Orders of the Day — House Improvements (Liverpool)

– in the House of Commons at 12:46 am on 3rd December 1984.

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Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sainsbury.]

Photo of Mr David Alton Mr David Alton , Liverpool Mossley Hill 1:07 am, 3rd December 1984

At the end of a long day for the Department I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment for being present to deal with this important debate. It takes place against a background of an impending housing crisis, which, if it is not countered soon, could result in the triumphant return of the bulldozer to many of our cities. Paradoxically, it also takes place against a background of widespread unemployment in the construction industry. About 400,000 building workers are languishing on the dole.

I intend to concentrate on the circumstances in Liverpool and to spell out the gravity of the housing crisis for thousands of my constituents. I shall begin by putting the position in Liverpool in a national context. About 900,000 homes lack amenities, 1·1 million are unfit, 1 million require repairs in excess of £7,000 per dwelling, and 3·9 million require repairs in excess of £2,500. Yet national Government subsidies to local authorities for housing construction and improvements have fallen from £1·3 billion in 1978–79 to £700 million in the current year —a drop of almost 50 per cent. Gross lending to private persons for house purchase or improvements is only 25 per cent. of what it was before 1979. Loans and grants to housing associations are only 75 per cent. of the 1978–79 levels.

The Select Committee on the Environment, of which I am a member, estimates that some 21·3 per cent. of the English housing stock needs to be repaired, with 4·3 million homes requiring repairs of £2,500 or more.

Yet, despite the manifest need to allocate resources, funding, especially on home improvement grants, has been cut. Home improvement grant spending has been cut from £960 million in 1983–84 to £500 million in 1984–85, which in real terms is a cut of 50·3 per cent. That in turn is reflected in the number of homes improved—some 105,000 in the first quarter of 1984, down to 75,000 in the second quarter. That is a reduction of 28 per cent. in one quarter alone.

The overall position in Liverpool mirrors the position of the nation as a whole, but there is an undoubted concentration of housing problems in Liverpool. Over the past two years, the housing investment programme in the city has been reduced from £46 million to £36·5 million. The bid made by the local authority for house improvement grants alone was some £16 million last year, yet this year it has been able to allocate only £11 million for house improvement work. It estimates that for next year, if the programme for house improvements is to be maintained, it would require a total of £19 million.

The council has also cut the money available to housing associations for home improvements from £4·4 million to £3·7 million, and, in addition, housing associations have sustained a massive 55 per cent. cut from Housing Corporation funds since 1981. That, with the way in which the general needs index system works, means that the Liverpool housing associations face a bleak 12 months.

The implications of that for the housing renewal programme in Liverpool are enormous. In the early 1970s, the then incoming Liberal administration abandoned the Labour-Tory policies of breaking up communities, levelling homes and bulldozing people's houses out of existence. We opposed their policies of constructing massive, faceless public housing schemes in faraway places miles from familiar surroundings and from family and friends. Instead, we took full advantage of the Housing Act 1974 and by 1983 had introduced the largest programme of home improvements in the country, with 39,400 properties targeted for renewal. We embarked upon a four-phase housing action area programme.

The first phase was declared in 1976, and of the 4,800 houses included, 87 per cent. have been renovated. The second phase was declared in 1978, and of those 8,600 homes, many of which would otherwise have been demolished, some 74 per cent. are now improved. The third phase was declared in 1982, and of the 13,000 included in that programme some 46 per cent. are complete. The fourth and final phase of the programme involved 12,600 homes, but that has not even begun. The local authority says that a declaration date is still uncertain due to cuts in funds. Therefore, of the original 39,400 homes, 23,700 remain to be improved. Many of the 12,000 that I mentioned earlier are without inside toilets, running hot water or bathrooms.

At the present rate of progress, it could be the turn of the century before many of those homes are renovated. The House should consider what that means for communities in Anfield, Tuebrook, Old Swan, Kensington, Wavertree, Broadgreen, Garston village, Edge Hill, Kirkdale and Walton. It means for many people the continued indignity of a home without an inside toilet, running hot water or a bathroom. Those are things which many hon. Members take for granted. It is not much fun for an elderly person living in a two-up, two-down, terraced house to have to slide out over the ice on a chilly winter night to the outside loo. It is not much of a joke for the young mum who still has to bathe her youngsters in the kitchen sink.

I have already this evening given the Minister some 150 letters from all over the city from residents who were expecting their homes to be improved and who have been badly let down. My colleague, Councillor Richard Pine, a former chairman of the city's housing committee, has carefully compiled this dossier and I handed it to the Minister at the beginning of the proceedings tonight.

I am sure that the Minister will be appalled to learn of three cases which illustrate the seriousness of the housing situation in parts of my constituency. One resident, Mr. Sabah of Wavertree, lives in the Stevenson street housing action area. He came to see me last week at my weekly housing advice centre. He had just received a letter from the council telling him that, because of the uncertainty concerning the availability of improvement grant monies in the next financial year, I am unable to carry out an inspection of your property or to give you permission to start work on the roof. That property is in grievous need of improvement, yet, like many others, Mr. Sabah is being denied not only a grant but also an inspection of the property. Once the property is inspected, it would take a further year and a half before the application is processed. The improvements department is not only under-funded but under-staffed.

The real rub for Mr. Sabah comes in the next paragraph of the letter from the council. No, it will not inspect his property for a grant, and no, it will not give him a grant towards the cost of the work, but it says, the roof is in a dangerous condition and I must remind you of your responsibilities to have this attended to. What kind of bureaucratic nonsense is that?

Let us take the case of another applicant for an improvement grant, who wants a bathroom. She received her letter from the council telling her that her application had been refused, on the very day that the council announced that it was giving a £10,000 handout for the welfare fund of the 37 gaoled Cammell Laird protesters. How does one think she felt?

There is also the case of Mr. William Black of Edge Hill. He has been living in a flat that has never had an electricity or hot water supply. The only lighting was from old-fashioned gas jets projecting from crumbling walls —until the gas was cut off three years ago. Mr. Black goes to the public baths in Lodge lane if he wants a bath. A local newspaper report in The Liverpool Echo, which I handed to the Minister earlier, highlighted the case of Mr. Black, who said: When I tell people I still have gas lights they laugh. They think I am something out of Noah's Ark. However, he does not want to leave the collapsing ceiling, the grimy walls or the outside toilet if it means going to some faceless public housing ghetto on the outskirts of Liverpool. Mr. Black's home was to have been improved, until the council sabotaged the housing renewal programme. Many people would rather put with stone age conditions than be forced into some of the monstrosities that the Socialist planners and politicians have the effrontry to call progress.

At one council meeting alone, more than 600 grant applications were scrapped, without a debate. This is a direct result of the overall reduction in Government funding and, locally, the reallocations of the remaining resources into a strategy for 17 so-called priority areas. This strategy is called the total approach. A more fitting name might be the final solution.

The strategy involves limited resources being spent on some properties only 20 years old. It involves 15,800 public sector properties — of which 5,300 will be demolished. The council's leaders say that they will replace all the demolished properties with new public properties. That is in addition to the 6,400 council-owned properties which, through rank bad management, are standing vacant in Liverpool at the moment.

Last week, the self-styled master builder behind this strategy, Cllr. Tony Byrne, said that the Secretary of State was "a calculated liar". Mr. Byrne is himself more of a municipal Houdini. One minute there is to be a 100 per cent. rate increase, the next a 240 per cent. increase. One minute homes are to be improved, the next they are not. One minute the rents are to go down by £2 a week, the next they rise by £2 a week. It is all based on the "now you see it, now you don't" principle.

The truth is that this Government and the council entered into a solemn and binding agreement when they declared the Housing action areas. The 1974 Act says that HAAs are not to be declared unless sufficient resources are there to see them through. Because both the Government and the council have ratted on their word, people have been badly let down, but the law has been broken as well. The Government, as they admitted in a letter to me on 14 November, are content to sit idly by and let it all happen. The Minister for Housing, who chose not to visit a single HAA when he came to Liverpool, said: The prospects for maintaining momentum in the City's HAA programme appear doubtful, but that is a decision which rests with the City Council. But it is not just a decision of the council. This Government consented to these areas being declared and they should now insist that the element of the housing investment programme that is required to sustain the programme to its conclusion should be used for that purpose and nothing else.

There is no point in the Government expecting Liverpool's Militant council to respond. In its abandonment of housing co-operatives and its scrapping of low-cost homes for sale, its decimation of the voluntary housing groups, its down-grading of our excellent housing association movement, and its wholesale destruction of Georgian and early Victorian Liverpool, it has shown itself to be a council run by fanatical ideologues. It is the worst administration that anyone can remember. It is incompetent, it is dishonest, and it is ruthless in pursuit of its political aims. Its continued appointment of political stooges to highly paid positions in the council's employment shows the contempt that it has for public opinion and for public service.

Local government officials now go in fear of losing their jobs as these town hall despots put their placemen into positions of power. Caught up in this vicious power struggle are thousands of ordinary Liverpool people, some waiting years for a transfer, others waiting years for a grant.

The Government must not be so foolish as to suggest that the answer to all this lies in telling everyone to wait on the council's response or to buy their own homes. As desirable an objective as that might appear, with one in five of our population out of work, tens of thousands of Liverpool people will never be able to own homes of their own. For these people, Liberals believe that housing co-operatives are the best way of providing citizens with a stake in their community.

Liverpool now has the most dynamic housing co-operative movement in the country, some of them renovating old homes, some of them building new homes, and some of them now managing housing estates. Some of the co-ops were originally inspired by my Liberal colleagues on the city council and developed especially during the chairmanship of Chris Davies. That administration gave them every possible support.

I am not talking about the middle-class student or the vegetarian trendy sort of co-operative, which might be the image conjured up in the minds of some hon. Members. I am talking about ordinary working-class Liverpool people., many of them unemployed, some young, some elderly, who have formed legal organisations which are now carrying out every possible housing function. They have taken control of their own lives, have worked together to achieve change, have taken on the professionals of the city council and the Housing Corporation and have worked with architects to design new homes. They have discovered new abilities and a self-confidence that perhaps they never dreamt that they could have. Every encouragement should be given to them and their successors. They conjure up all that is best about Liverpool and, through their work, one can see the prospects for an entire city pulling itself up by its bootstraps and dealing with its problems itself.

Sadly, the Labour party has done everything possible to hinder and obstruct the work of the co-ops, preferring the out-dated and irrelevant Socialist answers of the 1930s to housing problems rather than placing trust in ordinary people. I am confident that Labour's majority will have been reduced within 18 months, and the Liberal party once again will have a commanding influence on housing policy. The encouragement and development of communities, both old and new, will be at the core of our housing aspirations. I hope that the Minister will recognise the importance of this work.

I see the support which the Liberals give co-operatives as being the epitome of all that my party stands for. I see housing renewal as the cornerstone of preserving community and family life. I see a special position for housing associations, perhaps developing an agency role where they take over the management and improvement of housing action area programmes. I see a need for the Government to respond with more resources and possibly the establishment of a Royal Commission inquiry to examine the extent and the gravity of our housing crisis. I see also the need for a variety of new solutions.

To achieve these objects, the Government will have to commit themselves to turning the tide of misery and depression which faces so many of our fellow citizens in the city of Liverpool.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue.

Photo of George Young George Young Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 1:23 am, 3rd December 1984

The speech of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) on a subject which I know to be of considerable concern to him was delivered with his usual vigour. As was clear throughout his remarks, his quarrel is to a large extent with Liverpool city council, and I do not propose to get in the line of fire. But I can sympathise with the frustration of those who are affected by the decisions of that authority, and my Department has had extensive recent experience of its antics.

Although the scale of the problems facing Liverpool may set the city apart, the issues and the choices that it faces are far from unique.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I shall try briefly to put the matter in some context, say a word about the Government's record on housing improvements nationally and outline where we stand. Then I shall consider Liverpool itself and the suggestions put forward by the hon. Gentleman.

Our commitment to the improvement of the housing stock has been illustrated by the measures that we have adopted over the last two or three years. In April 1982 we raised the maximum grant at which repairs and intermediate grants could be paid to 90 per cent. We made special arrangements in 1982–83 and 1983–84 to provide local authorities with additional capital allocations to help them meet the increased demand for grants; indeed in 1983–84 local authorities could, in effect, spend without limit on home improvement grants.

The result has been a spectacular rise in spending on grants — up from £200 million in 1981–82 to £430 million in 1982–83 and over £900 million in 1983–84. Although the special arrangements have now come to an end, spending is still likely to top £700 million this year, not £500 million, as suggested by the hon. Gentleman. The total resources available rose to unprecedented levels and there was no way that extra help on this scale could continue indefinitely. The hon. Gentleman criticised the reduction from £900 million to £700 million, but that must be seen in the context of the £90 million spending at the end of the Lib-Lab pact in 1979. The extra help was never intended to be permanent and we never claimed that it was.

However, there can be no disputing the value of what has been achieved by that additional funding. A vast amount of worthwhile renovation work has been carried out and thousands of ordinary householders have been made aware, as never before, of the benefits of repairing and improving their homes. The initiative has dramatically and permanently changed priorities across the country, both for local authorities and individuals.

In Liverpool, spending on grants has been rising, though not nearly so quickly as in some other authorities. Spending rose from £4·5 million in 1981–82 to £10·7 million in 1983–84. Unfortunately, because Liverpool has not supplied regular returns to the Department, I do not know how many grants were given. The figure nationally was 250,000 in 1983–84, more than half of which were repairs grants. Disrepair was shown by the 1981 English house condition survey to be on the increase. In the Housing Act 1980, we greatly extended the scope of repair grants and there has since been a vast increase in the number paid.

Another important initiative for tackling disrepair is enveloping. In December 1982, we made enveloping available to all local authorities as a technique for dealing with groups of houses in poor condition, which can be a valuable and cost-effective tool for urban renewal. In October, we issued a circular that clarifies the guidelines for schemes and is designed to encourage enveloping further by speeding up decisions. More than 50 schemes have now been approved in England, although no applications have so far been received from Liverpool.

As the hon. Member will be aware, we have been carrying out a thorough review of private sector improvement in recent months. The repair and maintenance of the national stock of older housing remains a firm priority for the Government and we have no intention of back-tracking on that commitment. What we are keen to do is to ensure that as much private spending as possible goes on improvement and repair work and that public money that is available is used as cost effectively as possible to produce the maximum benefit for every available pound.

That means that grants should go to the properties and people that most require assistance and that the system should be simple to administer, provide a good standard or work, and offer value for money. We hope to announce the outcome shortly, in the form of a consultation document.

Having set out the Government's record nationally, and made clear that the repair and maintenance of the housing stock remains a firm priority, I turn to the special problems of Liverpool. In the housing areas of Liverpool, there are serious problems and no one denies their gravity. The Government are not indifferent to the problems mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. But there are also opportunities. Much of the public housing in the inner city was built with the best of intentions. It reflects immediate post-war policies. The legacy in Liverpool is housing which at times is ill-planned, at times poorly constructed but, most significantly, badly managed.

Improvements are needed urgently. They must be carried out in a way that represents good value for money and in a fashion that provides housing choice and utilises the energies of local people. A cardinal lesson of the past is that local authorities do not always know what is best. Encouraging owner-occupation and co-operative housing is the surest way of gaining lasting improvement in living conditions.

In major cities such as Liverpool, there will always be a substantial role for rented housing.

Photo of George Young George Young Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

No. I have only a few minutes in which to deal with a number of issues.

But the conditions for existing tenants cannot be improved simply by spending vast sums of public money or simply by demolishing old houses and building new ones. Authorities across the country, large and small, have learned that it is often better to keep communities together. This can be achieved as much by better maintenance and management of existing properties as by simply recycling the public stock and its problems.

An increasing number of city council tenants are looking for ways to help themselves, to have a definite say in the way in which their housing is managed and to play a role in creating and sustaining good quality housing conditions for their families in the rented sector. That new energy is being further frustrated by the dogmatic refusal of the city council to entertain their ideas. A solution to Liverpool's housing problems can be secured only through partnership—a partnership between the city council and those people that it represents; a partnership between the city and the Government, and a partnership between public and private sectors.

The determination is clear on the part of many Liverpudlians. The commitment is there from the Government, and the private sector. They stand ready to play their part, but the council leadership is simply not prepared to listen. It is not prepared to look at successful solutions and remedies from elsewhere in the country. It will not learn from the encouraging examples on Merseyside of partnership with the private sector.

There is a prime example in Liverpool itself of what the private sector can achieve in housing improvements. Minster court was a desolate and derelict tenement. The bulldozers had moved in. At the last moment, Barratts and the then city leadership combined to perform a rescue which has seen one of the most imaginative refurbishment schemes in the country yet come to fruition. Other opportunities present themselves readily for similar initiatives. Developers remain ready to undertake schemes but the city turns its back on such assistance and proposes just to demolish and rebuild further council housing and add further to the public cost of revitalising the city.

Elsewhere on Merseyside, there is the major public/ private initiative at Stockbridge village, where one of the most rapidly deteriorating and run-down council estates in the country is being turned round. Tenants are no longer leaving the estate. The success of the remodelling of the rented housing, the encouraging signs of increased owner-occupation and the commitment shown by Knowsley borough council—Labour-controlled—the private sector partners and the Department has brought new hope to the residents of Stockbridge.

At Edge Lane in Sefton and Woodchurch in Birkenhead other major initiatives involving a partnership of public and private sectors are under way. New arid refurbished homes are being provided for sale and rent. Community provision is being improved and the Government are playing their part in those worthwhile schemes. The examples are there. The lessons can be seen but the city leadership shows no signs of heeding them.

I must tell people in control in Liverpool that what is needed is a coherent strategy. The right programme will not be dominated by council housing. It must give full weight to improvement in the private sector, using local authorities' wide powers.

In some cases the answer will be grants to individual householders for installing basic amenities and for carrying out essential repairs or improvement. People are entitled to mandatory, rather than discretionary, grants for necessary amenities. In other cases it may make more sense to opt for area action, through general improvement areas or housing action areas. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, there have been many examples of this in Liverpool in the past.

Improvement initiatives will always be most effective where they fully tap the resources of the private sector. That makes sense since private spending will always far outweigh public spending on improvement grants.

The unwillingness of the city council to look beyond its dogmatic municipal-dominated approach is symptomatic of its attitude to its finances. At the beginning of last month the Secretary of State warned Liverpool city council that it had to take urgent action o put its finances in order. This week we have seen its reaction. The city council has ignored completely the breathing space offered by the settlement of this year's budget in the summer. Nothing has been done to prevent a budget deficit building up. Once again the city council threatens to plunge the city into chaos and to make a budget and a rate for 1985–86 which do not balance.

It is a cruel deception to pretend that such an approach will bring much needed action to tackle the city's problems. The consequences for Liverpool will be far worse if the council fails to make a proper rate than if it accepts its statutory responsibilities. The people of Liverpool do not need further months of needless anxiety. The city itself is not well placed to sustain a further knock to its confidence and reputation.

This summer there was much good news coming from Liverpool. The garden festival and the tall ships race show what can be achieved. The Government continue to show their commitment to the area. By pursuing its present course the city council can only damage considerably the good that has been done. The offer of partnership remains open on the Government's part.

I turn to resources for housing. As for 1985–86, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on 12 November that the gross capital provision for next year would be £3,056 million. That is only £65 million less than we had planned before the level of overspending in 1983–84 and 1984–85 had become apparent.

Allocations to individual local authorities will he made as soon as possible and resources will be distributed among authorities fairly. As the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, the city council has recently claimed that my right hon. Friend promised it a large capital allocation for 1985–86. Such a claim is totally false. No such promise has ever been made — indeed, no council's allocation for next year has yet been settled. As final decisions have not yet been taken, I cannot say what the figure for Liverpool's housing investment programme will be. However, it will be nowhere near its unrealistic bid of £132 million, which was three times larger than this year's allocation. Within the amount that it has to spend, Liverpool, like other authorities, will be faced with difficult choices. If it is sensible, it will ensure that sufficient resources are devoted to the improvement of private sector housing.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I would intervene to divide the HIP allocation for Liverpool into various parts, including one for home improvement grants, and require the authority to spend at least a certain amount on that. I see the attractions of that approach but I must reject the proposal for two reasons. First, it is a central feature of the HIP system that it is for individual authorities to decide how to spend their allocations. When the hon. Gentleman was chairman of Liverpool's housing committee, would he have welcomed intervention by central Government to dictate his local housing priorities? Secondly, even if we were to identify separate amounts, we would not be able to oblige the local authority to spend in accordance with the pattern that we had indicated. Such powers as we have are limited to spending on projects of regional or national importance.

The Government are frequently accused of limiting local authorities' freedom to reach their own decisions. That was the theme of the debate which took place earlier. On this occasion I must, in the interests of preserving local autonomy, reject the hon. Gentleman's rather centralist solution. However, I join with him in inviting Liverpool to think again about the policies that it is envisaging. It is abundantly clear that in Liverpool, and in other towns and cities, there are many householders who need help if they are to repair and improve their homes—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty three minutes to Two o'clock.