HC Deb 23 April 1990 vol 171 cc134-40

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

11.30 pm
Mr. Jim Callaghan (Heywood and Middleton)

I wish to draw the attention of the Minister and the House to the importance of the subject that I am raising on the Adjournment tonight. I wish also to draw attention to the Manchester Evening News of Wednesday 7 February. It is a large regional newspaper, and its Lobby correspondent had written an article under the front-page headline: 1,000 homes are lying empty. The scandal of the ghost estate. Such was the importance of the subject that the newspaper carried a second page showing the list of shame, with photographs of residents, and stating that £18 million was needed to make just one estate fit to live in. I thank Mr. Ian Craig for his presentation of the article. He told me that the Manchester Evening News has had its biggest postbag in years on that subject because so many people are angry about 1,000 houses lying empty.

In February it was with great anger, bitterness and frustration that councillors for the Manchester overspill estate, the Langley estate in my constituency—Peter Brown, Tony Heaford, Les Wosley, Kevin Hunt and Peter Bury—expressed to me their deep concern that Manchester's estate action bid for £8 million for renovating the Langley estate had been rejected by the Government. I asked the councillors to contain their anger and frustration until I had discovered from the Manchester housing authority the reasons why the bid had been rejected. I praise the patience of the Langley councillors. On receipt of an eventual communication from the housing authority, I applied to Mr. Speaker for an Adjournment debate.

I can well understand the councillors' frustration and anger, and I share their emotions. They are angry and frustrated because, although they are elected by the good people of Langley, they are powerless to represent them where it most matters—on the housing committee in Manchester that is responsible for the management of the overspill estate. When elected, the councillors of Langley represent their electorate in Rochdale borough council's chamber, not in Manchester. That system is most undemocratic. I said so 15 years ago, on 9 July 1975, on the Floor of the House, when I first raised the subject of Langley overspill estate. I have a copy of that debate to give to the Minister at the end of this debate.

I did not believe in 1975, and do not believe now, that the social, economic and environmental problems confronting Langley can be solved as long as it remains in the ownership of Manchester city council, yet is located in the borough of Rochdale.

As a consequence of that arrangement, Langley's tenants and councillors have no say or input in the running of the estate. As the tenants formerly paid their rents to Manchester, and their rates to Rochdale, an important principle is at stake. An analogy is the American war of independence, which was fought on the slogan, "No taxation without representation." We lost that battle, but the principle holds good. Langley is still paying its taxes to Manchester, but receives no representation. We never seem to learn from our mistakes.

After I raised the matter 15 years ago, I was immediately invited by Manchester city council officials to a meeting, where they asked me not to press the issue because Manchester was unable then to consider any change in the ownership of its overspill estates. They explained that Manchester city council had more than 30,000 applicants on its waiting list and would be unable to continue its slum clearance programme if its overspill estates were lost.

I accepted the merits of that argument, albeit with some reluctance. Fifteen years on, that case can now be met. I believe—as do the appointed and elected Rochdale representatives with whom I have discussed the matter—that the ownership of Langley estate should now be considered by the Government, the two local authorities involved and, above all, by the tenants.

However, apart from the question of principle, my immediate concern is that any such debate should not get in the way of processing a new estate action bid. The representatives of both local authorities and the tenants agree that there is an urgent need for money, for several reasons.

Langley was built 40 years ago as Manchester's largest overspill estate to accommodate 25,000 people displaced by slum clearance. The estate now comprises 4,652 properties, of which 438 have been sold. Sixty-three per cent. of the stock is two to four-bedroomed housing and cottage flats. Thirty per cent. is maisonettes and flats. There are three tower blocks, 42 walk-up flats, and one double-decker maisonette block.

The overriding problem is damp, fungus and condensation because 2,500 properties have solid concrete floors without damp-proof membranes. Almost 1,000 properties are bricked and boarded up which, as the Manchester Evening News comments, is disgraceful.

Those 1,000 boarded-up properties are pepper-potted throughout the estate and are not in one particular location. As each day passes, the estate resembles Beirut more and more. Because of the lack of damp-proof membranes and the area's high water table, more properties are showing signs of serious damp and are unfit for human habitation. Two thousand tenants have initiated litigation in an attempt to secure transfers and compensation.

I have been in many of the homes and I have seen that wallpaper can not be put on the walls. The moment it is put up it falls off because of the damp. I have seen the green mould in people's homes. It is a dreadful smelling green mould which gets on the clothes in the wardrobes and is obviously a danger to health.

As properties become empty they cannot be re-let without major capital works to remedy the dampness. At present there are almost 1,000 empty properties on the estate—almost 25 per cent.—and the number is rising. To be fair to Manchester council, when the problem was identified it developed a rolling programme to replace the floors and modernise the properties. In 1986–87 the council allocated £3.5 million to that work. In 1987–88 it allocated £5.4 million and 577 properties were modernised between 1986 and 1988. Given its financial straits, Manchester has been able to allocate only £300,000 to the damp floor programme this year—a meagre sum, but it is not the council's fault.

As capital resource constraints are exercised, damp properties will continue to exceed the rate at which they can be repaired and the estate will fall into further decline.

Against the background of diminishing resoures, Manchester recognises that it cannot solve Langley's problems alone. The solution is in the hands of the Government. The problem can be solved only if substantial additional resources can be targeted to the estate.

So far I have only given statistics. But those statistics represent people and most of the tenants on the estate are suffering from the effects of living in dreadful property. I said in my first debate on the subject in the House: Thus the estate is seen as a transit camp unrelated to its neighbouring communities and remote from the main authority in Manchester. The problems of Langley thus become more intense as the years go by."—[Official Report, 9 July 1975; Vol. 895, c. 706.] I said that then and I agree with it now.

Any examination of the referrals to the social services department in the borough of Middleton show that 50 per cent. come from Langley. I could continue with such statistics. I also have here a list of the social problems on the estate, given to me by a head teacher in a school on the estate 15 years ago. I could not let the press see it then and I do not want the press to see it now, so dreadful are the social conditions on the estate. But I shall certainly let the Minister have a copy if he is interested.

Langley rates as one of the most deprived areas in the country, according to Professor Peter Townsend's survey, "Inner City Deprivation and Premature Deaths". Professor Townsend of Bristol university recorded that 69 per cent. of those living on the estate do not own a car, 91 per cent. do not own their own homes, there is overcrowding in II per cent. of the homes and the estate has an appalling long-term unemployment rate of 40 per cent.

Poverty can affect expectation of life and there is plenty of poverty on Langley. As an example, Langley west ward has 65 deaths above the national average and the central ward has 48 deaths above the national average. From the evidence of my casework I have no doubt whatsover that the damp, fungus, condensation and lack of adequate heating all contribute to early deaths from deprivation. It is small wonder that 2,000 tenants have sought litigation to obtain transfers from some of those houses of premature death.

Langley has become a ghost town—a dream turned into a nightmare with devastating and desperate problems. Langley is becoming a lost cause, a vandalised ghetto of sickness and despair. The more the estate is run down and the houses left empty at the mercy of the vandals the less families want them because they are not fit for human habitation.

Now there is next to no demand for those houses from people on either the long housing waiting list in Manchester or the long waiting list in Rochdale. That reflects the poor quality of the housing stock in Langley. Accordingly, I asked the Minister to reconsider his decision and accept Manchester's bid for funding. Working on the principle that a stitch in time saves nine, would not it make economic sense to repair the immediate defects of the properties on the estate rather than, in the long run, have to knock down the estate and rebuild it? Does it really make economic sense to have 1,000 houses bricked and boarded up while there are thousands of people on the housing waiting lists in the Manchester and Rochdale areas?

I cannot blame Manchester council, because I have been informed that it submitted 13 bids for estate action money last year, one of which was for Langley. However, I was told that although the Government were very interested in the large Langley bid, they could not find the money this year because it would use up too large an amount of the region's allocation of estate action money. Again, I was told that the Government may be interested in a resubmitted bill for funding in 1991–92 and that optimism was expressed about its chances of success. I hope that that is the case.

The bill last year was for £8.5 million to repair and modernise Langley houses because they are impossible to live in. Hence the necessity for a large injection of funds in addition to normal housing investment programme money. I have also been reliably informed that Manchester city council and Rochdale council are co-operating to make the bid for estate action money in 1991–92 as good as possible. They are also co-operating to alleviate any of the conditions on the estate that can be dealt with in advance of estate action money being available. It is against that background of reducing resources that Manchester council recognises that it cannot solve Langley's problems alone.

On 8 September 1989, in item 18 of the housing committee report, the then acting director of housing in Manchester said: Manchester cannot afford to repair the void properties as well as finding extra money to repair and improve the still tenanted potentially damp properties. A solution to those problems will be possible only if substantial additional resources can be targeted to the Langley estate.

In his order of priorities for estate action money, can the Minister tell us whether any estate in the United Kingdom is in a worse state than Langley? Does any other estate in the United Kingdom have 1,000 households bricked and boarded up? Langley has become such a national scandal that I sincerely invite the Minister to visit the estate with me to see at first hand the problems that I have outlined. If he accepts my invitation, I am sure that he will, as a matter of great urgency, change his mind about the rejection of the estate action bid.

11.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope)

At the outset I must state that I sympathise enormously with the problems that people on the Langley estate have to put up with. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan) has campaigned for a long time on their behalf and he has had tremendous difficulties, particularly with Manchester city council. I saw the Manchester Evening News of 7 February to which the hon. Gentleman referred, in which an article states: Rochdale council's Labour leader Richard Farnell today bitterly attacked his party colleagues in Manchester over the plight of the Langley estate. He accused the city council leadership of indulging in 'gesture politics' and branded the city an absentee landlord. Mr. Farnell said that the city council had failed to make bids for Government cash under its estate action programme because schemes would have private sector links. He said: Langley residents have had an extremely raw deal from Manchester.

Mr. Callaghan

indicated assent.

Mr. Chope

The hon. Gentleman is nodding.

Mr. Farnell has summed up the history of the problem, and we must try to improve matters.

The Government give much emphasis to their estate action programme. I remind the House that, since its inception in 1986, the programme has encouraged housing authorities to take a fresh look at the problems on rundown council estates. It has promoted good and responsive management by insisting that the delivery of local services be based on or near the estate in question and that tenants are allowed to be involved in running their own affairs.

The promotion of good local management has been a prime objective of estate action. We take the view that the day-to-day functions of re-lettings, rent collection and repair and maintenance can often be carried out more effectively and efficiently at local level. That can and should also generate a greater sense of tenant involvement, resulting in the protection of any capital investment made, both because of a better standard of after-care and because the work done will have reflected the tenants' own priorities.

Estate action has also provided financial support for physical improvements. That is why the national budget has risen from £50 million in 1986–87 to £190 million this year. The emphasis has been on energy conservation, improved security and creating a more attractive environment. One result of capital investment has been to reduce subsequent expenditure by, for example, bringing heating costs more within tenants' reach.

Estate action has also encouraged authorities to bring in private finance and to diversify ownership by selling unpopular dwellings or unused land to developers and housing associations so that they can provide homes that people want. It is also looking increasingly at training and employment opportunities. I know that unemployment on the Langley estate is a major problem, and a figure as high as 40 per cent. unemployed has been quoted.

I can understand the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for our estate action programme, because he need only look at the borough of Rochdale to see the programme's success. Rochdale has been at the forefront in taking advantage of the estate action initiative. The borough council has 10 on-going estate action schemes, including a scheme at the Hollin estate, which is in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Those schemes should attract total resources of about £6 million this year. Meanwhile, Manchester city council, especially given the size of its stock and the void rate standing at 6.3 per cent., to be kind, has been very slow in pursuing estate action objectives.

Among the large number of bids that we received for 1990–91, 14 came from Manchester city council. The council is late in seeking the Government's support. The fact that it has been rather reluctant in the past does not mean that we reject its applications now. However, it inevitably means that we cannot grant all its applications at once. Each year we must look at all the different competing schemes. It is easy to speculate that, if Manchester had started applying for estate action bids earlier, it would have had more success over the years and that that would have meant that, in comparison with Rochdale, it might have had an equally good performance.

Some of the 14 estate action bids that Manchester put forward for 1990–91 need further work to make them competitive. However, we have been able to support four of the schemes, three of which are in the Hulme estate. The hon. Gentleman asked rhetorically whether other estates are worse than Langley. Many people would say that the Hulme estate was in the thick of the competition on that score. The Hulme estate has a mass of serious problems.

Another estate action bid in Manchester was at Collyhurst. Resources earmarked for those schemes this year total more than £4.5 million or 40 per cent. of the north-west region's estate action budget for new schemes. No other authority in the north-west has had more than two successful estate action bids this year. It is not fair to suggest that Manchester has done badly in the estate action bidding this time. Generous resources have been made available.

Mr. Callaghan


Mr. Chope

I shall not give way, because I want to cover the other points raised by the hon. Gentleman, particularly the issue of why we were not able to meet the application for estate action in Langley this time.

We do not say that the scheme does not contain a number of good features. I am pleased to see that the council is proposing to sell unpopular flats to a private developer and a housing association and that the proposals contain measures to help the unemployed, including a furniture project and plans for a credit union. I hope that the city council can push those matters further.

The council's proposal has not sufficiently emphasised the needs of the local unemployed. The council should examine the opportunities for job creation and training on the estate. There may be opportunities for small businesses to be started which could provide services to the residents.

One of the earliest of estate action initiatives was the community refurbishment scheme, through which unemployed people living on an estate can help with the improvement of their own environment. Those schemes work in co-operation with the Training Agency's employment training programme. Local authorities and other training managers, including private contractors, can employ trainees to undertake work typically involving environmental improvements on an estate, with materials being funded by estate action.

Mr. Callaghan

I have listened to the Minister with great interest, but he is not answering the questions I asked him. I am concerned about Langley. The Minister is talking about what can be done for the unemployed, but if we carry on in this way, there will be no unemployed people or anyone else living on the estate. I want to know what the Minister proposes to do for the estate with estate action money. One thousand houses are empty.

Mr. Chope

Amazingly, Manchester city council has so far refused to co-operate with the employment training scheme. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, the residents of Langley, will urge the council to reconsider its position in the interests of the economic well-being of those residents. Why will not Manchester city council encourage the employment training scheme to play a part? More co-operation is needed between the two councils.

Under the Government's housing legislation, the tenants on the Langley estate have alternative avenues available to them, in that they can choose an alternative landlord it they are dissatisfied with their existing one. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will draw the provisions of the Housing Act 1988 to the attention of the tenants of the Langley estate.

Mr. Callaghan

Will the Minister answer one simple question? Will the Government find any money to repair the 1,000 houses that are empty and are bricked and boarded up and the 2,500 houses that will soon be in a similar state? We do not want to know about training; we want to know about cash.

Mr. Chope

I can tell the hon. Gentleman about cash. It is not the Government that decide the priorities of individual councils. Manchester city council decides its own housing priorities. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have a new system of capital finance for the current year. One of its objectives is to secure a fairer distribution of resources across the country, and in the case of Manchester the result was an annual capital guideline for housing of over £47.6 million, almost £1 million a week. That is 2.25 times the comparable figure for 1989–90. The hon. Gentleman cannot deny that that is an extremely generous allocation. It is for Manchester city council to decide how much of that allocation should be given to the Langley estate.

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman when it seems that the people on the Langley estate are crying in the wilderness and that no one on Manchester city council is prepared to give sufficient priority to the estate.

The hon. Gentleman asked why Langley did not get the estate action bid. Such bids are considered on a comparable basis and on their merits. I have drawn attention to one or two of the shortcomings of the estate action bid that was made in relation to Langley. However, the extremely generous allocation should enable the city council to undertake fresh initiatives on some of its most needy estates, including Langley. The council cannot and should not plead insufficient resources as an excuse for its inaction.

I hope, therefore, that it will begin now to develop a package of measures for Langley. If the council decides to resubmit its estate action bid later this year, the further development of its proposals on all fronts can only help it to compete with other bids. Its success will depend very much on how far the bid meets estate action objectives compared with other bids. That means that the future of Langley is very much in the hands of Manchester city council. But ultimately, because of the legislation passed by the Government, often with opposition from Labour Members, tenants now have choice and it is possible for the tenants themselves—

Mr. Callaghan

There are no tenants.

Mr. Chope

—to choose an alternative landlord and thereby put more pressure on Manchester city council to do something for the people on that estate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve midnight.