Orders of the Day — System-built Houses

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:36 pm on 12th March 1984.

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Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Norwood 7:36 pm, 12th March 1984

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) on his choice of this important subject. I preface my remarks by saying that I shall not use the words non-traditional and system-built industrialised as terms of art when I refer to those dwellings set out in the AMA report.

I agree with many hon. Members that the faults in non-traditional building are not universal. In my constituency, there are some pentagon blocks — pentagon in shape rather than in intention—which have been successful and are used as warden-controlled old persons' accommodation. We should be wrong to stigmatise all non-traditional building by the gross faults that have become apparent in some of it.

However, having said that, there is a shock-horror story, beginning with the shock of the progressive collapse of Ronan point in 1969, and ending with the latest episode —the publication of the AMA report about defects in non-traditional building systems which have emerged in houses built since the 1960s. The scale of the problem is immense. There are 1·5 million non-traditional homes, not all of them defective, but the AMA, which is a responsible body, says that the total cost of repairs or demolition is likely to be about £10 billion. One commentator—not the AMA—put the cost of dealing with Bison blocks alone at £1·4 billion. To put it in context, the figures about which we are talking for curing the problems of non-traditional housing amount to four years of the current, deflated expenditure on all public housing and improvement and repair grants. In other words, every kind of Government support for housing would be taken up for four years in dealing with the problems of non-traditional housing. It is a land-based story of the Titanic, except that one can substitute for icebergs the traditional elements of British weather—cold, damp, humidity, and so forth.

The catalogue of problems is terrifying. There is rain penetration not just from the roof, but from cracks in the construction. There is condensation. Hardly any hon. Member can have been in his advice bureau for a week without somebody coming to talk about the problems of condensation in system-built housing. There is rotting woodwork, cracking concrete, structural collapse, loosening joints, disintegrating balconies. The flats are too cold and too expensive to heat. If one does not have a fire hazard, one has an asbestos hazard. There is rusting of steel framework, often because the alkilinity of the concrete surrounding it has been decreased by chloride quickening processes. Everything seems to go wrong from the roof to the drains.

I agree that the political responsibility does not rest on one party or the other for the construction of properties in the past, but there is a heavy responsibility on the Government as a whole. We are concerned not about what happened in the past, but about what we must do in the future.

The first lesson that I would draw is to beware of experts. Some of the experts are well known firms, such as Wates. There are many Wates-built houses in my constituency and people cannot sell them because of alleged defects, although I think that the reactions of building societies have contributed to the crisis. The name Wates did not underwrite the safety of those properties.

Architects, too, have much to answer for in the design, materials and professional prestige that went into nontraditional housing. Experts may tell us that nuclear waste wrapped up in concrete will be safe, or that nuclear power stations built in a certain manner are bound to be absolutely safe, even to cope with a half life of several tens of thousands of years. However, after the experience of 20 years of the use of concrete in industrial housing, I would exercise more suspicion than exists at the moment about the expertise of other people who talk about the use of concrete in different circumstances. That is one of the first lessons that we should learn.

I spoke to a housing director today who told me that in one slab-built industrialised system, after only a few years, the couplings, which consist of a female on one side and a male on the other, have the characteristic that as the female gets bigger the male gets smaller. I am sure that if when those premises were built one had said in a housing committee that such a problem would arise as the building swayed in the wind, one would have been dismissed as a fussy bigot. I am backed by a strange phenomenon—a Government Whip, the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson)—if only from a sedentary position. As I said, one would have been treated as a fusspot.

The Department of the Environment bears a heavy responsibility because it actively discouraged people from being over-fussy about testing these systems. In fact, a circular warned people about being too exacting in the examinations that they applied to the systems. Moreover, Government Departments in the past gave appraisal certificates to the systems, gave favourable subsidy arrangements, and almost imposed quotas on non-traditional housing by giving speedy approvals to loan sanctions, and so on. There was direct criticism by the Government of any excessive zeal by councillors and their officials in testing non-traditional housing systems. Therefore, the Government now have a special responsibility, which they should not neglect. In some aspects of building technology, all that the Government have done is to give us the slums of the future, after about 10 to 50 years of life, chopping off perhaps between 70 and 50 years from the time that Victorian-built houses took to become slums.

One reason for the boom in private house construction is the use of the timber frame. It would be quite wrong to panic people away from using timber frame housing or to stigmatise that construction method across the board. On the other hand, the Government have a special responsibility, since they claim credit for increased start figures in the private sector, to see that the same mistakes are not repeated with timber framed houses as were perpetrated with concrete construction. Let us not trust the experts. Let us have much more testing in future.

The second lesson is that the Government should allow widespread testing and research. In the past, they were dismissive of local authorities which wanted to test non-traditional systems. The Government bear a heavy responsibility for the appraisal certificates that were given by the National Building Agency.

The next lesson is that we should not neglect skill in the construction industry. One reason why non-traditional housing ballooned was that it was a way to build homes without using skilled manpower. It was a response to a crisis. There were two responses. One response was after the war, when Governments quite properly wanted to get on with providing homes for people. There was a further response in the 1950s and 1960s, when the former Harold Macmillan wanted to get on with a big housing programme. It is not possible to carry out such programmes effectively in the long run without using skilled manpower and proper materials.

Another reason for the problems is that not enough skill was put into the assembly of system-built housing in this country. This is not the only country that has system-built housing. It is widely used in Scandinavia. I have seen many Scandinavian system-built estates. Moreover, it is widely used in north America. One difference is that in those countries skilled manpower was used to put the systems together on site. In this country we thought that we could get away with using unskilled manpower to assemble on site. Therefore, it is necessary to use and develop skills.

The next lesson to be learnt is that we cannot run the construction industry on the basis of responding to a housing crisis at one moment and then shutting it down in response to monetary policy at another time. The industry cannot be run on a stop-go basis. The development of skills, training programmes, and so on, must take place in an industry that is not run on a stop-go basis. Here, too, the Department of the Environment has a special responsibility. It cannot distance itself from the matter by failing to produce a housing strategy for the public sector, failing to forecast a need in the public sector—as it refuses to do at present—or failing to give a lead—as it also refuses to do at present.

I turn now to the action that the Government should take. The Government cannot leave local authorities to get on with the job within the context of their normal housing investment programmes. The problem is too big for local authorities to tackle on their own. First, there is funding. The Government should produce a strategy to deal with the irreparable non-traditional built houses and flats. They should provide funds beyond the HIP allocation, because the housing investment programmes and capital receipts will not provide enough money to deal with the most serious problems. The Government should be prepared to write off the debt of the most serious cases of irreparable system-built housing. They should provide money for it to be demolished and replaced.

The problem is at its worst where there are low capital receipts and a concentration of industrialised housing. In some places, where there is not much industrialised housing, plenty of houses will be sold; but in other places there will be a great deal of industralised housing—which is difficult, if not impossible, to sell—and low capital receipts. It is no good asking each local authority to contain the problem within its own funding and boundaries. The Government must provide financial assistance outside the housing investment programme.

It is a pity that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) is not present. In a previous debate on housing, when talking about Government involvement, he said: my authority has had precious little help from that quarter. It has had sympathy by the bucket load but no help."—[Official Report, 1 July 1983; Vol. 44, c. 854.] For the borough of Hillingdon the hon. Gentleman places the cost of refurbishment of Bison dwellings at £38 million. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) quoted a figure of £104 million to deal with the problem of non-traditional housing in Leeds. Other examples have also been given. That all goes to prove that a local authority with a big problem of industrial housing on its hands cannot be expected to deal with it from its own resources. There must be a separate funding strategy.

The Government must supplement the AMA inquiry, which does not go into as much depth as it would have wanted, with their own inquiry, research and study to see what defects can be remedied or to what extent continued demolition is the answer to the problem. The scale of the problem deserves nothing less than a thoroughgoing Department of the Environment inquiry followed by a White Paper.

I agree with what has been said by my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, Central and for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and by the hon. Members for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope) and for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) about the problems of blight. The Government must not only follow up the AMA inquiry with one of their own and publish a White Paper on their strategy and ways of tackling the matter either by repair or by demolition, but avoid the stigmatisation of non-traditional housing. That has become apparent in the private sector, because building societies are resisting lending on, and prospective purchasers are becoming extremely suspicious of, any kind of non-traditional housing built a few years ago. They must also avoid the problem of stigmatisation in the public sector, where properties will be much harder to let because of a reputation which surrounds non-traditional homes, even if there is little wrong with them. It is important that the Government should set out the criteria for judging whether non-traditional construction is up to standard.

The Government must treat tenants and owners with equity and fairness. First, will the Minister say when he will publish the Bill on defective housing? We had a statement on 10 November 1983, and we have been waiting for about four months for the next instalment. People in the private sector are becoming more and more nervous, discontented, worried and anxious about what will happen to them. It is not good enough to mention six categories of homes. The Government must set objective standards for judging whether an owner should be able to sell his home back to a local authority — or the Government for that matter—or be given a repair grant.

The Minister's statement on 10 November 1983 was breathtaking in its partiality and choice of the beast of burden. First, it applied only to owners. Why is it that only those unlucky enough to buy the houses are to get help, and vast numbers of people, who are too poor or too elderly, or perhaps even too sensible, to buy nontraditional houses, are to get no help at all?