§ Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Donald Thompson.]2.30 pm
§ Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)
I shall raise an issue which is crucial to hundreds of thousands of people, and especially for 2,000 of my constituents on the Bemerton estate near King's Cross in my constituency. The issue is the presence and the need for removal of asbestos in council estates. I shall make a statement that I trust will receive agreement on both sides of the House — that asbestos is dangerous. In some instances it may be made reasonably safe temporarily, but where soft asbestos is present and can be or is damaged or has deteriorated in any way, it is dangerous to health. That was recognised by a Minister in the Department of Employment last July when he said that it must be assumed that a single fibre of asbestos could do real damage that might not be seen for about 20 years or more. Evidence is growing of the damage to lungs, the presence of cancer and the onset of asbestosis where people have been in contact with asbestos dust. The evidence is becoming overwhelming and extremely disturbing.
Asbestos is present in many ways in many council estates. It is present in roof tiles, ceilings, door and wall panels, fireplace surrounds, heating panels, airing cupboard walls, fuse boxes, boiler insulation materials and coatings on steel work. It is especially present in many ceilings and ceiling panels which were put into estates which were built in the 1950s and early 1960s. Where it is present and where there are potential damaging effects, it is essential that local authorities, which have responsibilities as landlords and custodians of the health and welfare of their tenants, take steps to remove the asbestos to make life healthy and safe for those tenants.
On some estates hundreds of flats may be affected, and common parts, such as landings and staircases, may be used by hundreds of people daily. When removal is decided upon, there are two enormous problems. First, there is the management problem of carrying out the work and ensuring that tenants are protected while the work is being undertaken. The second problem is the serious one of cost. I shall return to the cost issue on which I seek the Government's assistance.
The problem has been illustrated graphically on one estate in my constituency. I have already referred to the Bemerton estate, which has in three tower blocks 220 flats. The whole estate was constructed in the early 1960s, and there are some 600 flats. About six months ago, the council discovered brown asbestos which was presented as a spray coating on the hallways and half-landings of the three tower blocks. In the hallways, the asbestos coating is about 7m up above the floor, and at the moment this seems to be undamaged and difficult to damage. In each hallway, however, three hatches are set into the asbestos, and there is a serious potential for damage and asbestos degeneration.
More importantly, on the half-landings there is a sprayed asbestos coating in soft asbestos, which is approximately 3m from the floor. There is already evidence of both accidental and malicious damage to those coatings. The dust generated on those half-landings can be extremely harmful to the tenants in those blocks. I have received reports from a number of tenants on the estate that 1436 they are beginning to find asbestos dust in the heating system — it is a district heating system — running throughout the estate.
The borough to which the estate was transferred from the GLC three or four years ago is taking immediate temporary measures to seal in the asbestos where it has been discovered. The borough, with the tenants, is carrying out a full survey of all 600 flats on the estate to establish exactly the extent and nature of the asbestos.
In the meantime, the caretakers on the estate have had to be told by the council that they cannot scrub, mop and clean and replace fittings in the way in which they have previously done and in the way necessary to make life tolerable for the tenants. There is a natural and justifiable concern among the tenants about the presence of asbestos and what will happen about its removal. The maintenance and cleaning of the estate has had to suffer, because of potential damage to the asbestos which might be caused by the normal cleaning and maintenance process.
Already, the cost to the local authority of the survey and immediate spraying measures to seal in the asbestos is, in the current financial year, about £25,000. That is before any steps are taken to remove the asbestos. The full cost, whatever action is finally decided upon, of removing the asbestos will run into hundreds of thousands of pounds and, because we are talking about 600 flats, may well run into millions of pounds. That cost, which has hitherto not been budgeted for in the council's housing investment programme, may throw out of kilter the rest of the borough's housing plans for modernisation and the construction of new houses. It may destroy the hope for that programme of thousands of tenants and potential tenants in Islington.
One must look beyond that estate to all the others built at the same time and in the same way which may, in the next few months or years, create similar problems. It is estimated that about £100 million worth of work needs to be done to remove asbestos from council estates in London. One wonders what will have to be spent throughout the country.
The extent of the problem is still not fully known, but if proper steps are taken by local authorities to remove asbestos where it represents a danger to tenants, it will cost hundreds of millions of pounds in additional housing capital expenditure.
I want to ask three specific questions. The first two relate to the Bemerton estate. First, if the borough of Islington approaches and asks the Government to recognise that the removal of asbestos from flats, landing, and hallways is a special problem that cannot be tackled by the normal housing investment programme, will they listen sympathetically to a request for special consideration under the housing investment programme and consider a special allocation of funds to tackle the problem?
The second question is related to the first. The Bemerton estate was transferred from the Greater London council, and capital works on that estate supposedly falls within the arrangements for funding capital works on ex-GLC estates through the GLC. If the Department cannot consider a special allocation for the borough of Islington, will it see what can be done through the GLC's capital programme? In that connection, how will the proposed abolition of the GLC affect work on transferred estates? 1437 An attempt was made last night to justify the plans for abolition, but they were unconvincing. How will the abolition proposals affect such problems?
The GLC money Bill is threatened. It should have been debated in the House last night, but unfortunately it was not. It is now due to come before us in two or three weeks' time. How will that and the scrutiny by the Treasury affect work on transferred estates?
The third question is even more important and more general. How do the Goverment and the Department intend to approach the problem of asbestos removal throughout the country? The Government have already recognised, but only to a limited extent, the problems of the defective construction of council estates and houses, such as Airy and Orlit houses, built during the 1950s and 1960s. They have recognised the problem and devoted special funds, to be made available through the Housing Defects Bill to those who have purchased properties on such estates. However, they have not yet given satisfactory assurances about what will happen about local authorities which still own houses, with tenants, which suffer from the same problem.
We must ask the Government what thought they have given to the problem of asbestos in estates constructed during the 1950s and 1960s when asbestos was commonly used. Do the Government recognise that that is a special problem and that it cannot be tackled simply within local authorities' normal housing investment programmes, because it occurs sometimes on an enormous scale demanding vast financial resources, and potentially throwing out of joint the rest of those authorities' housing programmes? Do the Department of the Environment and the Minister recognise that those problems are special?
Will the Minister consider setting up a special procedure whereby—when a local authority can prove to the satisfaction of his Department that asbestos is present, dangerous and needs to be removed, and where the cost is above a certain amount, which can be determined by the Department, but which could show the substantial nature of the problem in relation to the authorities' housing investment programme—additional funds can be made available through the housing investment programme to tackle the problem?
If the Minister cannot give such an assurance, one of two things will happen. Authorities will have to go ahead and carry out the work, and as a result throw out of kilter the rest of their housing programme and disappoint thousands of homeless people on their waiting lists and in their less desirable estates who are desperate to move for the sake of themselves and their families, or the local authorities will decide not to carry out the necessary removal works. If that is the case, tenants on estates such as Bemerton will continue to be anxious and ill at ease and with an enormous potential health danger hanging over their lives every day within their own homes.
A case came to public attention some time ago which illustrates the nature of the problem and the potential danger posed by asbestos in council estates. One tenant found that her children — one must remember that children are at greater risk from cancer and the effects of asbestos than adults—had bored into a blue asbestos panel behind their bed and made a toy garage in the space. She wondered what the blue dust was. The dust was, of course, a potential and immediate danger to those children. I am seeking to avoid similar cases in future by initiating this debate and by my requests to the Minister.
1438 I hope that the Minister will take some notice, and will take action to put an end to this appalling risk to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)
It is right that this week should end, as much as it appears to have been spent, with an Environment Minister replying to the debate.
The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) has raised an important issue. He has done so, as one would expect, in a reasonable and well argued way. He has drawn on the experience that he has had in his constituency.
The potential danger of asbestos materials used in buildings has been recognised for some time, and the problem of dealing with asbestos has been extensively investigated.
The advisory committee on asbestos, which was set lap by the Health and Safety Commission in 1976, looked at the question of asbestos materials in buildings and concluded thatthe number of people at risk is probably small.The committee did not recommend that all asbestos materials should be removed from buildings.
The risk to health from asbestos arises from breathing airborne asbestos dust — the more dust inhaled, the greater the risk. So the risk to occupants of buildings depends on the type of asbestos material present and its condition. A hard material in good condition presents little risk, but a soft material that is worn or damaged could be hazardous. Measurements of airborne asbestos dust using the most powerful electron microscopes have found very low levels of airborne dust and, in general, the risk to occupants of buildings is thought to be very slight. But there are circumstances in which some types of asbestos material can release significant amounts of dust, and there could then be a risk to occupants of the building.
My Department has recently published advice on dealing with asbestos in building in two formats. The first is a booklet "Asbestos Materials in Buildings", which gives detailed advice and is intended for environmental health officers, surveyors and other professional staff. The second is a short, free booklet on "Asbestos in Housing" for distribution to the public. The detailed booklet describes the types of asbestos material likely to be found in buildings and suggests ways of dealing with them. It is not always necessary completely to remove all asbestos materials—in some cases it is better to seal the material and leave it undisturbed until the building reaches the end of its useful life.
I understand the public concern about asbestos, particularly on the Bemerton estate, mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, but one has to recognise that there are several types of asbestos material used in a variety of circumstances. In some cases there may be a risk to occupants of the building and it will be necessary to seal or remove the asbestos. In other cases, the risk will be negligible and it will be better to leave the material in place.
Asbestos has been used in various types of heating systems in the past as insulation around heat exchangers, and to line cupboards containing heater units. Tests have shown, however, that the amount of asbestos dust given off by heaters is very low and unlikely to be a risk to health. Manufacturers of that type of heater no longer use 1439 asbestos insulation, and have not done so for several years. Asbestos insulation in existing heaters should nevertheless be sealed or replaced. It may sometimes be more economical to replace the whole unit if it is nearing the end of its useful life.
In some cases urgent action is needed, but there is no need for local authorities to undertake wholesale programmes of asbestos removal regardless of whether or not the material is hazardous.
Problems of this type will always arise from time to time, and local authorities must accommodate them by changing priorities in their expenditure. It would be unrealistic for local authorities to expect additional central funds to be made available every time a new issue crops up.
I should like to explain the financial framework under which local authorities can deal with asbestos problems in their own stock. I shall deal with the specific questions raised by the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, capital allocations are made to each authority in each year to enable them to undertake capital housing projects including new build, rehabilitation and asbestos removal. Authorities have discretion to decide how best to use the resources being made available to them to meet the housing needs of their area, and are encouraged to use their capital receipts to augment their allocations.
Provided each project passes the Department's scrutiny — and I see no particular difficulty with projects including asbestos removal—most of the expenditure will reckon for housing subsidy. Not all authorities are still receiving subsidy, but nearly all London boroughs are still in subsidy, and Islington certainly is.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the resources available to Islington. For the current year, it received a basic allocation of nearly £34 million. Its available capital receipts totalled £3.5 million. The problems of the borough are fully recognised. Although we recognise that the basic allocation is slightly less than the previous year, none the less it was the second highest allocation to any London borough. All the resources for this year have now been allocated. Authorities have already been invited to make bids for allocations for next year. No final decisions on the total provision for housing have yet been taken. Within Greater London and, indeed, elsewhere in the country resources for future housing programmes will remain constrained. Against that, there are many special demands made by housing authorities. We listen very carefully to them all and try to strike a fair and reasonable balance between many competing claims.
The hon. Gentleman spoke strongly about the Bemerton estate in his constituency. Construction began, as he mentioned, in 1951 and was not completed until after 1966. It comprises 861 units. I understand that asbestos has been discovered in three blocks on the estate in the communal areas and in some flats, and that it has been used in the ceilings and in the heating systems.
At the moment the borough is determining the scale of the problem, not only on the Bemerton estate but throughout the borough, and the likely cost of any consequential works needed. Of course, I understand the concern of the tenants in those blocks, but it would be sensible to wait until the council has finished its investigations before assessing the scale of the problem on our hands.
1440 So far, we have not received any bid from the borough for an allocation specifically for asbestos removal. But, in response to the hon. Gentleman's first question, of course we shall listen sympathetically to officials of Islington when they talk to officials in my Department about the allocation for next year.
The estate was built by the GLC and handed over to the borough in 1981 under a transfer order. Under the terms of the order, the GLC remains responsible for expenditure on major technical problems. No doubt the borough will wish to discuss their investigation with the GLC and decide jointly how best to proceed.
At the moment, the GLC receives an annual capital allocation related to its duty to deal with major technical problems and other duties under the transfer orders. After abolition of the GLC, the entire London HIP allocation will be shared among the boroughs, and in making the allocations we shall take full account of the needs of the boroughs to undertake work on the transferred stock.
As to revenue costs, the need for GLC revenue deficit contributions to continue under the transfer order involved in Islington's case is to be reviewed by the GLC in 1985, and I would not want to anticipate that review. But in the case of the other orders not due for early review, we have already announced that the broad effect of the GLC's obligatory revenue deficit contributions will be maintained, preferably through the RSG, and that will take account of the needs for renovation expenditure on the transferred stock. We shall in due course consult those concerned about the detailed arrangements.
The hon. Gentleman tried to draw a parallel with the Airey houses. The scheme to help the purchasers of Airey houses enables the Secretary of State to designate classes of building that appear to be defective in their design or construction.
Owners of houses or flats in designated classes will be eligible for assistance under the Bill, provided, first, that the house or flat was originally owned by the public sector and, secondly, that the owner bought it before the defect or defects became generally known. The special needs for expenditure of that kind are being taken into account in deciding the HIP allocations of the authorities concerned.
The situation with asbestos material is not the same as that of Airey houses where there is a defect of design or construction. As I have pointed out, local authorities are not given special financial assistance for the cost of repairs to their own defective houses as the present subsidy arrangements already take it into account.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks, the asbestos question is not a new one and it is likely to be with us for some time. It is a problem that can, in general, be dealt with by sensible, planned management of maintenance and repair programmes. To that end—to deal with the third question that I was asked—I have agreed with the local authority associations that a joint working party of central and local government officials should be set up to investigate the scale of the problem and to exchange experience on the best way of dealing with asbestos in buildings. The results of the working party's efforts will be helpful to all the authorities responsible for buildings containing asbestos materials.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Three o'clock, till Monday 4 June, pursuant to the resolution of the House of 17 May.