Orders of the Day — Housing Estate (Netherley)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th March 1976.

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4.0 p.m.

Photo of Mr Eddie Loyden Mr Eddie Loyden , Liverpool, Garston

Adjournment debates give hon. Members the opportunity to raise matters affecting their constituencies and their constituents. The matter I bring before the House today concerns the Netherley Estate, which is in my constituency.

Although I shall deal in the main with the Netherley Estate, in particular with the flats and maisonettes, the problems to which I shall refer are widespread throughout the United Kingdom. The Belgrave Estate, to which I shall refer briefly, is an extension of the Netherley Estate, but, as it is not in my constituency, I shall not go into detail, but merely refer to it as part of the on-going problem.

The Netherley Estate is a mixed development of houses, flats and maisonettes. The major problems are concerned with the flats and maisonettes, which were built mainly by the Unit Construction Company. When it was built, the estate was considered to be a planner's dream, but it has since turned out to be a tenant's nightmare.

Shortly after the completion of the estate and its occupation by tenants, complaints were received of water ingress and water penetration into the top storey flats in Brittarge Brow which is part of the estate. The estate was commenced in 1966–67 and mainly completed in 1972, so we are talking about a new housing estate. In spite of representations made by tenants and councillors over five years, no effective action was taken to deal with the water penetration through ceilings and doors.

In addition, several major and minor defects have become apparent since the estate was built, including the bad construction of stairways giving public access to the buildings. The stairways are loose and move when the tenants use them to gain access to their flats. On the eighth floor of a block of flats, window catches are accessible to children, and one woman on the estate has fallen to her death from the window. Furthermore, two children have been critically injured by falling from the landings of the maisonettes. This shows that the defects on this estate, which have been the cause of many problems to the tenants, are the result of structural defects from the very outset.

I want to refer briefly to a report of the housing department on the Netherley Estate. Dated February 1975, it dealt with a number of things, but it certainly established beyond peradventure that the complaints by the tenants were well founded and that there were structural defects. The report of the director of housing says: You will recall that vociferous complaints were made by numerous individual tenants on the occasion of the corporation's officers' 'walk-about' meeting. That meeting was an on-site meeting for which I asked and at which some 13 or 14 local government officials were present. The report added: These largely referred to structural faults on the mid-rise flats (noted on the tenants' list of complaints passed to Mr. Stables). He was the housing manager. These faults caused

  1. "(a) extensive crackings of ceilings adjacent to fire balcony pavings;
  2. (b) penetration of water at the above and sundry other points.
Ten such complaints were investigated the following day and tenants' complaints found to be justified because of the following:—
  1. (a) extensive defects were found in the asphalt pavings, skirtings and fillets and other points, allowing penetration of water to the dwellings;
  2. (b) there is clear evidence of extensive cracking of ceilings due to unequal movement of the separate elements of the building.
The findings and projections of my officers' summaries of conclusions confirm my telephone call … that there are extensive latent defects, and defects arising from possible errors of design similar to certain of those set out in the Belle Vale Phase 1/14 report to committee of 18th October 1974.All mid-rise dwellings of the Brittarge Brow, Glebe Hey and Peckmill Green types be surveyed by an independent consultant to determine the causes, attribution of responsibility and costs of rectification of the many faults affecting a great number of these dwellings. I understand that since then such an examination has taken place and that it has been disclosed that out of 91 houses already inspected more than 50 per cent. are affected in this way.

I want to impress upon the Minister that this estate, like many large corporation estates, has had the problems that we find in 1976 and that there is a concentration of social stresses for a variety of reasons. However, it is my opinion, having dealt with this estate for a number of years, that while the structural defects on the building side have not been the sole factor in the tremendous deterioration that has taken place on this estate in the past five or six years, certainly they have been a contributory factor in so far as they have resulted in the uneasiness and concern expressed by tenants, reaching a point at which their dissatisfaction pours over into the estate. In the end, the only thing that tenants want to do is to move from this estate as quickly and as far as possible.

I shall not quote the 60 cases which are set out in Building Design this week but I should like to quote one or two. Referring to Andover, it is stated: It is estimated that more than £3 million will have to be spent repairing 2,000 houses built by the GLC for overspill families. There has been a long history of problems and defects with the GLGC building at Andover, and this was highlighted in January this year when the Brandt Potter Hare Partnership, commissioned by Test Valley District Council produced a report which showed over 16 categories of defects in the houses on the three estates there. They included problems with roofs and timbers, bad jointing, crumbling brickwork and severe water penetration. At Newton Aycliffe £40,000 had already been spent and "another £90,000 was due to be spent on repairing cracking floors and dealing with inadequate damp-proofing. According to another report in Building Design:A report by the architects of the Basingstoke Development Group recommended last year that the wooden frames in 92 maisonettes (five blocks) in Aliston Way should be partially replaced by aluminium ones at a cost of £220,000. The maisonettes were completed in 1969 at a cost of £370,000. These defects were allegedly due to exposure and other factors. There are many cases, some even more dramatic than those, which I shall be glad to refer to the Minister at the end of this debate.

I understand that a liaison committee was set up and as a result of the work of this liaison committee, tenants and the Council, the local authority was compelled to act. The survey to which I have referred disclosed 50 per cent. structural defects along with many others in the flats which I have named. Since then, I understand, the unit construction company has agreed to carry out the remedial work. It may well be argued that that is the least that it can do, that, if the faults were structural—and there appears to be an abundance of evidence that they were—the cost ought to be borne not by the local authority, the ratepayer and the tenant but by those who were responsible for the construction.

The widespread nature of this problem ought to concern the Department because, as I say, we are not talking about an isolated case. I think that the cases to which I have referred indicate clearly that building standards in this country, for one reason or another, are declining to a point at which this is becoming a very serious issue.

I believe that the Department has a responsibility, with the local authorities, because I am aware of the sensitive area between what local authorities are responsible for and what is the responsibility of the central Government. I believe that the Department of the Environment will agree that the Department has a responsibility for building standards and this brief resume of the problems clearly indicates that the Department ought to take immediate steps to examine this problem and deal with it.

In many places, including Netherley, building has been undertaken to accommodate people from bad slum conditions and housing them in what will become their permanent homes, many of them being housed for the first time in decent accommodation. It is utterly unacceptable that so many of those people should find themselves occupying purpose-built slums.

In my view, the Department has a direct responsibility here because of the magnitude of the problem and its consequences for the tenants who have to occupy such sub-standard buildings, with no chance of being moved out, and the additional consequence of the deterioration which occurs when any large estate has to face problems of this nature. Inevitably, it is the families in most urgent need who are housed in these areas, and there is likely to be a consequent concentration of social problem cases, which in the end brings the development of another ghetto.

I do not expect the Minister to reply to all the matters which I have raised, but I urge him not to confine himself to the brief which the Department has prepared on the matter. I want him to give urgent consideration to instituting an inquiry into building standards generally—naturally, my special concern is the Netherley estate—so that we may see whether the problem is relatively limited, or whether this is merely the tip of an iceberg and it is in fact far more widespread.

There are other costs not taken into account in the figures which I have so far mentioned. For example, apart from anything else, there is the cost of rehousing tenants from flats, maisonettes and houses on which remedial work has to be done.

If we intend genuinely to ensure that the houses we provide are of good standard and meet the purpose for which they are built, that is, for the housing of families so that they can settle down—in many cases, for the first time—and begin to enjoy decent living standards, action must be taken. The good standards which we desire will not come about until the matter has been investigated and action has been taken.

4.18 p.m.

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

First, I must express appreciation to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) for his pertinent observations and for the continuing concern which he shows not only on behalf of his constituents but on a matter of wider significance. I assure my hon. Friend that his concern is shared by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction, and I shall ensure that all the matters which my hon. Friend has raised are drawn to his attention.

Perhaps I may add, since I represent a similar constituency in Birmingham with a considerable number of high-rise flats and maisonettes, that as I listened to my hon. Friend I almost thought that he might have been at one of my constituency advice bureaux hearing the same sort of complaints which I myself have to take up.

Undoubtedly, especially in those high-rise flats constructed immediately after the war, there are grounds for concern about continuing faults, particularly water seepage, window closures, and that sort of thing. I have had to deal with such matters in my own constituency. I say that to underline what my hon. Friend has said and to show that he was in no way exaggerating. He is certainly right when he says that people do not like living in high-rise flats. No doubt, like my hon. Friend's constituent, most of my constituents, particularly those families with children, object to accommodation of that type. They have the traditional working-class dislike of living up in the air. Mothers in particular object to living on the 12th floor because they cannot do their cooking or laundry and at the same time keep an eye on their children who might be in a nearby playground. I genuinely share my hon. Friend's concern.

The estate at Netherley was developed in the late 1960s in accordance with architectural and planning concepts current at the time. The problem then facing the city of Liverpool over its housing conditions was such that the Council had to look for assistance outside its own boundaries to the new towns of Skelmersdale and Runcorn and to town development schemes with the former authorities at Winsford, Widnes and Ellesmere Port. Naturally the Council, wishing to retain and rehouse as many people as possible being displaced by its massive slum clearance programme and to make the best use of its limited land resources, embarked on the building of high and medium rise blocks of flats throughout the city.

The site at Netherley was one of the few sites available at the time that could be developed without waiting clearance and the city planning and housing departments designed a scheme which incorporated both low-rise houses and five- and eight-storey blocks of flats and maisonnettes of the deck-access type. I believe about 60 per cent. of the development was in flats and maisonnettes and it is these to which my hon. Friend has drawn the House's particular attention.

The blocks were constructed to the Council's brief and specification by two national contractors in their own industrialised building forms of construction. Although the blocks seemed to be constructed satisfactorily at the time, and at that time we had little experience of these forms of construction over a long period, faults have subsequently developed which are related to the form of construction used.

I am pleased to say that Liverpool City Council has not been blind to the faults that have arisen, which caused so much concern to the tenants that they formed themselves into a Flat Dwellers Action Group. This group was formed not only because of their concern over the structural conditions of the flats but because of the social conditions on the state.

The City Council last year established the Netherley Estate Liaison Committee with the express purpose of exploring and recommending courses of action to improve living conditions generally on the estate and at the same time it instructed the city architect to survey the flats to determine the responsibility and costs for rectification. The liaison committee comprises representatives of the Netherley Community Council and officers of the housing, social services and recreation and open spaces departments together with other departments of the Council, including outside agencies, and the ward councillors for the estate. The combined result of the various efforts made and initiative taken has been that one of the contractors—Unit Construction Company Limited—has informed the city architect that it will put right, at the company's expense, any work to the escape balconies that do not accord with the architect's drawings or with acknowledged good practice. It is now on site dealing with the balconies, that give rise both to some dampness and danger to children, and with the concrete columns that had cracked.

Photo of Mr Eddie Loyden Mr Eddie Loyden , Liverpool, Garston

I accept that the work is being carried out but it has taken about six years of pressure from tenants and local councillors to bring that about. The tenants have experienced five or six years of misery.

Secondly, I believe that the structural defects being identified at the moment are only the tip of the iceberg, and we may wonder what will be the situation if further defects are revealed on closer and more detailed examination.

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

I am sure that my hon. Friend is quite right. I am sorry that it has taken six years. That is hardly the responsibility of Ministers at the moment. but we share the concern that it has taken this length of time. As I said earlier, this problem associated with high-rise construction covers the country as a whole. I do not think that we should want to use this form of construction now and I do not think that many local authorities are now using it. We are just beginning to reap the harvest of this new type of construction, and Ministers in our Department will continue to be vigilant, to draw what lessons they can from every direction, and to spread the knowledge to other parts of the country.

I am pleased to be able to convey to the House the measures which have been taken by Liverpool City Council, the responsible authority for the estate, to alleviate the conditions immediately for the tenants of the flats. This is just dealing with the conditions as they stand, however, and more thought must be given to the future of both the tenants and the flats themselves.

Here, too, I am pleased to be able to report active consideration by Liverpool and the liaison committee. The Council is proposing shortly to review its allocation policies generally concerning transfers of flat dwellers to more suitable accommodation—for example, houses for families—and the liaison committee will be considering the suggestion, which I know my hon. Friend supports, to establish a tenants' housing co-operative.

I turn to financial assistance. My Department has not been approached by Liverpool for assistance with this problem, but it is always prepared to give advice to authorities having genuine difficulty in containing essential work within their allocation under Section 105 of the Housing Act 1974. I am, however, satisfied that the allocations made to Liverpool in both the current and succeeding financial years should be sufficient to allow it to finance these necessary works to the flats at Netherley, although I cannot agree that the Department has any financial responsibility to subsidise the remedial works.

I promised to return to the question of the social problems. For some time now it has been accepted that not all people can be satisfactorily housed in blocks of flats, and the Department has researched and reported on the social aspects of high-rise living, the most recent views being set out in an Occasional Paper 1/75 "The Social Effects of Living Off the Ground". Apart from the dissatisfaction of the flat tenants with the structure of their homes, which is now being dealt with, the most common complaints are from families with children who live off the ground. I do not think that there is any doubt that the lessons to which my hon. Friend drew attention have now been learned.

I am sure that most local authorities agree with these findings and that authorities such as Liverpool will be sympathetic to remedying existing tenancy anomalies when they can do so. It cannot, however, be done overnight, in view of the total stock managed by Liverpool and its outstanding housing problems, but we have learned from national experience of the social problems associated with living in blocks of flats.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction has frequently made it clear that he is strongly opposed to high-rise flats for families with children and that the apparent need for high population densities could be reduced if low densities elsewhere were increased by reasonable levels. Families could and should, therefore, be accommodated in dwelling-houses, not high or even medium-rise flats, in the majority of cases. I am glad to say that the building of high blocks of flats is now declining markedly. Those who represent industrial cities will, I know, agree with this development.

Finally, concerning tenants' cooperatives, as the House knows, a working group, under the chairmanship of Mr. Harold Campbell, is examining additional forms of social ownership. It will report to my hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Construction later this year. Following our introduction of the concept of housing co-operatives in the Housing Rents and Subsidies Act 1975, the final report of the Working Party on Housing Co-operatives was published earlier this year, together with a circular setting out the Government's reactions and describing ways in which co-operatives might be sponsored and supported.

The type of co-operative for consideration at Netherley would be a management co-operative in which tenants had collective responsibility for some or all of the management functions, but did not own or lease the property. The circular and the working party's report both contain guidance to local authorities on how to establish such a co-operative on or within suitable estates. I hope that my hon. Friend will find it helpful and interesting to his constituents.

I turn to the wider issues. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestions about setting up a Committee——

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.