Orders of the Day — Trowbridge Estate, Hackney Wick

– in the House of Commons at 2:24 pm on 11th November 1983.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.[Mr. Garel-Jones.]

Photo of Mr Brian Sedgemore Mr Brian Sedgemore , Hackney South and Shoreditch 2:31 pm, 11th November 1983

The Trowbridge estate was built amid the naivety and otimism of the 1960s. Today it embodies the pessimism of the 1980s. It is a monument to misery and insensitivity, which demonstrates only too clearly how that which can be fashionable but which is not rooted in the needs of the people can quickly become a disaster.

The high-rise fiasco that has caused so much pain and hurt to 542 families on the Trowbridge estate began in something of the atmosphere of the South Sea bubble. The developers, J. M. Hill, rubbed their hands with glee at the thought of quick and easy profits. The architects believed that they would be remembered for pinpointing a part of London's skyline. The politicians thought that they would receive the plaudits of the crowd for getting things done. The civil servants congratulated themselves on master-minding what was supposed to be a munificent operation.

What can be said about the flats and the estate today? First, they are slums. Water penetrates from the outside and condensation corrodes the steel from the inside. Secondly, the developers, architects, politicians and civil servants would not have dreamt of living in the brutal, hideous, inconsequential, soul-destroying and criminal folly that today we call Trowbridge. Thirdly, the people were never consulted about whether what was being built suited their needs and those of their children.

Ten days ago I had dinner in a flat on the 17th floor of the Trowbridge estate. We were suspended, unsafe, damp and frightened, in a wilderness that no one deserves to call home. The awful truth is that that estate is a compilation of mistakes, negligence and dishonesty which, in some cases, must amount to crime.

Recently we received a report from a group of consultants called ZMG. It examined the structure of three of the seven blocks of flats on the estate and discovered that they had not been built in accordance with the design specifications laid down for the estate, that those three blocks were unsafe and that if there were a gas explosion, there could be a progressive collapse. We shall not know whether the other four blocks are unsafe until investigations have been carried out.

Astonishingly, the report showed that some of the steel that is supposed to hold the structures together simply is not there. Some of the steel is of inadequate thickness and does not conform to the design specifications for such an industrialised building. Some of the steel that is there is corroding. Some of the bolts that are supposed to be holding the estate together are not long enough, and again do not conform to the specifications laid down in the plans for such an industrialised building. The catalogue of defects, which is endless and appalling to contemplate, goes way beyond what one might call jerry-building and moves easily into the sphere of dangerous dishonesty. I hope only that those who had the temerity to build such an estate, and those who were responsible for supervising the building, suffer the same nightly torment that the tenants of Trowbridge estate suffer.

The Minister knows that urgent repairs are being put in hand at the cost of just under £1 million to make those three blocks safe. But even when the blocks have been made safe, they will remain slums. It has been the policy of successive Conservative and Labour Governments since the 1930s to demolish slums, and it woule be extraordinary if the concept of demolishing slums were now cast aside and those blocks were allowed to remain.

The Minister visited Hackney this morning. I am sure that he had an enjoyable time and we were delighted to discuss partnership with him. At 1 pm today the tenants of the estate brought to the House the project control submission, which I shall give to the Minister after the debate for presentation to the Secretary of State. The submission states that the tenants want the estate to be blown to pieces. They want it dynamited to the ground. They want every last piece of concrete to be destroyed.

The Romans and Greeks knew about concrete, but it was not until the 1960s that anyone was daft enough to try to make people live inside it. I have examined the project control submission, and I have questioned Bob Young, the housing officer, and Bella Callaghan, the, councillor who masterminded the plan in conjunction with the tenants' leader, Alf Toye, and I believe that they have presented the Minister with an unanswerable case. The tenants know that although the cost of dynamiting the estate will be high —about £26·5 million—the cost of trying to improve it will be even higher, at about £27 million. The tenants know that every time an inspection is carried out on those seven tower blocks and the patios round them, more faults are shown. The patio houses round the blocks look nice, and the tenants like some of them—some of them have been bought—but it is becoming clear that £18,000 will have to be spent on those houses to bring them up to date. It is inevitable that when the blocks go, the patio houses will go.

The tenants of Trowbridge estate do not accept that they should survive and protest miserably for the rest of their lives, the victims of exceptional incompetence, negligence, and the exceptional dishonesty of an earlier generation that was drawn mainly from the professional and managerial classes. The tenants see the Minister as someone who is likely to view their case sympathetically, and as someone who knows that, according to the Department of the Environment's own Z indices of poverty, Hackney is the poorest borough in Britain, even poorer than Toxteth. The tenants know that the Minister recognised recently that Powell house consisted of slums. They know that he recognises that slums have no value and that the only thing to do with them is to Dull them down.

The tenants who came here today are particularly well informed. They know about the letter of 8 November that Mr. Griffiths from the Department of the Environment has written to Joe Bailey of the GLC. They are worried about that letter because it suggests that the Department of the Environment might try to put a few obstacles in the way of the Minister's natural inclination to have the estate pulled clown. It might try to make this business a hard slog. It would be contentious if the Department did that. The good relations that have existed, at least on this subject, between the GLC, Hackney borough council and the Department of the Environment should be kept as they are. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), who is also a member of the GLC, is here.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for giving way, because I should like to remind him and the House that the problem would not have arisen had the previous Conservative Government not compulsorily transferred to Hackney borough council the GLC estates in that area. The transfer, which was done against the wishes of Hackney borough council, was made sweeter by assurances that were given at the time that the GLC would continue to have maintenance responsibilities and would have the funds to carry out the maintenance on Trowbridge and other estates. Unfortunately, the recent White Paper on streamlining the cities seems to say that this requirement on the GLC will be dropped, as the GLC will be dropped. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that this will place an intolerable further burden on Hackney housing.

Photo of Mr Brian Sedgemore Mr Brian Sedgemore , Hackney South and Shoreditch

My hon. Friend raises an extremely perceptive point. In this case, I think that we shall get the full co-operation of the Department of the Environment and the Minister and that we shall find a way round the problem. That will mean that the minimum burden will fall on Hackney borough council and that the Department of the Environment and the GLC will be allowed to co-operate, at least for once, and help us get on with knocking down the estate and the rebuilding of a new one. The rebuilding of the new estate is an extremely exciting project. It could do for building new estates what the Lea Bridge estate has done for improving estates in Hackney. The tenants have already been involved in the design of a new estate and reckon that they will get the support of the Minister.

The Minister has three choices. He can leave things as they are and condemn those tenants to stay in slums. He can put crinkly tin on the front of the houses, while inside the tenants will still be living in slums, or he can give permission for these houses to be demolished, and for a new estate to rise from the ashes. The more we talk to tenants on this estate, the more we see that this is a timeless communication with misery, and that misery has gone too deep and too far, and has gone on for too long. It is time that the Minister ended it.

Photo of George Young George Young Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 2:43 pm, 11th November 1983

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) on the lucid and moving account of the problems endured by tenants at the Trowbridge estate during its relatively short but troubled history, which the Greater London council and Hackney borough council are now trying to tackle. I was in Hackney this morning chairing a partnership meeting at which I was able to announce that an extra £1 million of resources will be available for capital schemes in Hackney this year. I also took the opportunity of discussing this matter with the leader of the council, Councillor Kendall, who shares the concern that the hon. Gentleman has expressed, and is anxious to make progress.

The people for whom I have the deepest sympathy are the tenants, who have put up with a difficult life for too long. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern that a solution should be arrived at rapidly that will provide decent homes for the tenants concerned and put an end to the uncertainty that has existed there for too long. If we decide on the demolition solution, it is clear that there will be competition among the tenants to press the plunger.

The Government agree with the proposals that the hon. Member has outlined for resolving the problem. I shall add a bit of background information on the recent developments in which my Department has been involved. As the hon. Gentleman said, the estate was built by the GLC in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It comprises seven 21-storey tower blocks, each containing 80 flats, and a further 100 or so low-rise properties, making a total of about 660 dwellings. It was constructed using a proprietary French industrialised building system, which I understand was little used in this country, except in this estate.

I do not propose to enter into a detailed discussion today about the suitability of the building system that was chosen or about the standards of manufacturing and workmanship. Those are matters for the local authorities to pursue. The basic facts are that problems of rain penetration became apparent almost as soon as the first of the blocks were completed, with distressing results in some of the flats. Subsequently, a catalogue of other problems has been identified, such as inadequate ties and fixings, spalling mosaic, rotting window frames, condensation and noise problems.

The GLC had already been investigating possible remedial measures when, in 1981, my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for the Environment made an order, to which the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) referred, transferring some 53,000 GLC properties to the councils of eight London boroughs, including Hackney. Those eight boroughs, unlike all the others where voluntary transfers had been agreed, were unwilling to take on the GLC stock, partly on the ground that much of it was in poor condition and badly in need of modernisation or repair. In recognition of that concern, my right hon. Friend had built into the terms of the order provisions whereby the GLC would be responsible for undertaking all major technical repairs and for carrying out such improvement works as would be necessary in order to bring all transferred properties up to a given standard within 10 years.

Under the rather complex financial arrangements included in those orders, the GLC is responsible for funding the work from its own capital resources, while the borough is responsible for the revenue cost of meeting the debt charges. Most of that is, however, included in the calculation of the net revenue cost to the borough of owning and managing the ex-GLC stock, which the GLC is required to reimburse to the transferee borough for an initial period at least. A further relevant provision in the order is that the GLC may be discharged from its obligation to carry out improvements or repairs if those cannot be done "at reasonable expense", whereupon the GLC may either carry out more limited works or demolish the dwellings. In the case of demolition, however, the GLC is required to pay substantial penalties to the transferee borough.

The GLC, then, retains the responsibility under the transfer order for carrying out the necessary improvements and repairs on its former stock, including the Trowbridge estate. When the order was made, the GLC had already engaged consultants to report on a scheme for remedial works on that estate. The extremely high cost of the original proposals led the council to seek a cheaper alternative solution, and in the meantime to seek Hackney's last-minute agreement to the deletion of the Trowbridge estate from the transfer—not least in order to avoid the penalties which would be incurred thereby, in the event of demolition proving necessary. The borough, however, opposed that move, and the Secretary of State agreed that there was no reason to make any special exemption from the general principle that the boroughs are best fitted to manage the housing stock within their area. He made the transfer order in 1981, and the effective transfer took place a year later.

The consultants reported to the GLC shortly after the order was made with a proposal which the council described as appearing to represent a practicable and more economic solution, which would avoid the need for demolition". After some delay—and, no doubt, careful consideration on its part of the technical and economic merits of the proposed scheme — the GLC submitted to my Department in July 1982, under normal project control procedures, its detailed proposals for remedial works to three of the seven tower blocks. That may have been the scheme that the hon. Gentleman spoke of, although I would describe it in somewhat different terms.

The proposed scheme involved completely encasing the buildings with stainless steel or aluminium cladding incorporating insulation and double glazing, which would contain the spalling mosaic, improve thermal and sound insulation and, above all, keep out the rain. That was an innovative solution, the GLC having considered and rejected other more traditional methods of preventing the rain penetration.

In addition to the repairs, a number of improvements were proposed such as improved extract ventilation systems, the provision of window blinds and the incorporation of the existing balconies into living rooms. Ground floor public areas were to be improved, with entry phones and television monitors to provide greater security, and both refuse disposal arrangements and fire stops were to be upgraded.

Finally, various external works were planned, including the provision of completely new mansard roofs for each block, incorporating the existing plant rooms. The total cost of the scheme for the first phase of just three blocks was then estimated to be £6·255 million, excluding fees and notional interest charges, or just over £26,000 per dwelling.

The purpose of my Department's project control system is to enable us to consider whether the costs associated with the scheme proposed should be included in the calculation of the authority's subsidy entitlements. Each proposal is considered on its merits on the basis of the information supplied.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is concerned principally with ensuring that works which are eligible for Exchequer subsidy appear to represent value for money, and that the costs are not unduly extravagant compared to the likely benefits and the possible alternatives. A decision not to intervene against a submitted scheme does not imply any endorsement or positive approval of the scheme itself. Equally, intervention means only that the costs of the scheme will not be admissible for housing subsidy at the levels proposed.

We intervened against the GLC's initial submission for phase one of the repairs to the Trowbridge estate on the basis of the high costs and the lack of information which was then available to the Department to justify them. The GLC made a second submission on 20 August with the same works and costs proposed, but with rather more detailed information to justify them and about the alternatives available.

The submission stated that it was envisaged that the scheme would remedy the structural defects, ensure that the building provided a reasonable standard of living accommodation, ensure its survival for its minimum anticipated life of 60 years and minimise the future maintenance liability. It also stated that the alternative approach of demolition and redevelopment had been examined and discarded, partly because of the cost, which was then estimated at £14·3 million excluding staff costs for the three blocks alone, or nearly two and a half times the cost of phase one of the repair scheme; and partly because of practical problems which demolition would present in terms of the risk to the adjacent low-rise dwellings—some of which had been sold—and of the rehousing of tenants.

The submission stated: The demolition option is not only prohibitively expensive, but fraught with complex issues which could tend to delay dealing with the problem…In our view the proposed remedial work at a cost of £6·255 million is the only feasible solution. This is arrived at after careful consideration of the costs and other implications of the other options". On 20 September 1982, the Department wrote to the GLC saying that, on the basis of the information supplied, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State saw no reason to intervene against the remedial scheme, although asking for it to be resubmitted at tender stage if costs had increased, and making it clear that non-intervention did not imply endorsement of the proposed scheme.

The substantial costs involved in the remedial scheme would, therefore, have been admissible for housing subsidy purposes. Shortly after this, the GLC was found guilty of maladministration by the local government ombudsman over its failure to deal with the problems at Trowbridge. The report criticised the council for delays in effecting repairs and for failing to keep the tenants informed.

My Department became involved in the matter again when the GLC made a further project control submission last month saying that the remedial works had not been put in hand as the situation was still under review, but seeking subsidy approval for almost £1 million worth of urgent strengthening works to the same three blocks, which were said to be necessary immediately for safety reasons, regardless of the eventual decision. Again, the Department replied on 26 October saying that we would not intervene against the works proposed.

More recently, in the past two weeks, my Department received a letter from the GLC and the London borough of Hackney jointly saying that the solution now preferred is the demolition of the entire estate — including the low-rise housing — and redevelopment of the cleared site.

The councils' letter was not a formal project control submission, and no detailed information was supplied to support the councils' contention that the costs of that option would be "about the same" as for the original remedial solution, which they still considered to be technically sound. The major advantage of demolition claimed by the local authorities would be the provision of new attractive low-rise housing that would be free of the problems of the current estate and cheaper to maintain.

The major disadvantages, which they acknowledge, would be the net loss of some 130 dwellings, considerable disruption and a heavy rehousing burden for the two councils. The letter sought the views of my Department on the likely subsidy position regarding this latest proposal. It also asks for certain changes to be made to the transfer order to impose on the GLC an obligation to redevelop rather than to repair the Trowbridge estate, and for assurances that the work would be recognised as a transfer-related obligation for housing investment programme purposes.

My Department has this week replied to the councils requesting more detailed information, so that those points can be properly considered. In particular, we have sought more information about the relevant costs of the different options and the nature of the new development, together with clarification of certain inconsistencies between the latest letter and previous communications with the Department.

The councils have been told that if, in the light of that information, redevelopment appears to be a viable alternative, we shall consider it seriously. There is no question of our trying to make things difficult for the councils, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch.

The GLC's original scheme would, of course, have been taken into account in assessing its housing investment programme allocation, as are all the councils' obligations under the transfer orders. At present, I see no reason in principle why a redevelopment scheme that had not been intervened against under project control should not be taken into account for HIP purposes, although, plainly, we should wish to look carefully at who would be responsible for funding and carrying out whatever was proposed.

The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch has in his hand a formal project control submission. I shall be grateful if he will give it to me after the debate. We shall consider it on its merits, taking full account of the costs, benefits and alternative solutions available, along with the powerful arguments that the hon. Gentleman has produced.

I have an open mind about what is the correct solution for Trowbridge. No decisions have been taken and shall take a deep personal interest in the future of the estate, with a view to getting a decision as soon as we can to improve the deplorable conditions in which the tenants are living.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Three o' clock.