Inner Cities

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 8:06 pm on 11th December 1985.

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Photo of Mr Robert Litherland Mr Robert Litherland , Manchester Central 8:06 pm, 11th December 1985

May I remind the House that this debate is about the housing crisis and urban deprivation. It appears from the contributions of certain Conservative Members that they would have preferred this debate to be held across the road in Westminster Abbey. This debate has nothing to do with the Church of England report.

The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Franks) is the former leader of the Conservative party in Manchester. He said that there had been a decrease in the number of Manchester inhabitants. However, he did not point out that Manchester's problems have increased. Those who are strong in wind and limb have left the city. The people who remain there are in the greatest need: the unemployed, the semi-skilled, the elderly and the disabled. They all need welfare services.

Male unemployment in some of the areas to which the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness referred stands at 40 per cent. Since the late 1960s, 20,000 jobs have been lost in one of the areas in my constituency. There is a stronger possibility of premature death in Manchester than can be found anywhere else in the United Kingdom, including Scotland. I see that the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn) has left the Chamber.

There is great deprivation in many of the inner city areas. Housing is a cause of great stress, a point that has been highlighted in today's debate. It is recognised beyond doubt that the worst housing stock and the associated problems of deprivation and unemployment are concentrated in the inner city areas. However, one has to experience inner-city conditions to realise what it is like to live in slum, system-built, high-rise developments or in slum, private landlord tenancies. No brief visit from a housing Minister can result in a valid assessment of the social deprivation or the indignity that is caused by living in areas which are in great need of environmental improvement. In those areas where the cost of the repair is too great, demolition is the only answer.

People are clamouring for housing that fits the needs of the citizens of the inner cities. The riots should serve as a warning. Inner city decay manifests itself in unrest. Local authorities, the churches and right hon. and hon. Members have warned the Government about this. The former leader of the city of Manchester, Lord Dean of Beswick, has warned the Government repeatedly in the other place to stop urban decay or face the consequences. The Prime Minister knows about the housing problem. She said recently; Of course there'll always be a part for the public sector to play in meeting special needs and providing decent housing for those who, for one reason or another, will never be able to own their own homes. Those are the people I represent in the inner city of Manchester. But what has happened since the Prime Minister's statement? Nothing. The Government have refused to meet their responsibility to build enough houses to meet the need, and cuts in maintenance grants have led to a deterioration of existing housing stock.

It was estimated in 1977 that we would need to build 300,000 new houses a year. The number of houses completed has fallen from 313,000 in 1975 to one quarter of that figure since the Tories came to power in 1979. Their record is abysmal. The Government have not only slashed housing allocations to local government, but have cut maintenance and improvement work in both public sector and private sector housing, yet the Government's own survey showed that more than 4 million homes in England and Wales needed repair.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities estimated that £19 billion needs to be spent on our housing stock. Over half that money is required to remedy the enormous defects inherent in the post-war housing that was constructed by industrialised building methods which have brought in their wake major environmental problems in the inner cities.

One has only to look at the physical state of the dwellings, the structural problems and the problems of dampness, water penetration and the use of asbestos to realise that system-built tower blocks and walkways in the sky have been a monumental disaster and will continue to be a disaster unless the Government do something to rectify the problems, and I do not mean Ministers coming to Manchester and the north-west, wringing their hands in anguish, crying crocodile tears and returning to their Ministries in London and forgetting all about the people in the north-west.

The Government have a responsibility and they should face it. I agreed with the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness—probably for the first time—when he said that even if the properties were demolished, leaving only holes in the ground, the ratepayers of Manchester would still be paying for them. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Government should foot the bill. They have a responsibility. Tory Governments were enticing local government to build such structures in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

For the planners, designers and builders, the prefabricated concrete dwelling represented an exciting experiment and a sure-fire way of making big profits. For the thousands of people who live in those dwellings, including those in Beswick and Hulme and those on the Ardwick estates, they are an expensive, uncomfortable and unforgiveable folly. The whole story of system building is one of abject maladministration and neglect on the grandest scale. It is a national scandal which the Government would like to brush under the carpet. It will require billions of pounds to repair, improve or replace our stock of defective buildings.

There is a community and tenant rejection. The Bison tenants have started a national campaign. I received letters today from Bison dwellers pleading for something to be done. They are looking to the Government.

Those people have the experience. They have seen loved ones dying in condensation-ridden flats; they know what it is like to have thousands of cockroaches invading their home every night, to be found in the bedding, in the food and where the children sleep; they see the green mildew on their shoes, on their clothes and in their wardrobes; they are the victims of package-deal shoddy housing and construction methods that were supposed to be a panacea for all our housing ills.

The accomodation intended to replace the Victorian slums are the slums of today, and they have become slums in a very short period. Whole estates in my constituency have been demolished, within 15 years of being built, and others fester, awaiting the same fate, for, without the infusion of financial assistance, there is no hope. Some people made vast profits and got knighthoods after building such places. They have left behind deprivation and squalor.

What hope remains? After six years of Tory housing policy—a policy of neglect—is it any wonder that we have intense frustration on those estates? Is it any wonder that we have riots? Unemployment, bad housing, deprivation, a poor environment: all the ingredients of unrest are there and all the warning signs are there. If they go unheeded the Government can expect to reap the whirlwind.

I am not a churchgoer, but I should like to quote from a report by Inner-City Methodist Clergy: We reject utterly the view that these events are simply activities of hooligans and criminals"— it is referring to the riots. On the contrary, we believe they are a frighteningly clear statement about the division and disintegration in our society, the frustration and anger or our inner-city youth, the hopelessness and despair of life in communities where education, jobs, housing, welfare services and recreation on offer remain at a pathetically low level. Increasing concentration on 'public order' will do nothing to remove the causes and we do not believe it will end the violence. The scale of the crisis is enormous. More people are living in bad housing than at any time in the past 20 years, yet housing—good housing—should be seen as a right and a priority. Poor housing is a false economy, especially in the inner cities where the burden falls on the welfare and health services to pick up the pieces. It is a false economy when 400,000 construction workers are on the dole and when poor housing contributes to economic decline and decay.

Many words have been spoken by housing Ministers, but few have shed real tears over the plight of those on waiting lists, the thousands upon thousands of homeless forced into bed and breakfast accommodation and the 500,000 in overcrowded accommodation. The figures go on mounting day by day.

The areas most affected are the inner city areas and if we think that council tenants have been neglected by the Government, I remind hon. Members that some of the worst slums are in the private landlord sector. Some of the houses that I have been in are unfit for human habitation. They lack basic amenities and are substandard accommodation, yet local authority housing departments know that if the tenants are rehoused those properties will be re-let to tenants who are forced by the shortage of good housing to take such tenancies in sheer desperation.

The Government turn a blind eye to the abuses inflicted on tenants by unscrupulous landlords, they turn a blind eye to eviction and harassment and they turn a blind eye to the patch and prop repairs that enable landlords to get round the maintenance laws.

The Tories have no housing policy. They have abandoned the inner city areas and the council tenants in most need and they have supported private landlordism. Their answer to any criticism of inner city policy is the offensive rhetoric of smear tactics. Their only solution is more police, more riot gear and more plastic bullets. Those are the reactions of clueless, mindless Ministers, bereft of answers to the problem. Their allegiance lies elsewhere. Their allegiance is to those who do not require housing, jobs or welfare services; whose only requirement is more wealth. Ministers look after the greedy. Their allegiance is to the greedy, not the needy.

The Church document to which I referred earlier states: We love our inner-city communities. To us they are the finest, warmest, most rewarding places to work and to live in Britain today … More fires will burn, unless there is a genuine repentance. And if they do, it will be a disaster for us all.