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Air-Raid Shelters (Government Policy)

Volume 480: debated on Thursday 9 November 1950

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I want to make a statement in reply to Question 16.

The Government have given much consideration to the difficult technical and other problems which surround the question of shelter against the formidable types of air attack against which we must be prepared in the event of a future major war, and have now, after consultation with the local authority associations, arrived at conclusions as respects the lines on which planning should proceed for the provision of air-raid shelter for the public. The provision of shelter in industrial and commercial establishments will come within the scope of the discussions on Civil Defence, which have already started, with representatives of industry and commerce.

In the event of a future war, there are likely to be heavy casualties. It was not possible in the last war and it would not be possible in the future to provide complete immunity against attack from the air. I am advised that it is technically feasible to provide shelter which would go far to reduce casualties from all forms of attack. The best forms of shelter in common use in the last war would again be very valuable, and a higher grade of protection against atomic effects is being considered for areas which seem likely to be selected as targets for atomic attack.

It would not be possible to provide shelter on any significant scale without making heavy calls on labour and materials much needed for other purposes, and it is therefore essential that, as and when resources can be made available for shelter work, they should be applied to the best possible advantage. For this purpose careful planning is essential and it has been decided to request local authorities for areas considered likely to be targets for attack to survey the areas in question, to assess the amount of additional shelter needed and to formulate proposals as to how it can best be provided.

To assist local authorities in this task, it is proposed to provide them with a "Memorandum of Technical Guidance on the provision of Air Raid Shelter," which has been prepared by the Ministry of Works, and a memorandum prepared by the Home Department and entitled "Planning for provision of Air Raid Shelter for the public," which will indicate the lines on which it is thought that planning should proceed.

One point to which the Government attach great importance is that plans should be made for a maximum of shelters which will have peace-time uses and will not interfere with amenities or traffic requirements. In the light of the reports received as a result of the survey, the Government will consider how soon and on what scale it will be practicable, having regard to the international situation and other calls on man-power and materials, to embark on a programme of shelter construction.

I hope to be in a position to issue the two memoranda I have mentioned in the course of the next few weeks, but I think it right to emphasise that the development of any shelter programme is bound to be a gradual process. It will be necessary to give priority to the areas where shelter is most likely to be needed. It does not follow that shelters will be provided in all the areas surveyed and in many areas a long time may elapse before the construction of new shelter can be started.

I presume the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will take great care that our resources, such as they be, for defence are not unduly prejudiced by drawing upon them for the most passive form of defence which is open and that other aspects and other methods of giving security to the country will have their full place in the policy of the Government? It would be a great pity if it should now be assumed that this country is likely to be the victim of atom bomb attacks in the near future. It is one of the very few dangers which seem to weigh more heavily on others than on ourselves.

With the general proposition advanced by the right hon. Gentleman I do not know that I am in much disagreement, but my experience as a soldier was that many of my comrades were far more concerned—and I am talking of the 1914–18 war—with what might happen to their relatives at home than with the dangers which actually confronted them. I believe no small part of maintaining the morale of an army might, in certain circumstances, depend on the extent to which we are able to provide something on these lines. But we have, of course, to have regard to the practical necessities of the case and the surrounding circumstances of our time, and I have indicated in the statement I have made that we shall have to put many other things in order of priority. I do not myself place this in a very high order of priority for some of the essential materials.

I am bound to say that the right hon. Gentleman does not seem to be differing from me in any important respect.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his very comprehensive reply. Does he realise that without the use of any material or labour a great deal of planning can be undertaken which will facilitate, if the necessity should arise, the quick erection of these shelters?

Yes, I do recognise that, but on the other hand, one has to be careful that in asking for plans and considering them one does not give rise to hopes which it may not be possible at once to fulfil.

Would my right hon. Friend say whether payment for these air-raid shelters will come from local or Treasury funds? I ask that qustion in view of the present heavy financial commitments of the blitzed areas.

That is a matter on which I am at present having consultations with the local authorities.

While appreciating that the Government must approach this difficult problem in careful association with the local authorities and with industry, will not the right hon. Gentleman consider the question of getting out plans fairly speedily for the making of appropriate shelters when large modern steel buildings are going up, which would not involve any extra material?

That is one of the matters which is being discussed, and will be discussed with industry and commerce.

My right hon. Friend is aware that there are in London a large number of redundant shelters and emergency water tanks the demolition of which has been held up because we have been waiting for a statement from my right hon. Friend on the whole question of shelters. Can he say whether this statement means that local authorities will be able to plan for the future and if necessary obtain permission to destroy some of these shelters and tanks, which are an eyesore today?

We shall have to have regard to the realities of the situation in that matter. I am not at all sure that it would be a good start for this statement to be regarded as an excuse for removing some of the existing shelters.

Will special consideration be given to hospitals, especially those which are now being constructed or reconstructed, so that there will be the possibility of evacuating patients to a safe shelter?

The whole question of hospital accommodation and the way in which some shelters might be available as hospitals until the emergency arose, is the subject of discussion at the moment between the Minister of Health and myself.

Would the Home Secretary tell us if he really thinks it possible to proceed with a big programme of air-raid shelter construction without interfering with the building of houses?

No, I do not think it would be possible if we proceed with a big scheme on those lines, but we have to have regard to what is happening in the world round about us.

I take it that the right hon. Gentleman's policy is the fullest possible planning and surveying without at present taking undue measures of fulfilment?

Yes, at the moment, but should the international situation deteriorate, or should we have reason to think that new weapons of attack might be more extensively used than at present appears likely, we should have to reconsider the situation.

Is it the Government's intention to assist local authorities financially in making the preliminary survey?

That is all part of the discussions which I am having at the moment with the local authorities.

Further to what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd), would the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that when new buildings are erected, some instructions will be given, because it should be possible, with existing materials and existing buildings, to do something about shelters which may not have been done before?

I can assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the strengthening of buildings in this respect will require some additional use of materials or else the buildings will have to be less commodious for their ordinary purposes than would otherwise be the case. That is the kind of thing which we are discussing with industry.

Would the right hon. Gentleman give consideration to the case, for example, of large municipal flats, where in some cases a children's indoor playground can, by additional strengthening, also be an air-raid shelter?

When the right hon. Gentleman has had an opportunity of reading the statement I have made he will see that I said that the Government attached considerable importance to being able to have for peace-time purposes some accommodation that might be useful in the event of war. That is one of the examples I had in mind. Underground car parks are another kind of provision.

The right hon. Gentleman speaks for England and Wales. Can he say whether his statement covers Scotland?

Yes, Sir. This is a pronouncement of policy on behalf of His Majesty's Government. Having regard to the prospective amount of damage that may be expected in various parts of the country the policy will accordingly be shaped. We do not think that anyone is likely to declare war on England without also declaring war on Scotland.

Bearing in mind the possible desirability of building structures which are themselves underground and which can be worked in during the day or perhaps used as hospitals, would the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that he will consider utilising, in one way or another, worked-out clay pits formerly used by the brick industry? That would obviate the need for further excavation.

We shall take all things of this kind into consideration but it may very well be that that kind of working is not in an area which may need great shelter.

Can we have any assurance that the additional expenditure to be incurred under this heading will not be flung back at the Government by the Opposition as political propaganda?

I should like to ask a question on general policy. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the use again of the types of shelter which were used with success in the last war. One of these was connected with the name of the Lord President of the Council. Is due consideration being given to the advisability of the dispersal of shelter into the smallest number of units possible rather than herding people together in large shelters?

It is desirable that to a large extent dispersal should be the basis of our policy, but we cannot carry dispersal to the point where we would injure the war potential effort of the working classes of the country, and we must in some areas make provision for something other than the kind of shelter to which the hon. Member has alluded.

While admitting that in the present circumstances the Government must do something about building shelters, I would ask my right hon. Friend whether he realises that there are many people who believe that it is not possible to make any shelter which is effective, in view of the fact that the attack will probably come from supersonic weapons, and that shelter could only be effective if the population could permanently live in shelters, which they will not do; and that the only possible way of preventing this sort of thing is to avoid war altogether?

The only sure defence against being drowned is never to go into the water, but I would say this to my hon. Friend. I am not belittling in any way the horrors that any war must entail, but I must decline to accept the completely defeatist view which my hon. Friend has put forward. I hope that there will be no war. So far as His Majesty's Government are concerned, we shall make every effort we can—and I am sure I speak here for the whole House—consistent with national honour and our obligations, to avoid war. But we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that, in spite of that, we may be attacked, and we must be prepared with such defence as can be afforded.

In general comment on what the right hon. Gentleman has said, does he realise that after today with an impressive Lord Mayor's show, A.R.P. recruiting ought to improve greatly?