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Public Services (Sandwell)

Volume 976: debated on Friday 21 December 1979

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3.30 pm

We are embarking on a period when the politician's expression "cuts in public expenditure" will be translated for millions of people into events that they understand. For the housebound, such cuts will mean fewer visits from the district nurse; for the handicapped child, the loss of a remedial teacher; for the council tenant, a longer wait for his dream home. At such a time each will mourn his own, but today I wish to tell the House about the impact of the cuts on one community, partly because it may help to bring home what is really entailed in the statistics that we have been debating.

Sand well is a borough in the West Midlands covering much of the industrial Black Country. Twenty years ago it consisted of six small boroughs with ancient names, representing separate communities. In 1966 the two parts of what is now Sandwell were brought together into Warley and an extended West Bromwich. The measure was resisted virtually unanimously by those who were charged with making it work but at least those two boroughs were multi-purpose, single-tier authorities with all the powers necessary for a vigorous assault on local problems.

In 1974 the gentlemen in London once again knew better than local people and the two authorities were unceremoniously bundled together in a shotgun marriage. But this time they lost many of their powers and the ability to take decisions was given to the West Midlands county council. The planning of roads, for example, on which so many other decisions depended, had to start all over again and precious years were lost.

Sandwell is not an inner city area, by reason of the historic accident that it had no one population or commercial centre which, in former times, might have claimed city status. But one cannot say much about the problems of inner cities which is not reflected in Sandwell.

The 1971 census shows that those socio-economic groups which the statisticians number 1, 2, 3, 4 and 13—employers, managers and professional workers—form only 7·4 per cent. of the population, as against 13·8 per cent. in the West Midlands as a whole, which is, in turn, below the national average. This is by far the lowest proportion in the region, with the exception of two districts in Birmingham, one of which adjoins Sandwell. The proportion of unskilled manual workers is the highest in the region, again with the exception of two districts in Birmingham. These figures give cause for no surprise.

There are, indeed, some who could move away but prefer to live in Sandwell. But most of those who are able to live in the green belt, even if they continue to work in Sandwell, leave the area. Doc- tors, teachers and other professional people who come to work in the area usually live outside. So, with the exceptions which always prove the rule, it is the richer who move out leaving the poorer behind; the younger who move out leaving the older behind; the second generation immigrants who move out leaving the first generation behind.

That brings us to another factor. Now, of course, there is virtually no primary immigration. But there is a high proportion of first-generation immigrants who came in former years. It would be quite wrong to speak of them as "a problem". As with any other group, it takes all sorts to make a community but for the greater part these people are as hard working, thrifty, friendly and no less law abiding than the indigenous population. But some children still have a problem with English, which is not spoken at home, so the education authority must provide special classes. There is an imaginative provision for teaching about ethnic minority cultures. Then, a great deal of valuable work is done by the Community Relations Council, so the local authority is understandably being pressed to make larger subventions for this work.

Sandwell's industry consists chiefly of engineering and iron foundries. It goes back to the Industrial Revolution, and it depends upon skills that have been passed on through the generations. Unhappily, there have been a disturbing number of closures in recent years and the word "redundancy" forms part of too many conversations. A very high percentage of the work is dependent upon British Leyland and, indeed, many of the people who live in Sandwell are employed at Long bridge. So the priniciples that are so logical and clear to the Secretary of State for Industry have a more practical and emotive quality for the people of Sandwell.

Still, for the present, most people are busy, but wage rates are not high, so the council and its predecessors have traditionally been concerned to keep rates low—sometimes at the expense of those amenities which higher rates might have bought. As there are so many industrial premises, the resources element in rate support grant is calculated on the basis of high rateable resources. But what is left out of account is that the industry which provides those resources creates the very problems which absorb the resources—air pollution, noise, derelict land and heavy vehicles breaking up the roads.

In the last few years, the problems of areas such as Sandwell have been taken into account in the formula for calculating rate support grant, but this year there has been a swing back in favour of rural areas—only marginally, but Sandwell councillors are wondering whether that means that their problems are now regarded less sympathetically. Perhaps the Minister will tell us when he replies.

The end of the war found us with a high percentage of slums. Most of them have now been cleared, but the process absorbed a large proportion of the energy and resources which in other areas went to provide other amenities. There is little incentive for private developers to build property for letting at high rents, so Sandwell has by far the highest percentage of council tenants in the region—514 per 1,000. As with rates, there has always been pressure to keep rents low. Rents that would appear normal elsewhere are regarded in Sandwell as outrageous. But that policy was pursued in the past at the expense of maintenance and repairs. At every surgery held by my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) and me we meet people living in flats who are sustained by the dream that one day they will move to a house with a garden. If the Government compel the council to sell off its council houses, the first to go will no doubt be the better houses with gardens, and those people will wait for many years more, if not for ever.

There is an urgent need for an increased house building programme to provide for the 7,000 families now on the list awaiting accommodation and for those who dream of moving to better accommodation. But if the Government insist on cutting the housing investment programme, the council will have to make an agonising choice between that and a desperately needed improvement and modernisation programme. At the moment the council does not know, because one of the consequences of the Secretary of State's boasted reduction in the numbers of civil servants is that the de- cision promised for October has now been delayed until January.

If the Government impose severe cuts, the families on that list will have nothing to hope for. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether, when the council applies for loan sanction to build houses, the Government will bear in mind all those families who, whenever they see a Member of Parliament or a councillor, begin the conversation with the word "When"?

The Minister believes that people should be encouraged to buy their own houses. So do I, provided that they are houses built for the private market and not at the expense of people waiting in the queue for council houses. Sandwell has by far the lowest proportion of owner-occupiers in the region—381 per 1,000. But for many young couples, ownership can begin only by purchasing an older property with a 95 per cent. or 100 per cent. mortgage. Their only prospect of obtaining one is from the council but already this year funds have run out. I recently met a young man who had a house—his first, and modest enough—lined up. He had been virtually promised a 95 per cent. mortgage. Now he is being told that he will obtain a decision in April, yet by April the bargain that he has made will be a thing of the past.

There is no greater comfort to be had with regard to the health services. General practitioners are not readily attracted to the area. Lists are long, and if a patient is crossed off his GP's list, for whatever reason, he will have great difficulty in finding his way on to another.

Sandwell residents are not usually in the financial league that can pay for private medicine. They are not impressed by Tory slogans about freedom of choice. Most of them would settle for one hospital place, and one consultant to perform that long-awaited operation. I have known a number of elderly people whose lives have been changed by a hip operation. From depressed, withdrawn cripples they have virtually come back from the dead, but they have lost precious years of their lives waiting.

Now, after years of dreaming, and what seemed like interminable delays, we have the new Sandwell general hospital in West Bromwich. If it is to work, it will require resources to run it. The regional health authority has approved, in principle, additional revenue of £500,000. But on the basis of the 3 per cent. growth allowed for in the White Paper, and after deducting the 2½ per cent. which will be absorbed by reinstating the National Health Service contribution to the cost of pay awards, and considering the burden of high prices that are likely to operate, the West Midlands region is likely to have £2,400,000 additional revenue to meet commitments of £4,400,000. So while we live in hopes, there is some apprehension that the revenue necessary will undergo a process of surgery before it materialises. Having obtained the hospital, we may not be able to make full use of it.

That is in West Bromwich. But that is a long and difficult journey for people living in Rowley Regis. Many of our hospital patients have been travelling instead to Dudley. It was hoped that work would begin in 1982 for a community hospital in Rowley Regis itself. We would have our own hospital, like people elsewhere. It would contain 100 beds, and would be staffed by general practitioners, many of whom had been discouraged from coming to the area precisely because we lacked those facilities. Now we are worried. Can the Minister assure us that, as far as his influence extends, that hospital and those who need it so desperately will not fall victim to the cuts?

I have spoken of the ageing population. There are 45,000 pensioners in an adult population of 250,000. When my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Miss Boothroyd), who is unavoidably absent today, spoke in the debate on public expenditure on 5 December she told the House that we had 1,000 people in residential homes. Since there is room only for emergency cases, it is thought futile to keep a waiting list.

That is where the council's social services department and the NHS interact. If there were more hospital beds for geriatric cases, the pressure on residential homes would be eased. Now that the new general hospital is open, the old hospital building is vacant, and it is hoped to provide there a 50-place day hospital, and 76 beds for the elderly mentally infirm. Can we be assured that there will be no pressure to switch capital allocation to revenue and so deprive elderly people—people who are in need of full- time nursing—of a comfortable and dignified evening for their lives, and deprive their families of the resulting relief?

May I offer a further statistic? In 1978 Sandwell had a perinatal mortality rate of 20·1 per 1,000, as against a rate in the West Bromwich region of 17·3, and a national rate of 15·5. It is hoped to spend £1·2 million on improving the overcrowded and dilapidated maternity unit and antenatal unit. Will that sum still be available? Because there are insufficient beds in hospitals and residential homes, many people are living at home but are dependent upon community and domiciliary services. Many elderly and handicapped people are dependent upon social workers, health visitors and district nurses, not only for their physical well being but for advice, conversation and a lifeline to the outside world.

Is it the case that if these workers claim a pay increase greater than the limit imposed, despite an inflation rate that is likely to be substantially higher, there will be a cut in their numbers, so that they will be condemning the housebound to a desert island existence? If so, that is moral blackmail of the most cowardly kind. The Government should at least have the guts to accept responsibility for their own decisions.

Finally, in the time left to me I turn to the education services. With its obsession with statistics about examination results, the Department of Education and Science recently published figures indicating that in the academic year 1976–77, only 72 per cent. of school leavers in Sandwell achieved what the Department call a "graded" examination result—"E" level or better in O- or A-levels, or a "5" in GCE. That compares with a national average of 81 per cent.

There is no evidence that children in Sandwell are less intelligent than else-were, or that their teachers are less able or less dedicated. But child psychologists are telling us what we already knew, that children who are talked to and stimulated in their early years are likely to learn more quickly than those who are not. In a low-wage area many mothers have perforce to go to work. The remedy is to provide more nursery school places, and in recent years efforts have been made to expand them. Sandwell has three nursery schools, and 38 primary schools have a nursery unit. But if the number of teachers employed nationally is to be reduced by 21,000, does the Minister have reason to believe that nursery school teachers can be shielded from the effects, except at the expense of staffing ratios in primary and secondary schools?

In an area with many disadvantaged pupils there is a greater than average need for remedial teachers, speech therapists and teachers concerned with the languages and cultures of ethnic minorities. If there is to be a drastic reduction in teaching staff, does the Minister believe that it will be possible to retain a high proportion of these specialist teachers?

The authority spends £450,000 on school transport. The figure is so high partly because of the numbers in remedial and special schools and partly because playing fields and other facilities are not always available at the school itself. But there are also many families who, for perfectly proper reasons, wish their children to attend schools associated with their religious faith or other schools of a particular kind. For them, the vaunted freedom of choice in education depends upon transport. Even if the Government impose their threat to remove from local authorities the obligation of providing transport, I do not believe that Sandwell council will readily discontinue a service so fundamental to people's need and rights. But if to that proposal there is added an insupportable strain on resources, it is not surprising that there is great anxiety in the area.

So, in a hundred ways the slogans and figures will affect the daily lives and the prospects of families who are in no position to provide their own solutions. There has been no time to mention the impact on the mentally handicapped, the rehabilitation services, the arts, sports facilities and all the other materials that go to make up human life. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East is hoping to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and to say something of his own anxieties. My hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) and for West Bromwich, West would have wished to contribute to the debate, but they have engagements elsewhere.

In the time left to us I shall understand if the Minister cannot give a detailed answer to all the questions that I have raised. I am content that if there is anything more that he wishes to say he will write to me.

It was not my intention today to initiate a debate on the need for the cuts, or their scale. The House has already discussed these issues. However, the admitted purpose of the cuts is to pay for tax reductions that will chiefly benefit the higher income groups and to increase the freedom of choice in education and the health services for those who can pay. Any moderate and fair-minded person will be driven to conclude that there is something wrong with those priorities. The whole test of a political faith is what, when the chips are down, are the values that we protect and the human needs that prevail.

3.47 pm

This House is a frustrating and infuriating place unless one happens to be a Minister. The great compensation for most of us is the satisfaction of one's work as a parish priest in a constituency one loves. As the House knows, my constituency is Warley, East. It used to be Smethwick which stood in the Domesday Book as a village—a long time ago now—and is one of the four constituencies in Sandwell. That is why I am so grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) for giving me the opportunity to say a few words in addition to his admirable speech on the problems of the area we both represent.

There is a concentration of problems in Sandwell which give it all the problems of an inner city area but which do not allow it, for the historic reasons my right hon. and learned Friend has explained, to be assessed or accepted as such. The problems of Sandwell are those of an urban area working hard to shake off the legacy of its past. It consists of a number of population centres formerly separate towns, as my right hon. and learned Friend explained, each of which has the characteristics of the inner city area.

Those who can are moving out to more attractive residential areas, leaving behind—the point that my right hon. and learned Friend made—the less affluent the less securely employed, the larger families, the older people and the first generation immigrants. Each of these areas in Sandwell affects the adjoining areas so that the outward movement is spreading through an increasing proportion of Sandwell. Industrial and residential premises are crowded cheek by jowl, and it is proving a long process to separate the district into residential and industrial areas. This gives rise to problems of pollution, overcrowded roads, parking problems and derelict sites. It also means that the area is unattractive to professional people such as doctors and teachers. The educational attainment throughout the area is said to be the lowest in Britain. I think that we can both vouch for that.

Industry is, for the greater part, narrowly based, and in these days perhaps unfortunately based, mainly on the automobile industry. Attempts are being made to introduce more varied industry, but this, too, is not easy in an area which executives do not find attractive residentially and where available sites are likely to give rise to complaints of pollution.

Sandwell, to date, has not been assessed by successive Governments as an area of serious need in terms of inner area problems. The authority has not received the additional financial support in the form of loan sanction or grant which has been made available to comparable authorities.

It is this manifest injustice to the people whom we represent that needs the attention and correction of the Minister. I urge him, as does my right hon. and learned Friend, to do the fair and right thing, even in these stringent days, and to recognise Sandwell as an area and community badly needing inner city area treatment, with the consequent financial support of loan sanction and grant. I pray that he listens to our concerted pleas. Christmas is coming and the geese are getting fat—but not for people in our area.

3.52 pm

The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) and his hon. Friend the Member for Warley East (Mr. Faulds) made a very understanding case of the problems of Sandwell. Clearly in the nine minutes left to me there is no way in which I can reply to all the points they raised. However, I shall certainly ensure that those who posed the ques- tions receive answers. There are two points that I should like to make before putting this matter into general context.

First, the right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me about the rate support grant and was somewhat worried. It is fair to say that Sandwell got on pretty well in the 1980–81 rate support grant settlement. It had an increase in its needs element entitlement of over £500,000 in real terms, which is equivalent to a 1·1p rate. That is better than the average metropolitan district, which had a gain of 0·7p. The gain continued the overall trend between 1974–75 and 1979–80 when Sandwell's share of the needs element increased by 11 per cent. as against the metropolitan districts' overall increase of 6 per cent. over the same period.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman also specifically spoke about the problems of those who wished to purchase their own homes and the running out of the council's mortgage scheme. Sandwell has chosen to maintain its level of house building by using funds originally earmarked for mortgage lending. That was its own decision. The council is responsible for the consequences. It cannot expect us to help it out at the expense of other local authorities. However, we said that it was our intention in next year's allocations to have one block rather than the existing three blocks. It will then be even more for a local authority to decide what it wants to do.

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, a great deal has been said in these past weeks about the effect of expenditure cuts on local services. Much of this has been hysterical exaggeration, which takes no account of reality, but it has naturally concerned many who feel that they will be affected by the wholesale destruction of public services predicted by the sensationalists. I take this opportunity to dispel those misconceptions, as the reality is very different.

As a Government we have said firmly that we are totally committed to improving the standard of public services. But that can be achieved only with a strong economy. The simple truth is that over the years public spending has been planned on assumptions about economic growth that have not been achieved. It is now at a level that the economy cannot support. High taxes and high levels of Government borrowing have combined to reduce incentives, to fuel inflation, and to discourage investment. In short, public expenditure is stifling economic growth.

So our first task is to increase the country's resources through higher output. The growth in public expenditure must first be halted and then reversed, until public spending falls to a level that the economy can afford. The alternative is continued economic decline and serious long-term damage to the public services as our ability to finance them diminishes still further. We will not follow that course. That is what lies behind our policies—not, I make it clear, the taxation picture that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, uncharacteristically unfairly, painted.

The greatest misconceptions and the direst predictions have come from our planned reduction in local authority spending. I must put these cuts firmly in perspective. We are asking local authorities in England and Wales to reduce their current expenditure in volume terms by 1½per cent. this year below what they actually spent in 1978–9 and by a further 1 per cent. next year. That will bring them back to the same level of spending as in 1977–78. That scale of reductions is rather less than the 2 per cent. in one year imposed by the right hon. and learned Gentleman's Government in 1976.

Put in terms that we can all understand, those cuts are not all that large. For every £100 spent by local authorities last year, we are asking them to spend £2.50 less next year. I do not pretend that that will not cause difficulties, but I do say that it is not an attack on the fabric of the public services.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke about the sale of council houses and about the ambitions of people to move to what I think he said were better houses with gardens. I understand that argument, which has been put many times before, but it is not accurate. If he will, with his well-known fairness, consider the national statistics—I venture to say that the statistics for Sandwell are not all that different—he will find that the number of council tenants who move in a year is between 4 per cent. and 6 per cent. The substantial and overwhelming majority of the tenants who want to buy their homes will have lived there for 10, 20 or 30 years. There is no prospect of their moving from those homes anyhow. It is therefore a fallacy to say that, because we intend to make it easier for local authorities to sell houses and for tenants to buy them, we shall in any way deprive people of the better homes. I suggest that he should have a more careful look at the figures for turnover before he makes that premise.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman also mentioned housing investment programmes and loan sanctions. I appreciate that we have been somewhat late in giving any figures this year, but there was a general election which rather complicated the issue—for the better, I believe. When we make the HIP allocations we shall take into account the real needs of local authorities. The right hon. and learned Gentleman need have no fear—if Sandwell has put up a good case it will be considered on its merits when we make the decisions.

The problems of ethnic minorities are not confined to Warley. I have such problems in my constituency. However, I am pleased to see that the local authority appointed a careers officer earlier this year to deal with the problem. I congratulate the local authority on that.

As for the right hon. and learned Gentleman's mention of the elderly mentally infirm, I am informed that works are to begin next year, for completion in 1982, on the upgrading of 76 beds in the vacant West Bromwich district general hospital, that 50 day places will also be available for the elderly severely mentally infirm. Those are the present plans.

If local authorities will decide the level of services that they believe that their local economy and the national economy can support, rather than what they think is desirable, we shall all be able to recover more swiftly from the difficulties that we have been allowed to drift into than if we all go on saying that every public service must be expanded and that there is no room for cuts.

The choice in the end as to the priority on expenditure within the limits allocated via the generous rate support grant are for the local authority itself to decide. It must decide whether it wants to reduce a given service, staff or administration. That is for the local authority and not for the Government to decide.

It being Four o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.