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Air-Raid Shelters, Eston (Demolition)

Volume 526: debated on Tuesday 13 April 1954

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

10.40 p.m.

I wish to discuss tonight the demolition of surface type air-raid shelters. I am mainly concerned with the demolition of shelters in my constituency in the urban district of Eston. The subject raises an issue of wider application which has been discussed by other hon. Members, and in that connection Birmingham comes to my mind.

Eston, on the banks of the Tees, is a steel-making district. The communal surface shelters complained about have been in existence for roughly 12 years. I am not certain at the moment of the exact number, but it is about 70. The shelters are of brick construction with reinforced concrete roofs. They are not situated in the public highway but behind houses in the access passageways.

In some cases it is true that a narrow path has been left around the shelter, but in others all too often there is no way at all into houses from the back except through the shelters. I have some photographs which the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department can have with my compliments. On occasion, it is unfortunate that we cannot have photographs reproduced in the OFFICIAL REPORT. One can see from the photographs the state in which the shelters are to be found today.

My constituents who are adversely affected are workers living in a dense, industrial area. Their houses are small and by modern standards much too close together, but the housewives, like most British women, are anxious to keep their homes clean and wholesome. Their task is immensely aggravated by the continued presence of the shelters.

The Joint Under-Secretary will agree that in the ordinary way the shelters would have gone if they had been in the public streets, as they have disappeared elsewhere when traffic and other conditions have necessitated removal. However, the Home Office has forbidden the local authority, the Eston Urban District Council, to demolish them on the ground that they would be useful in the event of another war.

I want to be fair to the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and learned Friend. In this matter the Home Secretary is continuing the policy of his predecessor. That is not in dispute, but that does not make the policy right. The question which my constituents and the local authority are asking is for how long is this to go on. Are these shelters to remain there for as long as the state of international tension exists, for as long as there are differences of opinion or of interest between this country and other nations? If that is so, then many competent judges will say that they are likely to be there for the lifetime of most of us, and for the lifetime of the people living in the houses concerned.

I am not—and I do not think that any hon. Member is—against realistic Civil Defence organisation, but why should this very doubtful form of protection be inflicted upon a small minority of the inhabitants of this country? In my constituency there are 600 houses affected. If the Joint Under-Secretary of State were to walk for some miles away from the Palace of Westminster he would find no provision for any kind of shelter, surface or otherwise, though I assume that if the international situation is threatening it is just as threatening in Westminster as in Eston.

The local authority concerned has addressed many communications to the hon. Gentleman's Department. I, too, have written to the Home Secretary. I have asked one Question about it in this House, and recently, for the second time, I made a personal inspection of the shelters, in company with the chairman and the clerk of the local authority. Of course, I took advantage on that occasion to talk to the housewives concerned. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that had I not spoken to them, they would certainly have spoken to me, because they feel very strongly about the matter.

We have all spoken to the hon. Gentleman's Department and said that these shelters should come down. They form dark, damp, unpleasant caves behind the houses. That cannot be disputed. I do not want to dwell on this side of the matter too much, but one does not require to have a great deal of imagination to understand that every kind of undesirable nuisance is committed in these shelters. The women living in the streets concerned have told me that they very much dislike having to pass through these shelters at night in order to enter their homes from the back way.

Coal has to be taken through the front door, and refuse collection is extremely difficult. This has gone on for many years. Those who are familiar with the traditions of this part of the country will know that these back streets are often used for the drying of washed clothes. Owing to the presence of these shakers, that cannot be done, which means that clothes have to be dried inside the homes. The houses are small, and that adds to the domestic inconvenience. The shelters increase the risk of disease, despite the grant made for cleaning. They do damage to drains and to other public services. It cannot surely be disputed that the retention of these shelters is indefensible from the public health point of view.

What I have said so far about the existence of these shelters, their condition, and so on, will probably command a fair general assent, but I am now coming to what is perhaps a more controversial point. I do not agree with the reported attitude adopted by the Coventry City Council towards the matter of Civil Defence. It apparently takes the view—I think wrongly—that all forms of Civil Defence organisation for the future should be rejected.

I speak with a little experience, because for some time during the war years I was vice-chairman of the Civil Defence committee of a local authority. I think it is essential, bearing in mind all the circumstances of a future war, that there should be some kind of Civil Defence organisation in existence. Of course, Coventry has as much right as any place in the country to judge what is possible or impossible in these matters, but I do not agree with it.

I do not believe that these Eston shelters would be of any use at all against most forms of modern developed air attack. The houses surrounding them are of light construction, debris would pile right the way round the shelters and probably entomb the people inside. In the opinion of many experts rescue would be made extremely difficult. Supposing the bomb was of the atomic variety, either hydrogen or uranium, and it fell at such a distance that physically the shelters still stood, does anyone suppose that many of the people inside them would still be alive if radiation had done its work?

Faced with the risks of atomic attack from the air, is it the policy of the Home Office to concentrate or to disperse the population? If the policy is to be dispersal, I should have thought it wrong in principle that groups of people should be encouraged to congregate in shelters of this kind. No one could claim these shelters to be a significant contribution to realistic Civil Defence, but it is plain to everyone that they do make the lives of people now affected by them very difficult. I agree that the Home Office have done all they can, allowing for the existence of the shelters, to mitigate the difficulties, but there is a limit to what can be done. What I am asking is that the Home Secretary should be consistent and logical and give permission for these shelters to be pulled down as irrelevant to the future and a nuisance to the present.

10.52 p.m.

The Home Office is of course well aware of the inconvenience caused by these shelters to those who live nearby them, and of course, as the hon. Member for Cleveland (Mr. Palmer) has said, this is not a matter which is limited to his constituency. There are shelters of this kind in a number of places throughout the country. Those who suffer are understandably anxious that they should be removed as soon as possible. I certainly do not complain in any way of the way the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter on behalf of his constituents. But inconvenience cannot be the only test in this matter.

It might be convenient if I reminded the House of the history of this matter, and of the reasons why the old shelters have been retained hitherto. Immediately after the war the policy was to demolish shelters as quickly as possible. Everyone wanted to take them down, but of course limitations had to be imposed. Indeed, they imposed themselves. There was an acute shortage of labour, there were other demands on our resources, and demolition went ahead at varying speeds in different places. In some areas shelters were all, or virtually all, taken down. But in 1947 it was decided as a matter of policy, having regard to the economic circumstances of the country, that expenditure on demolition of shelters could only be permitted in two classes of case. Firstly, when the result would be the recovery of steel—at that time we were suffering severely from a shortage of steel; and secondly, where the structure itself was a danger to the public. In 1948 the policy was again reviewed, this time in the light of the international situation. It was then decided that all sound shelters ought to be retained except in certain definite cases where there were the strongest reasons for demolition.

The exceptions were first, where it was certified by a responsible technical officer that the shelter was structurally dangerous and beyond repair; secondly, where the medical officer of health certified that the removal of a public shelter was essential on public health grounds and the nuisance created by the shelter could not be abated in any other way than by demolition; thirdly, where the medical officer of health certified that removal of a domestic shelter was essential—I again emphasise the word "essential"—on medical grounds; and fourthly, where the removal was essential to permit approved development of the area. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to leave a shelter when an area as a whole is to be developed. Those were the four exceptions to the general policy decision that sound shelters should be retained.

Have not those provisions removed the great bulk of the shelter protection in this country?

No. I would not say for a moment that certain shelters have not been demolished under these exceptions, but certainly it is not true to say the great bulk of the shelter protection has been removed under them. I could not give the hon. Member offhand an answer as to the proportion, but my guess would be that only a small proportion has been removed under these exceptions. A larger proportion was removed before the policy was decided upon, but that is another matter.

The last Government decided, and decided rightly, that our Civil Defence resources should be maintained and built up as part of our general defence programme, and this policy remains the policy of the present Government. It has been the policy for a number of years now. It would be inconsistent with the Government's policy to demolish sound existing shelters except on the strongest grounds. Of course, the most inconvenient of these shelters are in the crowded areas. I fully agree about that, but, unfortunately, those are the very places where the shelters are most needed. If the shelters should, unfortunately, be called into use, it would be just there that they would be required. The policy adopted in 1948 has, therefore, been continued, and demolition can only be agreed to exceptionally.

The case of the Eston shelters was brought to the Home Office in January, 1951, by the predecessor of the hon. Member for Cleveland. The policy was then explained to him. There was no question of the shelters being a danger to health. He accepted the position. It was agreed that as much as possible should be done to mitigate the admitted inconvenience, to put it no higher, and that as many of the shelters as possible should be sealed up. It was, unfortunately, found impossible to seal all the shelters for the reason the hon. Member fairly gave, that to have done so would have denied access to the back doors of many of the houses. The Home Office agreed, however, that the shelters should be kept regularly cleaned, and as the hon. Member knows, the grant paid on the cost of that is substantial. It was appreciated that that did not remove the inconvenience.

I can tell the hon. Member quite frankly that I have great sympathy with his constituents. On the other hand, I must tell him also that the needs of Civil Defence are paramount. The hon. Member suggested that the shelters are not worth preserving. Our technical advisers have inspected them and it is quite true that they are not up to the standard of the very best shelters which were built and which still exist. Nevertheless, they are strongly built, and I am advised they are well worth preserving as shelters.

He suggested that the shelters would have very little value against atomic attack. I am advised that that is not so and that they would certainly provide a useful degree of protection. A late Adjournment is certainly not the occasion for a discussion of the technical effects of the atomic or the hydrogen bomb. As regards the latter, my right hon. and learned Friend has informed the House that Civil Defence policy is being reviewed in the light of the hydrogen bomb explosion and that he will, in due course, make a statement. I cannot anticipate the results of that review this evening. I can assure the House that the review will cover policy regarding shelters.

Is it possible that, when the review is made, these shelters will then come down?

As I say, I cannot anticipate the results of the review. I have repeated my right hon. and learned Friend's statement, and I have told the hon. Member that the review will cover the question of existing shelters. I cannot say more now.

If, in the meantime, the hon. Member, or indeed any hon. Member whose constituents are affected in this way, cares to make any suggestions—short of actual destruction—for improving the situation, they will certainly receive the most sympathetic consideration on the part of the Home Office. I cannot go further than that. I hope that the hon. Member will feel that, having brought this matter to the attention of the House, he has been able to perform a service on behalf of his constituents.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.