Orders of the Day — Housing, Birmingham

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st March 1962.

Alert me about debates like this

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

9.10 p.m.

Photo of Mr Victor Yates Mr Victor Yates , Birmingham, Ladywood

This is certainly a moment for a feeling of gratitude that I have the opportunity of placing before the House the grave housing problem of the City of Birmingham. I have raised this question on a number of occasions on the Motion for the Adjournment during the last seventeen years. My maiden speech seventeen years ago referred to the housing problem of Birmingham. On that occasion I mentioned that there were 50,000 houses in Birmingham unfit for human habitation. I am sorry to have to say that now, seventeen years after the war, the housing problem in Birmingham consists of 47,000 houses unfit for human habitation and another 49,000 people registered as waiting for houses including 30,000 families who are living in rooms.

The immediate need for Birmingham is 77,000 houses. It does not include people likely to go on the register in the near future or in years to come; it is the immediate need. Rejecting a recent scheme for building 7,000 houses at Wythall, the Minister has added to the very serious problem which the city now has to face. I wish to refer to the Minister's letter in which he rejected Birmingham's application to be allowed to build approximately 7,000 houses at Wythall.

It should be remembered that for ten solid years the Government objected to the idea of a new town for Birmingham. Birmingham was compelled to ask to be allowed to extend her boundaries. It was not until last August that the predecessor of the present Minister came to the conclusion that Birmingham's housing need was sufficiently serious to warrant the inclusion of a new town.

The request to be allowed to build houses at Wythall was made only to meet the problem which would arise in the city because of the shortage of land until such time as a new town or other great development could be put in hand. The Minister has rejected this scheme. It would have enabled Birmingham to have an interim scheme. In his letter of refusal, the Minister speaks of the factors which have influenced him in his decision, but he used these words: Against these factors stand Birmingham's housing needs, the large size, urgency and the importance of which are undisputed. The Minister agrees with his Inspector's comments on Birmingham's position, in particular, that their building programme, the present level of which seems inadequate for the needs, can continue for at most four years or so on land which is now foreseen to be available. That is the letter from the Minister on 28th February in which he declined to agree to the Wythall scheme.

I should like to bring to the notice of the House the previous Minister's letter of 30th August to the Warwickshire and Worcestershire County Councils in which he said: The Government have given very careful consideration to this matter and have reached the conclusion that the following measures taken together would provide a satisfactory solution of the immediate problem. The measures included major town expansion schemes at Daventry, Redditch and Worcester, the adjustment of the boundary at Wythall enabling the city to build 7,000 houses on 600 acres of land and a new town at Dawley. These were the measures that the Minister concluded were absolutely necessary. Would they meet the immediate need of Birmingham?

I now refer to a letter from the Ministry in January this year referring to the letter from which I have just quoted and stating that even if all those proposals matured there would be a deficiency of 120,000 to 130,000 dwellings by 1981. Even with a new town, with major town development schemes and with Wythall, there would still be a deficiency of that magnitude within twenty years. The Minister must tell us that he now puts the figure even higher in view of his refusal for Wythall. The position, therefore, is very much worse.

In paragraph 4 of his letter the Minister stated that efforts should be directed to ensuring the maximum rehousing, so that less of the uneconomic and unsatisfactory patching of old unfit properties was needed. Where does the Minister think that the effort should be directed? I have asked him by Question and he tells me that major contributions can be made at Redditch, Worcester and Daventry and that he is considering a new town.

We are entitled to ask the Minister why he has held us up for so long before making an announcement about a new town. Surely, if he was reversing his predecessor's view he should have told the House that his alternative now includes a new town and other developments. He has not told us that yet. We are pressing him week after week to make a statement. He tells us that he has a report about the new town and that he will make a statement as soon as possible.

Assuming that all that the Minister has in mind comes to fruition, how will it affect the uneconomic and unsatisfactory patching of old, unfit properties? I cannot see how this can be effected under the Minister's calculations. I have mentioned that there are 47,000 unfit houses. There has been considerable expenditure on reconditioning. Birmingham has spent over £8 million on reconditioning unhealthy properties and the houses that Birmingham has reconditioned have a life of only fifteen years. Therefore, in the years to come, many more houses will fall obsolete and need reconditioning.

I have asked the Minister what grant has been made towards the reconditioning. If he is anxious for Birmingham to reduce its expenditure on the patching-up of houses, he might ask himself whether he has made a fair deal with the corporation in this regard. He has told me that in the last eight years Government grants for this purpose totalled £1,148,000. The Birmingham housing manager tells me that the rate fund contribution was £1,724,000. This was supposed to be equality between the Government and the local authority. How does it come about that the rates have had to find £1,724,000 in the last eight years whereas the Government have contributed only £1,148,000?

The housing manager states to me that in theory these two amounts should be equal, but that the Minister has declined to review the basis of grant fixed in 1954 and has left the city to bear the rising costs of labour and materials. If the Minister thinks that Birmingham should be more generous in regard to this problem, he must ask himself whether he is giving the city a fair deal. When he made the arrangement with Birmingham it cost approximately £150 to recondition a house. In 1961 the average cost of reconditioning was £390. The city has had to bear the increased cost of labour and materials.

In paragraph 5 we are told that the inspector did not feel able on what has been said at the inquiry and on his inspection of the district to make a firm recommendation. The inspector on all the evidence he had was not able to make a firm recommendation. Nevertheless, he offered the unhesitating conclusion that the decision should rest on whether or not reception capacity beyond the green belt could be assured by 1966 for a city housing programme of at least 2,500 houses per annum.

Birmingham has not been able to achieve this figure so far because of the shortage of labour. Labour is being absorbed on big buildings. There is no priority. The Government have no priority. Only two days ago I was informed that at no time had Birmingham had so many houses in the pipeline awaiting completion because of the shortage of labour. Over 5,000 houses are waiting to be completed. The Government are taking no action to assist the city.

At present it seems physically impossible to produce, even with the houses from overspill, much more than 2,200 houses a year. As I understand it, to meet the need of 77,000 houses it would take over thirty years. This is the gravest problem facing the city. I represent a constituency which, throughout the whole time I have been in the House, has been faced with this grave problem. My hon. Friends who represent Birmingham constituencies will agree that there is no problem in Birmingham which causes more misery and pain that this. No problem threatens the happiness and future of the citizens of Birmingham to the extent that this does.

The estimate of 2,500 houses is inadequate. On what did the Minister base this? He said that he had not estimated 2,500. It appears from the letter that the decision to reject Wythall is based upon the assumption that the figure of 2,500 annually can be maintained.

I come to the number of houses in Birmingham for which no provision has been made. I refer to the houses which are becoming or are likely to become obsolescent, for which there is no provision. The city is trying to meet the immediate need and not the need of the houses which are likely to become obsolescent in the future. I will tell the House at what rate Birmingham considers that obsolescence is likely to occur. It is very simple. There are 312,000 houses in Birmingham. Does the Minister think that a house ought to be put up for more than 100 years? Ought it to be put up for 100 years? If the life of a house is 100 years, does it not mean that, on average, approximately 3,000 houses become obsolescent each year for which some provision should be made?

I have tabled Questions to the Minister about this. In order to make my position clear I wrote to the Minister and told him on what I based my estimate of 3,000 houses becoming obsolescent each year. I have not yet received an answer to my letter, but the Joint Parliamentary Secretary answered a Question of mine which appears on today's Order Paper. In my letter to the Minister of 8th March I said that all the estimates did not take into account provision for 3,000 houses which become obsolescent each year, assuming the life of the present houses in Birmingham, numbering over 300,000, to be no longer than 100 years. I said that the provision of one new town to house 60,000 people, even if this was announced immediately, would nowhere meet the mounting need in Birmingham and that at least two or three towns are needed.

I asked the Minister this Question today: In view of the fact that 3,000 houses are becoming obsolete each year in Birmingham, with a consequent increase in the number of homeless families, if he will seek information from the local authority with a view to estimating the increased expenditure needed to rehouse those people who are additional to the number already estimated at present to be in need of accommodation. He replied: No, Sir. Such an estimate would be of no practical value … I do not know how the hon. Member has arrived at his estimate of the rate of obsolescence ". Surely the Joint Parliamentary Secretary should have known that I had written a letter to the Minister and that I had estimated the rate of obsolescence. If the hon. Gentleman wants to know the source of my information, it was the Corporation of Birmingham. I discussed this matter with the town clerk and the housing manager and they agreed with this figure. Thus, if the Minister does not know anything about this he should acquaint himself with the facts of the problem and say how many additional houses are needed.

I am sure that I am giving a conservative estimate when I say—and I give this figure on behalf of the officials of Birmingham Corporation—that the city requires at least 5,000 houses a year. Even then the housing problem would not be quickly solved. What is to be done about our difficulties in Birmingham? The Minister says that he is anxious that everyone should cooperate. I am sure that Birmingham—and hon. Members representing the City will support me in this—is only too ready to co-operate. The situation demands full co-operation, but, despite that, the Minister must say what he intends to do. Does he intend to assist in any additional cost that may be involved?

When we think in terms of additional expenditure by cities such as Birmingham many illustrations come to mind. I will give one. If it were possible to build 18,000 houses in Redditch, taking into account the Ministry's allowances, it would cost an additional 3d. on Birmingham's rates for fifteen years. The scheme would cost £216,000 a year and Birmingham would have to pay that according to the last housing legislation and the figure of £12 per house for the recipient areas over fifteen years. That illustration is for 18,000 houses, but that would not even touch the problem.

I notice that Redditch strongly objected to the Government's meanness in this regard. The subsidy was increased from £24 to £28, or about 17 per cent., whereas in his last housing legislation the Minister increased the amount payable by Birmingham and other authorities from £8 to £12 for 15 years instead of ten years. In his pronouncements the Minister should not only request authorities like Birmingham to do everything they can but should also say what he intends to do to encourage and assist them. Naturally, if thousands of houses are to be built beyond city boundaries, with the resultant great financial burden, the Minister should say what help he intends to give.

I have had longer to present this problem tonight than is usual in an Adjournment debate. I am sure that my hon. Friends are anxious to say something about this matter and I will now summarise what I have been saying. If the Minister says that Birmingham cannot extend its boundaries, then in principle he admits the need for a new town. We are anxiously awaiting his statement which should have been made before now. How long must we continue to wait? Even assuming the other schemes to be practicable, one new town for Birmingham will not suffice. The urgent thing is to decide on two new towns, and if we are to prepare for the possible obsolescence of houses at the rate I have mentioned, not even two new towns would meet Birmingham's problem.

Cannot the Minister have a drive to bring pressure on all authorities so that we can get the maximum co-operation for dealing with this problem and so that major schemes can be started? There is a case for a revision of the Government's financial arrangements, especially as Birmingham is making such a large contribution towards reconditioning, now far in excess of that made by the Minister.

I do not know how to describe the effect of this problem. I had always hoped that within my lifetime there would be some hope for the homeless families and for the many people living in the most appalling conditions in Birmingham. But I cannot see any hope for some years of a solution to this problem unless the Government can be made to understand how grave it is. I do not believe that there is any other area where the housing problem is worse and that is why I am asking for special consideration. I realise that other areas, such as Scotland, have great problems and I know the difficulties which Scotland has had in arguing its case for new towns. But the Minister is now convinced of the need for a new town for Birmingham, which we have been advocating for years. He has accepted it rather late, but we still do not know when it will be announced although the available land in Birmingham will run out in four years.

I have raised this subject because I have seen so much suffering and so much exploitation. Only a few days ago I came across one of the worst cases of exploitation. This concerns a constituent of mine who has a family of eight children and who lives in a furnished house for which he has had to pay £12 a week rent. It is the worst case that I have come across. Because he refused to pay £14 a week, he is now under the threat of eviction and is likely to be turned out on the streets. This happens only because the problem is so grave. The other day, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Seymour) said that it was not Christian to bring people from abroad to live in dreadful conditions such as those which exist in Birmingham. He must realise that it is also not Christian that Birmingham people should live in such conditions.

Photo of Mr Victor Yates Mr Victor Yates , Birmingham, Ladywood

I realise that the problem of immigration has added to the difficulties, even though in most cases the immigrants are buying their own houses. They are not competing in very large numbers with those wanting to be housed under local authority housing schemes. The longer this problem goes unsolved the worse it becomes.

I was much impressed by the comment of the Conservative spokesman on Birmingham's Housing Management Committee when the Wythall scheme was rejected. Alderman W. T. Griffin, in referring to the appalling problem of rehousing people living in congested conditions and in what he called an atmosphere of absolute misery and dejection, is reported in the Birmingham Mail as having said that thousands of women are struggling to bring up their families in the black slum areas of this City. The news must be a bitter disappointment to all of us who have regard to the misery of those thousands of people who seek no more than a reasonable home of their own. I echo those words because those of us who know anything about the problem will agree that that is the effect.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give us a firm assurance that the Minister understands that this problem is as big as I believe it to be. I do not think that I have exaggerated it. I hope that the Minister will give us a message of hope for the people who are suffering under nightmare conditions which I hoped would have been removed years ago.

9.43 p.m.

Photo of Mr Harold Gurden Mr Harold Gurden , Birmingham, Selly Oak

We are all indebted to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Lady-wood (Mr. V. Yates) for raising this matter tonight. Those of us who know Birmingham realise that the facts which he has given are substantially correct. The figures which he quoted may be read in different ways, but, by and large, I do not think that he has overstated the problem.

This has been a serious problem in Birmingham for almost the whole of the last thirty years. Even in the 1930s there was a very large waiting list for houses.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham Small Heath

Many people were unemployed then.

Photo of Mr Harold Gurden Mr Harold Gurden , Birmingham, Selly Oak

In the time which has elapsed since then, the local authority and the Government, both Conservative and Labour, have been unable to solve the problem. Excuses can be made that the war has intervened and that other factors have been responsible for it, but I suggest that the greatest single problem which faces the local authority and, indeed, the Government is the continuous flow of people into the city from literally everywhere. It has always been so. Before the war and since, no matter how many houses have been built in Birmingham both by private enterprise and by the municipal authority, it has not been possible to solve the problem or to get anywhere near to solving it because of the continuous inflow from all over the world.

Photo of Mr Julius Silverman Mr Julius Silverman , Birmingham Aston

In the last few years there has been a decline.

Photo of Mr Harold Gurden Mr Harold Gurden , Birmingham, Selly Oak

There is a slight sign that recently there has been a decline. I am not sure whether the figures, if they were taken fully and accurately, would show a continuation of that decline.

There is also the problem that the local authority, with the resources at its command, has not been able to keep pace in the building of new houses with the demolition which has taken place. The only criticism which I have of note of the local authority at any time is that it has indulged in widespread demolition of houses which could have remained for a time until the number in the pipeline, to which the hon. Gentleman quite rightly referred, had been somewhat reduced.

Photo of Mr Julius Silverman Mr Julius Silverman , Birmingham Aston

Can the hon. Member mention any other local authority which has patched up and repaired more houses and made them habitable than the local authority in the city of Birmingham?

Photo of Mr Harold Gurden Mr Harold Gurden , Birmingham, Selly Oak

That is quite true. I suppose that Birmingham has done exceptionally well in this. But it has been knocking houses down at a very fast rate. In the hon. Member's constituency of Ladywood there are vast areas which have been laid waste for a long time. At least the people would have had roofs over their heads if some of those houses are retained until the authority is in a position to proceed with new building. In one case I know that land has been available for about three years. The local authority might consider whether it is not time to slow up just a little with demolition and clearance. Much as we should like to see the disappearance of some of these slums, it is time to consider whether we cannot reduce the number of houses in the pipeline.

Photo of Mr Victor Yates Mr Victor Yates , Birmingham, Ladywood

The hon. Member referred to open spaces. All the open spaces in Ladywood and other areas are under consideration for building sites but the Minister in his report referred to higher density building, use of open space within the city for development and possibly out-county estates, but the inspector rejected ail these and concluded that no alleviation of the problem could be found in such directions.

Photo of Mr Harold Gurden Mr Harold Gurden , Birmingham, Selly Oak

I am not suggesting that what I am putting forward could be a solution to the housing problem in Birmingham. I am saying that the local authority should perhaps have second thoughts about the speed with which sites are being cleared until it can at least pick up on housing. The figure quoted of 5,000 houses in the pipeline, quite rightly, by the hon. Member, is, after all, a justification of the Government's policy. It shows that there is a need to wait until they can catch up a little with building before further sites are available. It is no use even today to have a site like Dawley—and I support the hon. Member in saying that the Government ought to give an answer very quickly about Dawley—if little use could be made of it for the next twelve months. There is more building to be done in Birmingham than the local authority can cope with. Nevertheless, we must have an answer very quickly from the Government about Dawley. I appreciate that the local authority has been preparing a report, through one of its officers, for the Government, in order that an announcement may be made.

But the fact remains that the number of houses in the pipeline is excessive. I hope tonight to avoid any local authority political arguments, because both the Conservative and Labour Parties, when in control, have been unable to provide a solution to this problem which, it seems to me, will ever be with us in Birmingham—at least, as long as there is no power and no attempt to prevent people from coming into Birmingham. They certainly come into the town faster than houses can ever be built.

One other factor which ought to be considered is the rebuilding of the city centre, where enormous blocks of offices have been built, even perhaps beyond the demand for them—or, so it appears, in view of the number of offices which are still vacant. I should have liked to see some of these blocks of offices planned to contain a number of flats for those who do not wish to live in the suburbs and to travel long distances, using much valuable time in doing so. The planning authorities of Birmingham might suggest to the planners that some flats should be built in the city centre.

The same problem is arising in Birmingham as has arisen in London. The centre of the city is empty at weekends, and during the week people have to travel long distances into the suburbs with only the roads as a means of transport. There are hardly any railway services of any use to take them into the suburbs. People are certainly entitled to ask why we have continuous new office building in the city, perhaps more than is required, which at the same time absorbs an enormous amount of building labour.

I join the hon. Member in the appeal which he made to the Minister about new towns. Will the Minister tell us that he is prepared to give a decision about Dawley? This is a site to which we all look forward for the building of a new town. Will he not then go even further and say whether Swynnerton is to be considered? The sooner we have one or two new towns for the Midlands the better.

Nevertheless, this does not absolve the local authority from its responsibility in trying to come to terms with other towns around the City of Birmingham, such as Droitwich and others. I will accept the figure given by the hon. Member for a 3d. rate, but even then it might be worthwhile to accept this burden in return for 18,000 houses. Surely the local authorities of this Midlands conurbation ought to be able to get together and to reach agreement on a problem which is so serious. If, as the hon. Member said, it will cost an extra 3d. rate, one would have thought that it was worth a 3d. rate when the situation is as serious as he suggested. Perhaps there might be a saving to Birmingham to set off against that rate increase. I do not know. People who live in Droitwich and other towns can be persuaded, I think, to help in this problem.

I hope the Minister will be able to help us tonight with a decision about Dawley, that he will at least tell us that a decision will be made within a matter of days. In the meantime we ought to appeal to the Birmingham City Council to look at some of these points which we have mentioned tonight, such as the city centre and reducing the number in the pipeline. Let us get on with building as fast as we can, using up the derelict land. People waiting on the housing list in Birmingham must be hurt at seeing that land lying idle for two or three years. We shall all be interested in what the Minister has to say to us tonight.

9.56 p.m.

Photo of Mr Julius Silverman Mr Julius Silverman , Birmingham Aston

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) has performed a service to this House and to the City of Birmingham in raising this important matter. I do not want to take issue with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden) because we do not raise this as a political and party issue. Our object is simply to put before the Minister the dire needs of Birmingham

There is, however, just one point on which I would take issue with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Selly Oak, and it is this. He mentioned the question of too many houses being demolished. That means, of course, slum clearance, and this was precisely in accordance with the Government's policy as announced by—I think it was—the predecessor next but one of the present Minister who deliberately abolished the ordinary housing subsidy and retained the slum clearance subsidy for the express purpose of trying to persuade local authorities—or so he said—to demolish more slums.

Photo of Mr Harold Gurden Mr Harold Gurden , Birmingham, Selly Oak

Assuming, of course, always, as we all did, that the local authority would immediately replace them with new houses.

Photo of Mr Julius Silverman Mr Julius Silverman , Birmingham Aston

Of course, these sites are for building houses—not next week, but in a reasonable time.

Photo of Mr Julius Silverman Mr Julius Silverman , Birmingham Aston

There have been certain difficulties, of course, with building contractors, but that was the Government's policy, and that is what Birmingham is doing.

Birmingham is doing a slum clearance programme plus a certain amount of new housing and it is quite comprehensible that the City of Birmingham with housing sites for somewhere between 6,000 or 7,000 new houses apart from slum clearance is not anxious to exhaust right away within the next year or two the whole of it building land which, in any event, I think it is not denied, will last for only four years. Therefore, I do not think there is any point in criticising the local authority upon this issue. It is doing the best it can in difficult circumstances.

What we want to find out is how the Minister can assist the situation, because there is no doubt whatsoever that the Minister's decision upon Wythall is a complete volte face from what it appeared his predecessor had definitely decided. We want some explanation, and the first thing we want to ask the Minister is, why? Because the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor had said fairly definitely—he almost said it as a definite decision—that Wythall would be taken out of the prospective green belt, which is not, in fact, a hard and fast green belt, and would be used for housing for Birmingham.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham Small Heath

Exactly a year ago tonight the Chief Secretary to the Treasury came to Small Heath on the eve of the by-election and said that he had seen houses such as he did not think existed in this country, that they were the worst he had ever seen. He went back and, to give him credit, announced that he thought that 600 acres of land outside the city ought to be used. I hope my hon. Friend will agree—and I am glad he is coming to this important point—that there cannot be two views about the fact that for twelve months the city, the Government, everybody has been concentrating on the Government policy for 600 acres in Wythall and that that is now turned down by the present Minister, after a complete waste of twelve months, and that the corollary must be some energetic action by the Government.

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. Batsford.]

Photo of Mr Julius Silverman Mr Julius Silverman , Birmingham Aston

There is nothing in this Report which was not known when the original announcement was made. One cannot help feeling that certain influences have been brought to bear from this area. The gentlemen who live in the green belt and have green fields around them do not care about the slums of Birmingham. The question is whether they have a kind of vested interest which overrides the interests of the people in need of houses.

Having turned down Wythall, where will these overspill houses be built? Dawley has been mentioned. I hope that the Minister will make an announcement about this shortly. We want no dillydally over Dawley. I hope that we have an early decision on this matter, because a lot of time has already been wasted and the situation is getting worse.

Even if the Government decide to use Dawley as an overspill area, it is obvious that in 1966 this scheme will not make any significant contribution to Birmingham's overspill. Where will the houses that are necessary be built? Birmingham has been asked to negotiate with various surrounding areas, and these have been mentioned. I hope that these negotiations will be successful. So far, they have not produced very much by way of results.

I hope that the Government will intervene more actively. If they adopt the same attitude over this as they have over Wythall, and say that other local authorities do not want Birmingham tenants, there will not be many areas in which Birmingham will be able to build. What is the Minister thinking about? Birmingham is conducting negotiations in many areas. So far, these negotiations have resulted in about 1,800 houses being built for Birmingham's overspill population. I do not know how these local authorities can be persuaded to take 2,500 a year of Birmingham's overspill.

It has been suggested that Birmingham is not offering sufficient inducements to other local authorities to take its overspill. This may be so; I do not know. But even if Birmingham offered more, this would not make much difference. If Birmingham increased its contribution by 50 per cent., local authorities would still have to consider two factors. First, the increased cost of building houses, and, secondly, the increased rates of interest.

Another factor to be considered is the distribution of industry. What many of these areas want is not merely Birmingham tenants but industry to go with them. This demands positive planning and Government intervention, which has not so far been forthcoming. The restriction of I.D.C.s. is a negative form of planning which will not help to solve this problem and persuade these areas to take Birmingham people and provide them with work.

These are some of the problems, There is also the problem of finance. I wonder whether the Minister is now prepared to reconsider the financial provisions of the 1954 Act. They are quite inadequate today. When it repairs a house, giving it first aid or other substantial repairs, it costs Birmingham today on average about £400 per dwelling.

Photo of Mr Victor Yates Mr Victor Yates , Birmingham, Ladywood

The actual figure is £390.

Photo of Mr Julius Silverman Mr Julius Silverman , Birmingham Aston

Obviously, that must go on so long as Birmingham cannot build sufficient houses. It is obvious that in these circumstances the provisions of the 1954 Act are inadequate to meet the burden incurred by the local authority.

Another problem was raised by the hon. Member for Selly Oak—labour. There is the question of offices in Birmingham. I agre that too many offices are being built, perhaps more than the city needs. It is probable that the planning authority, with its present powers, cannot do anything about that. So far as I understand it, it has no power to consider the question of the labour force. It is able simply to consider what may be a suitable use for the area. However, the Government ought seriously to consider the matter. They should consider whether by some form of licensing or other restriction in certain areas where there is an acute shortage of building labour something can be done to deal with the problem.

Photo of Mr Harold Gurden Mr Harold Gurden , Birmingham, Selly Oak

Is it not true that the quinquennial plan submitted by the local authority is usually accepted by the Government? I do not think any Government can be blamed for the plans which Birmingham puts forward.

Photo of Mr Julius Silverman Mr Julius Silverman , Birmingham Aston

The quinquennial plan is based upon the suitability of land and sites for certain purposes. The planning authority has certain limited powers. If it had suitable powers, I would say that so many offices should not be built.

But that is not the point. The point is that something should be done by the Minister, perhaps in consultation with the local authority, to ensure that labour is diverted to the purpose for which it is needed primarily at present, and that is housing. I hope the Minister will tell us whether he has something in mind on those lines.

These are practical things which can be done to assist Birmingham. I hope the Minister will make a helpful announcement about his intentions.

10.8 p.m.

Photo of Mr Roy Jenkins Mr Roy Jenkins , Birmingham Stechford

It may well be that, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Aston (Mr. J. Silverman) have suggested, there is too much office building going on in the centre of Birmingham. But I hope that it will not be deduced from this that the reconstruction of the centre of the city ought to be retarded. Maybe plans ought to be changed towards the building of flats in the centre. What I wish to make clear is that ten years ago the centre of Birmingham was one of the meanest centres of a city of its size and wealth to be found in Western Europe, and that it is highly desirable that that should be corrected. Great credit is due to the local authority, which has set in train steps to correct it on such an imaginative scale during recent years.

This has been a most useful debate so far, and I hope that it will continue to be when the Parliamentary Secretary replies. We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) for initiating it. It is important to bring home the extraordinary dilatoriness of the Government in dealing with their share of the responsibility for the Birmingham housing problem. The whole problem has been stuck in a groove and has not moved forward for years. Long before the Parliamentary Secretary got to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, and when the hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) was in his previous incarnation at the Treasury, the problem existed in very much its present form, and practically nothing has advanced since then.

We were talking about a new town. Nothing has been done about that. We had this diversion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Denis Howell) pointed out—Whether it was a desirable or undesirable diversion—of the Wythall plan. It was certainly a diversion, but it merely distracted people's attention for a year—

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham Small Heath

It was the biggest red herring ever.

Photo of Mr Roy Jenkins Mr Roy Jenkins , Birmingham Stechford

—and achieved no practical result at all. It is absolutely clear that the Government must get on with the announcement of concrete plans—I should have thought two new towns, at least, at the earliest possible moment, together with other supplementary measures—if this problem is to be solved.

The problem of Birmingham's housing is the problem of housing in a boom city. Birmingham is a boom city, and we all hope it will continue to be, though perhaps in a more controlled form than it has been up to now. One of the difficulties which the local authority faces is that, in our extraordinarily antiquated and restrictive system of local government finance, a local authority, when dealing with housing or other problems, does not get the financial benefit which might be expected from being a boom city. If we had a rather more widely-based system of local government finance, the mere fact of being a boom city would give the local authority more room for financial manœuvre, which would be a great advantage. That is not so as things exist at present.

In a financial sense, the advantages of being a boom city are hardly present at all to the Birmingham City Council. From the financial aspect, there is a special responsibility on the Government, but there is also from the geographical point of view, and unless the Government are in the position to announce tonight on what front we are now to advance—since the Wythall front has been proved to be only a diversion and a dangerous time-wasting diversion at that—we shall be fully entitled to draw the conclusion that the Government are merely playing with the problem of Birmingham's housing, as, it seems to me, they have been for six or seven years without announcing any decisions which are of any help from the point of view of a hard-pressed local authority, trying to deal with an extremely important and extremely human problem.

10.12 p.m.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Rippon Mr Geoffrey Rippon , Norwich South

There is no doubt of the importance of the matter which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) has raised this evening. Birmingham's housing problem is undoubtedly a very grave one, and it has implications that reach far beyond the city's own boundaries. I can assure the hon. Member and the House that my right hon. Friend is well aware of the nature of the problem, its gravity and of the need for action.

The city has at least 45,000 slums to clear, and there is no dispute about that. We cannot estimate the rate at which houses become obsolete, but it is certain that a considerable number of houses do become obsolete each year. The hon. Member for Ladywood says that the city council has made its own estimate, and that he relies upon it, and, no doubt, it is the best estimate that can be made. In addition, there are many families lacking separate homes of their own, and I think the number is estimated by the city council at 30,000. For the whole of the conurbation, the figure may well be doubled. We also know that there are 49,000 people on the waiting list.

A good deal has been achieved since the end of the war. About 50,000 new houses have been built, a quarter of them by private enterprise. Many unfit houses have been demolished, and many more—about 20,000—have been renovated to give them a further life of up to twenty-five years. No one doubts that Birmingham has done a good job in that respect. At present, about 2,000 houses a year are being renovated, and I understand that it is proposed to increase that figure to 3,000 a year. In addition, since the passing of the House Purchase and Housing Act, 1959, the Ministry has approved nearly 14,000 standard grant applications for council-owned houses, and, for their part, the city council has approved nearly 2,700 standard grants for private owners since 1959, and is also approving discretionary grants at the rate of 750 to 800 a year. I do not think the impression should be given by this debate that nothing is being done by Birmingham in this regard.

By itself this of course is not enough. We all want to see Birmingham building more houses. I can assure hon. Members that we give all possible encouragement to Birmingham to build as fast and as much as possible. This year the Council asked for a programme of 3,000 houses and we approved an allocation of 2,500. That does not mean that we wanted to out the programme and I think that hon. Members will be perfectly aware of that. It was a recognition of the realities of the situation and, as was said by the hon. Member for Ladywood, there are too many houses in the pipeline. The implications of that were pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden). We are concerned about the number of houses which are completed and it does not help to put more in the pipeline than can be built.

We know that the number of houses which have been completed over the past five years or so has been only about 2,000 a year. In answer to a Question put by the hon. Member for Ladywood on 13th March my right hon. Friend made perfectly clear that he is quite prepared to reconsider the allocation if the progress improves and if it looks as though the figure of 2,500 houses, the present allocation, could be increased.

I will come a little later to the question of the finance of overspill and town development which is a separate problem, but regarding the finance of the houses inside Birmingham, under the Housing Act of 1961 the council expects to qualify for the higher subsidy of £24. Hitherto it has been receiving the subsidy of £22 1s. for slum clearance for the greater part of its building and that also will now be £24. In 1960–61 the Council received £1,569,691 in Exchequer contributions and the rate fund contribution was £1,670,863. I think that on those figures it is clear that the Exchequer is making a pretty substantial contribution.

Another way to increase the stability and health of the housing revenue account would be to review the rent policy from time to time. This is entirely a matter for the Council but it is a fact that for post-war houses the average rent is 2·1 times the gross value and for pre-war houses only 1·66 times the gross value. I think it could be argued that these rents might be higher. It has been said that Birmingham is a prosperous city, in the words of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins) it is a "boom city". So perhaps something might be done in that direction. Regarding housing in Birmingham it is not finance nor the Ministry which is standing in the way—

Photo of Mr Julius Silverman Mr Julius Silverman , Birmingham Aston

Will the hon. Gentleman deal specifically with the question of the 1954 grants for repairing houses?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Rippon Mr Geoffrey Rippon , Norwich South

I will deal with that. Regarding patching, it is estimated that about £300 a house is being spent—that is my figure and not £390 mentioned by the hon. Member for Ladywood, but I may be open to correction about that—

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham Small Heath

The hon. Member is open to correction on many points.

Photo of Mr Roy Jenkins Mr Roy Jenkins , Birmingham Stechford

Is it the hon. Gentleman's view that the rents for municipal houses in Birmingham are too low?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Rippon Mr Geoffrey Rippon , Norwich South

It is of course a matter for the council, but there is certainly room for a review from time to time. But let me please deal with the question put by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Aston (Mr. J. Silverman).

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Rippon Mr Geoffrey Rippon , Norwich South

The hon. Member for Aston interrupted me to ask that I should deal with the specific point and I will come back to the other arguments later, if hon. Members are particularly anxious that I should do so.

Concerning patching, the basic cost is £300—or £390 if the hon. Member for Ladywood insists on his figure—plus £12 a year maintenance. The Exchequer contribution towards that amounts to half the loan charges for purchase for as many years as the house is used for housing purposes plus £3 a year for 15 years. In answer to a Question from the hon. Member for Ladywood we have indicated that the total contribution is between £120,000 and £160,000 a year over a good many years.

What I am suggesting is that it is not finance nor the Ministry that is standing in Birmingham's way. Certainly we want not 2,000 houses a year but something far nearer or even better than 3,500 a year if we are to make real progress. Those houses would not necessarily be built by Birmingham alone. They would also be built in overspill schemes.

As hon. Members have pointed out, one of the main reasons why more houses are not being built is shortage of labour. I understand that the city council is looking at ways of getting better output, particularly by employing new methods of construction which make less demand on the available building force. I appreciate that that is a difficult problem in the city at present. Even if there were labour available, that would not alter the fundamental difficulty of shortage of land.

Photo of Mr Victor Yates Mr Victor Yates , Birmingham, Ladywood

By rejecting the Wythall scheme the Minister has made it much more difficult for the city to integrate the labour force. It would have assisted the labour position if that scheme had been approved, for it would have made it easier to deal with the labour in the area.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Rippon Mr Geoffrey Rippon , Norwich South

As the situation stands the hon. Member is quite right when he says that building 2,000 or 2,500 houses a year on land which is available for housing within its boundaries could be done by Birmingham only until about 1967. What is inevitable is that many Birmingham people, offices and factories will have to be moved out of the city. In this respect Birmingham shares its longer-term problem with the rest of the west Midlands conurbation. It has been estimated that during the next twenty years land to provide for about 180,000 houses for overspill population from Birmingham and the Black Country will be needed beyond the green belt.

As my right hon. Friend indicated to the hon. Member for Ladywood in answer to another of his Questions, that is the real problem. Facing it could have been postponed only by allowing the scheme for housing at Wythall in the Worcestershire and Warwickshire parts of the green belt. The fact that the Wythall scheme went to a public inquiry meant of course that my right hon. Friend could not regard the matter as prejudged. The City of Birmingham must have known perfectly well that the matter was subject to public inquiry and that the Minister would have to act on the evidence presented to that inquiry. It was certainly never contemplated that Birmingham would sit back and do nothing more while waiting for a decision on the Wythall scheme.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham Small Heath

I am inclined to agree very much with what the Parliamentary Secretary is saying, but in that case why did the Ministry propose to have this building at Wythall? Why did the Ministry cause one year to be wasted?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Rippon Mr Geoffrey Rippon , Norwich South

What the Ministry proposed was that the matter should be considered at a public inquiry. That is what happened and everyone must know that. At the moment, houses for overspill are being built outside the city at the rate of 300 or 400 a year. That manifestly is hopelessly inadequate and compares very unfavourably with the experience of London County Council. No one doubts that it is a difficult business to negotiate overspill schemes. I do not always agree with everything that London County Council does, but no one can dispute that it made a tremendous effort to solve some of London's housing problems by tackling the overspill problem very energetically. It may be that Birmingham could learn something from that experience.

Photo of Mr Michael Maitland Stewart Mr Michael Maitland Stewart , Fulham

The hon. Gentleman should realise that that was done at some considerable expense to the ratepayers and that the Conservative minority on the L.C.C. is always attacking the Labour majority for the level of the rates.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Rippon Mr Geoffrey Rippon , Norwich South

It is quite untrue to say that Conservatives on the London County Council ever attacked the majority party for what it was doing about overspill. I should have thought that the people of Birmingham could have done something similar. If the problem is to be faced, we must face some of the financial implications.

Photo of Mr Michael Maitland Stewart Mr Michael Maitland Stewart , Fulham

The hon. Gentleman's party did not do so on the L.C.C.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Rippon Mr Geoffrey Rippon , Norwich South

The hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) keeps on saying that we did not do so on the London County Council. He knows that that is untrue, because he is usually well-informed.

Photo of Mr Michael Maitland Stewart Mr Michael Maitland Stewart , Fulham

I am. I recollect reading articles by the hon. Member attacking the London County Council for electoral purposes for its level of rates. He must have known that one of the reasons for the rates was the cost of overspill negotiations.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Rippon Mr Geoffrey Rippon , Norwich South

I certainly did that. I also explained, in those articles, where I would make the cuts, and none of them were on overspill. That, however, is by the way. We are discussing how to tackle this great problem in Birmingham. There is no doubt that we must have major expansion beyond the green belt. We would have needed that whatever happened about Wythall or anywhere else.

As the House knows, we are investigating the possibility of building the new town at Dawley. It would be a great surprise to everyone if I were to announce a decision on this here tonight. Certainly, my right hon. Friend will announce the result as soon as he can. We are certainly aware of the urgency. Town expansion schemes are being discussed at Redditch, Worcester, Daventry and Droitwich. There is more than one party to these negotiations. We can simply press on with them as fast as we can.

Concerning subsidy in relation to overspill, if the council had built at Wythall it would have got the £24 subsidy for general needs plus any special subsidies that might have arisen. If the council works under the Town Development Act, subsidies are payable to the receiving authority. The Exchequer subsidy is now £28 plus the various supplementary subsidies if necessary.

The hon. Member for Ladywood said that Birmingham would have to pay about £12 per annum as a minimum. That is not true. It applies only if all the workers transferring came from Birmingham's list of tenants. If, as is the case with the schemes for Redditch, Worcester and Daventry, the scheme involves a substantial transfer of industry and, hence, a proportion of workers transferred who are not on the list for housing need in Birmingham, the Exchequer and Birmingham share the additional £12 for fifteen years, the Exchequer paying the £12 and recovering half from Birmingham.

There is also an Exchequer grant payable to the receiving authority of 50 per cent. of the cost of works of main drainage and water supply attributable to overspill. The minimum cost to Birmingham is £6 a house for fifteen years. It may be that there is need for a more generous approach, as some hon. Members have pointed out, in this regard if schemes are to be approved.

We have to bear in mind that to be successful, these schemes must depend upon co-operation between the City of Birmingham and the other local authorities affected. They need time to consider all the implications. We for our part, however, are certainly trying to press ahead with the negotiations as quickly as we can and to help to speed them up. As the hon. Member knows, the Worcestershire and Warwickshire County Councils were strongly opposed to the development proposed at Wythall. Now that that issue has been settled, however, I am sure that these counties should do everything in their power to help in ensuring that Birmingham's needs are met elsewhere. They certainly should do so. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak said about that.

Tonight, I have mentioned only the schemes that look most promising. There may well be others. We shall have to consider Birmingham's needs in relation to the long-term needs of the whole of the West Midlands. It is a formidable problem, but officers of the Ministry are engaged in conducting a survey with the planning officers of the counties concerned to discuss what land may be made available for this purpose. I assure the House that my right hon. Friend, for his part, will do everything he can to speed up the negotiations and help to bring them to a satisfactory conclusion. Much will also depend, however, upon the attitude of the Birmingham City Council and on its initiative and vigour in bringing these matters to a successful conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.