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Housing (Government Policy)

Volume 416: debated on Tuesday 20 November 1945

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

9.29 p.m.

I wish to ask for indulgence to one who is making his first speech in this House. I want first to point out the reasons why I am raising this matter, the main point being that I want the Government to give now to the House, and the country, the full facts and figures of their housing programme, including their target dates. My first reason for asking this is the shortage of houses in the country, and in Sheffield and the division of Ecclesall which I have the honour to represent. I do not intend to labour that point. The second reason is because of the conditions of some of the houses already existing. In my division I visited the other day houses which are back to back, in which there are only three living rooms. In one a father, mother and seven children were living in two rooms, and in another there was a father, mother, son and a daughter over 16 sleeping in two rooms. To my mind that is not a matter for complacency for any Member of this House or anybody; it is a matter for action.

In the past, some hon. Members opposite have used the argument of looking to the past and trying to place responsibility on this side of the House. To those to whom that argument appeals—it does not appeal to me specifically—I would point out that in Sheffield we have had a socialist council majority for the last 20 years. But I submit that the main object of looking back into the past is in order that we should learn for the future. I would attack and press any Government, what ever its colour, if at this stage in peace time there was the same lack of housing drive as we see at this moment. There are things which we must all recognise when making a housing plan. First, there must be a plan, but the point is that it must not be a secret plan. Secondly, there must be controls; when there is a shortage like this we are agreed that there must be controls. One of the main reasons for the controls which the Government have at their disposal should be the prevention of profiteering in building prices and building materials. It seems to me that they are cutting off their nose to spite their face by saying that private enterprise should be very little use, practically no use, in building. in order to stop what they think may be excess profits. I do not want to labour that point at the moment.

If we agree that there must be a plan, I urge that that plan should be divulged to the House and the country at this time. The first reason is, and I think other hon. Members, as they go about their constituencies will agree, that there is a rising feeling of lack of confidence in the housing programme at the moment. It has been a fine autumn, but very little visible house building has been done. In Sheffield, particularly, there is a plan to build about 360 houses. At present only about 47 workmen are engaged on it, and restrictions appear to be spreading like the tentacles of an octopus in every direction. There is a case I have given to the Minister of Health, of a man who was building before the war, with 12 operatives. When he was released he made application in August for a licence to start up building again. He has not received a reply yet. Also in Sheffield there are 11 brick producing firms, only one of which is producing bricks. It appears to me that there is a growing lack of confidence in His Majesty's Government on this point. It might be that I should be inclined to say, "Let them, if they wish, make a mess of it. Let the consequences be upon their heads, and we on this side might make a little capital out of it." I say most sincerely that I do not wish to see the discredit of this Government if it is to be at the cost of thousands of families, frustrated and miserable, without homes.

I make this constructive suggestion—that the Government lay before the House and the country at this time what their whole plan is. There will be two benefits to be derived from that. First, we shall be able to see and be able to criticise the plan as it is laid before us. Secondly, knowledge and experience in the country can also be brought to bear. If I may refer to the demobilisation scheme in this connection, a great scheme, as equally vast as this, was put before the country and the House, and was criticised by all sections of this House. As a result it has been improved and speeded up, and it may well be improved and speeded up still further. If that applied to demobilisation, I see no reason why it should not be applied to housing. The second benefit will be to thousands of young people, who, at this moment, are trying to build up a home and a family. The Government would be giving some form of basis upon which they can plan their lives. It is most disconcerting at the moment—and I have had many examples of it—for young people not to know what period they will have to wait for a house, and how long they must remain, if you like, with their mothers-in-law. I think it is important that some facts and figures should be made available so that these people can start their planning.

These arguments are overwhelming, unless there is one factor which colours the minds of the Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister of Health, and that is fear—the fear that if they do announce their plan now and it does not materialise, it will somehow detract from their prestige. I sincerely hope that that will not be the effect. By the answers we have tonight, we shall learn whether or not there is a fear lurking behind the Government on this point. I suggest that they take courage. I am sorry that the Minister of Health is not here tonight. [An HON. MEMBER: "He is in the House."] He is not on the Front Bench. It is of vital importance to a great number of people that this matter should have the fullest consideration. I understand that when the Minister of Health was on this side of the House he spoke with the voice of a lion. Is he, now he has responsibility, going to speak with the voice of a mouse through the Parliamentary Secretary? In order to give him cause for strength, I would quote what his colleague the Minister of Fuel and Power said over the radio the other day:
"Do not waste time looking backwards to a dread and dreary past. Look forward to a bright future. This is a time for laying bricks, not for throwing them."
When I listened to the Minister of Health in the Debate the other day it seemed to me that he spoke for a long time going back into the past. I hope tonight we shall have something constructive, which will give confidence to the country and hope to the people who so badly need it.

9.38 p.m.

The side of the housing plan in which I am interested is that which affects local authorities, most particularly in the North-Eastern area, namely, that we cannot build for two reasons. One reason is to prevent the sterilization of the coal that lies beneath. The other reason is because, where the coal has been extracted, there is the fear of mining subsidence. These two factors mean, particularly in the areas of Durham and Northumberland, that homes will be built at long distances from the men's work.

There is a solution to this problem, and I put it as one who has just come out of the pits and who is stating his point of view upon a technical basis. In the past in the extraction of coal, because of the cost, private enterprise has just been drawing the extracted area and allowing the rest to collapse upon the floor of the seam. The result has been that with the collapse, the land on the surface is susceptible to pitfalls and mining subsidence. In some areas, most particularly where the mines are deep and where there are built-up areas, they have had to adopt a system which has reduced mining subsidence considerably, and which ought to be the plan of the Government in the future. It is possible in mining science that with the long wall system of extracting coal, in which four yard packs are built, leaving six yard wastes along the face, where there is a subsidence of the earth it will take place upon the packs instead of there being a total collapse, thereby preventing to a great extent the subsidence of the earth. If, on top of that, the Minister of Health will see that houses are rafted in those areas, I believe that is the solution of the mining subsidence problem in the mining areas and will allow houses to be built in those areas.

In one part of County Durham, a conference of local authorities found that acres of land had been sterilised from the two points of view which I have tried to illustrate. Unless there is a concerted plan between the Minister of Health and the Minister of Fuel and Power in this matter, mining subsidence will continue to take place and houses will not be built in the vicinity of the mines for that reason. In the housing programme—I speak quite feelingly on this matter—the Minister of Health and the Minister of Fuel and Power have to face up to this matter. I put a Question to the Minister of Fuel and Power, and I received an answer, which really came, I expect, from his experts, and which said something to this effect: "Unless the whole of the extracted area is shored up, the making of paths and leaving waste in the pit will not prevent subsidence."

I disagree entirely with the experts of the Mines Department on that issue. In the pit from which I have come, and which is built under a huge town with 100,000 population, we had to adopt the system I have described of extracting coal from under the town in relation to the buildings which were on the surface. I would appeal to the Minister of Health and to the Minister of Fuel and Power that if their experts-will go to the North-East coast of Durham where this system is operated they will find that subsidence has been reduced by this method of working.

There is no hope under private enterprise of this system being adopted in the mines, because it would affect the cost per ton, but as we are to nationalise the mines, I suggest that this cost could be met easily by the non-sterilisation of the land, either due to the loss of the coal that lies underneath or by the fact that subsidence would be reduced to a minimum. In conclusion, I would ask the Minister to get into consultation with the Minister of Fuel and Power to examine the problem as I have put it, in the interest of building houses in the great mining areas of Northumberland and Durham.

I desire only to ask one question before the Parliamentary Secretary replies. First, it is my pleasant duty to congratulate two hon. Gentlemen on two most excellent maiden speeches. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give an explanation why the Minister of Health is not present, in view of the fact that the Minister took part in a recent Division that has taken place. Does he not agree with me that it is most unusual for a Minister to leave after a Division, when a subject concerning his Department is coming up for discussion?

9.45 p.m.

May I first deal with the question that has just been raised? The Minister has, in present circumstances, many duties to perform, and it is my duty to assist him to the extent that it is possible for me to do so. If there be a question which I can take, and another which it is better for my right hon. Friend himself to attend to, it is quite obvious that the question to which I should direct my attention is the one where my experience has been greatest. For that reason, therefore, I have been asked to reply tonight, and I shall endeavour as far as I can to deal with the point that has been raised. First let me say, however, to my hon. Friend behind me, that 1 have had the opportunity within the last few days of hearing from hon. Members with mining experience the case on the problem caused by subsidence in mining districts, and I have undertaken that the Ministry will give particular attention to this subject and will see what can be done in so far as it affects the housing problem of the districts concerned.

The reason for raising this matter on the Adjournment, as I understand it, was to ask for a housing plan. A plan is a method of operation, yet what we seem to be asked for is not a method of operation but a set of figures, which may mean nothing in the world at all. We were told that it would be a good thing to look back into the past to learn for the future. That is one of the things which I have done. I looked back into the past, and I found a great four year plan. I find, on that four year plan this statement:
"The second attack on the housing problem will be made by what are called prefabricated or emergency houses. On this the Minister of Works, Lord Portal, is working wonders. I believe we may make up to half a million of these. And for this purpose not only plans but actual preparation are being made during the war on a nation-wide scale. Factories are being assigned, materials are being earmarked as far as possible, and the most convenient sites will be chosen. The whole business is to be treated as a military evolution handled by the Government with private industry harnessed to its service, and I have every hope, and a firm resolve, that several hundred thousand of our young men will be able to marry several hundred thousand of our young women and make their own four-year plan."
We look back and see half a million in a plan, but not a single one of those houses was ever produced.

Would the hon. Member please treat the figures of the Socialist City Council of Sheffield with the same contempt? They say that they are going to build 3,000 houses in 1946, 6,000 houses in 1947, and 12,000 in 1948. Is that bluff or honesty?

Whether that is bluff or honesty will be proved by what is actually done. It is that test which, applied to this particular plan, is the condemnation of making airy fairy figures without knowing where you are. My answer is that a plan is not writing figures on paper; it is making essential preparations for the production of the things that are necessary to get the houses built. [An HON. MEMBER: "And doing nothing."] We could make a lot of figures, but they would be of little or no value to anyone. What the people want are not figures, but houses. The hon. Gentleman opposite, who cheer that, will please realise that what we got out of their party were figures and no houses at all. We are now making our preparations for getting an orderly production—[An HON. MEMBER: "In Sheffield"]—of the houses required in Sheffield, and in many other of the districts in this country. Houses are needed in my own particular area, perhaps, more than in any other at the present moment.

The first necessity for that plan is to have the men to do the job—[An HON. MEMBER: "Not in the Army"]—and the arrangements that are being made for the building up of that necessary body of labour are showing a very steep increase—[An HON. MEMBER: "On paper "]—in the curve of actual releases for the purpose. [An HON. MEMBER: "Figures."] So far as Class B releases from the Army are concerned, they had reached, on 1st November, a figure of 20,500. [An HON. MEMBER: "Tell us about houses."] They started on the 1st September by 3,000, rising during September to 5,000, during October to 12,500, and the upward movement of that curve shows the actual plan that is being used for the production of the necessary labour force for the job. The next problem that has to be faced is that of making available the necessary amount of building material and housing components necessary for the completion of the houses. When I sat on the opposite side of this House I was able to draw attention to the fact that, in my own constituency, there were temporary houses complete, so far as their outer shells were concerned, but unable to be occupied because the people who talked so much about figures, and did not make the necessary preparations for the production of the materials, had failed to plan to get the necessary equipment inside the houses. As a result the stoves and cookers necessary in order that the houses might be occupied were not available. Those were D.C. electric cookers. In the next constituency others were standing empty because the necessary gas cookers had not been provided. In other parts of the country others were standing empty because the necessary preparations had not been made for gutters and spouts that were necessary to convey the rain water. Now, in order that this job may be adequately done, provision must be made for the proper production of the materials for this purpose. Next week the House will be debating a Bill designed for the purpose of securing the adequate and proper production of those materials.

As far as the actual preparations of the local authorities are concerned, with regard to the housing programme gener- ally, they are making considerable headway. They already have in their possession enough land for the erection of 332,000 houses. They have started on the development of sites, and have already developed sites for 54,000 houses. We have given approval to go to tender for 69,421 houses and the local authorities have submitted to us and have received approval from us for over 16,000 houses. These numbers are increasing week by week. We have undertaken during the beginning of next year to provide the House with detailed returns as to the way in which the plan is developing and the work is being done, but this business cannot be done by merely putting figures upon paper. The job that has to be done is to produce the actual houses.

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House), Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order of the House of 16th August.

Adjourned at Two Minutes to Ten o'Clock.