Orders of the Day — Slum Clearance (Manchester)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd November 1965.

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Photo of Mr Alf Morris Mr Alf Morris , Manchester Wythenshawe 12:00 am, 22nd November 1965

It was put to the House recently, in a notable Parliamentary speech, that Manchester's great renown is symbolised by its most famous school, the Cathedral, The Guardian and the Royal Exchange. But we shall be concerned in this debate with an altogether different inheritance of my native city, the grim problem of her slum dwellings. We shall be concerned also with the generous, brave and industrious people who live in Manchester's slums, for on the manner of our response to their claims will depend the city's future renown.

Manchester was described by the Royal Antiquary, John Leland, following his visit to the North in 1538, as "the fairest, best builded" town he had seen. More recent official visitors have reported differently. The North West: a Regional Study, written by Government officials and published in July, states that the first and lasting impression of the visitor to the region is one of astonishment that the housing conditions he sees around him can still exist in a relatively prosperous part of an advanced industrial country.

One-fifth of the poorest dwellings in the country are in the North-West and about three-quarters of the region's slums are in the "Mersey Division"—the Report's new title for the dense population belt dominated by Manchester and Liverpool. In terms of sheer numbers, our slum problem is described as being probably without parallel in Britain today.

In Manchester, in a vast belt immediately outside the central area of the city, there still exist all too many remnants of a planless, knotted chaos of dark, dismal and crumbling homes. Many of these crossed the verge of uninhabit-ableness long before their most elderly inhabitants were born.

The Manchester slum in which I was born, long condemned as unfit for human habitation, was mercifully one of the more impatient of its kind; it anticipated the coup de grâce of the demolition gang. But I shall never forget my childhood days in the slums of Ancoats. Nor shall I ever ignore the claims of those who live in such areas still.

Whatever else may be said of the hard-faced and grasping private landlordism of the past, its effects are nothing if not ugly today. The human problems of the slum areas often lurk unseen and their social cost is not easily assessed. But statistics show that the children of families living in slums are unable to take proper advantage of educational facilities and that their health and physical development is impaired.

Only one child in 250 achieves grammar school entry and there is virtually no chance of entrance to a university. Yet five years after a family is rehoused we find in Manchester that the children are taller, heavier, fitter and able to take advantage of the educational facilities available in the area to which their family has been moved.

How then is the City of Manchester tackling the forbidding problem of its slum areas? On all available evidence, it has shown more vigour, courage and compassion than any other of the great provincial cities of Britain. Slum clearance is given top priority. In 1961, the City Council adopted a target of 4,000 houses to be demolished and 4,000 new houses to be erected each year. It was also agreed that, as soon as possible after this target had been reached, there would be a new one of 5,000. In 1959 the building programme had been one of only 1,500 dwellings per annum.

The figure of 4,000 was achieved both in 1963 and 1964 and seems likely to be achieved again this year. Since 1964 the City Medical Officer of Health has been "representing" houses at the rate of 5,000 a year. This means that the city may be able to achieve 5,000 completed houses a year by 1968–69, subject to the availability of land, about which I hope that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give some assurance.

Of a total of 201,627 present dwellings in Manchester, some 54,700, or 27·1 per cent., are estimated to be unfit. A comparison of slum clearance action taken by six major local authorities, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield and Bristol, shows that for the five years ending 30th June, 1965, Manchester was top of the league, both in compulsory purchase orders confirmed and the number of houses demolished or closed. Manchester's figures of 13,151 houses demolished or closed compares with that of 12,434 by Leeds, 11,026 by Birmingham, 8,268 by Liverpool, 6,846 by Sheffield and 2,792 by Bristol.

Manchester's nationally outstanding achievement in this respect has not, however, been gained without considerable cost both for ratepayers generally and council houses tenants in particular. There has been constant strain on the city's housing revenue account. The striking of a fair balance between the ratepayers and the tenants, who are, of course, themselves also ratepayers, is a matter entirely for the local authority. This problem has given rise to much controversy in the city and there is strong feeling on both sides of the argument that more of the cost of redevelopment should be met by the ratepayers generally.

Each new dwelling immediately places an average annual cost of £107 on the housing revenue account and while no one with any regard for human values would advocate this solution to our problem of rates and rents, a reversion to the 1959 building programme of only 1,500 dwellings a year would give considerable financial relief to ratepayers and tenants alike. Let me quote some examples of the actual costs for Manchester for accelerating the slum clearance programme and of the consequential increase in the pace of erecting new housing accommodation.

In a recent report on house building on expensive sites, prepared by the City Treasurer, consideration is given to erecting 492 houses in an area where land acquisition cost alone is estimated at more than £63,000 an acre. If a decision is taken to acquire the land, the deficiency falling annually on the housing revenue account, after subsidies and rents have been taken into account, will be one of £35,806, or £73 per house.

An examination in July of this year of housing schemes approved since December, 1964, showed that the weekly deficiencies per dwelling, after deducting subsidies and current rents, ranged from 17s. 6d. for flats in a suburban multi-storey scheme to £2 5s. 5d. for two-storey houses in a redevelopment area. The deficiency on a three-bedroomed overspill house, after Government subsidy and rate contribution, was approximately £3 6s., which, with a rent set at £1 16s. 3d., left the housing revenue account with a net weekly deficiency of £1 9s. 9d. Similarly, for a three-bedroomed maisonette in a redevelopment area, there was a deficiency, after subsidy and rate contribution, of £2 1s. 3d. Under the local authority's present pooling system, these deficiencies are met from the rents of tenants of earlier assisted scheme houses.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government knows, building costs increased by 7½ per cent. between 1963 and early 1965; Government subsidies have been static; land values, about which action has been promised in the Queen's Speech, have soared in recent years; and interest rates, because of the unprecedented economic mess bequeathed to the present Government by their predecessors, have continued high. These factors give further emphasis to Manchester's outstanding achievement in slum clearance.

If Manchester's civic leaders had decided to walk on the other side of the road, as it were, from the city's slum dwellers, if instead of giving it top priority they had reduced slum clearance activity as housing costs increased, both rates and rents would have been very much lower today. But why should slum clearance not have been regarded by Governments as a national problem? Should not local authorities, tackling their huge slum clearance problems as Manchester has done during the past five years, have been given extra help from central funds? Why should the reward for vigour and courage be higher rates and rents? And why penalise compassion?

After all, the problem of slums, leading as it does to so much waste of talent and ill health, is certainly a national problem. It is no fault of the present ratepayers and council house tenants of Manchester that the city was so badly ravaged and disfigured by the irresponsibility of acquisitive private landlords of the past.

Unfortunately, the policy of the Conservative Party on this matter has become one of deep cynicism. We find in the latest Conservative pamphlet on housing—"Target for Homes", from the Conservative Political Centre—a proposal which would mean the abolition of the general council house subsidy. The authors of the pamphlet are Mr. Geoffrey Rippon and the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield)——