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Blitzed Areas (Steel Allocation)

Volume 463: debated on Monday 21 March 1949

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

9.34 p.m.

The subject I wish to raise tonight is the question of the allocation of steel to blitzed towns to aid them in their reconstruction. I had hoped when I secured the Adjournment to raise certain matters concerned with dockyards and particularly with Devonport dockyards, but following a discussion with those who represent the City of Plymouth I agreed that it was more urgent to raise this matter. I hope the Admiralty will not assume that they are being let off from any discussion of dockyards which is a subject that will be raised at frequent intervals in the House. The subject of the allocation of steel for blitzed towns is a question with which my hon. Friend the Member for the Drake Division of Plymouth (Mr. Medland) has been particularly concerned. He has an intimate knowledge of the affairs of the reconstruction work in Plymouth and has been approaching Government Departments in this connection for some time past. A few weeks ago he had the chance of raising the question of the allocation of steel in the House, but unfortunately, the House "collapsed" rather suddenly that night, and he was unable to do so. Tonight, however, I hope he will be fortunate enough in catching your eye, Mr. Speaker.

The question to which I wish to refer in particular is the allocation of steel for the City of Plymouth—a state of affairs which affects most of the other blitzed cities in Britain. We are more or less all in the same situation. We want to see our cities rebuilt. We have started to lay foundations in Plymouth, and we want to see the shops which were smashed during the blitz partly because we need them and partly because we need to build up our rateable value to relieve the economic and financial problem which faces the City Council. Plymouth has had to face very considerable difficulties. We have had assistance from the Government in this respect and, thanks to the skilful organisation of the finances of the city, by the City Council we have been able to restrict, at any rate, the increased rate which has been imposed. But if we are not able to get ahead in the next year or two with rebuilding the city centre and shops an increasing financial burden will be put on the citizens of Plymouth, simply because of the difficulties which the city encountered during the war and the foremost part which it played during, those years.

We are concerned that there shall be a proper supply of steel with which to rebuild our shops. A statement was made at the end of last year about the allocation of steel to blitzed cities when we were promised what was described by the Government as a token amount of steel. Certainly, the amount cannot be regarded as anything other than a token quantity. I believe that the total provided for all blitzed cities was about 5,000 tons this year. Out of that we, in Plymouth, received 750 tons. We want to see that amount increased as quickly as possible. We understand the difficulties facing the Government in allocating steel and realise the necessity for ensuring that it is used in the most useful way for the nation as a whole. We have had some of our share of steel to help build new factories, and we are grateful for that allocation. Although we know there is still a great shortage of steel, despite increased steel production, we think the Government should be able to give blitzed cities an idea of the amount of steel we are likely to have in the future.

We are concerned not so much with raising the immediate allocation as ensuring that from the time we start to go ahead there will be a steady and expanding supply of steel so that there will be no hold up in the rebuilding programme. There is a possibility of a hold up occurring; at any rate, there is uncertainty as to whether the supply of steel will increase in future and this is affecting the course which traders will take in rebuilding the city. That is the general proposition on which we hope the Government will make a statement which will encourage our traders to go ahead, as far as possible, with their rebuilding plans. We have made a big start in Plymouth; we have a record of which we are very proud. We have built a great number of houses and factories since the war. We are reconstructing the centre of our city. Our citizens can see the Corporation carrying into effect the model which we have in our city library and which is constantly being seen by school children. We have made a very big start and there has been assistance from Government Departments. We hope the Economic Secretary will be able to give us further encouragement in this great task.

I have complete sympathy with the hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) on the question of Plymouth, but I should like him to make it clear that he is not asking for preferential treatment for Plymouth over other blitzed cities.

We are not asking for that at all. It happens that in Plymouth on the whole—I am not saying it boastfully but as a matter of fact—we started our plan earlier. We got much of it agreed to earlier, and the roads were built earlier, so that this concerns Plymouth first in one sense. We are further ahead and we will go ahead quickly when we get the facilities. We have every sympathy with other blitzed cities, and the plea we are making tonight is not on account of one city, but concerns the allocation for all blitzed cities.

9.42 p.m.

The object we have in view tonight is to get from the Government some declaration of their policy for blitzed areas, particularly the allocation of basic materials for the reconstruction of those areas. So far as we have been able to discover, the Government have made no distinction whatever between the towns which have been badly knocked about during the war and the towns which were fortunate enough to escape damage. I am referring now to factory reconstruction, which in our area has been impeded because of the failure to get some special consideration inasmuch as we have been blitzed. The same allocation is made to a town which has suffered no worse damage as to a town, which has its business centre wiped out, 20,000 people of its population of 200,000 made homeless, lost 22 schools, and suffered other damage, including the loss of its municipal offices and public library. That is the position in which Plymouth found itself. We say that in those circumstances the Government must have some different standard of allocation of basic building materials than prevails for the ordinary town.

One of our difficulties is that of replacing some of the factories which are at present in temporary premises in the area which we want to develop. I would beg the Economic Secretary or the Minister of Works to take this matter into consideration.

We went to much trouble in 1941 to get Sir Patrick Abercrombie to give us a brand new plan for a brand new city. We have found that we must move some of those temporary factories out to the fringes of the city in order to make our roads in accordance with the plan. No consideration has been given to us in that respect at all. I ask that we should have some special consideration for blitzed cities, where a city has a definite plan for rebuilding and where it has to move factories which might not be of vital importance. We have suffered war wounds and we want the assistance of the Government to help us to recover from our wounds. We can only do that if we move the factories. If we can have some consideration along these lines it will assist us very materially.

I want to speak about the allocation of steel. It was seen by some of us very early, in trying to rebuild the city, that the two main factors would be shortage of steel and timber. On those basic items I want to say a word or two. There was no steel allocation for blitzed cities until, in reply to a Question which was put by my colleague the hon. Member for the Sutton Division (Mrs. Middleton) on 1st February the Minister of Town and Country Planning announced that the Government, in accordance with a promise made to me by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade during an Adjournment Debate, had given the enormous amount of 5,540 tons of steel for the reconstruction of the blitzed areas of the country.

We are told that the output of the country today is something like 15½ million ingot tons of steel. I had to do a little sum. I asked the Economic Secretary in a Question if he would be good enough to tell me what proportion of the total amount of steel in the country had been allocated to the blitzed cities. He answered that they did not tell people things like that. When I worked it out I found the extent of the generosity of the Government towards the blitzed cities who had been in the front line during the war. Their people knew what it was to sit up night after night and have the bombs coming down. It was not a pleasant feeling, believe me. What is the magnificent allocation, eight years after that had happened? I found that it is 00034 of the total amount of steel that is produced. That is the generosity of the Government towards the blitzed areas and the working cities. I think we deserve more consideration than that.

Before we received this allocation we had been pursuing our plans. We had negotiated, obtained and prepared about 160 building sites, we spent millions on the roads and 24 firms had indicated their willingness to sign a lease for sites on which to put up their buildings. Then came the announcement that out of the 5,540 tons we were to have 750 tons this year. It may or may not be enough; I am not grumbling about that. I am glad that we have got the 750 tons. I am inclined to think that it will be enough for this year, but that does not solve our problem.

Our problem was that we had to deal with a body of developers who would have to spend some millions of pounds in the erection of stores, business premises, offices, etc., developers who would have to spend a great deal of money. When they saw that the allocation was only 750 tons that put a stop to the negotiations for continuing the development. I felt a little angry when in Whitehall, along which I have to walk every day, I found that while the Government could only let us have 750 tons for our town and only 5,000 tons for the whole of the country, they were putting 13,000 tons of steel on one site for Government offices there. I can walk up the Haymarket and go to other places and see steel being used for I know not what purposes, but I know that it is not being used on a blitzed site or in a blitzed part of an area. Naturally I feel a little angry. I know that the Minister of Works has some views about this. He has told me about them.

Is the hon. Member aware that in the great erection being put up north of Grosvenor Square, goodness knows how many tons of steel are being used, whereas wooden beams or supports have had to be put up in blitzed buildings because steel could not be obtained?

I am not complaining about that. My complaint is based on the fact that I would like to have the same sort of policy adopted so far as we are concerned. I do not mind others getting steel so long as we get a quantity which will allow us to go on with our development. The point is that we want an assurance from the Government that once the developers have signed the lease and commenced their building those developers will not be stopped; and that when they have built the basement and up to the first or second storey they will not be told that there is no allocation of steel or timber available, and that they must stop building.

What is most important for us, as in the rebuilding and reconstruction of any city or town, is that once the construction of a building begins it must be brought to completion without any stoppages. That has happened in the case of buildings in our area. I have figures here to show that the result of a stoppage increased the cost of a building by 30 per cent. The contract price for the whole building was £64,000. When the building had been constructed to the first storey the work was stopped by the refusal of a steel licence. The regional people eventually said, "You may build another storey." The architects looked into it, and said, "We cannot do it; we must finish the building." If they had done it in three stages, the building would have cost £104,000. As it was, the total cost was £79,000, and the original contract was for just under £60,000. We cannot go on doing things like that, expect private developers to come along, particularly with high building costs, and expect to get our cities rebuilt. It is because of that sort of thing that I am asking the Economic Secretary if he can give us an assurance that, once the licences have been granted and the work has been started, the building can go on to the completion, because such an assurance will be of great value to us.

One of the reasons why we are asking for this special consideration for the blitzed areas, is that the Government have altered their own financial policy towards the blitzed areas. In the first three years after the 1941 blitz, my own city, in order to enable us to keep going, received over £1 million in contributions from the Exchequer. It was necessary to pay us a million pounds to keep us going. In 1946–47, they gave us notice that they were going to stop that and that we should have to raise more money from the rates, because they were going to cut down the grant gradually. In 1946–47, they reduced it to £235,000; in 1947–48, it was £200,000; in 1948–49, £75,000; this year, it is £45,000, and next year, which is the final one, we expect to receive only £25,000. These are grants in aid towards meeting our expenses.

The only way in which we can face up to these losses is by increasing our paying rateable value, and the only way in which we can increase our rateable value is to get licences for the rebuilding of that rateable value which pays best. Some rateable value does not pay, while shop property and offices pay very well.

We do not get very much rateable value out of building estates and so forth. When we add the administrative costs, the street lighting and other expenses, it is not a good proposition, like the rateable value of properties in the centre of the city. For that reason, if we are to face up to our liabilities, I beseech the Economic Secretary to give more consideration to our plea for increased allocations.

Finally, I want to ask for a reconsideration of the Government's policy on capital expenditure in the blitzed areas. At present, in regard to Government policy for their own offices, there is no difference between a devastated area and any other place. I am asking for special consideration for the devastated areas, because, under the new planning methods for rebuilding our blitzed cities, Government offices and other Government buildings in a garrison town like Plymouth are extremely important. What have the Government done? This is the sort of thing that really does annoy me.

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. Popplewell.]

Under the Abercrombie-Watson plan, which has been exhibited in London and everywhere else, we put on one side a precinct for Government offices. Everybody agreed that we should have a Whitehall the same as London. But what have the Government done? They have made arrangements with the Pearl Assurance Company that when they have put up their building—and they only put it up on the understanding that they made a profit of not less than 5 per cent.—

They did not ask for that, but I hope they will nationalise them. The Government made an arrangement with that company for the Inland Revenue and this, that, and the other, to go into their new building.

They will get the steel; that is what is worrying me. That may be all right for Government policy on capital expenditure, but it is time that we had an office other than a Nissen hut or a cottage for Inland Revenue, for National Assistance Boards, and this, that, and the other. It is also time that we had a decent Employment Exchange. But the worst point of all is the General Post Office. I beg my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench to consider this point. The Post Office, like everything else, went. Pound notes went up in flames by thousands on those nights, and Government securities went "west" as well. The Post Office went "west"; all of it went. So what did they do? They took a little draper's shop and today the General Post Office in my city is in that shop.

I have been asking about rebuilding a Post Office consistent with the dignity of the only city in the South-West of England, but I cannot get any satisfactory reassurance. We have had a lot of negotiations with the Post Office. We had a meeting, and the Assistant Postmaster-General came down to see us. We argued as to where the site for the new Post Office should be. We said, "You can have the best site in the city if only you will put up a building," because we are very tired of looking at desolation. It is eight years since we had a proper Post Office. So we agreed on a site. I am now asking the Economic Secretary, or whoever is responsible, to give the Postmaster-General the word to go, so that he can start making his plans and getting his building quantities right for the rebuilding of the General Post Office in the city of Plymouth. For goodness sake do not let us keep on going to a draper's shop for a 2½d. stamp; let us go into a proper State building. I am asking for consideration of capital expenditure on this matter, and I hope that we shall have some kind of assurance that the devastated areas, wherever they may be, particularly in London and in Plymouth—I bracket the two together because I see the Minister of Works looking at me—will receive special consideration in the allocation of basic materials and of capital expenditure for Government offices.

10.5 p.m.

I should like to support the appeal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot). He told the House that Plymouth has had an allocation of 750 tons of steel. He was scrupulously careful to say that he had no quarrel with that allocation. I am chiefly concerned with the city of Hull where the heavy damage is, perhaps, comparable with the damage done in Plymouth, and the allocation of steel to that city is only 250 tons. However, I do not complain about that. I wish to pay a tribute to the Government for the help they have given us in Hull, in relation to building works and factories for which we have passed the plans, and which in many cases we have actually completed building. The total cost is nearly £6 million, which is a massive contribution towards the rebuilding of the industrial life of that city. In addition, we have spent some £3 million on housing. Therefore, we feel that the Government have given great help to Hull in this expenditure of approximately £10 million.

This allocation of steel for rebuilding the central areas is important psychologically rather than economically, because the centre of the city is bare and that has a depressing effect. I believe that the 250 tons has actually been agreed with the departments concerned as representing the building capacity of the city in the next few months. I do not quarrel with that, but I submit that there is only one limit which should apply to these blitzed areas, and that limit is their capacity to use the steel until they catch up with the ordinary commercial development of other cities. It is not sufficient that they should move in step with the other great cities which are undertaking commercial development after the lag of war years; their loss has been such that they must be given a priority to catch up, and that should be limited only by their capacity to use the steel which we ask the Government to provide. That ought to be at an increasing rate.

The question might be asked, why should Hull receive only 250 tons and Plymouth receive 750 tons when the damage in both cities was comparable? I have to admit that that is largely due to the extreme hostility of a small section of traders in our city who would not agree to the adoption of any plan for rebuilding. Whereas in Plymouth they were able with greater good will to proceed at a more rapid rate, we in Hull have been held up, and even at this moment there is scarcely any agreement. To that extent we suffer from the obstruction and delay caused by some of the more rigid and short-sighted of our own citizens. That is a terrible responsibility for those concerned to have to shoulder, but it is certainly not the responsibility of the Government. Since we are now on the point of a big scheme I ask the Government to make available for us as much steel as we can use in the rebuilding of our central areas. If they do that for us we shall go ahead with greater speed than has been the case hitherto. I ask the Government to give all the sympathetic consideration they can to that request.

10.10 p.m.

As a representative of another extremely heavily blitzed area I want to endorse the plea of my hon. Friends for more generous consideration by the Government of the special needs of the blitzed areas. I hope that that infinitesimally small allocation of steel which my hon. Friend has calculated with such amazing mathematical skill will be increased very substantially and that my hon. Friend will be able to make an announcement tonight to that effect, because if he does it will give new heart to these blitzed areas.

If I may say so with respect, some of the citizens of these areas think that His Majesty's Government have not always shown the special sympathy which their special needs require. I might be permitted to refer, for instance, to a single illustration from West Ham. Recently there was submitted to the Ministry of Health a scheme for a new health centre, a necessity for West Ham in view of the destruction of so many doctors' surgeries, a necessity also for the proper implementation of the health scheme itself. The scheme for that health centre was rejected because it would involve the use of 40 tons of steel. Negotiations are now taking place, and I hope they will be successful. I wish to say nothing that may prejudice the possibility of an ultimately happy outcome, but it is typical of the difficulties of these areas that because of a small matter like that of 40 tons of steel a cherished scheme is brought to naught.

The morale of those areas is of vital importance to the country. If there is another war it will be the blitzed areas which once more will be called upon to bear the brunt. We cannot sustain that morale by regarding the blitzed areas as the poor relations of our society. They were blitzed because they represented key industrial centres, key transport centres, of our community. Therefore, it is not in any spirit of apology that my hon. Friends and I ask the Government to give to these areas a most special and urgent consideration in view of their desperate need.

10.13 p.m.

I shall delay the House for only a moment or so. I have listened to the hon. Member for the Drake Division of Plymouth (Mr. Medland) and I have much sympathy with what he said, but there are two points which made me feel I should rise to my feet and take part in the Debate. The hon. Member mentioned the City of Plymouth and I think he mentioned it as the only city in the West of England. It is not quite that; there are Exeter and Truro. Nevertheless, it is a great city.

The other point which I wish to make is due to the fact that the Minister of Works is here. With all the sympathy and understanding which we have for Plymouth, those across the Tamar, the towns of Saltash and Torpoint, for example, also suffered great damage and hurt by blitz. From time to time we have put in certain requests and I have one in mind at the moment. I shall not go into the particulars now. The answer that we received from the Ministry of Works was that because of the overriding needs of Plymouth this matter has to wait. I do not think that is a proper answer. This town on Tamarside has suffered great hurt and I propose to go on with this argument with the Minister of Works. I trust that this opportunity which I have taken tonight has once more reinforced that argument.

10.15 p.m.

I want to put three points tonight. The first is that the total allocation of steel which has been made for this purpose during the present year shall be fully used. It is obvious from what has been said tonight that the ability to use that steel varies as between city and city. We have had two illustrations tonight. It may well be that in some places it will be possible to use a larger amount than has been allocated. In other cases it may be possible to use only a smaller amount. I should like to have an assurance from the Economic Secretary to the Treasury that, whatever the individual circumstances of the cities may be, the full allocation will be used.

The second point I want to put emphasises the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for the Drake Division of Plymouth (Mr. Medland) namely, the absolute necessity of an assurance of a continuing amount. I understand from conversations I have had with the Ministry of Town and Country Planning that the view of that Ministry is that, in allocating this steel as between the people who want to use it in the cities, the firms that want to put up buildings, care should be taken to see that certain buildings are completed and that they are not erected only as far as the first or second floor and then left to be finished later. The aim should be to complete a building.

Of course, all of us can see the advantage of completing a building, but this aim places the corporations of those cities in a very difficult position, especially in towns like Plymouth and Hull, where large numbers of undertakings have been completely destroyed. Such a policy throws upon the corporation the responsibility of deciding, as between undertaking and undertaking, which should have priority. I suggest that that places the corporation in a very invidious position, and that the only way in which that difficulty can be overcome is by making a start this year with a number of buildings, with an assurance given us tonight that when this allocation is used more will be forthcoming, so that those buildings that have been started will be completed, without there being the additional expenditure involved in doing a building by stages.

The third point I want to make relates also to something that my hon. Friend said—the difficulty that is arising in reconstruction areas because certain undertakings blitzed during the war have had temporary premises erected in reconstruction areas. I have been in touch with the Minister of Works with regard to one such undertaking which was formerly situated in my constituency, the firm of Thomas and Evans, which produces soft drinks. The Ministry of Food cannot at the present time sponsor that undertaking because it is not an undertaking which is making any contribution to the export trade. These temporary premises are in the middle d the reconstruction area, and if we are to proceed with reconstruction, it is extremely important that the city engineer shall be able to arrange for those people to have accommodation elsewhere. That means an allocation of steel for that undertaking, and if the allocation of steel is not forthcoming for that undertaking—and I agree entirely that it cannot, as things stand at the moment, be sponsored by the Ministry of Food—it means that reconstruction will be held up in the city. I ask my hon. Friend to nay some attention to these three points when he replies.

10.19 p.m.

I think that the main point has been the allocation of steel for blitz rebuilding. We all agree that we should like to see the rebuilding of blitzed cities going forward as fast as our resources permit. The only question has really been, how far we should divert, in particular to the building of shops and offices in those blitzed cities, building steel away from other purposes such as housing, factory building, and so forth. Of course, in the first phase after the war the priority in building was given to houses and to factory building, particularly to the building of factories in Development Areas, and to the rebuilding of blitzed factories. Then, the rebuilding of blitzed factories on or near the blitzed sites got priority. In the second stage—18 months or so ago—when the balance of payments crisis became severe—we shifted the emphasis and put the main priority on industrial schemes which had export value and dollar saving value. Throughout the whole of that period, these blitzed cities have shared to a considerable extent in all these types of buildings.

I think that the hon. Member for Drake, Plymouth (Mr. Medland), was unconsciously misleading when he said that there had been no allocation of steel for blitzed cities up to this winter. As the hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) made clear, in Plymouth a great deal of building of all sorts has gone on, and that also applies to the other blitzed cities. It was decided this winter that the time had come to give a special bonus, as it were, for blitzed cities, particularly for rebuilding of shops and offices in the centres of the cities. If we take the case of Plymouth, this 750 tons of steel is very far from being the total allocation of steel for building. There are, in addition, industrial schemes already under construction, or starting this year, including 14 major projects worth £650,000, and taking in themselves 1,520 tons of steel. There will also be many smaller projects —houses, hospitals, schools, etc.—going on. We decided to start with a special bonus allocation for this special purpose.

An annual figure of 5,500 tons of steel which has been mentioned, and which is for 1949, would have been larger, and was intended to have been larger, if the blitzed cities as a whole had been able to use more for these purposes. As the hon. Member for South West Hull (Mr. S. Smith) said quite candidly, in many cases they were not ready, and that was the total amount of steel which it was possible for them to use. My information is that in the case of Plymouth the original figure suggested was 1,000 tons for this year, but actually there were only schemes sufficient for the remaining three-quarters of this year, to make use of 750 tons. However that may be, the steel allocations are made quarterly and it is perfectly open to the Government to revise the amount if the schemes are ready and if the supply of steel permits. Reference was made by the hon. Member for Drake to a building in London in which it was said that 13,000 tons were being used. Perhaps the hon. Member did not realise that that 13,000 tons is for a period of five years and not strictly comparable with the annual figure.

Although no doubt rapid progress has been made, the total scheme is going to take five years. May I remind my hon. Friend that there was some sort of blitz in London as well. I spent every night in London myself during the war, and I remember one or two incidents. One of the purposes of this particular scheme is to free housing accommodation by moving Government officials into the new building.

However, I think the main question in which we are all interested is how much steel can be allocated, for this special purpose, to the blitzed cities in future. It certainly is my view that we should not be held rigidly within this figure of 5,500 tons provided there are more schemes available, and provided the supply of steel permits. I think my hon. Friend was not quite correct in his arithmetic, because I believe he took the total ingot production of steel and not the supplies of finished steel, which is really the relevant figure.

Nevertheless, the fraction calculated in that way would certainly appear rather small; but we cannot undertake to allocate steel for any schemes that are ready regardless of the supply and regardless of the other competing demands of all kinds. We still obviously have to give the first supply to the immediate needs of industrial building, and, of course, to exports of both steel and engineering products in so far as they earn us food and raw materials.

But subject to that, and as schemes come forward, it will be possible, period by period, to review these needs and, if necessary, to raise this allocation. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Mrs. Middleton) that it will be a continuing plan, in the sense that we must obviously seek to avoid interrupting buildings which have once started, although we cannot give an absolute undertaking here and now that the figure will necessarily be identical from one period to the next. With the information we have available at the moment, I should hope that with those qualifications it ought to rise steadily.

Is it the case, as it is asserted, that there are 30 major steel structures being erected in the county of London, each of them requiring 10,000 tons of steel?

Not that I know of. There is one major scheme in Whitehall Gardens which in the end, over five years, will take 13,000 tons; but that is the only major Government scheme at present being built in the whole of London.

I think I am right in assuming that the review and further examination to which the Economic Secretary has referred apply to the whole of the blitzed cities—

and not only those represented by the hon. Members who have been fortunate enough to catch Mr. Speaker's eye this evening?

Yes. I should like to make it quite clear that it applies to all the great cities in the South-West of England and in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'Clock.