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Requisitioned Property (Release)

Volume 413: debated on Friday 24 August 1945

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4.55 p.m.

I am afraid the points I wish to raise will seem to deal almost entirely with my own constituency, but in fact I believe they have a fairly general application throughout the country, or at any rate certain parts of the country. They refer almost wholly to the question of the derequisitioning of properties held by the Services. There are other Government Departments which hold properties in my Division, but we have not the means of knowing exactly how many are so held or how many have been recently derequisitioned. In the last Parliament, when we discussed the Defence Areas, several hon. Members made the request that one Minister should be able to deal with these problems, which were getting more and more critical. That, however, was not possible. During this week, in an attempt to get the situation cleared up, I have had to ask Questions in the House on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to different Ministers, have had to take part in a deputation to another Ministry on Monday, and finally, have had to ask the three Service Ministers to be kind enough to spare some of their time and come here this afternoon, which they have kindly done, to see whether we can clear up the situation. I hope that something will be done in future weeks and months to get one Minister responsible for dealing with the whole of this problem.

The history of requisitioning, as far as we are concerned in Brighton, and for that matter along the South coast and many other parts of the coast, is that, after Dunkirk, people were: asked to leave their houses and schools, if they possibly could, and move inland to safer areas. Largely because of that—although I have no doubt that had they not gone away they might still have had their premises requisitioned—they went away and the Forces moved into these houses, schools and hotels, and remained, quite rightly, right up to D-Day and until the European war was over. We then began to hope that the derequisitioning period would start fairly quickly. We began to hear of the coming to our area of large numbers of holiday makers, workers and others who wanted rest: but at that time we warned the Government that we could not do anything about putting up these people. There were no places in which to put them unless the Forces left the houses and premises which they occupied. Nothing happened about it. I believe that at the present time, as regards hotels and houses that have over 50 rooms in them, practically the same number are now retained as were retained six months ago.

What is the reason for this very long delay? We know that there is the question of prisoners of war who have come back and have to be placed somewhere. We know that some of the Dominions Forces are still in our area, but most of them are going, if they have not already gone. We know, too, that the Dominion Governments in many cases ask that their people, especially the prisoners-of-war coming back, should be looked after in places such as our own, and we were more than willing, and still are delighted, to have those people there, and to give them as good a time as we can; but we do want the Dominion Governments to realise that that has meant a very great strain on us. Our area has been a banned area. We have been a front-line town, as have other towns; we have suffered very considerably during a very long period. The hotels and places in which these people are living are not quite the same as the premises which are requisitioned in many other parts of the country, where it would merely be a question of ordinary private people going back to their homes. In our case it is a question of the livelihood of a whole town, the lodging house industry, the catering industry, the hotel industry and the school industry. All these are held up, and at the present time look as if they may be held up for quite a time longer.

Let it not be forgotten that when one house is taken over by the Forces it means that all the furniture has to be taken out, and therefore, the taking over of one house really means taking over 1½ or 1¾ houses, because the furniture has to be moved out and dumped in other people's houses. A large number of houses in the town are stored with the furniture of people who cannot get back to their own houses and premises. I am rather inclined to think there is some lack of co-ordination between the different Ministries. One of the answers I got last Tuesday from the Secretary of State for War, telling me how many houses had been derequisitioned, said:
"Seventy-four houses and flats in the two boroughs have been relinquished by the Army since VE-Day. It will be appreciated that some of these properties may be retained by the Ministry of Health for housing purposes."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st August, 1945; Vol. 413, c. 430.]
I should be very glad if the Financial Secretary could clear up that answer. Only the day before yesterday I was in a deputation to the Ministry of Health in regard to the general question of housing in the borough, and I came away definitely with the feeling that the Ministry of Health were most anxious to help the council to get on with its job and to do everything in their power to make the council the body to help in our very critical problem of dealing with the poorer people who are coming in and coming back. Large numbers of people have come down to Brighton from London and have not been able to go back as yet. Again, vast numbers of our citizens in the Forces have got married and are now coming back. Roughly speaking, the council's position at the present time is that there are in Brighton alone on the list of people requiring accommodation over 2,000 families living in such appalling conditions that they must be moved the first moment possible. That leaves completely out of the picture the large number of people who say they cannot get on with their mothers-in-law, cannot live in one or two rooms, and so on.

We feel that the whole matter ought to be properly organised so that when the Services leave these houses the council is informed, and nobody else. The council should be told that the houses are about to be relinquished, and it should be the council's job to get in touch with the owners and find out whether the owners mean to come back and settle there. Only the council knows who are the proper people to put into these houses. When this does not happen, and when large numbers of houses and hotels are left entirely empty, it is not unnatural that an element springs up in the town which says, "We must cut through red tape and do something to get these places."

The result is that we now have an organisation, which has had no small amount of publicity throughout the country, called the "Vigilantes." It was started by a gentleman who did the same thing after the last war, and found it a very interesting occupation then, and has now started up again in my Division. It has been followed all through the country by others doing the same thing, and frankly, that sort of thing is going to spread. I myself have had, within the last three or four days, soldiers coming to me and saying, "We do not intend to go back to the Forces, and to go out to the East, or wherever we are to be sent, until we can find a proper place for our wives and children to live in." One can go about the streets in Brighton and see these entirely empty places, and military people will tell you that there is no reason why those places should be retained, except that of red tape and the fact that they cannot get the schedules of dilapidations and damage. If they were handed over to the council that sort of thing would not take place.

Surely something can be arranged in order to get people into these places before the winter so that they may not become desperate. There are over 2,000 on the council's books, and these people, many of whom are Servicemen, have been encouraged, and rightly so, by the last Government, and I hope they will be by this Government, to believe that the council are the people to approach and to decide the priority of their claim. When they see these "vigilantes" going about and putting any old person they may happen to like better, into an empty house, and nobody touches them, they become angry. That is a very great understatement of these ex-Servicemen's feelings, especially if they are abroad. The council have the proper procedure for dealing with the situation and, with the exception of the War Office, there is no other Department with which they are in close touch. We hope that the various Ministries may work together better and make some decision and link up with the Council.

I suggest that it would greatly help if those responsible for the requisitioning of property in towns such as Brighton, would go occasionally to the local council and find out this council's needs and plans. There is no co-ordination and no recent decision on the part of the different Ministers as to the particular houses which are to be de-requisitioned and we do not know whether it is a question of schools or private houses receiving priority. There should be consultation with the local council, and we badly want co-ordination. There are other districts round about affected. The hon. and gallant Member for Worthing (Brigadier Prior-Palmer): asked me to say that in his Division, which comes practically next to mine, there are a large number of vacant hotels. He feels, and I feel too, that to walk out of the hotels and hand them over to the owners so that a whole lot of better-off people could come down for a few weeks is not quite the thing to do at the moment, if, as we believe, the need for housing for the really very poor is so very great.

We suggest that either the councils should be allowed to put families temporarily into these hotels until proper housing could be found for them, or else the War Office, the Admiralty and the Air Ministry should cut through this red tape and let them evacuate so that they can be sub-let. It should be made possible for families to be moved in, when children are being born and brought up in single rooms where there are already three or four people. That is a solution that the Ministries might adopt in order to deal, temporarily at least, with this very serious problem; they would find at least bedding and a good room space and cutlery left over. The question of damages is, I believe, one of the reasons for the present hold-up. I wish that somehow that difficulty could be cut through. Consultation should take place with the local authorities to see what can be done to hurry up that matter. It is monstrous that our people should have to suffer during the coming autumn and winter because we cannot make up our minds how much damage the different Ministries have done and how much is going to be claimed.

I come to a question which was answered by the Under-Secretary of State for Air on Wednesday. He pointed out that the Dominions occupy most of the requisitioned R.A.F. property at the present moment in Brighton. The Secretary of State for War, in a supplementary answer given to me, reminded me that we have a considerable number of Dominion troops here for purposes of demobilisation, and that that has to be taken into consideration in some of these areas. There are many other areas, seaside areas—if the Dominions people must go to the seaside areas—such as Blackpool and elsewhere, places which have not suffered as we have, and do not need the rehabilitation we need for ourselves. It is near the end of the visit of these people to this country, and I hope and believe that they have been very happy on the South coast where the people have done their best to help. But it is to be hoped that somebody will look into the possibility of utilising a large number of camps that are being closed down in different parts of the country, or are being left almost entirely empty. Some of these Dominions men could surely go to these camps. I do not mean the South African returned prisoners of war They should be given the utmost comfort possible in order to-get put right before going home. I mean the Australian and New Zealand boys, who have been stationed in these camps often before. But there is no reason why thousands of the people who are living under miserable conditions should not be put into some of these hotels during the coming winter months, and there is no reason why those officers and men should not go to camps, many of which are American, with up-to-date heating and all comforts. Is there any reason why they should not be able to go there and leave these hotels, so that our returning men can join their wives and families and settle down in comfort?

I hope that it will be possible for the Minister of Health, or the Secretary of State for Air, or someone concerned to make himself responsible and that he will not wait too long. It is too late to go to Brighton races to-day and spend the week-end in seeing what the position is, but if the Minister of Health or Secre- tary of State for War would go next week he would be able to see the position—the long rows of empty houses with nobody in them, at Worthing, Brighton and elsewhere, all held by Service Departments, and nobody connected with them able to say what they are being held for.