Orders of the Day — Basildon

– in the House of Commons at 2:20 pm on 27th May 1988.

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

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess , Basildon 2:31 pm, 27th May 1988

For the last five years I have been proud and privileged to represent what I believe to be not only the finest new town in the country but what I think will become the finest town in Europe. I was particularly delighted to be re-elected last year, because in the last Parliament we laid the foundations for the success of this country and for the success of Basildon in particular. The town can take advantage of that fine opportunity and I hope that it will blossom and mature.

It has been brought to my notice that not everybody in the country describes Basildon in such glowing terms. For that reason, I launched a campaign three weeks ago called "I love Basildon—I'm backing Basildon." I am delighted to be able to say that within a very short time the local community has rallied round and given tremendous support to the campaign. Its purpose is to emphasise all the good things that are happening in Basildon and then to entreat the community to work together in an attempt to solve whatever problems we may have.

All kinds of competitions are being held, involving organisations from play groups to senior citizens. By the time the campaign is finished, everybody will be aware of what a wonderful place Basildon is to live in. The media have been very supportive in the campaign.

There is no place in Basildon for the vandal, the litter lout or the graffiti artist. Such anti-social behaviour will be dealt with severely. The "I love Basildon" campaign intends to emphasise that fact.

We shall also be holding a competition in which local residents will be invited to submit tunes for the "I love Basildon" campaign. A record will be made that includes local celebrities and local people. I hope that the record will become a No. 1 hit. Any royalties from it will be used to support our local hospice, St. Luke's.

I congratulate the development corporation, and now the Commission for the New Towns, on the work that they have done in developing and building the town in the past four decades. In particular, I pay tribute to all the staff, the chairman of the Commission for the New Towns, Sir Neil Shields, and its general manager, Mr. Douglas Galloway, who will shortly be retiring after 30 years of service. Although I have not always agreed with everything that the CNT has done, its work has been invaluable to our community. People have naturally begun to take its work for granted. They have found it difficult to accept the change of responsibilities from the development corporation to that of the CNT. It is quite clear to me that we must now look positively towards the day when Basildon is on its own. We have to plan carefully for that event, especially as regards housing and the disposal of assets.

I am delighted with the progress that has been made with the wishes of tenants in the Felmores estate to have individual central heating. Throughout the previous parliament, a succession of Ministers visited Basildon to listen to constituents' complaints about the high heating costs and the inefficient system on Felmores. Many tenants were unhappy with the quality of the heat provided and the frequent, high heating bills.

The Felmores heating action group fought long and hard for tenants to be consulted on the matter, so I am pleased that a referendum was held recently. It would be extremely helpful if my hon. Friend the Minister could say whether the result of the referendum will be acted on, and, if there is to be a change in the heating system, when the work will be carried out.

Now that that matter has been dealt with, I hope that the Department will turn its attention to constituents at the other end of the town, in Langdon hills, who have a similar heating system and similar problems. I hope that they will be given an opportunity to decide what best suits their needs.

Basildon is well known for the diversity of its housing estates—most builders and designers have been given an opportunity to demonstrate their work in the town. Some of the building is superb, but some has been disastrous for my constituents.

One estate where there are many problems is of the SIPOREX type. They are bland, concrete buildings and were built following a supposedly successful pilot scheme involving half a dozen buildings in part of my constituency. An enormous amount of money has been spent on them over the years, but there are still many problems.

In 1979, the Labour Government refused to pull them down. Instead, they embarked on a course of renovation. There have been problems of settlement and movement of the foundations. Many of the dwellings have had to be underpinned. Some people want to purchase their homes, but mortgages have proved difficult to obtain as no insurance company is prepared to back them. There have been problems with ceilings, windows and general dampness. In short, the estate was poorly designed and the people who live there deserve something better.

I hope that there will soon be a meeting of representatives of the local action group and my hon. Friend the Minister to discuss the best way forward. My hon. Friend will also he aware of the Government's involvement last year with defective properties in Vange. There were approximately 1,000 HSSB properties there. The various Ministers involved with the problem rallied round and eventually awarded compensation to the people who found it impossible to sell their homes because they were judged defective. I am delighted to tell the House that the number of people who are still in difficulty has been reduced to 80. I hope that my hon. Friend will view their circumstances sympathetically.

The market is an important part of East End culture. We have two excellent markets—in Pitsea and in Basildon. Stallholders have traded successfully for several years. They have added to the quality of life in our town and we want them to remain, as is demonstrated by the many letters that I have received on the subject and by the petition with which I was recently presented.

Traders from both markets have been to see me and are keen to purchase the sites from which they sell their goods. They are confident that they can raise the necessary capital, and they expected to be given the first opportunity to purchase the two sites. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has corresponded with one of those groups at least, so she will be aware of the strength of feeling on this subject. The local authority rent paid to the CNT for the Basildon market site has remained very low for a number of years—approximately £10,000. The traders, however, have paid the local authority more than £450,000 a year for their 121 stalls. Because of the serious financial position that the council has got itself into, it is naturally reluctant to give up that source of rental income. It is clear that the interests of the two parties are in conflict. However, it would be quite wrong to jeopardise the position of the market traders because of the fiscal irresponsibility of the former Labour council. My only concern is for the livelihood of the traders, and that depends upon them being able to trade from their present open market sites. I trust that their future will be secure.

Let me deal specifically with the question of the future of the New Towns Commission housing in Basildon. There are approximately 15,100 such properties, arid by and large the tenants are content with their present landlord. It is well known that at some stage, the CNT, in the course of disengaging itself from the town, will hand over its housing stock to a successor authority. In the late 1970s, the then Labour council refused to take over responsibility for the housing stock despite being offered the opportunity on very favourable terms. Now the Labour party has the nerve to question the integrity of the CNT's action. The Labour party has gone out of its way to alarm people—particularly the elderly—by issuing false statements and making what I can only describe as a disgraceful video-nasty. The barrage of propaganda has alarmed people so much that they actually believe that their properties will fall into the hands of wicked landlords, that their rents will shoot sky-high and that they will be thrown on to the streets. I utterly condemn those methods, which are inspired more by a desire to gain political advantage than a desire to assist an orderly transfer of housing.

In spite of repeated reassurances by Ministers, Socialist activists have gone out of their way to issue false information in an attempt to create general hysteria. As a result, people are now worried about something that will not happen. The Housing Bill, currently in the other place, makes it perfectly clear that tenants will be consulted about their future landlords.

One group that can be totally absolved of any irresponsibility in this matter is the joint estate management co-ordinating committee, to whose members I pay tribute. They work extremely hard on a voluntary basis to try to help individual tenants with their problems. At the moment they are feeling a little hard done by. As I heard at a meeting only this week, they feel that they are not being kept properly informed of the options that are being considered for the future management of the properties. The group is ideally placed to allay people's fears and a meeting between the Minister and a few of its representatives would be most useful.

For my part, I am concerned that tenants are properly consulted and are given clear options so that they can decide who is the best landlord to manage their property. There has been endless talk of a referendum in which 98 per cent. of tenants apparently said that they wanted to become tenants of the council. That exercise, conducted at ratepayers' expense, was no more than a cynical attempt to influence the outcome of a local election. How can a referendum be held by people who do not even own the housing stock and who are unable to give voters a choice on the options? It was conducted by people who do not know the meaning of democracy and who are interested in consultation only when they are sure that the result will please them.

We are not clear who runs Basildon council. There are supposed to be democratically elected representatives, but there is no clear majority for one party. That does little for staff morale. We do not know whether the council wants to take over the management of the property, or even whether it can afford to do so. The impression has been given that as people are more or less content to stay with their present landlords and do not wish to change, they will opt for the local authority. But it should be made clear that the Commission for the New Towns is not the same as the council. Judging from letters that I have received from the local authority's 5,500 tenants, theirs is not exactly a utopian existence. If the local authority took over the management of the properties, rents may be greatly increased.

I am anxious that the housing stock in Basildon is brought up to a high standard and is well managed. Any remaining land sold for housing purposes should be set aside for low-cost properties for single people or young married couples. The revival of the shared ownership scheme would be welcomed. I approach the Whitsun recess in the knowledge that my hon. Friend the Minister will do everything that she can to assist the town, and that "I love Basildon" will be forever engraved upon her heart.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe , Broxbourne 2:46 pm, 27th May 1988

I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) on his choice of subject for this debate and for the effective manner in which he put forward the concerns of his constituents on a wide range of matters.

My hon. Friend has a fine record as an advocate for Basildon and its people and I have no doubt that the "I love Basildon" campaign that he recently helped to initiate will help even further to enhance the image of Basildon among those who live and work there.

Of the issues raised by my hon. Friend in this debate, the one that I would like to deal with initially is housing transfer. This has been a topic for much rumour and erroneous comments by the press in recent months and I am glad to have an opportunity now to set out the facts and reassure the commission's tenants in Basildon that their best interests are dominant in our thoughts. The overriding principle that my ministerial colleagues and I wish to be adhered to in the transfer of new town housing to alternative landlords is that the tenants should be given a say. That is an integral and important part of our housing policy—tenants have a right to choose.

The right to choose was introduced for the first time for new town tenants in Peterborough last year. The individual wishes of tenants were made known through a formal vote and their choice of either the city council or a local housing association will be respected. The right to choose will apply in all future transfers of new town housing, including Basildon.

That raises the inevitable question of when tenants will be given the opportunity to choose. At the moment, transfer to local authorities on the financial terms for which they have asked is not possible without new legislation. They, reasonably and fairly, want the housing on the same terms as are being offered to the other prospective landlords competing for the housing stock, that is, for them to acquire the houses at tenanted market value, rather than on the basis of outstanding housing loan debt. The New Towns Act 1981 allows for the latter possibility only for local authorities. We are planning, therefore, to provide in the next Session for repeal of part III of the New Towns Act 1981 on housing transfers and the introduction of new powers to allow for that. Basildon district council will be able to compete on the same financial terms as other prospective landlords for the new town housing in Basildon. However, it seems likely that the new powers will not be enacted before April 1990 at the earliest. It seems much more sensible, therefore, if the remaining new town tenants voted nearer the time about whether that transfer could take place.

Another important consideration arises from the need for that new legislation and our intention, annnounced in last November's White Paper, to legislate on local authority housing accounts. Until the implications of the forthcoming legislation are clear and have been fully digested by the councils, it is impossible for them to put a clear and definite prospectus to tenants on the services that they will be able to offer and the charges that they will have to make. We have a commitment to let tenants choose. That choice, which is probably one of the most important decisions that they will ever make, must be made on the basis of full and certain facts.

Tenants have a right to know what their likely rent levels will be in the first few years under their new landlord. They need to know what services they will get for their rent, when their houses will be painted and how long it will take to get repairs done.

It has become clear that the information available to tenants in Peterborough on those matters was not adequate. Tenants, the city council and the housing associations all agree on that. That information is not available yet, so it seems wrong to ask tenants to make that crucial choice now. I have, therefore, decided that in new towns where the local authority wants to bid for the housing, tenant consultation should not take place until the information is available. I recently informed the development corporations in Warrington and Telford of that decision as preparations for tenant consultation were well advanced, but the principle applies elsewhere, including Basildon.

I move to how that applies to the commission and its housing at Basildon in particular. The commission had written to my Department concerning an inquiry from a private property company about acquiring some of the Basildon stock. The disclosure to which my hon. Friend referred was our response to that and the express purpose was to remind it of the need to consult its tenants and to set out the key principles on housing transfer, which I elaborated earlier.

It was suggested that the best way forward would be for the commission to prepare a comprehensive disposal strategy for its housing, as in the other new towns. The commission is keen to prepare such a strategy as it accords with its wish to disengage from being a housing authority at the earliest opportunity. Such a strategy would remove the current uncertainties, which naturally are of concern to the commission's tenants and staff in Basildon in particular. I hope that the commission will be putting forward its proposals to my Department in the near future.

Clearly, it is too early to speculate on which prospective landlords will be identified to compete with the council at Basildon. However, I reiterate the commitments on housing transfer which will apply in Basildon. First, there will be a formal vote for tenants to choose their new landlord. Secondly, the individual choice of tenants will be respected. Thirdly, Basildon district council can bid for the commission's housing if it wants to. Fourthly, tenant consultation will take place only when I am convinced that tenants can make an informed choice of new landlord on the basis of available information. This is largely dependent on new legislation, and means that it will not take place for a couple of years.

I felt it important that I should put clearly on record the Government's policy on new town housing transfer, especially the way in which it will affect the tenants of new town housing at Basildon.

My hon. Friend raised a number of other issues relating to Basildon and the role of the Commission for the New Towns. In the time remaining, I will attempt to give him a response.

My hon. Friend referred to the strained relationship that developed at Basildon between the Commission for the New Towns and the district council. Such incidents are always regrettable, and I hope that, with the recent change in the political complexion of the council, rather better relationships will develop.

My hon. Friend raised the disposal by the Commission for the New Towns of Pitsea and Basildon markets. The commission's agents in Basildon said that tenants and market stall licensees at the Pitsea centre would be given the opportunity to form a consortium to purchase the property. This unfortunately appears to have been a premature notification, and the commission has since come to the view that wider considerations need to be taken into account before a final decision is taken on whether to offer the freehold of the centre for sale. I understand that the commission has written to the National Market Traders Federation to explain the position. I assure my hon. Friend that the commission is aware of the very strong interest of the tenants and market traders in the future of the Pitsea centre and that it will keep them advised of any further action.

The position regarding Basildon market is somewhat different. I understand that the Commission for the New Towns is in negotiation with the local council regarding the renewal of the lease under which the council manages the market. This is clearly a matter of some commercial sensitivity and not one on which it would be appropriate to comment further at this stage. Unlike Pitsea market, however, I understand that the commission no longer owns the freehold of Basildon market and cannot therefore offer if for sale to the market traders.

I shall now turn to the points raised by my hon. Friend on the re-purchase of HSSB houses at Basildon currently being carried out by the commission. Since the then Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction announced in November 1986 that the Commission for the New Towns would be authorised to offer to buy owner-occupied HSSB dwellings, excellent progress has been made with the re-purchase programme. Of the 300 dwellings involved, over 400 have now been re-purchased and others are currently in negotiation.

I recognise that a small number of owner-occupiers may be unwilling or unable to take advantage of the re-purchase option. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that an early termination of the re-purchase option is not envisaged. The remaining owner-occupiers are therefore under no pressure to sell back to the commission. Before any decision to terminate the scheme is taken, the interest of owner-occupiers who still remain will, of course, be given careful consideration. However, in view of the relatively short time since the re-purchase programme commenced, I feel that it would be premature to consider alternative options for dealing with the residual cases at this stage.

I should now like to refer to the points raised by my hon. Friend in relation to SIPOREX housing at Basildon. As my hon. Friend is aware, another system-built estate constructed by the former Basildon development corporation has given rise to serious structural problems. A major programme of structural repairs was carried out some years ago, which was followed by a programme of window replacement and heating improvements. I understand that problems are, nevertheless, still being experienced with these houses, and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Housing and Planning has agreed to meet a delegation of tenants. We shall of course, be happy to consider what further action is required in the light of that meeting.

I shall turn to the points raised by my hon. Friend on the replacement of the district heating system on the Felmores estate at Basildon. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks on that. As he has said, because of the dissatisfaction with the district heating system, I agreed earlier this year that the commission should consult the residents on three alternative options. These were significantly to upgrade the operation and efficiency of the district heating system or to replace it with either individual gas or individual electric heating systems. In the event, 78 per cent. of those voting opted for the individual gas option. Given the weight of opinion in favour of this option, the commission is now preparing, for my approval, detailed proposals for the removal of the district heating system and its replacement by individual gas heating in each dwelling.

The situation on the Langdon Hills estate, which is also served by a district heating system, is rather different. The introduction of metering and the conversion of the boiler to operate on gas rather than oil has significantly improved the efficiency of the system and there is clearly far less tenant dissatisfaction generally with the district heating system than at Felmores. We have no proposals, therefore, to conduct a tenant consultation exercise on the district heating system at Langdon Hills or to replace the system with some alternative heating method.

My hon. Friend referred also to the need for land sales by the commission in Basildon at discounted values as a means of providing low-cost housing for rent. I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern about the need for such provision. It would be initially for the commission to come forward with such proposals, but it would need to be clearly justified before I could consider approval.

I hope that what I have been able to say has reassured my hon. Friend and his constituents about the future of new town housing in Basildon.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Three o'clock till Tuesday 7 June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 25 May.