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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:01 pm on 1st July 1983.

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Photo of Mr Terry Dicks Mr Terry Dicks , Hayes and Harlington 1:01 pm, 1st July 1983

I have an interest to declare. Until 5 July I am a paid employee of the GLC. From 6 July onwards I shall be an unpaid employee of the GLC. I wish at the outset to pay tribute to my predecessor in Hayes and Harlington, Mr. Neville Sandelson, a man of much personal charm, courteous and with a ready wit. In recent years he has been under great pressure in his political life and throughout that time has shown a great deal of courage. I shall do all I can to emulate his service to the community so as to ensure for myself a long stay in this House.

My constituency is situated in west London and contains within its boundaries the world's busiest airport, Heathrow. At present an inquiry is gathering evidence among other things on the merits of developing a fifth terminal there. Many of my constituents would welcome such a development because it would bring much-needed additional employment to the area. I share those sentiments. However, I want a clear Government commitment to provide the capital resources necessary to ensure that the infrastructure is provided for the area. Without that Government assurance I could not support the fifth terminal.

In and around the Hayes town centre, especially at peak times, the traffic congestion is acute and the urgent need to get the Hayes by-pass completed is evident. I am aware that some oppose the by-pass proposals, but I believe that the overall advantages far outweigh any parochial considerations, however genuinely held. The GLC has delayed the provision of a by-pass for too long and with the demise of that authority—and as a GLC employee, paid or otherwise, I shall be speaking in favour of its abolition at every opportunity — I hope that the Government will involve themselves in that development to ensure that my constituents get relief without delay from the severe and unnecessary traffic problems.

My major reason for speaking today is to talk about the scandal of system building and the Bison wall frame system in particular. It is a national and a London issue, and I know from first-hand experience, both as a former tenant of a Bison dwelling and as the current chairman of Hillingdon borough's housing committee, that it is a local issue affecting my constituents.

"Scandal" is not too strong a word to describe what has happened to the dwellings built by Bison and, more important, what has happened to the tenants who found themselves having to live in such dwellings. It all started with central Government pressure on local authorities to build cheaply, quickly and at high-rise level. Subsidy arrangements were adjusted to encourage such building, and architects, never slow to experiment at someone else's expense, were soon persuading local councillors, come hell or high water, to use system building methods.

My authority built more than 1,400 homes under the Bison wall frame system during the late 1960s and early 1970s and has come to regret the day it ever made contact with that company. These dwellings are largely factory built and assembled like a child's Lego set on site. It is our experience that the dwellings were badly constructed at the factory and badly assembled on site. The quality of the materials that were used left much to be desired. Since 1978 Hillingdon council has spent £5 million on refurbishing four tower blocks so that about 300 tenants can live in decent accommodation. This has followed the spending of almost £500,000 on investigative work to try to solve the problems. The remaining 1,175 low-rise dwellings built by the wall frame method will be demolished. We have come to this decision because the cost of patching them up has been estimated at more than £25 million. The cost of refurbishment has been placed at £38 million.

It was beyond the ability of Hillingdon ratepayers to meet those costs. We hope that the cost of demolition will be met from the income derived from the sale of sites. Despite the involvement of central Government, my authority has had precious little help from that quarter. It has had sympathy by the bucket load but no help. The Department of the Environment has refused to act as the central point for gathering and sharing information between local authorities and in general has not been very helpful. Whatever Ministers may say to the contrary, that has been Hillingdon's experience.

The story is the same in respect of financial aid. There have been murmurs of understanding, but no financial assistance. It has been said by the Department of the Environment that the HIP allocation contained an element for Bison repairs, but it would have been difficult to find even with a magnifying glass. If the Minister says that Hillingdon has overspent on its capital programme—I apologise in advance for my absence when my hon. Friend replies to the debate—let me remind him that we asked for an allocation of up to £19 million and were allowed £8 million. The housing investment programme allocation is not Government money but merely the authority to borrow. They gave us the authority to borrow £8·8 million. We have spent all of that and some of our capital receipts. If the Minister says that Hillingdon has overspent on its capital programme, let him remember that we have spent money that we raised ourselves by selling land and houses. We spent in excess of the allocation and there was no element in the allocation for Bison repairs.

The national consequences are enormous, and I can well understand the reluctance of any Government to embark upon a course that could eventually end up with their facing a bill of between £2 billion and £5 billion. But if they do not want to face such a demand, how on earth do they expect local authorities to cope with it with their limited resources? It is a problem for which Government must share much of the blame, because of their attitude in the 1960s. They cannot and must not be allowed to run away from their obligations. Before anyone tells me that I am talking about my own Government, I stress that I am talking about Governments of both political persuasions, who were aided and abetted by civil servants. Even if technically Governments were not parties to the original contract between local authority and builder, they have a responsibility.

It must be said that Bison has acted recklessly and irresponsibly throughout. The recent "World in Action" programme on television gave evidence of its attitude. I am reluctant to be controversial in my maiden speech, but as I watched the programme I saw the ex-chairman of the company enjoying himself in the sun in Berkshire while tenants of Bison properties were having a dreadful life. However, Bison has to face the shame and the disgrace.

I call upon the Government to recognise the problem and to do what they can by way of financial allocation. For everyone's sake, they should have a public inquiry so we may know what happened in the past. We should know what went on and who was responsible. We must be sure that the public interest is served and protected.