HC Deb 20 March 1990 vol 169 cc1087-102

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

9.26 pm
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

While we are in the mood for apologies, this is the first time that I have spoken since the count at the end of the debate on Members' interests. I should like to apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for any discourtesy deemed to have taken place on that occasion.

An adjournment debate is extremely valuable for a Back-Bench Member. I have been fortunate enough to have raised a couple of Adjournment debates in my brief time in the House, and I have chosen subjects that I felt were important—a written constitution and the role that the House of Commons should play in our democracy. Tonight, fortunately, I have drawn the Adjournment debate again, and I have chosen a different topic, but one of great importance to many of my constituents and to constituents in a number of other places throughout the land.

A large number of people throughout the country live in steel-framed homes either as residents, having purchased those homes, or as council tenants. In my constituency, people were advised, encouraged and cajoled by the Conservative Government to buy the council houses in which they were existing tenants. For many, the knockdown prices under the right-to-buy legislation meant a windfall and a dream come true, which enabled them to buy their own homes.

For my constituents who bought those BISF houses, the promises have proved to be hollow. They are the victims of the Conservative Government's right-to-buy policy. They have bought a pig in a poke. Many wish to move but cannot do so. Even when willing buyers are found, they are not regularly being granted mortgages by local building societies because of widespread suspicion among people, including building societies, that the properties are defective.

That is the nub of the problem, about which the Government should clearly state their view. If the houses are defective, they should be put on the list of designated designs, thereby enabling the payment of grant to bring them up to scratch. If they are not defective, the Government have a moral duty to ensure that building societies are told in clear terms that they should lend on them so that they can be sold.

Currently, neither option is being put into effect. Thus, my constituents and thousands of others throughout Britain are trapped. They are prisoners in their homes, unable to move or to sell. They are caught with houses of which the widespread view is that they contain serious defects. I underline the fact that those people do not share the Conservative dream of home ownership. Indeed, for many of them it has become a nightmare from which they cannot wake and escape.

Far worse than that is the problem that those people are being denied any hope of changing their circumstances. That is largely due to the behaviour of the Government and—I make no apology for saying—of the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. I believe that he has behaved appallingly, and I hope that tonight, having been dragged to the House by the award of this Adjournment debate, he will make his position quite clear.

I shall substantiate my view, and if the Minister is magnanimous enough to change his mind, I shall be the first to praise him in Nottingham and elsewhere. If he does not do so, I promise him that this campaign will continue until he does justice by my constituents and people elsewhere.

Having encouraged people to buy their council homes, the Government have walked away from the problem. Their attitude is, "You bought, it's your fault, you take the blame and we shan't help." The Minister has refused to meet not merely me but other Members of Parliament and peers. [Interruption.] He is chuntering from a sedentary position, but if he disputes my comments, I shall gladly give way to him.

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

Will the hon. Gentleman refer to the meetings that he had with the then Under-Secretary with responsibility for housing, who considered the subject exhaustively with him? I hope that he will do so quite soon and put the matter in context. It has been discussed frequently by him and my Department, and offers have been made. One of his colleagues accepted an invitation to visit the building research establishment, but he refused that invitation. He is now making wild allegations and trying to throw mud not only at the Government but at me. I hope that he will play fair this evening.

Mr. Allen

I will take no lectures from the Minister about playing fair. However, I shall put the record straight. I have made no wild allegations. I have made specific charges against the Minister and he has refuted none of them in his intervention. If he wishes to refute any charge, I shall gladly give way and he can then substantiate his accusation about "wild allegations".

The Minister's predecessor, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier), was most generous and magnanimous about giving his time to meet the people who are suffering the dire consequences of having bought these properties. He could not give the guarantees that I sought for those residents, but he took time out of his busy schedule when he paid a visit to Nottingham and when he saw me and some of the residents at his own Department. I thank him publicly for that, as I did at the time.

However, the current Minister has not had the courtesy to agree to such meetings, despite having come to Nottingham and despite me, several peers and residents having made offers to meet him at any time of his choosing. That offer still stands. If the Minister believes that I am making "wild allegations", I suggest that he looks at his English dictionary.

The Minister's decision not to meet those who have suffered the consequences of his policy has now, unfortunately, been supported or abetted in writing by the Prime Minister, who has excused her Minister from meeting these people. That does not reflect well on the Prime Minister, but I am not surprised that the Government are ashamed to meet many Members of this House and the other place and the residents, given their record on the issue. If I had done what the Government have done, I should be anxious to dodge direct talks with people who know the truth.

Even at this late stage I plead with the Minister-not with any great relish, but with whatever it takes. Once again, whether it involves writing, attending meetings or appearing at his convenience—wherever he chooses and at whatever time he chooses—I, other hon. Members and peers who wish to meet him and all the residents offer to meet him. We ask the Minister please to meet us to hear what we have to say. The Minister need not give any undertaking to act after having met them, but we ask that he listens to the people who suffer because of the policies pursued by this Government and to their solutions on a way out of the problem. Those people feel that they have been sold a pup. It is the political and moral responsibility of the Government to do something about that. Thousands of people need assistance in this matter.

There is now a national campaign by residents of steel-framed houses. At one time, there were many small, isolated campaigns in every area where these properties had been built, but in the past year, as a result of the campaigning efforts of people such as Jane Locke, who has been the unpaid secretary of the campaign in my constituency, and as a result of her committee and its executive having pulled together at tremendous personal cost in terms of money and time, a national campaign to try to get some action to make the homes decent for the families has been established.

The campaign's most outrageous demand has been to be allowed to meet the Minister to put its point of view. We have been assisted ably—again, I must express my gratitude—by unpaid advice from professional people, such as surveyors, who have tried to help the campaign locally and nationally. We have also been assisted by the expert and helpful coverage given to the problem by the TV programme "Advice Shop". That was especially useful, because it helped people throughout the United Kingdom to realise that they were not alone. They had felt that they alone were getting a raw deal; suddenly they realised that many others were campaigning to try to get some justice done.

The Minister has said of BISF homes that they only need a lick of paint. Without wishing to criticise the Minister personally, I have to say that I feel that that was a most inappropriate comment given that people have been struggling for five years or more to try to get their problems solved. They know, and the Minister knows, that a lick of paint will not help if the cladding is falling off a house. That comment is an insult to those who have worked hard to rectify matters, often at great personal expense. It may have made the Minister feel good for a few passing moments but it did not help those who had to go back to BISF homes.

Apparently, the Minister sees fit to chuckle about it; he thinks that it is funny. I understand that in his own city the properties have been renovated at a cost of £20,000—

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)


Mr. Allen

Yes, £20,000 each. Perhaps in the Minister's constituency that is the price of a lick of paint, but that is certainly not the case in Nottingham.

Perhaps, now that the problem has been solved on his own patch, the Minister can afford to smile from ear to ear, but I would ask him to face up to his wider national responsibilities in this case and to bear in mind all those throughout the country whose houses need more than a lick of paint and who would welcome the prospect of £20,000 being spent on their properties to bring them up to the standards that they deserve.

This issue is not local to the Minister's constituency or, indeed, to mine. A meeting held in the Palace was jam-packed with representatives of the campaign from Scotland, Wales, the midlands, the south, the north-east and the north-west. The meeting was addressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) and for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot). My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Mr. Walker) also put in a brief appearance, despite his other duties in the House, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion).

Numerous other hon. Members, who wished to attend but could not, sent letters to say that they fully supported the campaign. Members of the other place—notably Lord Graham of Edmonton and Lord Dormand—also appeared, not to speak but to show their support. It is a widespread national campaign that will not go away. Will the Minister please look at the matter afresh, take cognisance of residents' views and meet those who attended the meeting, who seek to represent their constituents' views?

The Minister may say that the building societies are lending on the properties. In my constituency, only the Abbey National and the Halifax have lent on the properties and they have done so on a specific, one-off basis. They have lent money on the properties but not at market value. They have been prepared to lend on them only at knockdown prices—sometimes £20,000 less than the real market value of the properties. Building societies are not treating those properties as ordinary homes. Even if the Minister seeks to convince the House that these properties are not defective, building societies are talking with their money. They are saying, "We will not lend the full market value for these properties. We have enough suspicions to feel that these properties should be valued at far less than their market price—sometimes at £20"000 less."

I ask the Minister to bear in mind the Scottish Office report stating that there are inherent defects in such properties. This is not a recent development. That Scottish Office report was published in 1976. The Minister may try to convince us that the building research establishment is fully cognisant of what is happening in relation to these properties and that it feels that there are no defects. I ask it and him to explain the Scottish Office report and to accept that the properties, allegedly have a history of defects and problems.

That is why the Britannia building society has stated that it is "not a long-term security" for any loan. That is why the TSB has stated: We cannot grant a mortgage because of the construction of the properties.

That is why, when the Bilborough residents, other people in my constituency and the national representatives visited the headquarters of the Woolwich Equitable building society, they were told that the Government were to blame for this because the right to buy was initiated by and rests with the Government. The Woolwich said that BISF homes should be on the housing defects lists under the Housing Defects Act 1984. Those views were expressed directly to the representatives of BISF home owners by a major building society.

What do the residents want? Do they want to be completely rehoused at public expense? Do they want some sort of outrageously extravagant treatment? No. The most that they are asking for is that the Housing Defects Act should include their homes on the list of defective houses, on what is called the "designated list".

What effect would it have if those houses were included on the list? It would mean one of two things. First, it could mean that the council could repurchase those homes at 95 per cent. of the defect-free value, if it chose to do so. Of course, many councils would not choose that option, especially in the light of the cuts in expenditure on the housing revenue and housing investment programmes that the Government have instituted. The second option under the Act would be a 75 per cent. reinstatement grant, most of which, I understand, would be met by the Government and a percentage of which would be met by the council.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has now joined us in the Chamber. He was one of the most vociferous of those attending the meeting to which I have referred, defending his constituents' interests. Several individuals, delegates and representatives came down to the meeting from his constituency and have been extremely active in maintaining the national organisation. I thank my hon. Friend for his continued interest in this matter.

I should like to refer to another matter that aggravates the problems of people who live in these steel-framed houses. In my constituency, those that are still owned by the council have been the subject of a number of repair programmes. People well into advanced age became home owners when they were offered apparently cheap houses, which they could resell or pass on to their children. A dream was held out to them: "Put something aside. Buy now, and you will be able to pass on a marvellous asset." Many people aged 70, 75, or even older, who bought their homes now find that the roof is inadequate, the cladding is falling off, and the structure is exposed and is being eaten by corrosion. Next door, they see council workmen renovating and repairing. Perhaps painters are providing what the Minister would describe as a lick of paint—perhaps even a £20,000 lick of paint, as in Southampton.

Suppose that the owners of such a house put an estate agent's sign in their garden. Somebody driving past sees on one side a sparkling, renovated, polished-up council home that looks brand new, and on the other side a shabby, shambling wreck that has no hope of attracting a mortgage? What would be the reaction of a prospective buyer? Clearly a very large number of people have bypassed these properties, have gone elsewhere. Even if someone offers to buy, there remains the question of securing a mortgage.

Almost without exception the parties involved in this very sad tale have done their level best to achieve a solution. I do not normally name civil servants, but I have to say that Mr. Godfrey Meynell has done his level best to secure justice for these people. The city of Nottingham council has also done its best to secure a just deal, and I hope that I have managed to make a small contribution to the campaign. Even the Minister's predecessor—the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen—did all he could at least to explain the Government's position to the people trapped in these homes. Had he managed to retain his post, we might have made more progress. The current Minister must accept much of the responsibility for the current inactivity.

I ask the Minister again to consider the problem afresh and to offer these people some hope. I will continue to raise the matter. It was raised during the debate on the Third Reading of the Housing Act 1988, and it has been raised in a number of other places. When the Minister's predecessor was involved, there was at least an attempt to understand the difficulty, rather than a gruff, stark refusal to consider any of the ways forward that are being offered by tenants and residents. The then Minister for Housing and Planning, in a letter of 11 July 1988—quite a long time ago, since which time we have seen a number of changes—said: I know that you have been in correspondence with Marion Roe"— then a Minister— on this subject and that her last letter to you dealt very fully with the ways in which we are trying to ensure that surveyors and valuers have proper technical information on non-traditional houses on which to base their survey reports. Often, we find that where there is uncertainty a meeting with BRE experts and officials from the Department can help move things forward, so when the owners have supplied you with details of the lending institutions who appear to be taking this attitude, we shall certainly do all we can to help. That was in response to my letter of 4 July.

In his brief intervention, the Minister mentioned that he had written to me and had offered a visit to the BRE. He omitted to mention—it is something of a habit of his to give half the story, and I feel that it is incumbent upon me to give the other half—

Mr. Kenneth Carlisle (Lords Commissioner to the Treasury)

Why is that?

Mr. Allen

The Government Whip is muttering. I shall explain why I have to put my case in this way. For the past three or four years, I, as a parliamentary candidate and as a Member of this place, have sought to help my constituents, as all my right hon. and hon. Friends do. Unfortunately, in the past six months or so there has been a change of policy. There has been a change of heart on the Government Benches, and especially from the Minister.

The Chamber is the forum in which these issues should be aired. If the Minister were to seek to be helpful, courteous or generous, he would find an ample response from Opposition Members. It is no wish of mine to have to drag the Minister to the House to participate in an Adjournment debate, he having refused consistently to meet Members of this place and of the other place. An Adjournment debate is a Back-Bencher's last resort. I hope that those comments help to put the position into perspective.

It is no joy to me to have another Adjournment debate, to be talking about this matter again and to have a three-inch-thick file of correspondence from my constituents who are in BISF houses. I wish that the Minister would do the decent thing, meet my constituents in those houses and explain his position. Perhaps we could then make progress. Until we have a meeting, discussion and consultation, it will be difficult to make progress.

I hope that the other half of the Minister's story can now be told. When he wrote, he offered a meeting for myself with the building research establishment. My reply, which the Minister did not quote, was that I would be pleased to go to the BRE to examine its scientific basis for saying that BISF houses were not defective, provided that I could be accompanied by one or more representatives of the residents of those houses. I do not intend to go to the BRE without the very people who asked me to take up the matter.

I hope that the Minister will acquiesce in my going to the BRE with, if it helps him, only one representative of the residents in the BISF properties. That is one person who has to live every day in such a property, one person who has studied the technical detail, one person whose house is falling around his ears, one who can cross-examine the expert at the BRE, whose representatives say that the properties are not defective.

On that basis, I tell the Minister that we could get into my car tonight to go to the BRE, if that would help. I shall not go without those who have raised the initial query. The full story should be told. That having been done, Members of this place might come to a slightly different judgment on the Minister's smear attempt earlier this evening.

There are many other areas where problems could be highlighted, and there are some simple things that could be done. First, there could be a review of the designated houses. Will the Minister consider the possibility of further designation where it can be proved that houses are defective? If that cannot he proved, it is incumbent upon the Government, they having encouraged people to buy these properties, to take strong steps to ensure that companies which offer mortgages do so on an even-handed and open basis where properties are not defective. It is an either/or situation and I feel that the Ministers should be able to come forward with one proposal or the other. I believe that either, while far from ideal, would satisfy many of the residents.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

It should also be taken into consideration that the Department not only encouraged people to buy but originally encouraged councils to build.

Mr. Allen

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I feel that it is one on which he may wish to elaborate—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Allen

I was in the process of congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) on his intervention. I feel that it is perhaps one that he may care to repeat when the Minister gets to his feet, in order to get some kind of sensible explanation from the Minister as to the current policy in respect of building council houses, because that is certainly the other part of the pincer in which people in my constituency, and I am sure in his, are being squeezed.

The Minister has not, in my view—I state it openly in the House—carried out his duties in a manner befitting his office. I ask him to reconsider his position—he may think that this is a laughing matter, but as we speak tonight there are thousands of people living in these places—in respect of meeting the people who are desperate for assistance because they have to live with these defects.

I finish on the point of what these defects mean to those people. Here is a brief list: corrosion on the main frames of these houses, obvious corrosion on the outside of these homes; roofs which are at the end of their natural life; and lower cladding on the steel frame houses much of which is falling. I am very pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) present, because he and many of his Scottish colleagues with steel-framed homes in their constituencies have supported this campaign throughout the whole of Scotland—notably my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East, who came along and presented a very strong case on behalf of his constituents facing similar problems.

The defect list continues. There is a strong suspicion of a fire risk in these properties which it could cost thousands of pounds to eliminate. One estimate is that simply to eliminate the fire risk could cost up to £20,000. That is not necessarily my view as an individual; I claim no expertise in the surveying field. But certainly the Nationwide Anglia Building Society, before granting a mortgage, requested the following changes: the removal and replacement of a roof; fire stops between dwellings; the replacement of corroded steel frames and bolts and a number of other steel parts; the replacement of flues and cowlings where corroded; a vapour barrier to prevent further corrosion. That was all before consideration of the offer of a mortgage.

The Minister cannot have it both ways. That is a clear list of the major defects from which some of these properties are alleged to suffer. I ask the Minister not to take my word for it, but to meet with the residents from my constituency in Bilborough and elsewhere throughout the country, and/or to meet Members for constituencies that I have named this evening and peers from the other place who have sought to represent the interests of those in their areas, and to hear from them at first hand.

It may be a lost cause, but I appeal to the Minister, finally, to listen to those people and to do so with an open mind. If he agrees to do that, he may begin to earn the respect of a wider audience than he currently has.

10.4 pm

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

I am afraid that we have been treated to a rather intemperate speech from the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), which has extended to almost 40 minutes. I hope that, in the time remaining, I can do something to redress the balance. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect carefully on whether his comments will help or hinder the position of home owners on the Bilborough estate.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, but I must say that he has rasied no new points. He referred to the work on this issue carried out by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier), who was then the responsible Minister and is now the Minister for the Environment and Countryside. I share the hon. Gentleman's appreciation of my hon. Friend's work.

However, I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman does not appear to be prepared to accept either the findings of the building research establishment or the fact that my hon. Friend secured a splendid undertaking from the Abbey National and the Halifax building societies, confirming that their national lending policies made no distinction between BISF houses and those of traditional construction. The hon. Gentleman made some allegations about those building societies, so I must tell the House that they are prepared to lend on such houses on normal terms. To suggest otherwise can only be counter-productive and make those houses less marketable.

I wish to set out the wider background to the issue, and to place the concerns of this particular estate within the overall context of non-traditional housing in the United Kingdom. There are just over a million dwellings of non-traditional construction built to named systems. The majority of them are houses, built after the second world war in response to the overwhelming need for new homes and the desperate shortage of traditional building materials and skilled craftsmen. When built, those houses set new standards of space and layout. Some of them, like the BISF, incorporated novel features such as central heating and improved insulation. At the time they were built, they were novel features. As a result, they have generally proved popular with tenants, who appreciate their generous space standards and often sizeable gardens. They have exercised their right to buy in fairly large numbers.

However, in the early 1980s the building research establishment discovered serious problems with a number of prefabricated reinforced concrete houses designed before 1960. Those problems related to changes in the chemical composition of the concrete, and although in most cases there was no immediate risk of structural failure, it meant that the useful life of those houses was now known to be significantly shorter than when they had been valued for sale under the right to buy.

As a result, owners who had bought in good faith experienced a substantial loss in value, and in 1984 the Government, with all-party support, brought in the housing defects legislation to ensure that they could be assisted, either by reinstatement work, or by repurchase. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that I had the privilege of serving on the Standing Committee that considered that Bill. I took a great interest in the issue, because a number of my constituents occupy such houses.

Although those houses represented less than a fifth of the total non-traditional stock, lending institutions understandably reacted at the time with considerable caution to mortgage applications for any non-traditional house. Their surveyors were, by and large, unfamiliar with the systems of construction employed and with methods of inspection and assessment that would allow them to consider them on their individual merits.

The Department asked the BRE to conduct a comprehensive study of all types of non-traditional dwelling, in order to provide authoritative advice to owners and building professionals on methods of construction and on good practice in inspection, asessment, maintenance, repair and improvement. That study is now drawing to a close. The BRE has looked at all the major types, representing some 90 per cent. of non-traditional houses in the country, and has concluded that, overall, their performance in use is likely to be much the same as that of brick-built houses of the same age.

Of course there are exceptions, but such isolated types, with serious inherent defects which could not have been known at the time they were sold, have all long since been designated under the housing defects legislation. With other types, we expect owners to make proper provision for repair, maintenance and improvement, just as they would for houses of more traditional construction.

The legislation was never intended as an escape route from the normal responsibilities of home ownership. Where owners have genuine problems in coping with the cost of essential repairs, and are unable to finance them through bank loans; say, or re-mortgage, the new house renovation grant scheme should help, but we see no need for special treatment simply because a house does not happen to be made of brick.

Mr. Allen McKay


Mr. Chope

I will give way in a moment, but not just now.

It is in this context that we need to look at the situation of owners of BISF houses like those on the Bilborough estate. These houses are now over 40 years old. In common with other, traditional, houses built at that time, their heating, insulation, kitchen and bathroom standards are lower than we would expect in houses built today. They need regular maintenance and renewal like any other houses, and their roofs, in particular, are coming to the end of their useful life.

However, the valuations at which they were sold would have taken into account all these factors, which were readily apparent on survey; and in general across the country we find that these houses have found their level in the open private sector market without much difficulty. Indeed, I understand that the chairman of the Bilborough Owners Association, Jane Locke, far from buying under the right to buy, bought her own house in just this way, presumably with the benefit of a survey. She bought that house in the open private market.

Like other non-traditional houses elsewhere, BISF houses in Nottingham were affected for a time by uncertainties in the market. The city council did its best to help by stripping down half a dozen of its own properties to show that they had no structural problems; and in 1987 the building research establishment published a comprehensive report which showed that the majority of BISF houses were structurally sound, and that, where repairs were needed—chiefly in areas of high exposure near the coast—these could be carried out in a relatively straightforward and cost-effective manner. On the basis of their findings, we saw then, and see now, absolutely no reason to designate under the housing defects legislation.

I fear that it is the report from the building research establishment which the hon. Member for Nottingham, North and some of his constituents are still not prepared to accept, yet it is the report of experts on this issue. I hope that in due course it will be accepted, even perhaps by the hon. Gentleman.

By the end of 1988, it seemed clear that market confidence was returning, and it was therefore with some surprise that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen learned from the hon. Member for Nottingham, North that there were apparently still difficulties with mortgageability on the Bilborough estate. He undertook to sound out the major lending institutions, and in May of last year he was able to announce to the House that the Halifax and the Abbey National had confirmed that they continued to lend on BISF houses in Nottingham, as elsewhere, on normal terms, and to re-mortgage where repairs and improvements were needed.

However, they had also pointed out that market sentiment could be badly affected by inaccurate statements about health and safety made in the media and elsewhere—a concern that the hon. Gentleman then, at least, seemed to share; to judge from his letter to my hon. Friend dated 19 December 1988, in which he deplored loose talk about "defects" and "designation". It is, unfortunately, a fact that the Bilborough owners association has seen fit to circulate a stream of highly misleading material, suggesting that BSIF houses are fire traps, an allegation repeated tonight by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, that the existing asbestos-cement roofs are a health hazard, and that prospective purchasers would be ill advised to buy. I cannot stress too strongly that there is not a shred of evidence to support these claims, and that it is foolhardy in the extreme for owners who wish their houses to achieve a proper market value to talk down their properties in this way. For any hon. Member to aid and abet that is also irresponsible.

Mr. Allen

Will the Minister specify where I have sought to label these houses fire traps? Is he not really falling into his trap of talking down these properties by using such extreme language? I have not referred to these houses as fire traps, and it is rather ill advised of the Minister to come up with such language. Does he not realise that we should all be trying to seek a solution to this problem?

Mr. Chope

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's amazing change of mood, and I am glad that he now sees the need to be responsible about the matter. The record will show exactly what he said in his speech about the fire hazards associated with such houses.

Mr. Allen

We do not need the record. I will tell the Minister again what I said, as obviously he was not listening—or he was having a joke with one of the Whips, as he did several times during my speech. I said that, before considering a mortgage on a given property, the Nationwide Anglia building society had requested that a firebreak be put into the property, at great expense. That is different from saying that all the houses are fire traps. They are not, and should not be so portrayed.

Mr. Chope

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman accepts that. One of the difficulties has been that a fire had taken place in one of the houses on the estate. People suggested that it was because of the structure of the building. The hon. Gentleman will know that a detailed report was carried out by Howard Ward Associates for Nottingham city council, which concluded that there was no structural problem with the house. It said: We see no structural reason why the property should not be considered as suitable security for mortgage purposes. There are no above-average structural and fire insurance risks in the property. The steel frame in fact provides better protection against superstructure damage in the event of foundation movement and subsidence damage risk may therefore be lower than average. There are no reasons to suspect that the structural condition of the property is other than typical of that found in the BISF houses elsewhere. That report is apparently not accepted by everyone on the estate. That is a pity, as it has only resulted in the houses having a lower value in the marketplace than they would otherwise have had.

Mr. Allen McKay


Mr. Chope

I must continue, as it is the hon. Member for Nottingham, North's Adjournment debate, but if there is time at the end, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

One of the allegations is that owners face substantial repair bills—the hon. Gentleman said that they amounted to some £20,000. That is nonsense. Any unimproved house over 40 years old, whatever its construction, could well need substantial expenditure to bring it completely up to modern performance standards. But Professor Hollis, who surveyed one of the Bilborough houses on behalf of the owners, has confirmed to the Department that no structural repairs were found to be necessary—apart from those needed to cope with injudicious alterations carried out by the owner—and that he would expect to see essential renewal and maintenance work to any house of that age cost no more than £7,000. That, of course, is exactly what Nottingham city council has found in work to its own houses on the estate.

Indeed, after my hon. Friend's announcement, one of the major clearing banks approached the Department expressing some concern that the question of designation under the housing defects legislation had even been raised. Like other lending institutions, the banks treat mortgage applications for steel-framed houses like the BISF on their merits, just like traditional houses, and can see no justification whatsoever for suggestions that they are defective.

That is the position today. BISF houses generally command a fair price in the market. At Bilborough, major lending institutions stand ready to advance mortgages. The estate is an attractive one, and the city council is showing its confidence in the houses by an improvement programme to its property in which it is replacing roofs, windows and guttering. It has offered owners the opportunity to join in with the once-for-all chance to catch up on past maintenance at a specially low price of just over £6,000.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the contrast between a house that had been improved by Nottingham city council and one that had not. If the owner of a house adjoining one owned by Nottingham city council wishes to participate in the scheme, participation comes at the relatively modest price of just over £6,000. A number of owners have already expressed interest in that offer. For those owners with low incomes a further opportunity exists: if their houses require it and their means warrant it, they could qualify for grant-aided repairs under the new system of house renovation grants.

Owners generally need to avoid problems of their own making. They must care for their properties and take the opportunities when they arise to enhance them and not to run them down. The city council, the lending institutions and my Department all take a positive view of these houses. Only a small and vociferous group of owners, for reasons best known to themselves, apparently wish to encourage blight. If they think that by doing so they can attract large sums of taxpayers' money, they are severely mistaken. I hope that, as a result of this debate, they will think carefully about the consequences of their actions.

I have invited the hon. Gentleman on more than one occasion to organise a visit of parliamentarians to the building research establishment, where they would have the opportunity to talk to the technical experts who carried out research on BISF houses and on whose advice the Government's policy is based.

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not prepared to take up that invitation. His hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) went on such a visit and found it helpful. He did not find it necessary to take anybody with him from the estate. He went there and used his own judgment as an intelligent Member of the House. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North is perfectly capable of assessing the expert advice that he would receive if he went to the BRE.

I fear—I speculate on this point—that the hon. Gentleman is frightened that, when he goes to the BRE, he too will be convinced of the case that the BRE has made and that the onus will then be on him, as the hon. Member for the constituency involved, to pass that judgment on to some owners who have resolutely resolved not to accept the BRE advice under any circumstances. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will, like his hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West, take up the offer to visit the BRE.

Mr. Allen

Why is the Minister afraid of his officials at the BRE meeting residents of the Bilborough estate, with or without my presence, to discuss their differing views on the technical problems of these homes?

Mr. Chope

I am not afraid of anything. The BRE is an independent technical establishment and time is very much at a premium, and if the hon. Gentleman visits the BRE he will appreciate that. When he is making his visit, he can, if he is not satisfied or wants additional information—bearing in mind that the report of the BRE has been published and is available to tenants—glean it from the BRE.

He can discuss with the officials there whether they would be minded to discuss, and see any merit in discussing, matters further with some of the tenants. I do not rule out what might happen if he visits the BRE and discusses this matter with the officials there, because I do no know what new points he will try to raise, but at this stage it would be better for him to accept the invitation that has been offered to visit the BRE, as his hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West did, and to discuss with the experts the report which they produced.

Mr. Allen

I am anxious to get this absolutely clear for the record. Is the Minister once again precluding me from going to the BRE accompanied by a representative of the people who are suffering this problem?

Mr. Chope

I am saying that the invitation for him to visit the BRE is for him to go as a parliamentarian with any other parliamentary colleagues he wishes to take with him, but that the invitation does not extend to ordinary members of the public. As I said, if he goes to the BRE, he can no doubt discuss with the experts there the relative reasons why it may or may not be desirable for other people to be brought forward on a subsequent occasion. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take up that offer. His hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West did not seek to put conditions on his visit to the BRE.

Most hon. Members—indeed, most members of the general public—have a high regard for the work of the BRE and would be glad of the opportunity to go there and discuss the technical side of the matter with the experts. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has so far turned down that offer. I am sure that in due course he will respond to it because, if he does not do so, I do not see how he could communicate to his constituents the discussions that he would have been able to have with the BRE.

Mr. Allen

Since the Under-Secretary seems to be coming to the end of his remarks, will he consider the suggestion that I made earlier—that he should meet hon. Members who have such problems in their constituencies—both Members of this House and of the other place? Would the Minister, at his own convenience, whenever he chooses, meet those people?

Mr. Chope

The answer to that has been clearly set out in the letters that I have written to the hon. Gentleman and that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has written. Obviously, if new issues were raised, Ministers are prepared to have meetings to discuss them. However, nothing that the hon. Gentleman has said tonight, or in his correspondence, suggests that he has any new points to raise. He merely wishes to go over old ground—over matters which he discussed with my predecessor. There is no point in my having meetings to go over ground that was explored a short time ago with a former Under-Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Allen McKay

I do not think that any hon. Member here tonight has said that the houses we are discussing are fire hazards because they catch fire more quickly than any other house. However, it is a fact that fire spreads more quickly in such houses, and that is the reason that architects have advised that a fire stop should be put into the apex of the house to ensure that fire does not spread from one side to another.

The Under-Secretary concentrated in his speech on the structural defects of such houses. I do not know whether he has seen any of the houses which are in the worst condition. It is no fault of the tenant through lack of maintenance. It is sheer lack of finance that has caused the condition. They bought something, but they did not realise that it would be a considerable drain on their finances.

In 1971, architects in my constituency, in consultation with the Department of the Environment, realising that they were throwing good money after bad, stripped down a number of these houses and bricked them through instead of cladding them on the inside. Cladding can cause grave problems and does not foster good housekeeping, and the best people can get depressed living in such conditions.

I believe that the Government must consider what help they can give. Perhaps a partnership between the local authority, central Government, the householder and if necessary the building society would be a possibility. Unless we do something, the problem will remain with us.

Mr. Chope

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a fire stop. That is also covered in the report by Howard Ward Associates. They said: with regard to the combustibility of the property and the risk to occupants this does not appear to be significantly different from that found in traditionally built modern houses and, bearing in mind the effectiveness of the firestop, is undoubtedly better than in many other properties where party walls frequently do not extend into the roof voids. Therefore, those independent experts, who were producing a report for Nottingham City council, found that there was no need for people to become alarmed about fire stops.

I hope that the past will be put behind residents who live on the estate, and that they will see that there is a good future for them, for their houses and for the marketability of their houses if they accept the findings of the building research establishment, and perhaps take advantage of the offers made by Nottingham city council. That council has behaved very responsibly in this matter at all times. I hope that the problem can be resolved happily for everyone, including the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, I hope that he will be more content in future.

I do not see any point in having meetings to discuss old ground unless the hon. Gentleman is prepared to discuss the matter with the BRE first. As a gesture of good will, if he goes to discuss the subject with the BRE and has points arising from that meeting that he wishes to discuss with me, I shall happily meet him.

10.29 pm
Mr. Allen

I would like to conclude the last minute of the debate by saying how disappointed I am that, despite the gesture made by the Under-Secretary in the last sentence of his speech, he has rejected a meeting with hon. Members from this House and from the other place. I would gladly attend the BRE accompanied by someone who has suffered from this problem but, unfortunately, that visit has also been rejected by the Under-Secretary. In other debates, I might say that I would raise this matter in the Adjournment, but we are on the Adjournment and unfortunately we will have no satisfaction until there is a new Government.

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half past Ten o'clock.