Orders of the Day — Housing and Building Control Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:58 pm on 5th July 1983.

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Photo of Mr Kenneth Eastham Mr Kenneth Eastham , Manchester, Blackley 6:58 pm, 5th July 1983

I pay sincere tribute to the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) for his impressive maiden speech. All. hon. Members realise just how nerve-racking such occasions are, but I am sure that, with his confidence and command of the subject, we can look forward to many more competent contributions. The hon. Gentleman also paid generous tribute to his predecessor, Mr. Sam Silkin, who was a distinguished Member. We have all been impressed today by the hon. Gentleman's skill and eloquence. They will stand him in good stead as he continues to speak with conviction on behalf of his constituents.

The new Minister for Housing and Construction in opening the debate referred to the importance that the Government attach to housing. What immediately shot through my mind was that the way to place greater importance on housing is to build more houses. When one considers that the Government's housebuilding record is the worst since the 1920s, they can hardly look back with pride at the past four years. They may tinker around with methods of selling existing housing stock, but that will not resolve the many problems facing the country. The Minister went on to say that the Conservatives are now the people's party, but some Opposition Members have recently been active in their constituencies.

I urge the new Minister for Housing and Construction to spend a while in the part of my constituency, which I recently inherited, known as the Turkey lane estate. It is comprised of concrete flats, building approval for which was authorised years ago by the then Tory council. The people living in these concrete monstrosities are not queuing up to purchase them. In other words, we are not offering equal opportunities to all council tenants.

When, in his speech, the Minister attacked various Labour local authorities, I thought that he really was trailing his coat, particularly when he referred to their housing programmes. I remind the House of the many mistakes made by the Conservatives prior to the 1940s. In those days we had mainly Conservative Administrations and mostly Tory local authorities. We inherited from them rotten houses, dreadful slums bestowed on the community; they were houses without indoor toilets, hot water or baths, not to mention gardens and what are considered today to be essentials.

For the Conservatives now to say that they are championing the cause of decent homes for the people, and that they are the people's party, is ridiculous. I assure Conservative Members that the people have long memories and will not forget the teeming slums that existed in all our major cities.

I will not go over yet again all the arguments that have been adduced about the sale of council houses. I have already made the point that what the Government propose will not increase the housing stock or reduce the misery caused by homelessness. Hon. Members who meet their constituents at their surgeries are only too well aware of the real needs. My constituents do not queue up to see me to talk about buying their council houses. Often I am confronted by poor families living high up, perhaps on the twelfth floor of a council concrete block, who want ground floor accommodation so that they can take their children or the baby for a walk.

Despite all that, the Conservatives feel that they have the solution. Their answer is not to build council houses — their programme of council house building is deplorable—but to sell off the existing stock. The result must be fewer houses available, with less opportunity to enjoy even living in a house, let alone owning one.

We must pay close attention to clause 2, which deals with dwellings for the disabled. It is essential that we impress on the Minister the shortage of and urgent need for accommodaton for the disabled. The few properties we have should not be sold off in view of the money that has been spent on adapting them. Local social services departments often spend between £4,000 and £5,000 fitting out dwellings with special bathroom showers and other attachments, wider doors, ramps and so on. It is in the inner city areas, where the incidence of old people is high, that there is the gravest shortage of accommodation for the disabled.

Wherever possible it is the policy of many Labour authorities to keep old people in their own homes rather than move them into institutions. That is why it is important for properties to be adapted for the disabled. If the Government sell off the few such dwellings that exist, that will place higher costs on local authorities and result in longer housing waiting lists.

Selling off such dwellings should be a decision for the local authorities concerned. Those with a surplus can, if there is no great demand, sell them off; we have no strong feelings in those circumstances. But when we know that in some inner cities hundreds of people are waiting desperately for this type of accommodation, it is immoral even to try to put a price on such dwellings. Nothing is achieved by selling them. It is a scandal that such properties should be sold off.

Part II of the Bill has caused extreme alarm. The operation of the building control standards and safety regulations for new dwellings is an area which the Government have not studied sufficiently. Consider, for example, the activities of the so-called independent inspectors. If they must rely on developers to do the work, their conduct must be reflected accordingly. In other words, these so-called independent inspectors will have to please the very people who are supposed to be working for them. There is a contradiction in that provision which will not help the building standards and regulations.

The Bill, from my reading of it, intimates that in certain circumstances the independent inspector can withdraw from the case. If he does, the matter is then handed over to the local authority. Again, the local authority is being made the long-stop. On the one hand the Government are saying that local authorities must reduce their personnel and, on the other, because the Bill enables inspectors to withdraw, a further burden is being placed on those authorities. Things are bound to go wrong on large developments, and if the local authority must take over the case, from where will the resources come?

I understand that the Government have already received from the building profession representations critical of the Bill. In other words, the profession has no confidence that what is proposed will improve building control methods. If the Government intend to proceed in such a pig-headed way, ignoring expert advice, they will be going sadly wrong. We will be wasting our time if, having consulted the professions concerned, their advice is disregarded, especially as they know more about the industry than the Ministers do.

We must not forget possible conflicts between the Bill and local legislation. Consider, for example, the Greater Manchester Act 1981 and the enforcement provisions in that legislation. Section 61 refers to parking places and safety requirements; section 62 refers to access for fire brigades; section 64 refers to fire precautions in high buildings; and section 65 refers to fire precautions in large storage buildings. Much local legislation has been approved by the House on behalf of many of the large local authorities. Part II is riddled with anomalies that will produce many problems. If the Government fail to amend the Bill, we shall face massive problems after 10, 15, or 20 years.