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Housing Subsidence

Volume 959: debated on Wednesday 29 November 1978

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

1.27 a.m.

I am grateful for the opportunity provided by this Adjournment debate to raise the question of the problems of protecting householders against subsidence. I have had a particularly had example of subsidence affecting a comparatively new housing estate at Wivenhoe in my constituency, where the houses are only four to five years old. This case has attracted a considerable amount of publicity, both in the press and on television. There are 56 houses on the estate and the insurance companies, acting on a report prepared by a consulting engineer with considerable experience, have paid out on 19 houses. Since then the National House Building Council has commissioned another consulting engineer to prepare another report.

I have been sent the second report but, in spite of promises from the National House Building Council, I have not been sent a copy of the first report made by Mr. Burt, the consulting engineer first employed to report on the subsidence. The second report is, I am told, much more optimistic than the first one. Following the second report, the National House Building Council tells me that the insurance companies have been persuaded to renew subsidence cover and, in the words of the NHBC:
" Building societies are to be informed, in the hope that valuers will respond favourably."
The National House Building Council says that it plans to landscape the estate and carry out the work designed to make the occupied houses safe and habitable once more. It is prepared to give new 10-year certificates on the houses. Nevertheless, the insurance companies have paid out on 19 of the 56 houses on the estate following the first report and, with the adverse publicity in the press and television, quite understandably, a blight has descended on the remaining houses on the estate.

If any of the householders on the estate wish to sell their houses it is unlikely that they will be able to get more than two-thirds of the correct capital value which they would have been able to obtain had subsidence not occurred. A great many of these householders are management executives, for whom mobility is extremely important. Already one householder has had a sale fall through because of what has happened. He is now having to work 200 miles away from his family home at Wivenhoe and now faces most disturbing family problems.

I have been in touch with the householders, the local council, the National House Building Council, and Mr. Burt, the the author of the first report. I have paid several visits to the estate, the last one being this previous weekend. I find the householders far from satisfied. Indeed, they are very disturbed by what has happened and are in a mood to challenge the second report, in spite of the offers which have now been made by the National House Building Council to give a 10-year guarantee on these houses so that mortgages can be obtained from the building societies and the houses reinsured.

I am told by the householders that Dr. Henkel, the author of the second report, was not allowed to go into any of the houses by the householders because the National House Building Council would not let them see a copy of the first report. Indeed, the householders still have a great deal of scepticism about what has happened and are fearful of the present position because of the blight that has been caused. They told me last weekend that new cracks were appearing.

The Colchester district council, which has been left holding the baby, as it were, after local government reorganisation, has been most helpful. It has done everything it can to keep me informed about what is happening and is naturally concerned about what has occurred. Like me, it has already asked for a public inquiry.

I must respect the good faith of the National House Building Council and thank it for having given £59,000 to top up some of the householders who were under-insured, and for the new guarantees which have been given. But, bearing in mind what has happened, and knowing the feeling of the householders, I doubt whether it will be enough to help in this situation, particularly in the light of the further reports that I have received. I have spoken to Mr. Burt, and in spite of the fact that he has signed the second report, I must comment, having heard what he has to say, that I am far from happy about the situation.

I have had a report this evening about a house on the estate which has just been put on the market by a firm of local estate agents. In spite of the National House Building Council's guarantees, it has sent a letter to the owners of the house saying that the house is unmortgageable, uninsurable and consequently unsaleable, so at the moment my estimate of two-thirds of the previous capital value is wrong. Indeed, I have heard this evening that 150 yards off the estate, in Parkwood Avenue, the insurers now refuse to insure without a £200 structural engineer's survey and report. Curing the blight, therefore, will be a slow and uphill progress.

This brings me to a consideration of what, practically, can be done to help these householders. I have just had a letter from the secretary-general of the British Insurance Association, speaking about the United Kingdom as a whole, and saying that the average cost of repairs to a house that has suffered subsidence is about £3,000. It is estimated that insurance claims for subsidence since 1951 in the United Kingdom have amounted to about £100 million. The secretary-general says that
" A significant factor is that building has taken place in unsuitable sites, for example, on gravel pits, old coal and clay mine workings and steep hillsides and railway embankments."
The British Insurance Association hopes that the Department of the Environment will give guidance to local authorities on the subject of land available for property development and establish a much tougher policy towards this matter. Indeed, some of the pamphlets coming from the Department at the present time signify this, but it does not help the householders in their present situation.

Because of the circumstances that I have outlined, which I heard about as long as six months ago, the local council and I have been pressing for a public inquiry to be held as soon as possible into what has happened at Wivenhoe. There is extreme doubt in people's minds whether planning permission should ever have been given for the site. Has the Minister seen the reports of the district surveyor about the site? Bearing in mind what has happened, we are interested to know what was reported and what the architects say about the site and what has happened there.

Is enough care taken to examine filled-in sites? That is the purport of what the secretary-general of the British Insurance Association wrote to me. From what has happened at Wivenhoe, it seems that not enough care is taken. In September 1978, the Department of the Environment published a paper on the foundations of low-rise building. It is claimed by many of the householders that the conditions of building in-fill outlined in the paper have not been met in this case. Obviously the contradictory reports of two consulting engineers must be considered as well, though there is now a joint repor

Help has been given by the NHBC, but the council is not and nor are the insurance companies able to give help in respect of blight. The NHBC has told owners that they must realise that they have no legal right of compensation. I regard that as most unsatisfactory. The value of sound houses on the estate is substantially less than it would be ordinarily. In spite of the NHBC guarantees the fact that mortgages are available to buy sound houses and the fact that the other houses are to be rehabilitated, the blight will remain for some time.

Many householders will be several thousand pounds out of pocket, through no fault of their own, if they wish to move. Indeed, if the report that I have just received is correct, it may be much more than that. Obviously the fact that insurance companies have paid out on 19 of the 56 houses on the estate leads one to conclude that it is problematical whether planning permission should have been given for the estate or a substantial part of it. If that is so, the local council or its successor must bear a considerable responsibility for what has happened.

A public inquiry will be a long and slow process. Urgent action is needed to help the remaining householders at Wivenhoe, which is only one example of what is happening on other estates throughout the country. That help can be given only if the local council—in this case the Colchester district council—considers, after examining all the facts, that faulty planning permission was granted and is willing to accept full responsibility, buy from those who wish to sell and, in due time, rehabilitate the estate as the NHBC says may be possible. That is the way of common sense.

I hope that the Minister will look at the matter urgently. This is a most unfair case, and I feel sure that there are bound to be others. My hon. Friend the Mem- ber for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) will outline a similar case in his constituency. Something must be done immediately to protect householders against blight in such cases.

While pressing for a public inquiry, I am looking for other, more urgent, action and for the local council to accept responsibility at once, bearing in mind, especially, the doubt that must exist over the granting of planning permission in the first place.

I hope that the Minister will be able to announce that a public inquiry will be held and that action will be taken to help overcome the serious blight and the serious worry caused to many householders, who are in the executive class and must have mobility of labour and should be able to move around, but are prevented from doing so through no fault of their own, but through bad planning.

1.40 a.m.

The people of Wivenhoe are very fortunate to have my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) as their Member. He takes a diligent interest in all these problems, and he has done his constituents, and indeed the House of Commons, a service by raising this matter even at this very late hour.

I wish to mention a similar case, and I apologise to the Minister for not having been able to give him full notice of the facts. I refer to Jacqueline Close, Bury St. Edmunds, which suffered severe subsidence a few years ago. Planning permission was given by the local authority, the builder put up two rows of attractive homes, 20 to 30 families moved in, and in a matter of months the houses began to subside.

Underneath the site were some spectacular old chalk workings, which had been dug out during the First World War. The water from the roofs of the new construction had loosened the chalk, displacing some of the foundations. The consequences were alarming. The houses began to slip into deep holes. I went down into some of these caverns. It was an astonishing sight.

For the builder in the first instance it was a financial disaster. He was unable to sell a significant number of the houses and he did not get his money for some of those already occupied. For the residents—the purchasers—it was a catastrophe. Most lost a good deal of their savings. Nearly all of them lost their homes and then faced the problem of what was to be done. The first question was, and is: was the planning permission wrong in the first place? The local authority denied this, and I do not doubt its good faith. But I have no doubt that it was within the collective knowledge of the council at that time that there had been old chalk workings underneath that site. The authority should perhaps have known, but certainly it had some responsibility to the builder and the residents for what happened.

The second point concerns the blighting that arose in that neighbourhood for a considerable period. In the event, I remember proposing that a compulsory purchase order be made because of the public health hazard that had arisen. After a long time a CPO finally has been made and the council has taken this derelict site into its own possession. In the meantime, several years have passed, there have been great distress and loss to ordinary people. That is unacceptable.

I hope that the Minister will say that where councils give planning permission and where those who, in good faith, build on that land find that there is subsidence for other reasons, which should have been made known in the first instance, responsibility should lie on the local authority to make good some of the losses suffered by innocent people.

1.43 a.m.

The hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Rids-dale) has raised a serious issue, which I know has caused great disturbance and distress to many people on the estate at Wivenhoe. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) has properly drawn attention to the distress caused in his area.

As a Member who represents Durham, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that we are undermined, as it were, as we have widespread coal mining operations. I have great experience of the distress that can be caused by subsidence.

As I understand it, the estate of 56 houses was developed about five years ago, the necessary planning and building regulation consents being given by the then Wivenhoe urban district council. The site originally included a valley with a stream running along the bottom. This valley had been filled with tipped material about 10 years before development began. About half the houses were built on the filled area and a number have now suffered cracking and damage to their foundations.

A number of questions arise—the first and most important of which, I am sure we all agree, is whether there is any real danger to life. In this connection I understand that the council now responsible—Colchester district council—has rehoused the occupants of the houses that it considered to be at risk. The council's insurers have commissioned a survey of the estate, and its results will be considered by the council as soon as they are available. If any further action is necessary in the interests of public health and safety, then I am sure that the council will take it.

Another issue raised is that of compensation for parties injured financially as a result of the subsidence—either directly by damage to their homes or indirectly because of the difficulty that they face in selling and moving away. This financial question is initially for the insurance companies and the National House Building Council.

I understand that the insurance companies and the NHBC acted to enable all the owners affected to move out of their homes. Where householders were underinsured, the NHBC"topped up"insurance settlements of £206,000 with payments totalling £59,000, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

The remaining houses on the estate were blighted following reports that there was a danger of further damage. The NHBC commissioned Ove Arup and Partners to report on the position, in association with the local engineer who first reported a potential hazard. The joint report, which I understand has been sent to the hon. Gentleman as well as to residents on the estate and, indeed, to my Department, finds that
" There is at the moment nowhere any sign of any occupied houses which could in any way be considered dangerous due to foundation settlement or any cause."
Where cracking of walls has taken place, the report continues, reasons other than landslip are to blame—for example, unequal loading, different properties of adjacent building materials, and so on.

The NHBC has offered the householders who are still in residence on the estate an ex-gratia payment of £100 for cosmetic repairs, and now hopes to be able to persuade insurers to give subsidence cover to the houses. The results of the joint survey are being drawn to the attention of the building societies.

I hope that these steps will help owners of the houses still occupied on this estate.

I now turn to the question whether the Secretary of State should institute a public inquiry. It has been suggested that such an inquiry should consider, among other things, the circumstances in which planning and building regulations consent were granted, the adequacy of inspections of the estate before permission was given and while the houses were under construction, the present condition of the estate, and the apportionment of responsibility for compensation.

The Secretary of State's powers to hold public inquiries under section 250 of the Local Government Act 1972 are not relevant to the Wivenhoe case. There are also powers under section 318 of the Public Health Act 1936 to hold a local inquiry in connection with certain functions exercised under that Act and in relation to any matter concerning the public health in any place. These latter powers are essentially related to questions of public health and are normally used only where an inquiry is thought the best way to ascertain facts needed to determine public hazard not limited to the case in the nature and extent of a possible general question.

I must, however, make it perfectly clear that this provides no power to award compensation to injured parties.

As far as the planning matters are concerned, I am advised that a local authority does not have responsibility under planning powers for the stability of land for development, although there are special liaison arrangements in respect of certain coalmining areas.

In the particular case at Wivenhoe, the council has taken action to deal with any immediate risk to public health or safety. The council's insurers, and the NHBC have both commissioned consultants to advise on the present state of the site, and a public inquiry would certainly not hasten progress. The sole purpose of such an inquiry would therefore seem to be to apportion responsibility, although the Secretary of State has no power to award compensation and questions arising could well be the subject of subsequent litigation.

My right hon. Friend will, of course, take account of all that the hon. Member has said, as well as the weighty arguments that I have set out in this debate, and I shall write to the hon. Member when the local authority is informed of my right hon. Friend's decision.

If my right hon. Friend decided not to hold an inquiry, that would not in any way fetter the council if it wished to arrange a public inquiry under an independent chairman.

I should make it clear that if the residents are seeking an inquiry in order to obtain more information about the state of their properties, an inquiry instituted by my right hon. Friend under section 318 of the Public Health Act 1936 would have no more power to require interested parties to divulge information against their wishes than would an inquiry instituted by the local authority.

I recognise the urgency of the matter. I shall read carefully what both hon. Gentlemen said about their views of the local authority's duties and the NHBC and a particular report. I shall discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend.

Will the Minister assure me that in arriving at his decision in the Wivenhoe case, he will have regard to the Jacqueline Close example that I mentioned, because the two are comparable?

I shall certainly get all the information available about Jacqueline Close and discuss it with my right hon. Friend. I recognise the urgency and the distress felt by people in these circumstances. I shall let the hon. Gentleman and the authority know the Secretary of State's decision as soon as possible.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that we are concerned about the plight of these people? They wish to move, they wish to have mobility of labour, and their capital value has gone. That is the question to which we have to address our minds.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I take on board the feelings of the people concerned.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Two o'clock.