System-built Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:53 pm on 24th March 1983.

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Photo of John Spellar John Spellar , Birmingham, Northfield 7:53 pm, 24th March 1983

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) on persisting with his campaign on the ever-increasing problem of industrialised building. With all due respect to the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain) how we got into our present circumstances is not especially relevant. We must address ourselves to what we shall do about it and who will pick up the tab. The problem associated with houses that have been purchased is that many of the owners are approaching pension age and often face a massive bill of £10,000 or £12,000.

I should like to raise two special problems that occur in Birmingham, which is the largest housing authority in Europe. It has a substantial quantity of industrialised buildings, mainly because of Birmingham's dramatic development during and after the second world war because of the car industry and the engineering boom.

The first category is those industrialised buildings that look like industrially-built buildings. They are the concrete slab and, especially, walk-up flats in the inner city that are becoming increasingly difficult to let. The problems with them are enormous. There is water penetration from outside, excessive dampness from inside which is often caused by major condensation and fungus that spreads over the walls. Families are often able to use only one room and many of the bedrooms are not habitable because of dampness and fungus.

Of course, other social factors have recently contributed to the problem. Increasing levels of unemployment have reduced family income so that it is more difficult for people to heat their properties. Dramatic increases in fuel prices since the oil crisis have also contributed to that problem. Nevertheless, those problems have drawn attention to the inherent unsuitability of concrete buildings to the British climate. In brick-built buildings, people are still able to maintain a decent standard of warmth and living conditions, but concrete buildings are increasingly showing that basic weakness. That has a major effect on morale, the standard of the estates and, above all, the health of the families who inhabit them. On two major system-built estates in my constituency, two young children have died recently. Medical opinion has said that their deaths were exacerbated substantially by the conditions in which they lived. Children are dying from bronchial complaints partly because of the conditions in those dwellings.

The other category is the system-built houses that do not look like industrialised buildings from the outside because they are brick clad. They are called Smith houses. There are about 1,500 of them in the city of Birmingham—about 800 of them are in my constituency—of which 230 have been sold to the occupiers. Interest in the problem was demonstrated by the size of a public meeting in my constituency on Friday night which is not normally the best time for a public meeting. People are being surprised by gatherings of 600 or 700 at public meetings during critical by-elections. Perhaps the 400 people who attended my public meeting show the extent of the anxiety about Smith properties.

The problem with those houses has been exacerbated by the use of untreated colliery shale for the fill in the foundations. As the water has reacted with the shale, the resulting pressure has caused cracks in floors, ceilings and walls. Obviously, the basic structure has been affected. One man told me that he can shake hands with his neighbour without having to go outside. I suppose that if one gets next door's post it is convenient to be able to stick it through the wall, but the conditions are clearly unsatisfactory.

Three groups of inhabitants face those problems. First, there are those who have bought the property and are faced with bills of up to £10,000 to make their homes safe. Moreover, they have difficulty if they want to sell their property. Not all Smith houses face the same problems but there is considerable anxiety about their stability and viability so that if some people wish to move to another part of the country, others are reluctant to buy them. As many of the properties were built in the early 1950s, most of the inhabitants are pensioners and have no chance of getting the money to make them sound.

Many tenants are worried as they have put a great deal of money into making the properties into decent homes. They are worried that if major refurbishment must take place, even if it is paid for by the council, they will never be able to find the money to bring them up to standard. Many of them are of pensionable age and want to see out their lives in homes that they have made themselves.

I regret to say that the council is still encouraging some people to buy their property, but it is not giving the necessary warnings to tenants. The Minister must investigate councils that are still putting those industrially built properties on the market, caveat emptor or not.