Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10 pm

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of housing in Hyndburn.I am also grateful to the Minister for being here to reply to this short Adjournment debate.

There is no doubt that housing is the most important issue facing my constituents, and I welcome the opportunity to highlight their growing needs. On the surface, my constituency must appear a good example of the ideal of a home-owning democracy, as more than four out of five of my constituents are owner-occupiers. However, the issue is not the level of home ownership, but the quality of those homes. The sad fact is that many houses have become sub-standard, or even unfit for human habitation, for a number of reasons.

First, most of the housing in Hyndburn was created during the industrial revolution. Although it served its purpose at the time by providing a rapidly expanding work force with roofs over their heads, it was built with an eye on the clock and on the purse. Inevitably, corners were cut.

Much of the original housing still remains today, along with the growing associated problems. Some 18,000 of the 35,000 properties in my constituency were constructed before the first world war. Poor original construction has led to widespread problems that are evident in much of the old, terraced housing. The problems include subsidence, due to poor or absent foundations.

The Minister can imagine the difficulties, given the hilly Pennine terrain. The houses suffer buckle walls due to old heavy stone guttering, leaning chimneys and sagging roofs that cause the structures to move out of square. The latter problem has created particular difficulties that can affect entire terraces and make individual action impossible. In addition, structural problems have undoubtedly been compounded by financial restraints.

The relative prosperity created by a thriving cotton industry in Lancashire in the 19th century meant that many people could buy their own cheaply built house for the first time. That must have seemed ideal for many lower-income families who could purchase their own homes and avoid the grip of the rent man. Now, as then, low pay is endemic in east Lancashire. Although most people are more than able to meet their mortgage repayments and other outgoings, few could have foreseen the amount of money that is required to make the essential repairs to properties that are rapidly deteriorating.

My constituents are rightly proud of their properties. When I raised the issue in the House on a previous occasion, the leader of the Conservative group on my local council accused me of insulting people's little palaces. That kind of patronising remark does not take us any further forward. I am not criticising people's home decorating--the home owners are not at fault. I am criticising the structures of those buildings. The longer that essential repairs are left undone, the more serious the problems will become, and the more expensive they will be to remedy.

15 Feb 1996 : Column 1236

The decay of the properties was unavoidable, and private sector housing in Hyndburn is in a mess. Some 9,500 homes in my constituency require statutory intervention, as they are considered unfit to live in.A further 5,500 properties require assistance in order to prevent them from becoming unfit for habitation. In all, 15,000 houses require urgent attention. In 1996, 15,000 families in my constituency are living in unfit or sub-standard housing. That is nothing short of a disgrace and a scandal.

Every week in my surgeries, I meet people whose housing situation is desperate. They are unable to remedy the problems themselves or to receive assistance from the local authority. The link between poor housing and poor health is apparent. As Florence Nightingale noted more than 100 years ago:

That was true then, and it is equally true now. Hundreds of millions of pounds must be spent in order to repair defects to about 15,000 properties and to ensure that my constituents have decent housing.

No one--certainly not me--expects that amount of money to be made available. However, the fact remains that the funding and resources available to the local authority have been cut in the past few years. Hyndburn borough council now receives only a tiny fraction of the resources necessary to redress the problem. It is clear that many of the 15,000 properties will no longer be standing by the time the council receives anything like the money it requires to repair them.

The Government have placed Hyndburn council in a dilemma. Until now, local authorities have had a mandatory duty to pay housing improvement grants to owners whose properties fail the fitness standard. If one's house is unfit for habitation, one must receive a grant by law. It is not legal for local authorities to institute a queuing system.

However, that does not address the problem in areas such as Hyndburn where the resources do not match the call on those resources. There is no doubt that many people could take the local authority to the ombudsman and force it to pay the mandatory grant. However, the council cannot pay out money that it does not have. If it sought to do so, I am sure that the Minister and other Conservative Members would be the first to complain, and the council would face a surcharge. It is a no-win situation, in which the real losers are my constituents.

The Government are in the process of extricating themselves from the mess by attempting to remove local authorities' mandatory duty to provide home improvement grants during the passage of the Housing Bill, which is presently in Committee. That is all well and good for the Government, but I think that I am entitled to ask where it leaves my 15,000 constituents. They cannot get a grant from the local authority when they are legally entitled to it; how on earth will they get such a grant when that legal requirement is removed? It is important to raise the subject, as something must be done before it is too late.

Some housing is already beyond repair, and houses have been demolished. It is obviously cheaper to repair and extend the life of existing properties than to demolish them and attempt new build.

15 Feb 1996 : Column 1237

The local authority is doing all it can. With the money that it has received in recent years, it has launched two successful projects, one in Scaitcliffe and one in East Accrington. The council has shown some ingenuity in progressing its urban renewal programme. The East Accrington renewal area has received priority status since the scheme's inception and considerable improvements have been achieved in the East Accrington area. Many properties have been improved and provided with modern amenities, satisfactory water supplies--there is a problem in east Lancashire with lead pipes--and many other improvements to the structures. Funds can now be freed to target other areas and that is a tangible success.

In some instances, however, the housing is beyond repair. In those circumstances, clearance is the only option. Due to lack of funds, the council cannot afford to do that on the scale that is required. That has caused some areas to become seriously neglected and many houses stand empty. That is a genuine problem, which I hope the Under-Secretary will address.

Some people are caught in a trap. They cannot sell their property, which is falling into disrepair for structural reasons that they cannot afford to remedy. It is impossible for them to sell. In areas earmarked for clearance, clearance blight shows up on any search that is done when the property is put up for sale. People are trapped in decaying properties, and that is a growing phenomenon in my constituency. Privately owned homes are simply abandoned, deserted, and left to fall into rack and ruin.

Hyndburn is an innovative local authority, and it recently submitted a bid for a demonstration project, in partnership with the Portico housing association, which would have provided money for improvements, demolition and new build on vacant land. Sadly, that bid was not successful. Tomorrow, Hyndburn council will submit another bid, in partnership with the Bradford and Northern housing association. If successful, that will provide funds to tackle the growing problem of deserted, empty, privately owned properties. I urge the Under-Secretary to support that scheme when it is submitted tomorrow.

As I said, the vast majority of properties in my constituency are owner-occupied. Council housing forms only a small percentage--less than 12 per cent.--of the total properties in the borough. Many of those council houses are suffering problems. Some improvements have been made, and we have had some successes with the estate action programme, which has now stopped.

In passing, I wish to express my gratitude to the Department of the Environment via the Under-Secretary for the estate action programme in Trinity street in Oswaldtwistle, which has upgraded properties. I also pay tribute to the work done by the residents who campaigned for estate action money, and to Councillor Sheelagh Delaney, who worked tirelessly on that programme.

We still have 850 council houses that require a substantial investment to reach a minimum standard. It will obviously cost of lot of money to ensure that they are brought up to standard and the money is desperately needed. The Government have given no sign that they will be of any assistance. The Government are seemingly content to deprive my constituents of the basic right to live in modern and acceptable housing.

It is a self-evident truth, to anybody who visits Hyndburn or considers its problems, that it faces an extremely serious housing problem which will continue to

15 Feb 1996 : Column 1238

deteriorate unless measures are taken quickly. Despite the best efforts at renewal, the number of unfit and sub-standard houses is putting an intolerable pressure on the funds of Hyndburn council. The limited resources mean that houses will deteriorate faster than they can be repaired. Eventually, the only alternative to the short-sighted policy of not providing resources now will be large-scale clearance and demolition.

The problem is not unique to Hyndburn, although it is to east Lancashire. Hyndburn and its neighbouring authorities of Blackburn, Pendle, Burnley and Rossendale are special cases, resulting from a higher percentage of home ownership, history of low earnings and a poorly constructed housing stock, with the majority of properties having been built before the first world war. Those factors taken together should indicate to the Department that east Lancashire is a special case, which I hope the Minister understands. Decent housing should be available to all, and that right is currently denied to many of my constituents.

Next Section

IndexHome Page