George Young – 1986 Speech on Urban Deprivation in Liverpool

Below is the text of the speech made by George Young, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, in the House of Commons on 16 January 1986.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry) made a moving speech about the real problems that face his constituency in Liverpool. He is honest enough to acknowledge that the problems have not simply emerged over the past six years. They derive from the long-term economic decline of Liverpool, which has brought with it high unemployment and associated problems of physical dereliction, poor housing stock and a high proportion of disadvantaged groups.

The problems in Liverpool have built up over the past 25 years. It has been subjected to massive economic changes over that period, and it has lost about 30 per cent. of its population. Many of those who have left have been young people with skills. Changes in the national economy since the war have also led to the rundown of the port of Liverpool and the port-related activities. That, in its wake, has brought substantial losses in manufacturing capacity.

The hon. Gentleman would be wrong to suggest that there had been a massive reduction in Government spending on Merseyside. Since 1979–80, Government expenditure in that area has risen from £718 million to £1,041 million—an increase of 45 per cent The Government are spending a great deal of money on the city of Liverpool. A massive £28 million was allocated through the urban aid programme alone last year. The initiatives have included the creation of a new maritime museum, a revamp for Lime street station, improvements to the city centre sites and buildings and access routes related to the international garden festival.

We are doing what we can with derelict land in Merseyside. We spent £6 million on derelict land grant, and there was a major land reclamation exercise costing £6·5 million to create the Wavertree technology park. Some £12 million has been spent on housing and historic buildings. The Anglican cathedral precinct is the most significant initiative under that heading, but we are also upgrading housing in Princes boulevard, preserving the ​ 18th and 19th century houses in Canning street and helping the Weller street and Brownlow hill co-operatives provide homes.

The hon. Gentleman spent some time discussing housing and homelessness. There are a large number of vacant dwellings in Liverpool—2,178 in 1984, which is 3·35 per cent. of the housing stock. It is essential to bring back into use existing dwellings that are unoccupied, before we indulge in a major new house building for rent programme.

Mr. Parry

Is the Minister referring to houses awaiting demolition? A number of pre-war tenements are boarded up and cannot be used for housing.

Sir George Young

Those are the figures given to us by Liverpool city council, and they are vacant dwellings in its area. Any district council will have some houses that are empty because tenants are changing or the properties are awaiting refurbishment, but the percentage in Liverpool is 3·35. That is relatively high. In Birmingham it is 2·15 per cent. and in Gateshead it is 2·59 per cent. The first point that I want to make on housing is that, before the city council engages in a fairly expensive programme of new buildings for rent, it should realise that it is cheaper and quicker to bring back into use some of the dwellings that are unoccupied.

The hon. Gentleman spent much time on housing, I would not dispute the proposition that Liverpool’s housing problems are among the worst in the country. The reasons for housing decay and the appalling problems of some of the post-war housing are well known. It is common ground between us that much money will have to be spent to give the people of Liverpool the opportunity to live in decent houses. The Government’s view is that we must get the best value out of every pound of public money spent.

The Government believe that the response should not be rooted in the replacement of unpopular municipal stock. The aim should be to find the most cost-effective approach which provides housing choice and uses all available resources, including the private sector and the resourcefulness of local communities. The city council’s reliance on a physical solution underplays the social problems on estates and ignores the desirability of giving people responsibility for their own homes. The municipal solution to which the council is committed is very expensive and rides roughshod over people’s aspirations to own a home of their choice or to be involved in the management of their own housing.

There are many examples of improved council estates in other Merseyside authorities which have not relied on municipal action. Through the Merseyside task force, initiatives have been set in hand covering more than 10,000 dwellings. Housing choice has been widened through the privatisation of estates in Wirral and Sefton.

Through a package of urban programme and MSC funds, improvements to rundown estates are being secured by tenants themselves on community refurbishment schemes. Twelve such schemes are now under way, covering 6,500 dwellings.

The private sector is taking part in an initiative to develop sites which would not normally have attracted private funds, as a result of which over 800 new homes are being provided. However the sad fact is that none of those initiatives are taking place in Liverpool. They are taking ​ place elsewhere in Merseyside. The opportunities for making more rapid progress in tackling the problems raised by the hon. Gentleman have been sacrificed by the city council on the altar of dogma.

The need to develop a varied and innovative approach to the problems was emphasised when my Department’s urban housing renewal unit visited Liverpool in October. The unit explored the scope for involving the private sector in renewing the city’s rundown estates. Both the task force and the unit have encouraged the city to decentralise its key management functions to a local level to improve services for the tenants. I hope that Liverpool will respond positively to these initiatives. They are not inspired out of political dogma, but have at their heart a commitment to improve the difficult conditions in which many tenants find themselves living in Liverpool.

The hon. Gentleman was critical of the Government’s response to the issue that he has raised. I think that there is a feeling between us that much needs to be done to regenerate Liverpool. Government expenditure on Merseyside is running at about £1 billion a year, but we can see from the problems associated with post-war housing that committing resources is not by itself enough. Measures have to be taken to rebuild confidence as well as bringing about physical improvements. The Government are tackling the deep-seated economic and industrial problems of Liverpool on many fronts. The Department of Trade and Industry’s grants and expenditure towards industrial investment in the area exceed £50 million in 1985–86. Since May 1979 Liverpool has received over £155 million in regional aid.

A concerted effort has been made, through MSC programmes, to improve the skill levels of the community, with some £78 million being spent in that area in 1985–86. Overall there has been an increase in adult training opportunities in Merseyside from 3,500 in 1984-85 to about 11,000 in 1985–86. Urban programme resources have been used in conjunction with MSC programmes to set up training projects. The designation of the Merseyside development area, the Speke enterprise zone and the freeport in Bootle have also improved the climate for investment in Merseyside. That joint approach is vital if real progress is to be made.

The hon. Gentleman was somewhat dismissive of the Merseyside Development Corporation, which we established in 1981. It has a remit to regenerate some 900 acres of massively derelict and disused docklands at the heart of the Merseyside conurbation. We have made good progress, and substantial reclamation and infrastructure programmes are under way. They already include notable successes such as the international garden festival and the restoration of the Albert dock, which will include the Tate of the North from 1988. In the current year, the MDC has resources of some £30 million.

The hon. Gentleman was again somewhat dismissive of the garden festival. It was the first ever garden festival to be held in this country. It attracted over 3·3 million visitors in the six months that it was open during 1984. It represented a major boost to the reclamation programme in the area and a stimulus to the Merseyside economy. The corporation has moved on to restoring the Albert dock warehouses—an outstanding group of grade 1 listed buildings in the Liverpool south docks. A joint restoration project with the Arrowcroft Group is now under way to provide commercial and residential accommodation. Two major blocks of development opened in August 1984, ​ including the highly successful Maritime museum. A further block opened in July 1985, and a further development, to open in 1988, will include the Tate of the North gallery.

Other substantial projects include the restoration of the water system to the south docks, and the British American Tobacco project to convert disused dock sheds into small industrial units.

The MDC has adopted a tourism and leisure strategy for the Liverpool waterfront which builds on the success of the international garden festival, Albert dock and Martime museum. For the dock system between Albert dock and Toxteth dock a “shopping list” of key projects has been identified from which a successful mix of schemes will be drawn. These will include national tourist attractions as well as local and regional sports and leisure facilities.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the need for central Government to play their part in stimulating investment. The Merseyside task force has been active in promoting development projects and bringing together different agencies. Particular emphasis has been placed on interdepartmental co-operation and establishing good links with the private sector, including the secondment of staff on specific initiatives. The main job of the task force is to work with local authorities, Government agencies such as English Estates, and with the private sector to carry forward initiatives and projects which help regenerate the area. There are considerable achievements to the credit of the task force.

A number of vacant sites have been brought back into use through the efforts of the task force—the most important being the Anglican cathedral precinct site. Others are the former Exchange station, which has been redeveloped for offices, the Wavertree technology park, where 64 acres of derelict land are being transformed into a centre for high technology industry. Public parks at Everton and Speke are being created out of derelict and neglected land. The Government have also co-operated with the private sector in land reclamation—examples of such schemes are Minster court, Kingsway loop and Mathew street.

The Government have been doing what they can, and it is legitimate to question the approach of the city council. The municipal approach of Liverpool city council has not been helpful in the regeneration process. It has largely ignored the potential of the private and voluntary sectors and has been patently wasteful of resources. It has helped to camouflage financial inefficiency. The council’s housing strategy is almost entirely oriented towards municipalisation. It has embarked on an extensive new building programme, but has consistently refused to support self-help initiatives such as co-operatives, shared ownership schemes and building for sale.

Mr. Parry rose——

Sir George Young

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I must finish my speech, so I shall not give way.

The city council has been at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the private sector and has withdrawn much of the support and encouragement given by the previous council. It has disbanded the Liverpool development agency, whose job it was to assist existing businesses and encourage new investment.

The council has failed to make use of Government money, provided through the urban programme, to assist firms. It has abandoned the industrial improvement areas set up by the previous Administration. It has made next to no use of urban development grants from my Department, which are specifically designed to enable investments to go ahead which would not otherwise be viable.

It has refused to co-operate with major Government-led initiatives to improve Liverpool’s image and generate new activity, including the international garden festival and the Speke enterprise zone.

Mr. Parry

Will the Minister give way?

Sir George Young

No. With respect, the hon. Gentleman took 15 minutes to present his case and I have only half a minute left of my 15 minutes.

The council has tried to undermine and take over the traditionally strong voluntary section in Liverpool by refusing to support new voluntary sector proposals, and it has attempted to municipalise existing activities.

That is a formidable catalogue of missed opportunities by the city council. I know from my own experience as chairman of the London partnership committees, which are run by Left-wing Labour councils, that it is possible to work with the Government to tackle problems of urban regeneration. There is still the possibility of a consensus on the need to encourage business, create jobs and promote self-help. All too often, Liverpool has slammed the door on this type of co-operation. I very much hope that the hon. Member for Riverside will use what influence he has with the city council to persuade it to change its posture for the better in the coming year.