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Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Bill

Volume 411: debated on Wednesday 6 June 1945

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Considered in Committee.

[Mr. Charles Williams in the Chair]

Clause i.—( Power to authorise use of open space during a limited period for temporary housing accommodation.)

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

6.45 p.m.

I hoped we would have had an opportunity of raising on Clause 1 the question of Sub-section (6) to which there is an Amendment standing in the name of my hon. Friends and myself. Last night in dealing with this point the Minister said that he thought the provision of the Housing Act, 1944, would be sufficient. I have, in the interval, refreshed my memory of that Act, and it does appear that there is still a gap to be filled. The House is unanimous in the desire to see that on open spaces, this temporary accommodation will be removed at the end of ten years, and the Amendment to which I referred was designed to secure that if the local authority failed to remove that accommodation—

The Amendment has not been selected because of the very point which the hon. Member is just raising, among other things. It is outside the scope of the Bill, and therefore I am afraid that the point is also getting outside of the Bill.

I should have said that it increases the chance of getting outside the scope of the Bill.

I will frame my question to the Government in my speech on this Clause on a different line. It does appear that this Clause is wrongly drafted because it leaves a loophole under Sub-section (6) of Clause 1, whereby this temporary accommodation may remain after the expiration of ten years if a local authority does not take the action to which it is directed in Sub-section (6). I would like from the Parliamentary Secretary, or from the Minister if he is going to reply, some assurance that either in this Measure or, if that is not possible, in some other Measure powers will be taken to see that what is the unanimous wish of the whole House is in fact carried out, with regard to this temporary housing on open spaces. We remember too vividly what happened after the last war, and it is our desire to see that it does not occur again. I am sure I am dealing with a very small minority of local authorities. I am sure the vast majority of local authorities will abide by the directions in Sub-section (6) and will instantly remove this temporary housing, but it seems there is a great gap in the Bill and one or two local authorities may not do so. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary when he replies will give us some assurance that this matter will receive further consideration.

I desire to support the plea that has been made by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton). The operation of this Subsection of the Bill will be the acid test of the meaning which the Government attach to the pledges they gave yesterday. The Government must know that the House has been extremely reluctant to give them the powers conferred by this Bill. They are exceedingly nervous that at the end of ten years, even if the houses are unoccupied, some authorities will leave these places to become derelict and eyesores. Instead of having them restored as speedily as possible to places of amenity and beauty, they will be left covered with decaying sharks and other buildings that will be detrimental to the locality in which they stand. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to assure us that it is the intention of the Government to see that these buildings are removed, either when they become empty if it is before ten years, or at the expiration of ten years, and that there will be no opportunity afforded to any local authority to make the countryside or even the parks of towns unsightly and disreputable through the continued existence of these structures.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South' Shields (Mr. Ede) are naturally concerned that when the ten year period is expired some of these temporary houses which may by that time have become unsightly should not remain there.

I apologise. I should have said all, not some. I hope I may set the minds of hon. Members at rest by a brief explanation. Perhaps I can do this simply and clearly by an imaginary example. Supposing this Bill passes to the Statute Book by June of this year, by June, 1955, the Act comes to an end. The houses which are placed on these sites belong to the Government and are rented to the local authorities. Should these houses in my imaginary example still remain there in June, 1955, the local authority in question would be liable to be sued by any one of the ratepayers in their district for the misuse of that particular site. Likewise under Section 2 of the Temporary Housing Act, 1944, the Minister himself has full powers to remove the houses, and the local authorities are likewise enabled to request the Minister to remove the houses. I hope these assurances will set at rest the fears of hon. Members.

The hon. Gentleman has given us an illustration of houses built in 1945 and subject to demolition in 1955. He ought to recall that the houses may not be commenced this year nor the year following.

I think I am right in saying that temporary houses from America will be arriving this year, and the full period of the Act is ten years, so that should the houses be erected this year they will have to be taken down in 1955 after that period of ten years when the Act expires.

Is the hon. Gentleman perfectly sure about it? He has made a statement that if they were erected in 1945, in 1955, at the end of ten years, they will be subject to demolition. But we cannot get the assurance that they are to be built in 1945. That is the point I want to make.

Let me remind the hon. Gentleman of the provisions of the Bill. It allows special powers to local authorities for a period of two years, and it may be possible that houses will be erected in 1946 or 1947, but from the period of erection not more than ten years must elapse before they are demolished.

The hon. Gentleman has not met the point made by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton). The Parliamentary Secretary referred to Section 2 of the Housing Act, 1944. He says the Minister may cause a structure to be removed. What we want is that this Bill should say that the Minister shall cause the structure to be removed. You, Mr. Williams, did not call my hon. Friend's Amendment, but I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary, before this Bill is brought up in another place, to consider whether he himself will not put down this Amendment in its present form or, if he likes, that the Minister shall remove the structure at the expense of the local authority.

I do not wish to detain the Committee very long. I am bound to say that I think the Parliamentary Secretary's answer is singularly unconvincing, because those of us who serve on local authorities very rarely go in fear of an individual ratepayer bringing an action against us because we have not carried out some duty of this kind which has been placed upon us. After all, it is a serious thing to throw upon the individual ratepayer the task of fighting in the High Court a local authority with all the resources and the rates behind it. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to believe that that is a very broken reed on which to rely, and I join with the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) in pressing him to see if in another place he cannot take some powers that will enable the Government by their own action and by the exercise of some default powers to remedy any wrong that a local authority may inflict on its neighbourhood.

It would be nothing unusual if, while this Bill is proceeding in another place, the Parliamentary Secretary could see whether he could make a more real approach to this problem. There is an air of unreality about it. Neither this Minister nor any other Minister nor a Parliament can pledge another Minister or Parliament ten years hence. Another Parliament might say, "It is perfectly true that these houses were to be pulled down in a few years' time," but they might revoke what the present Parliament has done. Another point is that we are assuming that the Minister will order the removal. Supposing the Minister a few years hence does not order the removal, supposing he feels it would be in the public interest that he should not indulge in revocation and that these buildings should remain, I ask the Minister to realise the nervousness we feel from the example we have had—this is no idle theory—of temporary buildings remaining not ten but 20 years. I ask whether something cannot be done to make thoroughly sure that, at the end of ten years, these buildings will be removed from our parks and open spaces.

7.0 p.m.

How can one lay down that they shall be? Circumstances might arise, as has been mentioned, where the local authority would find themselves in extreme difficulties with a lot of people wanting more houses and being compelled to pull down the existing ones. Some of these temporary structures will last, if they are left up, probably, 50, 60 or 70 years. If they uglify the neighbourhood as they are doing now in London, let them be removed as soon as possible. Do not let us lay down a drastic rule that, whatever the circumstances, the local authorities shall remove them at the end of ten years.

The last speech reinforces our argument. Have we really to contemplate that in ten years, whatever Governments may have been in power during that time, the local authorities will not yet have succeeded in providing the necessary houses, in order to enable the Minister's very definite statement to be carried out that these houses will come down as early as possible? If so, it is striking at the very root of the case which the Minister put before us. I would like to read what the Minister said:

"In the second place, the authorisation cannot be for a period of more than 10 years. There is an absolutely definite limit to the use of the space."—[Official Report, 5th June, 1945; Vol. 411, c. 733.]
The hon. Gentleman has just said that there cannot be a definite limit and that is a further justification for the Parliamentary Secretary to take action, probably by adopting the suggestion which has been made to put the matter right in another place beyond a shadow of doubt so that we shall know that the Minister's pledge will be kept, as it must be kept.

The point we are now discussing is extremely important. It is impossible for us to pledge any future House or Government. It is all very well for the Minister to say that in ten years' time these temporary houses shall be brought to an end. He can be as definite and firm about it as he likes, but at that time if there is still a shortage of houses there will be, all sorts of pressure and temptation to make the Government of the day say: "We thought so then, but things have changed now and we think we ought to keep them going for a little longer period." It will be lamentable, just as it is shocking that we now have to contemplate, even for a short period, making use of open spaces which are vital to the health and well-being of the community. Anything that can be done to strengthen the position and make the pledge of the Minister more binding certainly ought to be incorporated. I hope the Government will give serious consideration to the point.

I should like to try to bring reassurance to hon. Members by restating certain facts. In the first place these houses, we must not forget, belong to the Government. They have to be removed at the end of 10 years, because the Measure will expire definitely after 10 years. I am assured most specifically by my advisers that the Minister has ample powers in the Bill to act directly when he wishes. [Interruption.] I can only go on the assurances of my advisers, but should there be any doubt I am perfectly willing to enter into consultation with my right hon. and learned Friend. I am actually assured that the Minister has ample power to act at any stage under this Measure.

I accept, of course, the Minister's assurance, but I would point out to him that it is not a question of whether the Minister has power but of whether he would exercise it, and we want to put a safeguard into the Bill.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Remaining Clauses ordered to stand part of the Bill.

On a point of Order. Is it your intention, Mr. Williams, to call the new Clause standing in my name [Royal Parks]?

Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.