authorities to get on with the job within the context of their normal housing investment programmes. The problem is too big for local authorities to tackle on their own. First, there is funding. The Government should produce a strategy to deal with the irreparable non-traditional built houses and flats. They should provide funds beyond the HIP allocation, because the housing investment programmes and capital receipts will not provide enough money to deal with the most serious problems. The Government should be prepared to write off the debt of the most serious cases of irreparable system-built housing. They should provide money for it to be demolished and replaced.
The problem is at its worst where there are low capital receipts and a concentration of industrialised housing. In some places, where there is not much industrialised housing, plenty of houses will be sold; but in other places there will be a great deal of industralised housing—which is difficult, if not impossible, to sell—and low capital receipts. It is no good asking each local authority to contain the problem within its own funding and boundaries. The Government must provide financial assistance outside the housing investment programme.
It is a pity that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) is not present. In a previous debate on housing, when talking about Government involvement, he said:my authority has had precious little help from that quarter. It has had sympathy by the bucket load but no help."—[Official Report, 1 July 1983; Vol. 44, c. 854.]For the borough of Hillingdon the hon. Gentleman places the cost of refurbishment of Bison dwellings at £38 million. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) quoted a figure of £104 million to deal with the problem of non-traditional housing in Leeds. Other examples have also been given. That all goes to prove that a local authority with a big problem of industrial housing on its hands cannot be expected to deal with it from its own resources. There must be a separate funding strategy.
The Government must supplement the AMA inquiry, which does not go into as much depth as it would have wanted, with their own inquiry, research and study to see what defects can be remedied or to what extent continued demolition is the answer to the problem. The scale of the problem deserves nothing less than a thoroughgoing Department of the Environment inquiry followed by a White Paper.
I agree with what has been said by my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, Central and for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and by the hon. Members for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope) and for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) about the problems of blight. The Government must not only follow up the AMA inquiry with one of their own and publish a White Paper on their strategy and ways of tackling the matter either by repair or by demolition, but avoid the stigmatisation of non-traditional housing. That has become apparent in the private sector, because building societies are resisting lending on, and prospective purchasers are becoming extremely suspicious of, any kind of non-traditional housing built a few years ago. They must also avoid the problem of stigmatisation in the public sector, where properties will be much harder to let because of a reputation which surrounds non-traditional homes, 81 even if there is little wrong with them. It is important that the Government should set out the criteria for judging whether non-traditional construction is up to standard.
The Government must treat tenants and owners with equity and fairness. First, will the Minister say when he will publish the Bill on defective housing? We had a statement on 10 November 1983, and we have been waiting for about four months for the next instalment. People in the private sector are becoming more and more nervous, discontented, worried and anxious about what will happen to them. It is not good enough to mention six categories of homes. The Government must set objective standards for judging whether an owner should be able to sell his home back to a local authority — or the Government for that matter—or be given a repair grant.
The Minister's statement on 10 November 1983 was breathtaking in its partiality and choice of the beast of burden. First, it applied only to owners. Why is it that only those unlucky enough to buy the houses are to get help, and vast numbers of people, who are too poor or too elderly, or perhaps even too sensible, to buy nontraditional houses, are to get no help at all?
§ Mr. Penhaligon
I remind the hon. Gentleman that that applies only to owners who have purchased from a local authority. If houses have always been owned privately, no assistance is forthcoming.
§ Mr. Fraser
The hon. Gentleman is correct.
The partiality and selectiveness of the aid to be given by the Government is astounding. Who is to bear the burden? The Government encouraged industrialised and system-building. They gave certificates of appraisal and bulldozed local authorities into building them. But when private owners find that the whole thing has gone wrong, the Government do not pick up the tab. They pass the burden back to local authorities which were railroaded into the construction programmes in the first place. That is partial, selective and makes an unfair distinction between the owner who bought from a local authority and the owner who bought direct from a private firm. It is particularly unfair to the tenant who has never bought and is never likely to buy who may be continuing to suffer the burdens of non-traditional housing compared with the person who bought from the local authority at a substantial discount.
The Government must rethink this matter and provide a strategy for giving financial aid to local authorities and private owners alike so that tenants and owners are dealt with equitably and fairly. That includes the writing off of debts for those dwellings that have to be demolished. The Government must expand resources for the replacement of those houses which need to be demolished.
We are now in the middle of a slump. This is the time to put unused resources into unmet needs. This is the time to start training and to increase production of bricks and cement. There is no shortage of resources, materials or manpower—indeed, even money. It may not be possible if we ever enter a boom, but it is possible now. The Government should embark on a replacement strategy now when it will not throw undue strain upon manpower or financial resources. As more than one hon. Member has said, we have a problem of Titanic proportions in more senses than one. It will require Herculean efforts on the part of Government and local authorities to deal with the problem.
We want a serious and considered response to the AMA's shocking report. We want more information about 82 the Bill dealing with defective premises. We want to hear from the Minister tonight that the Government will embark upon an all-round strategy to deal with the problem. We want to hear that the Government will make the resources available and will accept the responsibility that is truly theirs for a problem that afflicts hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a million, tenants and owners in Britain.
§ The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Ian Gow)
I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) on having chosen this subject for debate. All who have taken part in it would want to join in a degree of thankfulness for the fact that the hon. Gentleman initiated his debate at the hour at which he did.
The debate has been thoughtful and serious, as the subject requires. The hon. Gentleman made a significant contribution and set the tone for the debate. I am anxious to correct several misunderstandings which may be in the minds of some hon. Members and which have certainly appeared in comment outside the House on the serious problem of defective housing. The debate gives me an opportunity to identify the problems which exist and the measures which the Government are taking to overcome them.
About 11 million houses and flats have been built in the United Kingdom since the war. Of these 6 million were built by the public sector, and 5 million of that 6 million used conventional materials and design. Non-traditional industrialised and system-built houses and flats account for only one sixth of the total post-war housing stock built for the public sector.
It is important that fact should be separated from fantasy. If not, people's homes, which are vital to them, whether they are tenants or owners, will be blighted unnecessarily. I agree very much with what the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) said about that matter. Blight will take place if that error is made, not on the basis of objective evidence, but because of a vague general fear of anything not built with bricks and mortar.
What are the facts about the million or so houses and flats built, mostly by local authorities, of unconventional types and materials? The first fact is that they are of many different types. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope) made that point very forcefully in his speech. Each type has particular characteristics. It follows that the technical evidence about one type must not be used to condemn another. We have no evidence that defects in prefabricated reinforced concrete houses built in the 1940s and 1950s are directly relevant to homes built in the 1960s and 1970s.
Secondly, there can often be faults in some developments of a particular type that are not common to all dwellings of that type. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Itchen, whose constituency I visited on Friday. For instance, a block of flats built in a particular system may, unfortunately, because of faulty erection or poor maintenance, show serious defects, but many other blocks in the same system can still be providing good homes, and, with normal maintenance, will continue in use for many years.
The third fact is that the proven problems are, mercifully, limited, and I underline the word "proven". There are serious problems with the 170,000 houses built of prefabricated reinforced concrete before 1960. As the 83 hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford said in opening the debate, they were built at a time when housing was in very short supply, and most of these houses were built in the aftermath of the war.
The hon. Gentleman, and even his hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), rightly pointed out that the encouragement that was given to this system of housing was an encouragement that had been given by Conservative and Labour Governments equally.
It was believed that the materials and construction systems used would provide a house comparable to one built on conventional lines. It was the availability of materials, the speed of construction and the relatively low price that were attractions to those who had responsibility at the time. Some of those houses have already provided good homes for many people for many years. For example, some of the Boot houses built in the early 1920s have provided good homes for 60 years and more.
The Building Research Establishment's recent studies show that many will last for some years yet. However, these studies also show that the reinforced concrete components are subject to gradual deterioration which cannot be halted altogether, and that most of them will show signs of that deterioration within 30 years.
I remind the House, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Itchen, of what I said in my statement last year:The great majority of the houses studied were found to be in a structurally sound condition. There were significant differences in the rate of deterioration both between and within types. Some cracking was found in all the types and the nature of the process is such that deterioration will continue, although in some cases very slowly. All houses of these types will eventually be affected by cracking. Cracking in a proportion of houses will not occur for some years and a few houses may not display any evidence of deterioration for the next 30 years or more. No conditions were found which were structurally unsafe."—[Official Report, 10 November 1983; Vol. 48, c. 422.]It may be helpful for the House — and this was referred to by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford in opening the debate—if I explain how these defects came to be discovered. In November 1980 there was a serious fire in an Airey house in Barnsley. The house was owned by the local authority. The fire revealed severe cracking of the concrete columns which supported the house. The Barnsley council asked the BRE to examine the house. The BRE in the following month reported its findings to the council and to the Department.
As a result of that report the Department asked the BRE to examine other Airey houses. This was done, and in May 1981 the Department wrote to all local authorities, sending them a copy of the BRE report and guidance. We asked each local authority to let the Department know the result of the first two inspections of Airey houses as soon as possible, and, subsequently, the results of later inspections. Following the returns made to the BRE by local authorities, further technical information and guidance was prepared and sent to local authorities in May 1982. On 7 September 1982, the then Minister for Housing and Construction, my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Mr. Stanley), announced a scheme of financial assistance to the owners of Airey houses which have been sold by public bodies, and which had been discovered subsequently to be subject to serious or potential defects.
84 My predecessor announced in February last year that he had asked BRE to inspect six further types of prefabricated reinforced concrete houses—Boot, Cornish Unit, Orlit, Unity Wates and Woolaway designs. A summary of BRE's findings in respect of those houses was published on 10 November.
In December BRE published its report on Smith houses. I expect to receive reports on Parkinson, Reema—that was the type mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Itchen and by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron)—Stent, Tarran, Winget and Whitson Fairhurst houses at the end of this month. The reports will be published as soon as possible thereafter. The account that I have given to the House of the steps that the Government and BRE have taken since that fire in November 1980 shows that we have followed the matter up vigorously.
These defects present a particular problem for the private owner, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Rother Valley. The owner is faced with an immediate depreciation of his asset. The hon. Member for Norwood asked when the Government hoped to introduce the Bill which I announced on 10 November. I hope that the Bill will be introduced before the end of the month, to give help to qualifying owners of certain houses and flats sold by public sector bodies which have since proved defective. I hope that the scheme of assistance will be in operation before the end of this year. I remind the House that that assistance will be through a 90 per cent. repairs grant, or, in some cases, repurchase by the local authority at 95 per cent. of defect-free value.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) asked me about specific problems which affect his constituency. I know that the hon. Gentleman has been in touch with my Department about these problems. He also asked me to visit Liverpool. I visited Liverpool on 28 February, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows, and I readily accept his invitation to visit his constituency to see for myself the problems of the type of house to which he referred.
As has been rightly stressed, the prefabricated reinforced concrete houses in private ownership are only part of the story. More than 150,000 of these types remain in public ownership. They will have to be repaired or replaced. But the BRE studies show that many of these houses will not need repair for some years. On the basis of the technical information that we have published, local authorities will be able to undertake a considered and phased programme of repair within the resources available to them. That is a subject to which I shall return later.
Some other houses and flats built before 1960 of non-traditional design use materials other than prefabricated reinforced concrete. These include, for example, steel-framed houses, and houses built of unreinforced concrete. They cannot be lumped together with prefabricated reinforced concrete houses. I hope that local authorities, the surveying professions and the lending institutions—this point was of concern to many hon. Members—will recognise that the BRE's research on prefabricated reinforced concrete houses has no implications for these other types.
Part 1 of the AMA's report, to which a number of hon. Members have referred, which was published in July of last year, concentrated on non-traditional pre-1960 houses, but failed to make an important distinction between pre-1960 PRC houses and other types of house. There have been problems with some non-PRC types of 85 house. but I have seen no evidence that any type is defective as a type. Most of the evidence available is of local problems related to particular faults of design and construction or of inadequate maintenance. Sometimes the problems, such as the rusting of unprotected steel, were only to be expected. There is no evidence to suggest that these types of houses are inherently defective, nor to challenge the premise that if these houses have been and continue to be properly maintained they should remain in use for many years. We must be careful of ill-considered and generalised statements that can blight houses and cause unnecessary anxiety—a point to which the hon. Member for Norwood drew attention.
I come to the 700,000 or so homes built since 1960 in widely differing industrialised systems, including prefabricated reinforced concrete houses and flats. Again, there is no evidence that all or even the majority of these suffer from serious defects which are a result of the structural system. The AMA's report published last week provides a catalogue of the problems that some authorities have discovered in their industrialised buildings, but often the problems have their origins in poor on-site construction or poor maintenance, or both.
I accept that we are not freed from the consequences of the problem by identifying its causes, but identifying the problem takes us some way from the suggestion that the blame lies wholly with central Government for encouraging the use of industrialised systems. I remind the House, without seeking to avert the responsibility of central Government, that in each case the decision to use a particular system was made by the local authority. No local authority was obliged to use these methods. The AMA accepts that their use reflected the widely-held attitudes of the time and thatlocal authorities were generally compliant partners and, in some cases, enthusiastic pioneers of new methods.The hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford referred to the National Building Agency. The issue of a NBA certificate for a system did not relieve local authorities of the need to ensure that specific applications of the system were satisfactory. In England and Wales, certificates were issued only for low-rise designs. Some systems put into production were never certified by the NBA. Some systems were devised and developed by authorities. I intend to discuss these matters with the AMA and other interested parties at the next meeting of the Housing Consultative Council, which I hope will take place at the end of June, or at a separate meeting if the authorities would like to see me before then.
Some problems of industrialised housing built since 1960 do not flow from physical defects. Some of them stem from the basic concept of the development and layout; for example, from the sheer scale, which intimidates tenants and visitors alike, and from the provision of open space for which no one has any sense of responsibility. Our priority estates project is developing practical ways in which problems of that kind can be overcome. The cost of remedying many of those problems can be relatively modest.
Much of the debate, and rightly, has centered on the financial problems faced by local authorities. Some hon. Members have argued for immediate and massive expenditure. The hon. Member for Norwood urged that there should be writing off of local authority debt. Those who advocate that course believe that unless such massive expenditure is embarked upon there will be a distortion of 86 the housing investment programmes of local authorities and that it will not be possible to proceed with desirable expenditure in other areas.
I stress that these defects can, in most cases, be tackled over a number of years. There will, of course, he cases where a group of houses or a system-built block needs extensive repair earlier than that. But usually authorities will be able to spread the remedial expenditure over a period of time. In the coming financial year more than £2.5 billion will be available for housing capital expenditure by local authorities.
§ Mr. Fatchett
Is the Minister satisfied, on the basis of the argument that he has adduced, with the 15 years that it is likely to take Leeds to repair its Airey house stock? If so, should he not make it clear to those who live in Airey houses that the Government's policy is to allow their problems to continue for that length of time and that they are not prepared to make help available for that purpose to Leeds?
§ Mr. Gow
It would be irresponsible of me to comment on the length of time that will be needed to carry out the repairs to the houses in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. As I explained earlier, the nature of the defects varies not only from one house type to another but also within the same type, and therefore I cannot comment on the figures that he gave.
As I was saying, in the financial year which begins on the first of next month, more than £2.5 billion will be available for housing capital expenditure by local authorities. The White Paper on public expenditure, which the House approved last week, shows an increase. modest it is true, for the housing programme for each of the two following years. Within the total provision for 1985–86 and 1986–87, I shall take account of the special needs of local authorities for defective housing. The provision for next year was decided in the light of the need for expenditure on remedying defects as well as of other needs.
The individual housing investment programme allocations also took account of individual authorities' needs for expenditure on defective housing. We are looking, with the local authority associations, at the method of calculating the housing investment programme allocations—the general needs index formula—to see whether any changes are needed to reflect the incidence of defective housing I do not want to prejudge my discussions with the AMA, but such a change in the GNI might be desirable in the light of information now in our possession.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
The Minister may know that Ronan Point is in my constituency. Is he saying that when that procedure and review have been concluded the Government may not reveal to local authorities the sums that they have in mind for these services, but will just take them into account when setting the final HIP allocations?
§ Mr. Gow
The general needs index is a guide which scores various points for certain local authority problems. Generally speaking, it would be true to say that when the GNI is reviewed annually the local authorities find that the guide is acceptable. I expect that we can reach an agreement on any revision to the GNI, as we have done in the past.
In the Housing Act 1980 we took the important step of bringing capitalised repairs within the subsidy system for 87 the first time, so the cost of those repairs will attract subsidy where local resources available to the authority are insufficient to meet the cost of housing expenditure.
The vast majority of houses and flats built since the war by local authorities have been of traditional design and construction using traditional materials. There is no reason to believe that all or most of those built of non-traditional materials and using innovative design and construction methods are necessarily defective.
Pre-1960 prefabricated reinforced concrete houses are deteriorating more rapidly than expected. The Government have paid for research and published it. They are providing assistance to private owners through the proposed scheme of assistance and to local authorities through the housing investment programme and subsidy systems. There is no evidence of serious defects affecting all other industrialised and systems-built houses.
§ Mr. Barron
Will the Minister be more specific in terms of what occurs when someone has bought a house which is considered defective by a public body or local authority? Who will do the assessing? Who will pay for the assessment? Does the Minister intend to do anything about the building societies which refuse to give mortgages on those houses, although there appear to have been no structural change in the houses since they were purchased a few years previously from the public bodies?
§ Mr. Gow
The hon. Gentleman in his speech raised a specific point about Reema houses. Earlier, I said that before the end of this month I hoped to receive the report on the Reema houses from the Building Research Establishment. My report will be published as soon as possible thereafter. I cannot prejudge a decision on this matter. Depending on the contents of the report, a decision will be made about whether that type of house should be included in the mandatory scheme. As it is a pre-reinforced concrete house built before 1960, the likelihood — I cannot go further than that—is that it will be included in the scheme. I cannot make a decision until we have had the report from the BRE.
88 In my statement of 10 November I made it clear that where a house had originated in the public sector—not necessarily with a local authority, for I include the National Coal Board — and was now in the private sector, the scheme of assistance would apply to owners provided that two criteria were met: first, that the defect was not discoverable by normal surveys at the time of purchase; and, secondly, that there had been a substantial diminution in value because the house suffered from a defect not discoverable by ordinary survey at the time of purchase.
§ Mr. John Fraser
One further problem is that houses will suffer diminution in value, even more so when the Government publish their list, simply because they fall into one of those categories. A system X house may show no defect, but because the Government have categorised that system as likely to have defects there will be a diminution of value even though there is no structural deterioration.
§ Mr. Gow
As I said in my statement to the House on 10 November:The processes of carbonation and attack by chlorides are likely to affect all prefabricated reinforced concrete houses built before 1960."—[Official Report, 10 November 1983; Vol. 48, c. 422.]That is the advice that I received from the Building Research Establishment and gave to the House.
Responsibility for the standard of future buildings must remain with those who commission, design and construct buildings. The Department has set up the defects prevention unit at the Building Research Establishment to gather and assess information on faults in buildings and provide advice for local authorities and others. The work of the Building Research Establishment, together with that of the British Standards Institution and the Agrément Board, help the construction industry to provide building of a high standard. Many hon. Members have referred to the waste of resources involved in rectifying past errors. I hope that all of us learn from those errors and that quality and excellence will once more be the hallmarks of new building, whether in the public or the private sector.