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Housing, Esk Valley

Volume 437: debated on Tuesday 20 May 1947

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

9.58 p.m.

I am very glad to have the opportunity of raising this matter, which concerns a hamlet in the Esk Valley of Yorkshire, a quarter of a mile from the nearest road. The people there are suffering great hardship which could be removed. I realise that many hon. Members probably have constituents who have not got a road leading up to their houses, but I doubt whether anywhere in England there are as many as 100 people living without a road of any sort or kind leading to their hamlet. I would like to start by describing this hamlet and how the position arose.

It consists of 34 houses, of which 32 are inhabited and two are offices. These houses were built over 100 years ago to provide accommodation for men working in the ironstone mines, which have been closed for about 70 years. There are over 100 people, consisting of old age pensioners, agricultural workers and bricklayers from the neighbouring brickworks, living there. When these houses were built they were served by the local railway, which, I believe, was one of the first in England. That railway has been out of use for a long time now and it is in such a dangerous state that it would not be safe for passengers to travel on it. However, by the goodwill of the railway company, a truck has been sent up once a fortnight with groceries for these people and with coal when that was available. Also, the authorities will send up a truck for a coffin, because even in that very healthy locality people die from time to time and there is no other manner in which the bodies can be removed. A few weeks ago in a case of serious illness, a man had to be carried on a stretcher for a mile along the railway line and through a tunnel in order to get him to the nearest village. It is, I maintain, a very unsatisfactory state of affairs, but it is going to be a good deal worse


It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

—because there is an idea that the railway may stop using the line, even for sending up a truck, owing to the cost of the maintenance of the sleepers. There is also some idea that in time there may be a change of ownership of the railways, and if that comes about I do not know whether the new owners will be particularly justified in such uneconomic expense as that entailed in keeping this line in condition fit even to send up a truck.

What I maintain is needed is a road to the nearest high road, which is a quarter of a mile away. I realise that it is a difficult job in that it is a very steep hill and the road might be one in four, or one in five, but I would remind the right hon. Gentleman—perhaps he is not accustomed to our Yorkshire hills—that that is a very frequent circumstance. In fact, the approach to each of the three nearest villages is up a hill of one in four or one in three, so there is nothing very unusual or difficult there. If a road was made to the highway, the people would have access to the nearest village of Grosmont, one and a half miles away, not altogether a satisfactory access, as it means going through a ford which is blocked for part of a year. But there is another village two miles away, with schools and a railway station, and I think two churches, and all sorts of facilities, which would then he available for them.

The cost of this road is, I believe, something under £1,000. The agent to the estate has given me that figure and a qualified surveyor whom I consulted thought it could be done for about £750. I expect the Minister may have in mind something more expensive, but I would press on him that public authorities and Government Departments are sometimes more ambitious than is really necessary. We only want a single track road capable of taking a vehicle of some sort. The local authorities say they cannot make this road. The owner cannot do it because he says it would be more than he can afford. When we take into account that these houses are let at only 3s. 6d. or 4s. a week rent, we can see that by the time he has paid the maintenance charges there is not very much to spare, and moreover these houses will probably be demolished in a few years time because they are so very much out of the way. It would therefore be very uneconomic for the owner to spend money on this road, but he is prepared to give the land and he is also prepared to provide the stones.

When I raised the matter in correspondence with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health in the unfortunate absence through illness of the Minister, a letter I received in reply said:
"… if the council themselves proposed to carry out the work it might well be that with the many urgent calls on labour and material at the present time they could not be given high enough priority to enable the project to proceed."
I would point out to the right hon. Gentleman that that same county council has lately received authority to spend ten or twenty times the amount involved in widening a main road. That may be the admirable thing to do and I have no criticism of it at all, but I suggest that in the present state of acute housing shortage it is more important to make houses tenable than it is to provide roads for cars to go at still greater speed.

I suggest that this is really a housing problem. I know the Minister will agree that he has certainly not got all the houses he would like to see and perhaps I might add that we have not got all the houses we were led to expect, but I do not on this occasion want to recriminate. I want to conciliate because I want to get something out of the right hon. Gentleman. If other houses were available I would certainly not raise this matter, but I suggest that if those people did not continue to live in those conditions they would be homeless and therefore it is good business at the present time to spend the equivalent of about £30 a house on making these houses habitable. Presumably in a few years time it will be easy to replace them. Houses today are worth much more than they will be when we have the men and materials available. Therefore, it is surely worth improving the conditions to make these houses habitable, which I maintain, they are not at the present time. Moreover, if the railway is to be maintained, even under present conditions, that will be a considerable cost to the State when they own it as against the cost on making this road.

I suggest that this is not a case for legal niceties, for what is or is not legal, but a question of urgency to get round a difficult matter. May I express to the right hon. Gentleman what my hopes are in the matter? I hope he will give the local authorities the power to make this road, and that he will make a grant towards the cost of it so as to encourage them to carry it out. I would like to make it quite clear that I am not asking for anything which will improve the value of the land for the owner, because he, I know, will not only give the land and provide the stone but he would, I am sure, give an undertaking that the rents would not be raised above the present level of 3s. 6d. or 4s.

This is a very small matter, but I realise that small matters arc sometimes difficult. Surely, however, the right hon. Gentleman, with his great reputation for vigour and improvisation, will not be daunted by a difficulty of that sort? I have known him for a long time. It may be that his heart is in the wrong place, I often think it is, but it is a large heart and, if I may say so in the best sense of the word, a soft heart. I cannot believe that an appeal to him would be in vain where it is a question of real suffering and hardship to be avoided by energy and initiative on his part.

10.7 p.m.

There is no difference between the hon. Member and myself on the main facts of the case which he has just unfolded to the House. It is true that these houses have been there for about 100 years, and I believe that the owner of the houses has been in possession of them for rather more than 70 years of that period; also that the people who occupy these houses will suffer considerable hardship when railway facilities are withdrawn from them.

And, indeed, suffer privation at the moment. There is no dispute between us there. Also I think it would be agreed that it would not pay the landlord—the owner of the houses—who is having 3s. and 4s. a week in rent for these houses to construct a road at great expense especially in view of the fact which the hon. Member mentioned, that the houses may not be occupied for a very long period. Of course, those considerations appeal to the county council also. They say, "Why should we spend large sums of money at this moment upon houses which will not be occupied for any considerable time?" So in this case the views of the public authority and the private landlord coincide.

Of course, this is not an unusual case. We have experience after experience where landlords and private owners have constructed houses, and have not seen fit to make roadways to those houses and, consequently, have called upon the public authority to make good their own neglect. That happens not only in small hamlets like this, in mountain villages and in valleys of this sort; it occurs also on the urban outskirts of our cities where building societies have built estates, and have neglected to provide proper road ways to them. Now the poor mortgagors find themselves in conflict with each other about whether the roadways should be made up.

But is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that anywhere else in England there are over 100 people, including a large number of children, more than a mile from any village, and a quarter of a mile from the nearest road?

There are a considerable number of instances where landlords have constructed houses, and neglected to make roads to those houses, and then the people concerned have called upon the local authority to make good the neglect of the landlord. That happens quite frequently in many parts of Great Britain. My difficulty is that the local authority is the sole body to decide whether it will or will not make up the roadway. I have no power to coerce the local authority. The landlord can make the roadway There has been a good deal of correspondence between the landlord and the local authority on this matter. So far, the local authority says it is not prepared to spend money in this way, and I am reluctant to bring any pressure to bear on the local authority to do what it is disinclined to do, because, as I say, I have no locus in the matter. I have no power to make the road, except in very special circumstances, and the county council the sole determining body.

To my mind the whole difficulty is that it is a housing problem. If there were houses available I would not ask for anything, but as there are not houses available, is it not possible to give a grant? It would only amount to £30 per house.

I was coming to that. I do not accept the position that if a roadway is not made, the houses will not be tenanted There are large numbers of houses in Great Britain which ought not to be tenanted, but, as a consequence of our deplorable housing situation they are tenanted. We are doing our very utmost, with limited resources, to try to make the position better. I am not satisfied that this is a housing problem in the sense in which the hon. Member is suggesting that it is a housing problem. But, I am quite sure that these people would go on living in these houses, although in fact they would be suffering quite considerable privation by doing so.

A number of estimates have been made. My surveyors have been on the site surveying it and have provided me with a number of different estimates. They agree with the county council that the making of an adequate roadway over the shortest route would cost about £2,000. The hon. Member says that the surveyor of the estate concerned says it would cost something like £750

Seven hundred and fifty pounds to £1,000 Of course, if we reduce the figure much further it might be within the financial competence of the landlord to make the road, if he chooses to do so. The fact is that when the local authority steps in to make a roadway it has to make an adequate roadway. It always does so. When the landlord makes a roadway, he usually puts a very superficial surface on, and does not ballast it properly. Usually there are heavy maintenance charges, which consequently fall on the local authority, who are deluded into taking the roadway over when they think the landlord has made it. The local authority looks at the maintenance cost and the landlord looks at the initial cost. That arises on many occasions. However, it does not look to me as though these people will be able to obtain houses in a more desirable place in the very near future. I, myself, would take the view that the local authority might consider the matter, and see whether it is not possible to improvise a roadway that can be used for this hamlet in the next few years. But, as I said earlier, I have no power to coerce them. I hope that continued correspondence between the hon. Member and the local authority will be more fruitful than it has hitherto been.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Sixteen Minutes past Ten o'Clock.