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Colonies (Housing)

Volume 463: debated on Thursday 14 April 1949

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4.19 p.m.

It is probably fitting that for the last 40 minutes of our activities here before the Recess we should again discuss a Colonial matter. I would say offhand that since we had our last Recess, among the subjects we have discussed nothing has been more popular, either for Debate or for Question and answer, than the number of Colonial topics which have been raised from bah sides of the House. As I look back I find that since Christmas we have discussed soil erosion; timber supplies, a few nights ago; meat supplies, this week; and transport, in addition to one or two territories which have been discussed separately, such as Gambia and North Borneo. We do not expect to get the complete answers in a few moments to these great problems, but at least we are doing our duty to our people here at home and our relatives abroad, by ensuring that this great Mother of Parliaments should continually be discussing subjects of such importance to many millions of people with whom we are so closely related.

I bring forward today the question of housing in the Colonial territories, and, in housing, I hope to include not just domestic housing but farm buildings and all that kind of thing, which rather fits in with the discussion we had the day before yesterday on meat supplies. It seems to me that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, in replying to the Debate two nights ago on the subject of meat supplies from the Colonial territories, made an epoch-making announcement, and I would like to quote from it, because, as far as I know, the Press did not realise what he said. Perhaps it was late at night and not enough notice was taken of it against other activities. My hon. Friend said:
"With regard to cattle, I am glad to say that the Ministry of Agriculture are now prepared to take carcass beef from certain areas in Africa under certain circumstances. That is a big step forward. Previously that has been one of the great difficulties about exporting carcass beef from Africa. The conditions are that the animals have been bred and kept in clean areas, and have not been immunised, that the animals stay three weeks in quarantine before slaughter, and that slaughter takes place in clear areas. This opens up considerable possibilities."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th April, 1949; Vol. 463, c. 2812.]
and so on. That is an epoch-making announcement, and fits in with this question of using to the full all our ability, our building materials and technique, together with the great and ripe experience which we have in this country, to help the development of these areas which can help themselves, and, in doing so, also help us in food supplies, industrial development and so on.

On all sides of the House, we are united in one resolve that we want to develop all these territories with all our skill as quickly as possible, using all the skill of both the indigenous peoples and ourselves. In looking at these problems, we have come to the conclusion that we should accept certain general lines. First of all, in territories like Africa and other parts of the Colonial Empire, the first prerequisite is a system of good harbours. After that, means of communication must be opened up in the shape of better roads or new roads, and railway communications must be improved and must be provided where none exist at the moment. These should be provided from the industrial resources of this country, and, perhaps, of other countries in the Commonwealth. That is the basis for the great plans which we are united in pushing forward in this generation.

When we come to view progress on these lines, we find that we can reach a certain stage and then progress is stopped because the great human factor comes in. People must have somewhere to live in order to carry on their jobs in all these great projects. Let us take the case of some of the railway developments in the Eastern and Central territories in Africa. We must lengthen our lines of communication there, and build new railways to link up the different existing systems, and so on. That means more personnel from this country to take on these jobs, and, before they can do their jobs properly, they must have houses. Certain Colonial Governments have had great difficulty since the war in making grants to skilled workmen from this country, such as engine drivers and platelayers, because there was no living accommodation for them when they got there. Once we get adult people, married people with children, going out to these territories, it is obvious that the housing problem there is as important as it is in this country. So progress is bound to be limited unless we are able to provide adequate housing where these developments are being undertaken. It is the same problem throughout our territories, even as it is in this country and in our own constituencies.

Probably, we all have to tread very carefully in apportioning available materials and supplies, and so on, in satisfying all these needs at once, but I know that some progress has been made in housing our people under the groundnut scheme. I have been in touch with the Overseas Food Corporation, and they are making some headway. Of Southern Rhodesia, which does not come under the authority of my right hon. Friend, but is only linked to his territories, the interim development report published on 23rd March this year says:
"Southern Rhodesia needs 6,000 new houses to be built in this and the immediately succeeding years. It is doubtful whether a rate of more than 2,750 will actually be achieved, adding 3,250 non-existent houses annually to the already disturbingly large back-log. Housing generally in the Colony is far from satisfactory. It is recognised that the rate of immigration, co-related as it must be with the ability to house newcomers, is at present seriously restricted by housing shortages, and this is most undesirable."
The shortage of houses in Southern Rhodesia is linked up with our work which must be undertaken in Northern Rhodesia, where we get such massive production of copper ore, and so on, which is helping our economic situation.

The same is true of Kenya. I was talking to an ex-mayor of Nairobi only yesterday, and he informed me that in Nairobi alone 60,000 houses are definitely needed now. When I say 60,000 houses, I mean houses for both the natives and for the white people. The natives are, of course, just as much citizens of Kenya, and were living there before the white population arrived. This, of course, is a massive problem, and there are great difficulties, but these difficulties must be surmounted in some way or other. In my view, there are certain things available which can be properly tapped and which will help to overcome the present difficulties and those which might arise in the future.

For instance, it is my opinion that in this country we have over the last 10 years or so built up a unique organisation for providing housing accommodation for our people, and, of course, accommodation of every kind. The Ministry of Works have a great staff of experts, research people, architects, and professional men of all kinds. They must have a wealth of knowledge stored up which I should imagine it would be difficult to find in any commensurate degree throughout the rest of the civilised world. The same goes for our Ministry of Health, whose experts must now have been dealing for many years with the great housing problem in this country. There is also their connection with other people in the local areas where housing has been pushed forward on a large scale for a generation by the different local authorities. I doubt whether there is any similar organisation in any country in the world which has built up such a technique or which has such a long experience of this problem.

It is my view that research is of paramount importance. The Building Re. search Department has done a great deal of work in this country over the last few years, but I fear that when we have surmounted our housing problem in, perhaps, a few years' time, we shall tend to let that organisation disappear instead of maintaining it and using it for the benefit of all the people in our Colonial territories. We have a body of manufacturers of various kinds in this country who have been geared up into this great machine for providing our housing. I should imagine that they have very few rivals in any country in the world today.

I know from personal experience that a number of firms in this country have turned over their plants and staffs for experimenting in methods of prefabricating houses. When I say that, I do not mean the prefabs which we are used to seeing, and which we dismiss as something we do not wish to see again in the life of this country, but something better. I am thinking of the great improvements which have been made in the invention of new materials and so on for tackling our housing shortage. I am certain that we have enough experience in this country to give a great boost to sending houses to all parts of the Colonial Empire. We could help not only the Colonies but also ourselves, because the supply of these prefabricated houses could be regarded as part of our exports. We could export thousands of houses specially made for tropical territories in Africa and Australia. I hope this suggestion will be considered in the near future when the Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth countries come here for discussions without political leaders.

It seems to me that this is one of those jobs which could be placed in the hands of a Commonwealth Economic Council. All these resources should be put into one channel so that they could be drawn upon in such countries as Southern and Northern Rhodesia. We have a complex division of labour in this country. Many of these places overseas, with their small white populations and their indigenous populations, cannot hope to form a similar kind of machine. I would like to know whether there is any machinery available for these members of our Colonial Empire, and the Commonwealth if necessary, to make use of this complex knowledge and technique which we have built up. Is there any easy way of access by which the people concerned with these problems in these distant territories can consult London, or even come to London if necessary, so that they can be put in touch with the latest developments here? With those words I finish, because I realise that there are one or two other Members who wish to speak.

4.33 p.m.

This question of housing is troubling the whole of the Empire at the moment. When I was in Gibraltar recently, the Governor explained to me that a large number of evacuees could not be brought back to Gibraltar on account of the housing shortage. They are getting on with the job there, but it is difficult on account of the space. They have erected two very big blocks of flats right in front of the Rock Hotel down on the flat. They are getting on with the job as best as they can, but with very small means, and building costs are exceptionally high. In Malta, which suffered terrific destruction during the war, they have been lucky enough to find all the plans of the houses which were originally there. They can, therefore, proceed with the reconstruction of Malta and restore it in the original architectural style. That is a great thing, because many people go to Malta on account of its architectural beauty and the way in which Valetta has been built on the hills. Those plans having been discovered, some great beauty in the world will be replaced.

I should like to say a few words about the Bahamas. The difficulty there is the superstition of the natives. The highest proportion of consumption in the whole of the West Indies is in Nassau, and that is brought about very largely by the fact that the natives are afraid of evil spirits. They board up every opening in their houses at night and keep out the air. On the other hand, a great deal of harm has been done—and it is causing the Governor a lot of concern—by the flow of capital from this country to the Bahamas. He explained to me that houses that could have been bought before the war for about £2,000 are now being sold at £25,000. That is causing a disturbance to the economy of the Colony. He also related to me how Fort Montagu Hotel, which had been used by the American Air Force during the war, was sold by him for £150,000. This purchaser restored it and sold it to Farleigh for £380,000, who in turn sold it to Butlin for £450,000, all in the space of about six months. This sort of thing is destructive to the economy of that part of the world.

In Kenya, the shortage of houses is so great that the European population have often to live two, three or four miles outside Nairobi. It is not the same as in Europe, where we have good systems of communication. If one does not happen to have a car of one's own, one has to find some means of transport to get to Nairobi. In Tanganyika, they are getting on with the housing in connection with the groundnut scheme. They are even making their own bricks on the site, and have brickmaking machines. I have visited the houses which have been put up for the general staff of the groundnut scheme, and they are very nice houses indeed.

In Southern Rhodesia, the housing scarcity is so great that they have had to curtail emigration. A large part of this is brought about by the fact that there are difficulties with the trade unions. They will not allow the native Africans to take over any of the bigger jobs, not even for their native houses. If contracts are given to the natives, they will not do the plumbing. Many of the materials are available but not the labour, unless we can employ native labour for the bigger jobs. In contrast, in Northern Rhodesia, in the copper belt, there are some of the finest layouts and plans to be found anywhere for the white population.

I say to the Minister that when he goes to those parts he should also look in on other people's colonies besides our own—the Portuguese, French and Belgian. By far the best layout for the African population—and by that I mean the native African population—is at Leopoldsville. There is a segregated area for the native African population, with wide avenues, good schools and good hospitals. The Governor of the Congo said to me that they put housing and health before education, because it was not much good providing education unless those who received it were sound in body and lived in good houses. I went to a native school in the Congo which was very well built, very airy and a credit to them. I also went into French Equatorial Africa, and although there is greater freedom for the native African population, there is nothing like such a fine layout for the housing schemes.

Curiously enough, where I did find very good housing for the native African population was in the Rand. There they look after the natives. I refused to go to any of the show places, but went down City Deep Mine where they do not usually allow anyone to go unless he is in the mining profession. I was surprised to see the beautiful kitchens and water closets. Now that we are getting such bad reports from South Africa, it should be pointed out that in the Rand, the native Africans are being well looked after. It is necessary that we should go to colonies of other nations to see how they are getting on with their jobs of housing, and see whether there is not something for us to learn in connection with our own housing problems. If we did that, it would be all to the good, and it would help to benefit our own native populations. Having solved their housing problem, we shall then have happier workers.

4.42 p.m.

I wish to ask a few questions about housing in Malaya. I ask them because I believe that bad housing conditions are the surest way of getting unrest and of breeding Communism. I have been rather alarmed by some of the reports from Malaya, not in regard to the way houses are being built in that part of the world, but in regard to the way they are being destroyed. There is a very interesting article in one of the Scottish papers today about Malaya, where there are many of our people. It states:

"The Royal Air Force have made six attacks on bandit areas during the past week, four being in the Kuala Langat area of South Selangor, where at least eight bandits were reported killed. Security forces are continuing their sweep in this area."
I want to know, if the Royal Air Force is carrying out indiscriminate destruction of villages, what care is being taken of the civil population. I ask that question because I have studied with great interest what is going on in Malaya according to the columns of the "Daily Worker," the "Observer" and "The Times."

I read with very great alarm in the "Observer" recently that a native village had been burnt down as a reprisal for the murder of some British settlers. I am anxious that the lives of British planters should be safeguarded, but it is a very dangerous thing for police and soldiers to come along and set fire to a whole village, as described in the columns of the "Observer" by a well-known and reliable correspondent, Patrick Maitland. If that is to be done we shall have a repetition of the Black and Tan policy in Ireland. I urge the Colonial Secretary, who I know is a humane person, to do what he can to stop this policy of indiscriminate reprisals.

While it is quite in Order for hon. Members to speak about any subject on an Adjournment Debate, the hon. Gentleman must understand, as I am sure he did, that this part of today is confined to Colonial housing conditions, and is nothing to do with bombing at all.

I am trying to point out that the destruction of the houses was caused by the bombing and the burning of the villages as reprisals. I believe that by this policy of bombing and burning the villages we are adding to the housing problems, because it results in making people homeless. What will happen to those people? What is happening is that, their houses are being burned and they are being driven into the jungle. That is creating in Malaya exactly the same kind of anti-British feeling as that which resulted in Ireland at the time of the Black and Tans.

I want the message of Great Britain to these backward territories to be one of hope and reconstruction. I do urge the Under-Secretary to do what he can to restrain this indiscriminate policy of reprisals, which results in turning people out of their homes into the jungle, and making them potential enemies of the British in India. I want to see the lives of the Scottish people who are out in Malaya safeguarded, and I believe that that can only be achieved with the good will of the local population. I ask that this policy of burning down villages in Malaya shall give way to a policy of reconstruction and the building of homes for the people, so that we bring hope to the people of this Colony.

4.47 p.m.

Last night I was speaking in this House about housing problems in our own country, while today we are discussing housing conditions within the Commonwealth. This is a good thing, because, after all, as members of the British Commonwealth we must consider social problems everyhere in it, although we must have some priorities; I am very glad therefore that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Squadron-Leader Kinghorn) raised this subject.

It is quite clear that if there is to be any large-scale development, as we hope there will be, in various parts of the Commonwealth territories, then housing is a very important factor indeed. In the early days of the groundnut scheme very acute problems were caused by shortage of accommodation—problems which necessarily arise when entering a completely new area. The very important statement which the Under-Secretary made the evening before last in connection with meat supplies from the Colonies—seemed to be missed by the Press, with the exception of the "News Chronicle." I was very disappointed, I may say, that even the "Daily Express" missed this statement, because I always understood that they took a keen interest in the development of the British Empire. In that statement my hon. Friend mentioned that the Minister of Agriculture had agreed, under centain conditions, to the importation of meat from our territories, and particularly from Africa. Now if this trade is developed, as I believe it can be, to be a very big thing in the years ahead, urgent consideration must be given to building operations, otherwise it will be impossible to get the people, both the indigenous people and the Europeans, to do the work we require done.

In view of the shortness of time, and because we are all anxious to hear what the Under-Secretary has to say, I will make but two other points. It would be wrong to assume that housing conditions in the Colonies—in Africa, for example—can be solved only by help from this country. A great deal can be done by the initiative of the people on the spot. When I was at Embu in Mount Kenya district I was particularly impressed by the District Commissioner there, who had made a special study of the problem. He developed clay pits and got the Africans to work them, so that they were building houses and hospitals without adding very much extra cost to the local administration; and they were providing first-class accommodation. I was very impressed with what was being done there, and I am certain it could be done in many other territories given the necessary drive and initiative.

Lastly, there is the question of craftsmen. We are getting to a position in which many of our territories create all sorts of difficulties when an attempt is made to bring in craftsmen. We seem to have a colour bar in reverse. If we are going to create a building industry in those territories we must have more craftsmen. I hope some of the territories will look at this problem and will facilitate the introduction of craftsmen who can help.

4.50 p.m.

I am sure we are all very much obliged to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Squadron-Leader Kinghorn) for raising this important subject on the Adjournment. He and other hon. Members have worked extremely hard in the last year or so in raising matters on the Adjournment of great interest and importance both to the Colonial territories and ourselves. The hon. Member for West Lewisham (Mr. Skeffington) is among that gallant band.

The problem today, as several Members have brought out, is one of an ever increasing population rightly demanding an ever increasing standard of living at a time when the number of skilled craftsmen available either locally or from this country is severely limited, when there is a great shortage of materials, particularly steel and cement, and when we still have to overcome prejudices such as have been mentioned here, and which unfortunately find a place in certain of the colonial territories.

There is also a matter which is very important and which has not been mentioned and that is the effect of insects. I remember when I was living in a bungalow in Malaya I had an Irishman as a companion. It was a case of an Irishman and a Welshman together, and we were a good pair. When my wife came out I left him and went to live in a bungalow of my own. Some months later I went back to see him, and as I walked along the road I was astonished to see lights blazing. When I got near the wooden bungalow I saw that he was sitting in the dining room at his meal without a wall around him. All he had was the floor and the roof and the supports of the bungalow. The insects had eaten the walls of that particular house. That incident shows the dangers and difficulties which faces anyone who is to avoid constructing houses with the wrong type of material.

We are trying to overcome these difficulties and to develop local resources of the right type to meet this housing shortage. We are also improving the designs and trying to economise in every way in the use of materials. British technicians are being supplied and quantities of cement and steel are being made available to a greater extent. There still remains great scope for imagination and initiative on the part of the people both in the Colonial Office and those engaged in erecting buildings with types of material which have not been tried before.

I have been asked the question whether there is any machinery in this country for giving to the Colonial peoples the benefit of the scientific work which is carried on here. In reply I would say that we have a liaison officer in the building research station attached to the department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and it is his duty to keep in touch the whole time with the Colonial territories, advise them on the materials which can be used and which are available and to help them in every possible way. I am sure they are making use of this and other services available to them to an ever increasing extent.

As to the question of technicians, I cannot say that either I myself or my right hon. Friend, is entirely satisfied with the amount of use made of the available technicians in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lewisham has pointed out that one cannot have the large scale developments which we want in the Colonial territories to give people a better standard of life without considerable assistance from the technicians of this country. In the Colonial Office we find no difficulty at all in filling vacancies which occur from time to time, particularly for building foremen and inspectors, chargemen joiners, chargemen bricklayers, and chargemen plumbers. We have had a constant demand from artisans in this country, who are fired with the idea of going out to help their comrades in the lands overseas and we are recruiting them in sufficient numbers.

The difficulty is to persuade some people of the advantage of employing these excellent men. Let me give the House an example: I found in one colony that the African ex-Service men were being trained in Government workshops and centres provided for that purpose. After their training they went out and were entirely at the mercy of the market. There was not much market for them and they drifted back into the reserves. It was suggested that it would be a good idea if technicians were engaged in this country, people such as foreman builders and craftsmen, that the Government should do a good deal of work locally by direct labour, and should employ these ex-Service men as journeymen. That was done. We flew out 13 technicians and the result is not only that building got on at a much greater rate than before, but it was done at a very much cheaper cost. The Africans are also being much better trained in their position as journeymen. They have become craftsmen, whereas before they were left in the student state. In East Africa we are employing a large amount of direct labour. All the working operatives are, generally speaking, Africans, while technicians from this country are in supervisory posts.

I have been asked about the position of local machines and methods. I must say that I was impressed on the groundnut scheme by the way in which houses were being built from clay provided on the spot and prepared under the supervision of one European. Large numbers of houses were going up, at the hands of African technicians and labourers. Quite a simple bricklaying machine was used and it was an example of what can be done with limited machinery but with great profit.

All the Colonies have housing plans going on at various speeds. Nairobi impresses me as being one of the most efficient of all. I was much struck with the municipality in Nairobi. They have all the powers of a municipality in this country and certainly have great problems because they have to have three or four of everything. They have to have one European-type house, one Indian and one African, and they are tackling their problems in the right spirit. They have at the present moment no fewer than 1,500 new houses being built to meet the tremendous increase in the population requiring housing.

Within the limited time at my disposal I cannot say very much more. With reference to prefabricated buildings I can say that suitable designs have not so far passed the scrutiny of our experts. We are looking into the whole question and when a really suitable design is prepared we shall certainly recommend it.

I cannot deal with Malaya. I would suggest to my hon. Friend who is interested in the matter that he comes to see me. He was quite wrong in what he assumed about Malaya. It is not the villages outside the jungle that have been destroyed but the squatters' huts in the jungle. The idea is to move people away from the jungle where they are preyed upon by bandits, and to take them to places where they can be properly housed. We have a really humane and humanitarian policy in Malaya.

I hope that I have given the House satisfaction. While we are not satisfied with the present position—I would not claim that for one moment—we are taking all possible measures to push on with this most important social amenity. Everything that we can do we shall do.

It being Five o'Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order of the House yesterday, till Tuesday, 26th April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.