Orders of the Day — Inner-city areas

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:50 pm on 8th December 1987.

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Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith 8:50 pm, 8th December 1987

I am quite encouraged by the slight change in the philosophy of the Tory party. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves), who opened the debate very effectively, said that these matters should not be left to market forces alone. I could not agree more. Then, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) made a profound plea for more planning and more effective planning. I can only request the hon. Gentlemen to see the Secretary of State for the Environment, who has been busy driving coaches and horses through just about every aspect of planning and giving as free a rein to market forces as ever he could. The Housing Bill states quite openly and clearly, without any attempt at disguise, that the Government want housing left purely to market forces and that they want to take housing out of local authority control. There seems to be something of a dichotomy in the Conservative party.

I apologise to the House for the fact that I shall not be able to stay until the end of the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) will stand in for me.

I agree with the hon. Member for Hall Green that these are difficult matters that cannot be left to market forces, and that is particularly true of housing. Housing, by its very nature—involving as it does the supply of land and buildings—does not lend itself to normal market forces in the way the price of packets of tea or biscuits might be left to market forces. I agree, too, that we need more cooperation with the public sector. It would be much easier to get effective co-operation with the public sector if the Government were not busy knocking every local authority employee and civil servant and presenting them as a drain on the economic wealth of the nation. They are not. They form an essential part of the country's economic infrastructure and we would be very much poorer without them. It would help the morale of the public sector—both local authorities and the Civil Service—if Ministers recognised that.

The hon. Member for Selly Oak picked on the mistakes of the 1960s, and I agree with much of what he said. I also remember that period. I was not a member of a council at the time. I was one of those whom we refer to as political activists; one of those who make political democracy work, for all political parties. The hon. Gentleman will agree that at that time we were anxious about what we were doing and that we perhaps yielded too readily to the ideas of experts, particularly architects. I also distinctly remember a tendency to argue about the very question that the hon. Gentleman raised—whether we should go for quality of design. I remember being told—I think by an architect, although I cannot remember for sure as it was some years ago — that corners were being cut for economic reasons in many of the buildings that we were putting up. I can remember a Conservative in my area, which was then east London, saying, "Well, we are not going to give them houses and flats with gold-plated taps, are we?" That was an indication of the problems that would arise.

The hon. Gentleman rightly criticised the priority of building in quantity. One must either go for quality or insist on a minimum quality for the quantity of houses that one puts up. Our minimum standards should have been higher, and that is particularly true of high-rise flats. Although many high-rise flats need to come down, many would he acceptable if more effort had been put into them, if more money were put into them now and if they were slightly better managed. Some high-rise flats in both the public and the private sectors are popular, but they tend to be in blocks that are well-managed, with caretakers on duty and with extra facilities.

In the literature of the 1960s the architects said that buildings with 30 storeys or more ought to have every 10th or 12th floor set aside for leisure and recreation facilities, nurseries and so on. There are some incredibly tall buildings in Hong Kong. One tower block, built in a square with a hollow in the centre, houses 4,000 people — more that are housed on the biggest estates in Hammersmith. That block is popular because it has facilities for the elderly, nurseries, a number of caretakers, shops and leisure facilities. The community has been recreated, rather than simply bulldozed. I am not arguing that some high-rise flats do not need to come down— they do, especially the jerry-built ones—but with good management and extra money some could be used to good effect.

One must be very careful when talking about planning. For a start, I have great sympathy with every councillor who is a member of a planning committee. In planning, as in transport, one cannot make the right decision. Whatever one does, one gets criticised by someone. One cannot please all the people. If one says no to an extra room in someone's loft, that will please all those who want to keep the street as it is, but it will upset all those who want an extra room for members of their family. If one tries to discourage the pebble-dashing of attractive brick buildings one gets all sorts of flak, although pebble-dashing spoils the line and design of houses.

We know, too, that what we think of as ugly or beautiful today may be seen in the opposite way in 50 or 100 years' time. I often wonder what people thought of some of the houses that were built a hundred years ago. Perhaps the rows of houses built in and around London were considered eyesores, although we are now busy protecting them and putting public money into repairing, renovating and maintaining them. One must be careful in talking about planning problems.

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Selly Oak said, and with Prince Charles. In the housing debate I seem to have God, in the form of the churches, on my side, and now I find the royal family on my side. I cannot help feeling that there must be some anxiety on the Conservative Benches about that. We have built many buildings which have spoilt the skyline and which have been bad to live in, but the Tory party must understand that that is because such buildings are cheap.

If one goes for the attractive buildings described by Conservative Members, one must acknowledge that it would be considerably more expensive to provide the office space needed. When the office space restrictions were reduced in London to allow more offices to be developed, those who wanted to build offices looked to high-rise buildings. Those who build offices do not build replicas of the Tower of London or the Egyptian pyramids. They build rectangular blocks, with variations in the outside decor.

The outside decor lends itself to system-build, which is sometimes very good, but sometimes—as we know from experience — it is disastrous. Some of our worst problems arise from system-build techniques which were not thought out properly and from buildings which were jerry-built by large companies who have left the local authorities, or indeed the Government, to pick up the bill.

Any large building company would provide a more attractive building if that was required. It would provide beautiful Victorian designs, but they would have to be paid for. That is where the market forces argument gets into difficulties. If two people compete to put up an office block, the occupiers of which are interested only in office space and its potential for office technology, they will not look with too much concern at the outside. That is where the role of local authorities becomes so important. Yet the Government have abolished local authorities, such as the metropolitan county councils and the GLC, or are undermining their general day-to-day work, and that is a fundamental mistake.

My final point is extremely important, not only in the general context of this debate, but in terms of the inner cities. It is probably true to say that a far greater force than any political ideology of the day is the demographic movement within a country. The movement from the rural areas into the towns created our towns throughout the Victorian era and made Britain the first industrial power. We have only recently realised that the reverse is happening now. For the past 40 years there has been a dramatic movement from the cities to the country areas. That is producing an acute crisis in the inner cities and a serious crisis in rural areas. Millions of people are involved and London alone will lose another 1 million people by the turn of the century. Those 1 million people are likely to move to rural or semi-rural areas.

Between 1945 and 1950, the Labour Government planned many new houses and towns, and expanded towns. That was a good idea, which worked wonderfully, but it took from the inner cities the generation of people who would now be in their forties and fifties, perhaps at the peak of their earning power in economic terms, leaving the elderly trapped in the inner cities with the new people coming into the areas. In between those come the famous, or should I say infamous, yuppies, who are usually passing through, staying in an area for five or 10 years before moving out, or the very rich, with one home in the city and another, or perhaps more, elsewhere. That has produced the breakdown in the community that was accurately identified by the hon. Member for Selly Oak.

A community that is broken up in that way experiences problems with everyday services and produces a concentration of types of problems. There is a heavy population of the elderly and of young unskilled unemployed people with social problems. There is also a concentration of crime with its related problems, because it is often community links that prevent crime.

The other side of the coin is that in rural areas there are increasing requests for housing developments at the same time as local authorities there are being told either to sell council properties or not to build any more. When, in addition, people are looking for two homes, a housing crisis is created for people in rural areas who are seeking to buy or rent for the first time. Although that crisis is not as severe as in the inner cities, it is severe in personal terms for those concerned.