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Swedish Houses, Scotland

Volume 461: debated on Friday 25 February 1949

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

4.11 p.m.

I feel I ought to apologise to the House, after the exciting happenings of this afternoon, for drawing the attention of the House to a matter which is really domestic to Scotland and talking for a little about contracts for the erection of Swedish houses in that country.

It will be within the knowledge of hon. Members who sit for Scottish constituencies that the first programme for the erection of Swedish houses comprised 2,500 houses started in 1945 and not yet completed owing to the failure of the Government to ensure the steady and regular supply of components and materials. We are now about to start on a second programme of 1,000 houses, a substantial part of which is to be completed this year. For reasons which will appear later, and to which I am taking exception, the Secretary of State for Scotland has decided to apply the principle of the "closed shop" in connection with this second Swedish programme. He selected three large firms, later adding a fourth, and said that local authorities could employ these firms only, and no others, in the work of erecting these houses.

Of the three original firms which were selected, two operate from Aberdeen and one from Montrose. All three, therefore, are adjoining and, if I may use a gunner's term, bracketing my constituency. I know these three firms well and I have nothing against them whatsoever. I want to make that absolutely clear. They are certainly capable of doing this work, but so are many others, and to have spread the work over other firms would have been fairer, speedier and more economical in material and labour.

Why was this method adopted? Because, I think, the Secretary of State has attached undue weight to the complications of his requirements in this case. In the case of the first programme, the timber components were imported by the Minister of Works and sold with other fittings to the local authorities, who arranged their own contracts for erection. In the case of the second programme, contractors will have to obtain the timber components from importers at the ports of arrival nearest to the site and to undertake, where required, the servicing of these sites, that is building the roads and bringing the water and drainage and so on. For this reason the right hon. Gentleman has said in a letter to me that it is necessary in the interests of speed and the proper organisation of the programme to arrange for the supply and erection to be undertaken by selected large firms accustomed to building in remote areas and with imported labour, if necessary.

I want to ask on what basis was that selection made? To emphasise my question I want to give just three examples of non-selected firms. The first, as a matter of fact, is one which is operating in my own constituency, but I give it as a very good example. It is the firm of Robert Thomson and Sons Limited, of Stonehaven. That firm has an experience of building in the Highlands and the Islands which goes back now to 1934, since when they have been continuously employed in the county of Caithness. Their contracts include 75 houses for Caithness county, about 300 houses for the Burgh of Wick, schools at Thurso and Wick, and a War Department transit camp at Thurso at a contract price of £50,000, with various War Department contracts in Caithness totalling £40,000 and the erection—and I want the Secretary of State to note this—of Swedish prefabricated houses of the type with which we are now concerned to form married quarters at the R.A.F. station at Wick at a contract price of £55,000. The Burgh of Wick is now pressing that this firm should be allowed to tender because of their most satisfactory work on local housing schemes during the past four years. That request, which I have supported, has been refused by the Secretary of State.

The second firm is the firm of James Laidlaw and Sons Limited, of Glasgow. I selected that firm because they are building small groups of rural houses for local authorities in West Argyllshire and the Islands. What is going to happen is this. Very shortly, under the arrangements made by the right hon. Gentleman, another contractor will erect Swedish houses on some of those sites in equally small groups. The cost of the provision of plant, temporary huts, water supply, watching and supervision from head office is almost the same for four houses as it is for eight—about £400 in each case. Yet inevitably these services will be duplicated on very many small sites up and down the countryside. It is indeed probable that when Messrs. Laid-law's agent is flying to Islay to supervise work on his four houses there he will have the pleasure of the company of his counterpart from one of the East of Scotland firms on the same mission. It is in my submission, difficult to imagine a more futile waste of time, effort and public money.

The third and last firm I must mention is Crudens Limited, of Musselburgh. They are nearing the completion of their 3,000 rural houses programme. They are building in the Islands and Highlands in a large way, engaging all the available local labour and supplementing this with men from the South and West of Scotland. It took a full year for Crudens to assemble these men and the equipment for this programme. They had to create a labour force with trustworthy foremen and chargehands, to build up a specialised transport fleet, including foremen's runabouts, utilities and buses for transporting labour and to collect caravans and sleeping huts. As the work on the Cruden programme has died down, the labour has been reduced but the gear and equipment and most of the foremen have been retained, many of them working as tradesmen, in the hope of new contracts such as this.

The Government's rule in allowing contracts only to be allowed to four firms has caused keen dissatisfaction in the trade and incurred the displeasure of all the local authorities concerned. Representatives of the local authorities of the seven Highland counties met the Secretary of State for Scotland at Inverness in December and, I am informed, without exception, made the strongest complaints that only four firms were to be allowed to tender for the work. Worst of all, this method of the Government may do grave injury to the economy of the very firms upon whom the Secretary of State ought to be relying for future work. Government action in a matter such as this ought to have been confined to approving a list of suitable contractors experienced in such work, leaving the local authorities to select from that approved list. To have created instead a virtual monopoly in favour of four firms arbitrarily selected by the Secretary of State is little short of a scandal.

4.22 p.m.

I wish to support the case which my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeen (Mr. Thornton Kemsley) has put so well. Some part of the thousand Swedish houses we are discussing are being allocated on Shetland and some part to Orkney. From those two counties I have had exactly the same complaints as those of which my hon. Friend has spoken. I have had complaints from the local authorities, the associations representing building firms and the local branches of the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives. One and all join in condemning the fact that the erection of these buildings has not been put out to tender in the ordinary way so that local building firms could take part. There are plenty of experienced contractors to do it. They have the experience and organisation and can get all the materials that they want. They have the plant and skilled tradesmen at their disposal and they have the labour. These firms in the two counties of which I am talking have had a very large experience in erecting wooden buildings during the war and I never had any complaint about the way in which they did that job. One of the reasons why the right hon. Gentleman is limiting the work to four firms is I understand because he wants the job done quickly. Incidentally one of these Scottish firms is working in Shetland at the moment putting up Cruden houses and the wind has been blowing the roofs off as fast as they put them on, but that is by the way. It is absolutely certain that the contracts in Orkney and Shetland will go to the firm which happens to be working in these Islands and the local firms will have no opportunity to tender. Although the right hon. Gentleman wants the houses erected quickly he is going the wrong way about it because the Scottish firm in Shetland is fully occupied in putting up Cruden houses and will be so occupied for a long time ahead. The other thing that will happen is that the houses will cost more because that firm will almost certainly have to import labour from the mainland of Scotland. As soon as they do that they will have to provide lodging allowances, which add greatly to the expense. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider this matter and allow everybody to tender.

4.26 p.m.

I sympathise with the hon. Members and with the firms for whom they speak. It is natural that the people in the building trade want to see work for many years ahead. At the moment about 1,600 houses are being built in the Highlands, and at the rate the work has been proceeding up to now it will keep them going for three years. If we are to add another 1,000 houses to those, it will simply mean adding 1,000 houses at the tail end of that three years' work. Is the purpose of building these houses to keep the building trade in the Highlands busy, or is it to provide houses? While the first objective is quite a commendable desire on the part of the building trade, the principal objective is to provide houses. We had an opportunity to get from Sweden 1,000 houses for Britain, and I had the privilege of securing the whole of them for Scotland. I could have refused them if acceptance would have upset the building trade in the Highlands, but I determined that we must accept them in view of the urgent need in the Highlands.

The next important question concerns when the houses should be erected. I am anxious that they should be erected this year. We must look at the background. The Highlands have been subject to steady de-population for the last half-century and have been treated like a dying patient to whom people have been handing out hot gruel, etc., with the patient merely grumbling and growling as it went into a decline. Nothing was good inside or outside the Highlands. People were discouraged. Between 1871 and 1947 the population decreased by 178,136 by migration. That is tremendous, and if it went on we should never re-orientate the attitude of mind of the people of the Highlands or the people outside. Since 1945, there has been an entirely new spirit abroad in the Highlands and in the whole of Scotland. The Highlands once more feel that they count in the scheme of things. There are some habitual grumblers who are always grumbling no matter what is done for the Highlands. They look at what has not been done and keep on grumbling.

It is worth while paying tribute to the "Inverness Courier," which shows a different attitude of mind. I do not mention this because I am mentioned, for what has been done has been done by Parliament as a whole giving attention to the Highlands. That newspaper said:
"Like Mr. Woodburn, but unlike his critics —the County Council and the Town Council of Inverness—they realise that the neglect of the past 50 years cannot be remedied in a brief year or two.
In the Highlands today, even among those who, like ourselves, are not Socialists, there is a feeling that at long last a genuine and sustained effort is being made to deal with the Highland problem in all its diversities and complexities and for that reason the Highland people who have never lacked faith in themselves look to the future with confidence."
In another issue the same paper said:
"We consider it only fair to state that the present Secretary of State for Scotland and his two predecessors in office—all of them Socialists—have proved themselves much more genuinely interested in the welfare of the Highlands than any of their predecessors in the last 50 years."
That might be considered to be an abberation by the Editor of the "Inverness Courier" in regard to the Socialist administration. But the "Economist" as late as 12th February stated:
"Today the effort which is being made to strengthen the economy of the Highlands is greater than ever before, despite all the other urgent claims for capital development in the rest of the British Isles."
We have set about a great new programme in the Highlands. The one urgent thing is to stop any further migration. In addition we want to bring people back to the Highlands. Last year I spent some time going round the Highlands and the urgency of doing something for the womenfolk, giving them decent houses and modern facilities, was stressed upon me as being absolutely imperative if people were to remain in the Highlands. In one village all the young women had disappeared. There was a male population which was going to die out because without women no country can survive.

We are looking into a programme which will eventually provide 750,000 acres for afforestation, which will employ 7,500 men and in due course 20,000 by the end of the century. It will have a production of 1½ million tons of green timber. The Hydro-Electricity scheme will produce 800 million units of electricity per annum, and the development of seaweed will result in the production of about £15 million a year. New research going on in regard to peat promises another valuable source of power which will make the Highlands foremost in the world in this particular item.

We have been hearing a great deal about the Harris tweed industry, as if the industry was about to collapse in the last year or two. Actually in 1938, three million yards of stamped and unstamped Harris tweed were produced. Today they are producing five million yards. I quite agree that they could produce still more. The output of farms is calculated to amount to £9 million. There is development in regard to fish and lime, and now there is this new development of diatomite. There is no doubt that if we are to have this development we must seize the opportunity to see that people get an opportunity of developing their activities.

Regarding the question of houses, we cannot wait for three years to get them. The hon. Member spoke about houses being built in twos and threes in the greater part of the Highlands. As a matter of fact, in most parts of the Islands outside Stornoway and the more remote parts not a single house has been started since the beginning of the war by any of the builders in the Highlands. We can only do what the builders in the Highlands can do. They have been working, but they simply cannot tackle the job. We have had the experience of the Forestry Commission having brought timber houses into the Highlands at the beginning of September, and owing to a hitch due to trouble with the Argyll County Council the houses have not yet been built.

Some hon. Members have at other times spoke of complaints that numbers of houses are waiting to be built and are being wasted. If we brought these thousand houses into this country and they were wasted, we would have suffered the condemnation of the House. There-fore so as far as I am concerned, speed is a most important determining factor, and I shall take every step to see that orders are placed with firms who can give some kind of guarantee that they will be erected this year.

But surely, the right hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that other firms could not give this guarantee if they were asked?

That is what I am suggesting. One of the firms mentioned had 34 joiners in its employment. Thirty-four joiners for the firms we are discussing would be just one of their squads. The main thing about the firms we are dealing with, which is an important factor in organising house building, is that they employ all the tradesmen. A great deal of delay has taken place in the Swedish house building, because the different trades did not fit in with each other. One of the important factors in regard to speed is to have an organisation so that each trade fits in which the other. This Swedish house, I may say, was designed in St. Andrews House, in case anyone thinks it is entirely a Swedish conception. It has been built to our standards by the Swedish timber people, and as the right hon. Gentleman said, we have already built 2,500 since the war. We had the experience that delay led to increased costs because of the necessity to store, the necessity for double handling, and the number of breakages which occurred when the houses were not constructed when they arrived. Therefore, this operation concerning these 1,000 houses had to be treated as a special operation, as a kind of blood transfusion into the Highlands independent of the normal building programme which will go on as usual and which the building trade of the Highlands will be able to tackle.

The idea is to bring these houses in small numbers into the ports nearest to the places where they are to be erected. They will be transported to the sites immediately. Labour camps will be erected in the remote areas by these firms and, by a complete team work arrangement between the importers and the firms who have undertaken the job, I hope that the mistakes of the past will be eliminated and that these houses will go up very rapidly in the Highlands. Naturally, I cannot guarantee that I must take the best advice that I can get. Certainly, I think it would be wrong for me, merely on grounds of sentiment towards the firms in the Highlands, to take the risk of these houses being delayed for three years. A condition of the houses being given to me is that I must take them and use them immediately and not keep them lying about for three years.

Big contractors were necessary because a large scale organisation covering all trades was required to undertake the work. The firms had to have experience of building in the Highlands and Islands and they had to have experience of erecting prefabricated timber houses. All these firms were in that position. They have all had experience of building in the Highlands and of building this type of house. We have satisfied ourselves that they have the equipment. The local building force is fully engaged at the moment. These houses could only be built by the existing building force by taking the men away from equally urgent work on housing. This is an additional number of houses for the Highlands and they could not have gone there unless an additional building force was going into the Highlands to make them available for the people. We intend to try to finish them this year.

It is true that the contractors from Aberdeen and Montrose might not be properly regarded as Highland contractors. Perth would come into the Highlands but Aberdeen and Montrose are excluded, and Edinburgh can hardly be regarded as a Highland town. Nevertheless, a great deal of the road work in the Highlands has been done by Aberdeen firms. Aberdeen has a great reputation for economical and businesslike organisation. The very fact that they come from Aberdeen would suggest that there is not likely to be much waste in their expeditious handling of this job. In any case, I have full confidence in these firms. It is true that there might be other firms outside, in Glasgow and elsewhere, who could tackle the job, but I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that if the job is to be done by a sort of high speed organisation it cannot be split up into too small sections. In other words, we need firms of sufficient size to make the operation economical for each. Secondly, we do not want to give them more houses than they can tackle efficiently. Therefore, we thought that if we split the work among four firms with experience that would be the best possible step.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me approximately how many sites these houses are to be erected upon?

But if they have a mobile organisation the work becomes much more economical. Every firm has set up a mobile organisation which can easily get round. The hon. Gentleman made one point which was sound. The chances are that these firms would quote prices knowing that they would get the orders. That is a danger we have had to face, and we have checked it to the best of our ability. We hope we shall get competitive tenders from each of them. Naturally, my Department has means of checking whether prices are exorbitant or not, and we are satisfied that they are not exorbitant. In the interests of speed we must see that these houses are built this year if at all possible, and not delayed for four years hence.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Nineteen Minutes to Five o'Clock.