Housing (Walsall)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th February 1976.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George , Walsall South 12:00 am, 10th February 1976

It is probably unusual for Members of Parliament from adjacent constituencies and within the same local authority to be successful in the same week in the Ballot for Adjournment debates. My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) has chosen a subject in which he has become deeply concerned—prison conditions of unconvicted remandees. I have chosen a subject of deep concern to me and the majority of my constituents and the people of Walsall in general.

The shortage of housing in Walsall is acute. I cannot escape the conclusion that as a nation we have failed to provide adequate accommodation for our citizens. The size of my weekly surgery is a testimony to the town's housing crisis. I share the feelings of people visiting me—feelings of despair, as literally dozens of people each week tell me their housing problems.

In many cases there is little I am able to do. Many people are reduced to tears, telling me stories of their overcrowded accommodation and the dilapidated accommodation in which they live. In many cases there is little opportunity for them to get out in the immediate future.

We must ensure the construction of the right number of dwellings, in the right place, at the right time, the right price, and of the right size and type. So far, I regret that we have failed.

Both the Labour Government and our Labour council in Walsall have given a very high priority to housing. We share a common desire for a rapid increase in the construction of all types of housing and the Government are endeavouring to improve the standard of the existing housing stock. I am well aware of the financial constraints under which both central Government and local governments are operating.

I appreciate too that there are other urban areas with serious housing problems, but I contend that my area has a more serious problem than most, and I hope that I can convince the Minister that it deserves special treatment.

Walsall is in the heart of the industrial Midlands—a town of 250,000, but the relevant indices belie the myth of prosperity. The average income is below the national average. There are many areas of multiple deprivation, and bad housing is usually a function of low income.

About 20 per cent. of the housing stock in the old county borough of Walsall is pre-1918, which means that many houses are structurally defective and lacking in basic amenities. That there is a desperate housing need is apparent to all but, apparently, the inspector who conducted a public inquiry in 1974 into the proposal by Walsall to acquire land at Bloxwich.

In rejecting Walsall's application, he said: Of course they have a housing need but its total size is open to serious question because of the doubt cast on their estimates for the old County Borough in respect of existing deficiency and new household formation, which together form the bulk of its need. I refute this entirely. If anything, the need was understated at the inquiry. At present, there are 7,646 applicants on the housing register, and if nothing else comes out of this debate I hope the Minister will accept the figures agreed at the public inquiry into structure plans of the West Midlands conurbation as the basis for the Department's calculations.

The council is starting to make an in-road into the accumulated deficiencies of bygone years, after the disastrous years of the last Tory Council, when municipal house building virtually ceased. Now, at last, we have some movement and there is hope for the thousands of people on our waiting list.

The target of the local authority is 1,500 houses per annum. Last year, we made 1,000 starts, and we hope that this year the figure will be even higher. But the magnitude of the task facing the council is staggering.

A recent estimate showed that in the next decade, from 1976 to 1986, there will be a need for between 14,000 and 15,000 dwellings—a enormous figure. To build that number will require great co-operation between Government, local government, developers and all those concerned. We have in Walsall a go-ahead council. It needs all the assistance that the Department of the Environment and, indeed, the Treasury can provide.

I shall not only dwell on the need for a dynamic house building programme; I shall deal also with our needs and the shortfalls in respect of our modernisation programmes. In Walsall, we have about 40,000 council houses. Of these, 13,000 were constructed before 1939. About 12,000 are in need of modernisation in the foreseeable future. All have outside toilets, and 5,000 have inadequate wiring. At the present rate of modernisation, of about 400 houses a year, the pre-war houses will be modernised by the year 2006. It is estimated by the local authority that in 10 years half of its stock will require modernisation. It is a vicious circle. By the time the pre-war houses are completed—about the year 2000—the post-war houses will be obsolete, too, and the greater the delay in modernising our existing stock, obviously the greater cost when the job is done. The demand for modernisation and house repairs is enormous.

The inability of the council to cope with the enormity of this task inspires amongst council house tenants disenchantment, bitterness, resentment and alienation. In some areas like Coalpool, Harden, Pleck, Palfrey, Caldmore and Darlaston, I am inundated with complaints. However active the council is, there are limits on what it can do. Therefore, many people are left with little hope that these basic tasks will be completed by the local authority. In my constituency of Walsall, South, 22 per cent of all households lack hot water, a bath and/or an inside toilet. In Darlaston, the figure is 28 per cent. In St. Matthews ward, it is 33 per cent.—a figure that we must all condemn.

The Government allocation of £3 million for next year is, in reality, no improvement on the previous allocation of £2 million, because of inflation and because, now, of the amalgamation of the modernisation and repairs element in the Section 105 grant. But the basic problem is that in the past Walsall did not spend heavily enough, so that the base from which the cost limits is calculated is too low. I argue that the allocation should be based on our undoubted need and not on historic costs, and I hope that this will be borne in mind by the Department when the next calculation is made.

The majority of people on the council waiting list are seeking to escape from their present inadequate housing, and if we can resuscitate older properties it will clearly diminish the need for new houses. I welcome the Government's encouragement for the rehabilitation of old properties.

In the past, in my area and in others, redevelopment was often insensitive and, in some cases, unnecessary. Communities were broken up. In Walsall, the population is not mobile, because of a number of factors—the age of the population, its low income, and its sense of community. Walsall is made up of a large number of smaller communities. Many people resist resettlement in "faraway" places like Tamworth and Telford. In some cases, it might be difficult to relocate them even on the periphery of the town.

A recent survey showed that 42 per cent. of the people on the approved list wanted to remain in the older parts, near the town centre. In my view, much more encouragement must therefore be given to resettling families in the areas in which they are presently living, and this requires much speedier compulsory purchase orders and much more cash to aid people who wish to modernise.

A recent report of the National Community Development Project was critical of the GIA programme, and our own experience in Walsall has tended to confirm much of this analysis. I very much hope that housing action areas are not "old policies in new clothing". None, regrettably, has been declared in Walsall. The old GIA had some success, but it had fatal defects. One was its lack of compulsory powers. A further defect was that it did not help those in most need—poorer families unable to raise their proportion of the expenditure.

In my constituency there are many contenders for designation as housing action areas—Darlaston, Pleck, Palfrey and Chuckery, for example. Darlaston is a classic example of a town that was formerly wealthy. It is wealthy now, in terms of money created by its factories, but a wander around the town will give an impression not of affluence but of poverty. It has many old houses, both council and private, which desperately need modernisation. The town centre is run down. It has many of the attributes of a ghost town.

Much must be done by central and local government and by private developers to breathe new life into such decaying areas. There are many such areas in the Black Country. I hope that something can be done to assist this area to achieve the level of attainment which so far it has lacked.

Housing associations have, regrettably, so far had little impact on Walsall. There are six in the town, of which one is community-based. In 1975–76 it is estimated that 149 dwellings will come into use as a result of the work of these associations, and that the figure for the following year will be 234. Housing associations can play a vital role in solving our housing problems and I hope that far more will be set up in Walsall. I regret that a ceiling has been placed on capital expenditure, because housing associations have problems. They can provide specialist accommodation, and I hope that the time will come when there will be more of them in the town and they will play a much more active role.

In Walsall, as in the country as a whole, we must make much better use of the existing housing stock. There is a scandal of under-occupation. Much more must be done to encourage older people to move to smaller houses. Obviously, there must be no compulsion, but the council could take much of the worry away from old people in moving, and this would release accommodation for needy families.

There must be real measures to combat the growing number of empty properties. It is an affront to the homeless to see large numbers of houses remaining empty in my town. I welcome moves by the local authority and one of the housing associations to purchase 33 flats that have remained unfinished for almost a year at Highgate, in Walsall. If they were bought with the assistance of central Government it would take 100 people off the council waiting list.

I congratulate central Government and my local authority for their joint ventures to combat an unsatisfactory housing situation, despite the many obstacles. It requires great effort at all levels by Government, private developers, housing associations and the population as a whole. It is to my regret that private house building in the town is in decline. Much more must be done to encourage it to grow.

To help achieve the targets, the Government can do more—although I must add that there is a good relationship between central Government and my authority. We deserve a bigger slice of the cake: I hope I have produced evidence for that.

Second, I hope that the Department will give a sympathetic hearing to the problems of land shortage, which is acute in Walsall. It is essential to acquire land and a sympathetic hearing from the Government will be to our advantage. I hope that the Government will have a new look at expenditure on drainage, which is seriously impeding house building in Walsall. I hope, too, that we shall have an early decision on the West Midlands conurbation structure plan.

Finally, on behalf of myself and the local authority, I extend an invitation to the Minister to visit Walsall, and not just for a courtesy visit. I hope that he will consider a working visit to see for himself some of the housing problems in the town, so that we shall see a steady improvement in achieving the aim of us all—providing the citizens of Walsall with adequate housing.