Stan Thorne – 1978 Speech on Local Authorities and Housing Management

Below is the text of the speech made by Stan Thorne, the then Labour MP for Preston South, in the House of Commons on 8 June 1978.

There are clearly only a few hon. Members who are interested in the points that I wish to make. I am aware that housing is basically a local authority matter, but we are concerned nationally about standards of provision. The Department of the Environment is in business to help local authorities, where possible, to improve their housing stock and to advise in many areas, including the management of stock.

The background to the problems of the inner town area of Preston cannot be covered in depth in a short speech, but part of the history must be told. In 1955 the council embarked upon the first slum clearance programme affecting a part of the town known as Avenham, between Manchester Road and Frenchwood Street. When clearance was under way and the cost of land was known to be £32,000 an acre, Preston was pressed by the then Minister, on financial grounds, to build upwards.

Two multi-storey blocks, Lancaster House and York House, were opened in about 1960. They were closely followed by Cumberland House, Westmorland House and Northumberland House. To people in need, these represented acceptable residences. In 1962, further blocks, Carlisle House, Richmond House and Durham House, closely followed by Kendal House and Penrith House, provided a total of 849 dwellings of mixed types including bed-sitters and one-, two-and three-bedroomed flats.

In 1965 the housing committee was faced with complaints by tenants of heavy condensation and various attempts were made through the construction industry to remedy those defects, without notable success. It subsequently came to ​ the notice of the council and certain social and behavioural problems were also appearing within these blocks.

The housing committee sought, as far as practicable, not to rehouse into those blocks families with young children, but it must be reported that this policy has failed. I am not involved with many of the families with young children in these multi-storey blocks who want to get out as quickly as possible for a variety of reasons, but mainly because of the difficulties of providing children with play facilities and the mischief that children can clearly get into in that sort of environment.

The financial problem for the local authority has been immense in terms of cost of building, landscaping maintenance, and so on, and rents have varied over the years. The conditions in these dwellings deteriorated noticeably in about 1970, when vandalism became rife and the behavioural problems produced the fouling of lifts, excess noise, bad neighbour relations and damage to windows and other property within the buildings.

Attempts were made by the local authority to control these aspects through meetings with tenants and the scheme for locking up in one block, Kendal House, fairly early at night. That produced a pattern of breaking and entering, and was not a success.

The operation of the lifts has produced a loss of several thousand pounds in refurbishing, and the lift suppliers have clearly lost interest in maintaining an adequate stock of spares to keep the lifts running.

Under the Fair Rents Act an attempt was made to have the blocks valued in such a way as to provide for a reduction in rents on the ground of inferior accommodation, but that was unsuccessful. Indeed, they were rated at about £10 more than comparable properties in much better areas.

Various suggestions have been considered by the housing committee, political control of which has changed over the years, as to alternative use. Investigations have been carried out concerning criteria for entry—for example, no young children, executive-type employment, or student occupancy through the Preston Polytechnic. The latter presents considerable difficulties in terms of finance.

There is about £9 million owing for the next 40-odd years, and any release of accommodation for students would, I believe, not rank for grant or loan. A rent for a flat may emerge at about £20 a week. Modifications have been estimated in respect of one block to amount to £120,000. As students normally require accommodation for only 40 weeks a year the other 12 weeks’ rental presents a problem. Additionally, it must be recognised that some of the present occupants wish to remain in the buildings. One suggestion was made that the blocks be used for elderly people, but discussions with Age Concern soon dispelled that notion.

After the decision to reduce the number of families with younger children had been taken the numbers of families wishing to transfer crystallised. There are now about 130 families seeking a transfer in a situation in which there are 2,563 families in Preston seeking a home, many of whom—it is estimated at over 50 per cent.—are priority cases.

The house building programme of the present Conservative-controlled council is 100 houses for rent this year, with the hope that housing associations will supplement that figure. An area cleared for rebuilding, known as Maudland Bank, is presently being developed. Wimpeys are building thereon 72 houses, most of which win be for sale to local authority housing list applicants. In Ingol, about 200 units of accommodation are planned. Within Ingol and Grange Estate there are many families becoming increasingly discontented in two-, three-, and four-storey flats where they have young children and where there are problems of vandalism and anti-social behaviour.

The Central Lancashire New Town has a role to play in urban renewal and it would be interesting to know whether it can assist in the particular area to which I refer. It is possible that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be able to comment on that. Recently the council has employed staff to knock on doors to sell houses. The end-product is likely to be 1,000 fewer houses for rent. During the past six weeks a further 270 families have been added to the priority list and the trend suggests that by the end of 1978 there are likely to be 3,000 on the waiting list in Preston. That will be the highest figure ever recorded in the town’s history.

My purpose in raising these extremely difficult problems is to seek my hon. Friend’s advice on their solution. I recognise that that is not an easy proposition. Is there any way in which a local conference of Ministers, housing committee members and officers, Members of Parliament, community representatives within the social service sector, the probationary service, tenants and residents associations and others, could be set up to consider how in a collective way we can overcome the difficulties and plan a progressive housing policy at Preston?

I should welcome my hon. Friend’s advice on that score. As I have taken only 10 minutes, and have done so deliberately, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) will be allowed to say a few words to supplement the points that I have made which I am sure the Under-Secretary will find little difficulty in accepting. I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise these matters.

Mr. Ronald Atkins (Preston, North)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) for allowing me a few minutes to make a contribution to this short debate.

We suffer from changing fashions in planning. In the 1950s and early 1960s planning opinion favoured high-rise flats as the answer to problems of land scarcity in town centres. These blocks today are almost universally condemned by the same planners. Tenants are refusing to live in them as being unsuitable for their families or for other reasons.
It is a pity that we cannot anticipate, or even to want to anticipate, the wishes of those who have to live in the buildings that we plan for them. This lack of consultation is also evident in modernisation. For example, some tenants are forced to accept central heating which they cannot afford to cope with and are advised to keep their windows open when condensation or fungus appears on the walls.

There is a need for consultation and a freer choice in all housing matters. Housing authorities provide better houses, but not always better communities. The authorities do not ask grandparents whether they want to be segregated, with others, away from their children and grandchildren. They do not ask parents ​ whether they would like gran—the best and cheapest baby sitter—to live in a street nearby.

We in this House deliberate in our Select Committees and discover that violence in the family is often due to the break-up of family ties which in the past made a family secure and a community balanced. High-rise flats are unsuitable for children, and couples need to move when they have children. How can we have a stable community in such conditions?
There is much to be said for good old-fashioned houses to replace the old streets which are being demolished. When I was a member of the Preston Borough Council, I advocated that, as the houses in the Wilbraham/Geoffrey Street area were being pulled down, the rebuilding of the street should proceed soon afterwards, enabling those who wished to do so to remain in the neighbourhood. If the Tories had adopted that Labour policy, we would have seen houses rising on what is now waste land which attracts vandals, rubbish and vermin.

It saddens me to see Tory district councils wanting to rid themselves of their most important remaining function—their housing services. In Preston, the housing waiting list has now reached 2,576. It has increased by 105 in the last few weeks. That total was already much too high. But, apart from not carrying on the programme which Labour started, the Preston Council is waiting for others to get on with the job of building on waste land that has been waiting for houses too long. Good housing is the most important factor in social improvement. We ignore it at our peril.