Housing

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st June 1978.

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Photo of Mr Joseph Dean Mr Joseph Dean , Leeds West 12:00 am, 21st June 1978

I wish to refer to one facet of the housing problem which has not been mentioned so far in the debate. This problem has arisen because of the massive post-war building programme. More than 4 million council house units of various types have been built since the war. The overwhelming majority of these properties are of a good standard that the tenants value and most of the buildings are of a high standard. However, I wish to talk about the "twilight" houses which are already showing serious defects not only in construction but in the social problems which they create.

Whether Labour or Conservatives form the next Government, they will not be able to turn their back on some of the problems which we as a nation have created in building those housing units. I am not blaming any particular Government, because successive Governments have been guilty in this respect.

I am aware that once the building programme got under way the target was set at about 300,000 houses a year. However, in order to inflate that figure industrialised housing was brought in with ministerial encouragement. I was involved at a local level at that time and I was bitterly opposed to the introduction of such development. I did not see the logic of industrialised housing unless it was brought in to meet a specific shortage of building workers in a particular area. I saw no reason for such a massive programme of industrialised building. The programme involved 100,000 units of low, medium and high-rise development.

I could not see the logic of that policy when there was such a huge reservoir of unemployed building trade workers on which to draw—and that is still the case. Furthermore, except for one short period, there has always been an adequate supply of building materials to top up the traditional house building programme. However, because of the pressures on local authorities and the way in which subsidies were offered for high density developments, those of us who were opposed to industrialised building lost the argument and it went ahead.

We have now reached a situation where in almost every city we see monolithic, concrete developments which are hideous to look at and which people do not want to continue to inhabit. I accuse the architects and planners of creating this position. I am referring to deck access type of accommodation. There is one such development in Leeds which is not in my constituency but in the area of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department. I told my right hon. Friend that I intended to raise the matter in this debate, and he was delighted that I intended to mention these problems.

There is a similar development in Manchester, the Hulme 5 development, which has been featured on television. That development is undesirable and has created massive social problems. Nobody wants to live there. What has happened is that the social problems have been moved from slums at ground level to roadways in the sky. We install lifts in those developments and we regard that as progress.

These developments are monuments of shame to the architects who designed them and to the planning officers who accepted the briefs. I believe that this country will carry the stigma of those developments for a very long time and the cost has been so enormous that it is impossible to demolish them, although that is what should happen. Wherever plans for industrialised buildings were put in, the figure always came out 20 per cent. higher than for conventional buildings.

When I knew that this debate was scheduled to take place, I contacted the director of housing in Leeds—a large authority responsible for over 100,000 properties, varying in quality from very good buildings to undesirable ones. The director of housing said in his report to me: Basically, like many other authorities in the mid-60s, we embarked on building programmes which relied heavily on industrialised building methods, new forms of construction, high density schemes, either in low rise or multi-storey form, all with the intention of increasing the flow of new properties to meet the housing shortage. With the benefit of hindsight, one can now say that what we did was to sacrifice quality for quantity and we are now paying, in more sense than merely financial, for our involvement in these types of development which, might I stress, were all subject to the blessing of central government in the striving for the attainment of new building targets. The bills in respect of the maintenance of these industrialised houses and flats are astronomical. The director refers to a development at Hunslet Grange, and a low-rise development of 1,500 houses industrially built, and gives a figure for remedial treatment for these and similar developments of £8 million, which is the cost to the Leeds housing revenue account. The housing investment programme at present contains no calculation of the amount of money required for remedial treatment. When authorities are battling with this type of problem, will the Minister in future policies take account of their position? Obviously, this problem will be with the nation for many years and will increase in proportion. Indeed, I believe that it will assume a larger proportion even than the renovation of older housing stock. The capital cost involved in these developments is huge by any standards.

I am trying to be brief in my remarks and, in line with the requirements of the Chair I shall rapidly draw my speech to a conclusion. Before I leave the subject of industrialised building, I wish to make clear that because other schemes are under way we should treat them with care. They should be given low priority in building terms unless there are reasons of geographical shortage of labour and materials. There is no question but that, pound for pound, traditional building in bricks and mortar—and there is an ample supply of labour and material to do this work—is better value and the house-building figures would improve substantially if the finance were made available.

Last week, the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) introduced a Bill on direct labour under the Ten Minutes Rule. Having listened to his speech, I conclude that he is probably the most ill-informed and uninformed hon. Member on direct labour. I do not go along with those who think that direct labour is a panacea and the answer to everything or that it should be given contracts on a plate, but in some of our cities which have large building departments working in competition with the private sector those departments have made an immense contribution to the 4 million houses that I referred to earlier.

I ask the Minister to ensure that the private sector is made to toe the line in future in the way that private firms tender for contracts. The answer to a Question that I tabled some time ago showed that the overwhelming number of contracts for building council houses are not subject to open tender. They are overwhelmingly issued on the basis of the selected tenderers procedure. Local authorities have three or four builders of repute which build for them and one of those firms usually gets the contract.

I hope that Conservative authorities will not behave stupidly because of political dogma and attempt to damage the successful direct labour organisations which are making an immense contribution in the building of good quality council housing, good quality public buildings and even schools.