Orders of the Day — House Improvements (Liverpool)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:07 am on 3rd December 1984.

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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.