§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.20 p.m.
§ The Minister of Works (Mr. Tomlinson)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
In outlining the Government's housing policy on 17th October, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health promised, among other things, that legislation would shortly be introduced dealing with certain aspects of that policy and essential to its implementation. This Bill is, in part, a fulfilment of that promise. On many occasions, in the past two years, I have heard it suggested that the provision of houses was so urgent that the problem should be tackled as we would tackle a military operation, and I think the House is agreed as to this. May I express the hope that this will be kept in mind when we are discussing the Bill. During the whole of the war period in this House, I have never once heard it suggested that we should hold back, or go slow, or hesitate for financial reasons, when a military operation was being planned. I assume, therefore, that the financial Clauses of this Bill will not be challenged for the same reason, and since the Bill is almost entirely made up of financial Clauses, it would appear that unanimous approval is assured.
The provisions of the Bill fall into four parts. Clauses 1 to 4 provide for financing the operations of the Minister of Works in ensuring adequate supplies of building materials and components, including prefabricated houses, and in assisting local authorities in preparing housing sites and erecting houses. Clause 5 provides for increasing to£ 200 millions the£150 millions provided for in the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act, 1944, to cover the additional cost of. 902 the temporary housing programme. Clause 6 increases to£ 1,200 the figure of£800 under the Small Dwellings Acquisition Acts and Section 91 (4) of the Housing Act, 1936, which was the maximum value of a house for which advances might be made, by a local authority. Clauses 7 and 8 set out provisions for enforcing the limitation of rent or purchase price, over a period of four years from the passing of the Act, on houses that are built under licence, and therefore subject to such conditions.
The Ministry of Works is responsible for assessing the requirements and working out the programme for employing to the best advantage the labour force expected to be available for the whole of the building and civil engineering industries. A statistical and programming organisation, with men in it who have had this experience during the war, has been set up in the Ministry for working out the programme in consultation with all the other Departments and interests concerned. This programme, which will be kept under constant review, must provide the maximum possible building force for housing while making provision also for all the other vitally urgent work which has to be done in the next few years. This includes the erection of schools, hospitals and factories, the completion of war damage repairs and the great mass of maintenance work which has to be done to overtake the arrears piled up during the war. The Ministry of Works has to assess the requirements of building materials and components which are needed to meet this programme, to break these requirements down into minute detail and to present them to the Departments responsible for ensuring that the programme will not fail for want of particular materials or items of equipment, j These Departments are, broadly speaking, the Ministry of Works itself, for the basic building materials such as bricks, cement, glass and joinery; the Ministry of Supply for a large range of fittings, mainly engineering products, which are needed for building, from baths, cooking and heating stoves and electrical equipment down to locks and bolts and nails and screws; and the Board of Trade for certain other materials such as timber and paint.
Various methods may have to be adopted by these Departments, which are called the production authorities, for 903 stimulating production of the right goods in the right quantities, and at reasonable prices. Over a very wide range, particularly of those items for which the Ministry of Supply is responsible, it will be necessary to place Government orders. These orders may either take the form of direct bulk purchase or manufacture in Royal Ordnance Factories and resale by the Government, or they may take the form of what are called production agreements, under which the firms undertake to produce certain quantities of particular articles and the Government undertakes to indemnify the firms in respect of any goods unsold at the end of the period covered by the agreement.
In addition to these operations for the production of building components and materials, the Government have been carrying out a careful investigation of the possibility of supplementing the production of houses by traditional methods, by harnessing industries which have not hitherto played a substantial part in house production and by stimulating them to develop factory production, sometimes of the shell of a house, sometimes of the component parts of a shell. The word pre-fabrication has come to be generally used in this connection, although it should be pointed out that there is nothing new about prefabrication of the parts of a building. Indeed, the brick itself represents a very ancient form of prefabrication. The Ministry of Works is carrying out a number of large scale experiments into promising types of prefabrication and some of these have gone so far that the Government have found it possible to invite Local Authorities to state the extent to which they would wish to make use of them to supplement their programme of traditional houses. If the response is a satisfactory one, and I think it will be, the Government itself will make arrangements, by direct purchase and resale, or, by production agreements, for the manufacture of the parts. This will be particularly necessary in the case of those embodying steel construction in one form l or another. These orders will be given either by the Ministry of Supply or by the Ministry of Works, as may be found appropriate in particular cases.
Some of these methods of construction may be so novel that the Government itself will have to place contracts with the 904 manufacturers or other specialist contractors for the actual erection of the houses on behalf of local authorities. In other cases, particularly in areas where there has been very heavy bomb damage and the resources of the local authorities are strained to the utmost, the local authority may find it convenient to ask the Government to take on directly some part of the work of house building on their behalf. If this has to be done, the Ministry of Works, at the request of the Ministry of Health will, as the Government's Building Department, carry out the work. In Scotland, the Scottish Special Housing Association will be used to supplement the work of local authorities. Where specialist contractors have to be used, however, or contracts are made for production and erection, it may be necessary for the Ministry of Works to place the contracts on behalf of the Association or of Scottish Local Authorities themselves, and provision is made for this in the Bill.
Finally, the Ministry of Works will have to make arrangements for the distribution of the building materials and components and of the prefabricated houses which may be produced under the arrangements I have just outlined. So far as materials and components are concerned, the Government will make use of the existing well tried channels of distribution with which the industry is familiar and which have grown up to meet the needs of the industry over many years. These, of course, include the builders' merchants, but in many cases manufacturing firms are accustomed to dealing directly with contractors. It will, however, be necessary, to supplement these arrangements by setting up a special distribution organisation. For this the Ministry of Works will be responsible and the experience gained and the distribution centres established for temporary houses will be of the greatest value here.
Let there be no misunderstanding; it is the intention of His Majesty's Government to go into business both in the manufacture and in the distribution of building materials and components, in a big way. Neither the Ministry of Works nor the Ministry of Supply require any additional statutory powers to enable them to buy and sell building materials and components or, in the case of the Ministry of Works, to arrange for the erection of houses on behalf of local 905 authorities or to set up a distribution scheme. But it would obviously be improper for the Government to embark upon what may develop into very large scale commercial operations without the express approval of Parliament. Furthermore, the working capital necessary for these operations has to be provided and the ordinary machinery of annual Votes is quite inappropriate for such a purpose. The first four Clauses of this Bill are designed, therefore, to provide the necessary working capital and, in so doing, to afford an opportunity for obtaining the approval of Parliament to the operations which the Government propose to undertake. That the Coalition Government intended legislation of this kind is clear, from the White Paper on Housing, published in March of this year, and from the answer to a Question on 17th May, when the then Minister of Works said:Prototypes of prefabricated houses built by a number of different methods have been constructed. These have been subjected to thorough technical examination, as a result of which, structural and design modifications are, where necessary, being introduced. In the case of one or more of the most promising types, instructions to proceed with production will be given forthwith. It is proposed that the production of these prefabricated permanent houses should be financed by advances from the Consolidated Fund. The necessary legislation will be introduced as soon as possible after the Recess."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th May, 1945; Vol. 410, c. 2653.]We know what happened after the Recess. Briefly, the Clauses to which I have referred, provide for the establishment of a Building Materials and Housing Fund under the control and management of the Minister of Works. To this Fund will be paid from the Consolidated Fund such amounts as may be required for working capital subject to the limit that the amount outstanding, that is to say, advances less repayments, must not exceed£ 100 million. Interest is payable on outstanding sums and will be a charge on the Fund. The amount of such interest will be prescribed by the Treasury. It should be emphasised that the£ 100 million is by no means intended to indicate the total amount of the eventual expenditure in the course of these operations. Out of the Fund are to be paid expenses incurred by the Government in arranging for the production of building materials and prefabricated houses and the actual cost of bulk purchases or of 906 payments under production agreements. Any expenses incurred by the Ministry of Works in erecting houses on behalf of local authorities will also be met from the Fund. Into the Fund will be paid the proceeds of all sales of materials or houses or payments from local authorities for services rendered by the Ministry of Works and the intention is that the Fund shall, so far as possible, show neither a profit nor a loss on these transactions taken as a whole. Accounts are to be prepared every, year by the Ministry of Works and presented to the Comptroller and Auditor General, who will report on them in the normal way to Parliament where they will be examined by the Public Accounts Committee.
The sum of£100 million has been chosen as representing a reasonable figure for the working capital required in the absence of any present possibility of making a firm estimate of the extent of the operations which will have to be carried out on the Fund. No further advances are to be made after the end of September, 1947. If it is found that the limit of£100 million is too low or that further advances after September, 1947, are required, the Government will have to come to Parliament and a convenient opportunity will be presented for reviewing the operations which have taken place. Provision is made for expenses incurred by the various Government Departments in carrying out these operations on such matters as premises, staff salaries and provision for superannuation to be charged to the Fund. This is clearly right in order that a proper picture may be presented of the financial results of the operations of the Fund.
Although the probability is that the Ministry of Supply will be responsible for placing the majority of the bulk orders or making the majority of the production agreements, the control of the Fund is given to the Ministry of Works because that Ministry has to assess requirements in the light of its knowledge, not merely of housing needs, but of the whole building needs of the country and because that Ministry is to be responsible for the arrangements for distribution and for the actual carrying out of work. The Ministry of Supply will, in effect, be acting as purchasing agents for the Ministry of Works, who will advance to the Ministry of Supply the sums neces- 907 sary to enable it to carry out its duties. The actual arrangements for recovery of payments for goods sold will be in the hands of the Ministry of Works. The Government may decide that to get houses quickly or to stimulate the production of some promising new system which it is hoped will later be produced at competitive prices, it is desirable to purchase prefabricated houses at a substantially higher cost than the current cost of a traditional house. This may make it necessary to sell the houses to local authorities or the Scottish Special Housing Association at less than cost. Provision is, therefore, made in Clause 3 for payments to be made from the Votes of the Health Departments into the Building Materials and Housing Fund so as to prevent the consequent loss from falling on that Fund.
In effect, this enables my right hon. Friends to make a special subsidy towards certain factory-produced houses. This does not cover all or most of the so-called prefabricated houses. It covers only those which are truly prefabricated, and which, in fact, are to emerge more or less complete from the factory. The other types, concrete and steel-framed, what may be called more or less "ordinary" types, can stand or fall on their own merits and on the orders which the manufacturers receive from local authorities. For wholly factory-produced houses, however, it may be necessary, in order to get manufacturers to experiment in wholly new methods of construction, for the Government to be ready to finance the initial launching and to get production under way to start with a cost something above that of the traditional house.
The Government do not want houses that cost substantially more than the traditional. Their declared object is to get housing costs down, and one of the main reasons for the earlier clauses of the Bill defraying the expenses of the Minister of Works in purchasing building materials, and so forth, is to help to get costs down. There are still a lot of production headaches to overcome before a satisfactory prefabricated house can be produced in this country at a reasonable price and with the necessary speed. Provision is made for the eventual winding up of the Fund at any time after the end of September, 1947. When it is wound up outstanding 908 sums due and any balance in the Fund are to be paid into the Exchequer and any small balance of payments which remains to be made will have to be met from Votes. As stated previously, however, the intention is that the Fund shall, so far as possible, be self-supporting and that any residual payments of this sort shall be very small.
There is no limitation on the persons to whom building materials may be sold, while the definition of building materials and equipment is wide enough to cover, not merely those items which go into a building, but such things as dustbins which are provided for use with a particular building. The purchase and sale of building materials is not confined to those needed for housing although the Government do not expect, in practice, to have to carry out these operations for other purposes. The whole object of the proposed arrangements is to stimulate production. If orders are placed for whatever amounts of the various goods are required for housing, there shall be no need to cover also the requirements of other buildings. It is, of course, the intention of the Government to exercise a close control of prices over the whole range of building materials and components and the placing of bulk orders or making of production agreements is expected to be of great value in this connection.
Quite early in the course of the war it-was realised that the almost complete stoppage of house building, together with losses suffered from enemy action, would result in an acute postwar housing shortage. To deal with the problem an Inter-Departmental Committee on House Construction, known as the Burt Committee, was appointed in September, 1942, by the Minister of Health, the Secretary of State for Scotland, and the Minister of Works. The Committee were to advise on materials and methods of construction for the building of houses and flats, and in particular to advise on the experimental work which had already been commenced by the Ministry of Works. The Committee made a report in October, 1943, setting out certain factors to be taken into account in assessing the efficiency of house building methods, namely, strength and stability, fire hazard, thermal insulation, sound insulation, moisture penetration and condensation, maintenance and durability, and vermin infestation. This Committee 909 was a landmark in building history, since this was the first time that these things had been laid down.
The Ministry of Works let it be known that they were prepared to issue building licences for experimental prototypes of new methods of construction which showed prima facie indication of usefulness. To date, that is, to 22nd November, 1,381 applications for such licences had been received. I have no doubt that most Members of the House have received letters about most of them. The services of technical officers of the Ministry of Works and the Building Research Station have been available to these applicants to develop their proposals, which have then been submitted for examination to the panel of technical officers of the Burt Committee. A large proportion of them, as can be imagined, have had to be refused on various grounds, such as lack of novelty, intrinsic technical defects inherent in their design, excessive cost, and non-compliance with minimum approved standards. On the recommendation of the Burt Committee, licences have been issued in 195 instances, comprising experiments in various directions. Eighty-three licences have been issued for complete houses, some metal framed, some steel clad, some concrete, some timber, some brick, and some of a combination of materials; 33 licences have been issued for assemblies of structural components, of which 19 are for plumbing installations, kitchen and bathroom fittings and assemblies. In no fewer than 50 instances licences have been issued for materials; and in 10 instances for new types of plant and machinery. The experiments have been watched during their progress and the Burt Committee have made, or will make, a report to the Ministry of Works on the best of them when completed.
These experiments were carried out at the expense of the promoters but it was thought desirable to select for large-scale experiment, at the cost of the Government, a number of the more promising systems of construction, and the most satisfactory - representatives of each of a number of general classes of construction were selected for this purpose. Sites were obtained either from local authorities or from private builders, and groups of about 50 of each selected type of house are being, or will be, erected. The site owners agree to purchase the houses when finished at prices assessed on the basis of the cost 910 of equivalent houses of traditional construction. In some instances local authorities have agreed to bear the cost of the development scheme from the outset. These development groups will provide valuable information as to costs, expenditure of man-hours and general site and factory arrangements, for guidance in connection with large-scale production. Development groups already in hand or contemplated include systems in steel frame, concrete and brick types of house. The all-steel type of house requires, on account of its highly prefabricated nature, capital expenditure on tooling up and factory preparation of such extent as would not be justified by a comparatively small group of 50 houses. Certain examples of this type, however, are considered sufficiently promising to warrant large-scale development without a preliminary experimental group.
The experimental groups have not yet been completed, but sufficient information is now available about some schemes to justify the opinion that they are suitable for large-scale production. Particulars have been given by the Ministry of Health to local authorities in order that an indication may be given of the number of houses required. This will form a basis on which negotiations may be continued with the manufacturers of the houses, the component parts and the materials. It may interest the House to hear about the progress being made on these experimental groups. Some 10 sites on which eight different types are being erected, comprising some 452 houses, are now in various stages, some nearing completion. Ten other experimental schemes are not yet at the site stage, although they have been approved for experiment.
§ Mr. Evelyn Walkden (Doncaster)
Does not my right hon. Friend consider that it will be helpful to the House and to local authorities if, at this stage, he can give us a statement or a list of the particular types of experimental houses of which he or his Department have approved?
§ Mr. Tomlinson
Full particulars, together with photographs, have already been sent out to the local authorities, on the basis of which they are expected to place their orders.
§ Clause 5 proposes to increase the financial provision made in the (Housing 911 Accommodation) Act, 1944, for the manufacture and erection of temporary houses from£ 150 million to£ 200 million. The number of temporary houses allocated by the Health Departments to local authorities is about 165,000; 130,700 in England and Wales and 34,300 in Scotland. It is our intention to meet this allocation in full, and on the basis of present calculations the cost of these is estimated at about£ 191,500,000. In paragraph 10 of the recent White Paper on Temporary Housing there is a table showing a total expenditure of£ 184,669,470. This was related, however, to the provisional programme drawn up at that time of 158,480 houses. The estimate of£ 191,500,000 Covers the full programme of 165,000 houses. So far as we can see at present the cost should not exceed this amount but in order to cover possible contingencies, we think it advisable to ask for an additional£50 million.
§ There have been many questions asked as to the reasons for the increase in estimated costs of temporary houses, the average of the five principal types of the British types being today£1,043 compared with£775 in January last. The reasons for the increase were set out fully in the White Paper, and to. that explanation there is little to add. Every single feature was underestimated, in greater or lesser degree. Site preparation for various reasons is costing£89 more; the superstructure£96 more; fixtures and fittings£ 25 more; breakages and losses£15; while contingencies, which had not been foreseen, together with the agency costs of the Ministry of Works, which include the office and other expenses, account for£43.
§ Mr. Tomlinson
No, I said that contingencies which had not been foreseen, and the agency costs of the Ministry of Works, including office and other expenses, together account for£43. In brief, costs were underestimated because it was assumed that when the war ended conditions would be favourable for manufacture and erection, and because the present difficulties of labour and material supplies were not anticipated. I might be told that this was a crazy assumption, but there it is, and it was not mine. 912 Moreover, there has been continuous pressure for improvement in the houses, their fixtures and fitments and the site works.
It would, I think, be inadvisable to draw any conclusions as to the costs of prefabricated houses and houses of traditional type from the figures published in the White Paper of the cost of temporary houses. The cost of site preparation for a one-floor temporary house is necessarily disproportionate to its size. The standard of its fixtures and fittings is considerably higher than in a normal pre-war house. Some of the manufacturers of temporary houses are very- concerned lest a wrong impression should be given of the cost of prefabrication, but it has never been suggested that they were responsible for more than the manufacture of the superstructure. The supply of fixtures and fittings, site preparation and erection, transport and distribution, is the responsibility of the Ministry of Works. The fact that this is so has led to demands by way of Questions in Parliament and otherwise, for the publication of the detailed buildup of the estimates for each type of house. To publish those would be inadvisable, since, with the exception of two very small orders, in no case have prices yet been fixed with the manufacturers of the superstructures, while negotiations are in progress for extensions of current orders. Similarly, a large number of competitive tenders for site preparation and for house' erection have still to be invited. I have, however, already stated in the House that the superstructure or hull represents only about one-third of the cost; the components and services provided by the Ministry of Works account for the remainder.
The merit of the prefabricated temporary house is that less building labour, particularly skilled craftsmen, is required for its erection. A fundamental problem is that the potential demand for building labour during the next few years will be far beyond the capacity of the building industry, and the importance of the contribution of temporary houses to the housing problem during this difficult period lies in the fact that two temporary houses can be built by the labour required to build one permanent house of the traditional type. Included in this programme of temporary houses is the aluminium house, the responsibility for 913 the production, transportation and erection of which lies with the Ministry of supply and Aircraft Production. The first estimate of the cost was£914, but the current estimate is£365. It was realized from the outset that an aluminium house would be consideratly more expensive than any other type of temporary house.
Once of the principal reasons for embarking on the light alloy industry, and for the aircraft manufacturing industry, and to help them in the switch over from war to peacetime condition. The light alloy industry was expanded, as the House known, five or six fold during the House knows, five or six fold during the war, and will take its place as one of the most progressive in the country, both in the home and export market. But it needs help. The employment of the light metal industry will place pat of the work for the housing programme in development areas and will reduce transitional unemployment among ex-aircraft workers. The inclusion of aluminium house in the programme is, therefore, justified on broad national grounds. Moreover, it is almost wholly factory built and the manhours required for its erection are only about one tenth of those required for other types of temporary house.
Questions have been asked from time to time about the double handling of components and why we find it necessary to set up distribution centres. Distribution centres are not intended to be used for storing temporary houses. They are required for assembling all the components and the fixtures and fittings into complete house sets for issue to sites. A prefabricated temporary house is made up of between 2,000 and 3,000 separate parts. The components and fixtures and fittings are made by many hundreds of firms. The possibility of arranging delivery direct from manufacturers to sites was investigated at the beginning of the programme and was considered impracticable. Distribution centres enable the flow of components, fixtures and fittings from manufacturers to erection contractors to be regulated in accordance with site requirements. They serve as buffer storage depots when the production of some components is in excess of others and stocks accumulate. They provide a focal point to which con 914 tractors may look for all supplies and for guidance on supply and transport problems.
To date 31 distribution centres have been set up, the amount of covered space being about 2 million superficial feet. Five have been built at an estimated cost of£ 600,000; the remainder is made up of factory and storage premises allocated for the purpose by the Board of Trade, most of them having been requisitioned by the Government during the war. In addition to the covered space, there is a large amount of hard standing which is used for components which can be stored without detriment in the open. It was reckoned that no less than 230 superficial feet of covered space would be necessary for storing all the components which make up a complete house. The original intention was to provide an area sufficient for storing three weeks' production of houses. Owing to uneven rates of production and shortage of labour for handling, this amount of space is proving insufficient and it is proposed to take over hangars of 11 redundant airfields. This will provide another 700,000 superficial feet. The industrial staff employed is about 3,500; nearly half are prisoners of war. The management of the centres is in the hands of managing contractors responsible for the manufacture of the houses. The organisation set up by the firms for assembly and distribution is subject to approval by the Ministry and they are reimbursed expenses properly incurred, and paid a fee for their services. It was originally estimated that the combined cost of distribution and transport from factory to depot and from depot to site would work out at about£52 a house. This was necessarily little more than a guess and steps are being taken to carry out a cost investigation. Present indications are that£ 52 was an under-estimate. The cost of distribution is a very important, but at present undetermined, element of the cost of prefabricated houses.
I have spoken at some length and gone into some detail about the temporary houses for the simple reason that we are asking Parliament, in Clause 5 of this Bill, to find additional money to complete the programme. There are questions in the minds of some people as to whether this scheme should have been started. You 915 may say it is costly. You may not like it. All I can say in reply is that it is here and in being. After battling against innumerable difficulties it is beginning to run more freely, and at the present time it is providing additional houses at the rate of 400 to 500 per week. The people who are living in them constantly sing their praises, and I think the House will agree that we should push on with their completion at full speed.
§ Clause 6 expands to£1,200 the figure of£800 which is the maximum value of a house towards the purchase or construction of 'which local authorities are authorised to advance money. The figure of£1,200 has been taken partly on the ground that a 50 per cent, increase seems reasonable in itself in the present circumstances, and partly because£1,200 is the maximum cost at present allowed, outside London, for a house that is erected by private enterprise. Clauses 7 and 8 provide that where, as at present, local authorities allow a house to be erected within a maximum cost or rent the owner shall not sell or rent for a greater cost or rent during a period of four years. This is a necessary corollary of the system under which at present private enterprise is being allowed to build only houses within the financial reach of the majority of those in urgent need. Without this provision, the restrictions could be dodged under an arrangement by which the builder built for the stipulated figure of£1,200 and recouped a higher cost on resale. The rest of the Bill is, I think, self-explanatory.
§ If the desire for speed in housing which finds expression is genuine, and I believe it is, then not only will the Bill be given a unanimous Second Reading but everyone will co-operate in passing it through the Committee stage at lightning speed.
§ 4.9 p.m.
§ Mr. Willink (Croydon, North)
When 10 days or so ago, I first looked at this Bill and, as is usual in such a case, first looked rapidly through it before reading it Clause by Clause, I found a number of proposals which had been in the mind of both the previous Administrations. I saw, for example, that it proposed a statutory basis for a number of the activities of the Minister of Works which had been carried on in wartime under other arrangements. Some measure to bring this 916 about, particularly as regards factory-made permanent houses, was clearly necessary. Then I saw that the Bill contained a proposal to raise the limit of value of houses on which advances could be made under the Small Dwellings Acquisition Acts and the Housing Act. This was a recommendation of the Committee on Private Enterprise Building, and I only wish that His Majesty's Government had been as ready to accept the other recommendations of that Committee as they have been to accept this. Then I saw that the Bill contained provisions for limiting the resale and letting price of houses built under conditional licences. With the principle of these proposals I am in entire agreement and so, I am sure, will my hon. Friends be found to be. Whether the actual drafting of those provisions will work out justly for the tenant needs further examination, which no doubt it will receive in the course of this Debate.
But when I came to read this Bill Clause by Clause I am bound to say that I found some strange and, to me, unsatisfactory features, and I should like to enumerate four or five of them before looking into them in greater detail. First, the Bill is in extraordinarily wide terms, both with regard to the functions of the Minister and and the financial control which he proposes to accord to this House. One finds in the Bill an unlimited mandate to the Minister of Works to produce, to purchase and to distribute building materials of every kind, and every size and type of equipment for every size and kind of building. Secondly, the Bill provides for the Minister of Works being finance through a revolving credit, as I think [...]might call it, of£100,000,000, and he would receive Parliamentary sanction for a doss up to£100,000,000 in a period of well under two years. Indeed, as I shall hope to show conclusively, the Bill provides in Clause 3 for a far greater loss being incurred by the Minister of Works. I pause for a moment to make clear this second point, namely, that though there is a pious hope expressed that no loss will be incurred in the running of this fund, it is provided that it may be in debt to the extent of£100,000,000, and we are asked to sanction payment of that£100,000,000 if that is the state of the account in 22 months from now. But, in the third place, as I have said, the loss which the Bill invites us to permit is really far 917 greater than this, because, so far as the right hon. Gentleman is concerned, losses which he makes in the first instance on building and selling prefabricated houses are to be fully made up to him by the totality of the loss which he makes being refunded by the other right hon. Gentleman sitting beside him, the Minister of Health. Therefore the loss on this account may be vastly greater than£100,000,000 in 22 months because the Bill provides that if the Minister of Works can get the Minister of Health to approve any arrangement which the Minister of Works makes for selling any number of prefabricated houses of any kind over this period of 22 months, at however great a loss, it is to show no loss to him in his account.
Fourthly, and this is characteristic of the extreme vagueness of the Bill, I find that it contains a power for the Minister of Works to do any work whatever undertaken by local housing authorities under their housing powers. I shall say something more about that in a moment. In the fifth place, and I have already hinted at this, I find no adequate provision for informing this House from time to time how the Minister of Works is discharging these very great new functions. He is under no obligation to prepare an account of his operations until 30th November, 1946, and it would be many months after the 30th November, 1946, before that account had been considered by the Comptroller and Auditor General and his Report made and brought before Parliament. I did not understand why it was said that the normal machinery of an Annual Vote would be inappropriate to these operations.
In the last place, although some little light has been thrown on this matter by the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, I would recall that about ten days ago a very long account was given at a Press conference dealing with the subject matter of this Bill. It was held, I think on 13th November, by the Minister of Supply and dealt with the whole matter of the equipment of houses. I looked on the back of the Bill, and although there are the names of five Ministers on it, there is no reference to the Minister of Supply. Yet this important conference with the industrial Press, was held and the Minister of Works, who has introduced this Bill and made his speech today, was not there; it 918 was the Minister of Supply and his officials who hade a long, important and disconcerting statement on that occasion.
What really is the position, with regard to building materials at the moment, and the facilities we have for their distribution? The Minister has made a long speech, and has given us, among other things, an account of the continuation in an orderly manner of exactly what was being done by his predecessor in regard to permanent prefabricated houses. He has told us nothing whatever, if my recollection is correct, of the availability of building materials at the moment. He has told us nothing whatever of the capacity, so far as factory space, plant and administrative organisation are concerned, of the building material industry in this country, or indeed of the distributing facilities that we already have. I agree entirely that there are certain special items in which, as a temporary measure, the central Government must take a direct interest. I would name two. It is clearly right that help should be given by the Minister or some other Minister—the obscurity as to which Minister seems to be greater under this Government than it was under the last—with regard to the permanent prefabricated houses and there are certain building materials, in regard to which Governmental aid of one kind and another is necessary. One conspicuous case is that of plaster board, which is not in such wide use in normal times as it has been in the last year and will be for some time to come, not only in connection with the repair of bomb damage, but in the lining of, temporary and permanent factory made houses. There will be a demand for plaster board which would not occur in the ordinary way and would not be met by the normal operations of the industry.
Apart from such a. case as plaster board, for which a market should be guaranteed, I suggest that the real difficulty with regard to building materials has nothing to do with shortage of capacity, shortage of organisation, or shortage of plant. It is our old and continuous trouble, shortage of labour. I expect many hon. and right hon. Gentlemen have read a letter. which appears today in "The Times" in which it is stated on the highest authority that private industries and trades were organised and equipped before the war to produce 919 the components necessary for approximately 500,000 houses per annum. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health has not yet, after nearly 'four months in office, condescended to give us any indication whatever of the number of houses he expects to see going up in this country in the next 12 or 24 months. If he has no idea, or has an idea and is unwilling to disclose it to the House and the public, I find it very difficult to understand how he expects Parliament to pass judgment on a Measure which asks for new and strange and unusual methods for producing building materials for an entirely uncertain number of houses. This letter, written as I say, with the authority, as it claims, of very widespread organisations, says that the works, equipment and organisation are still available. If that is so, I have heard nothing in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman which indicated that there was anything but disadvantage to be obtained, always provided that adequate standardisation and proper prices can be agreed upon, in distributing a labour force which we all know is inadequate, not to those organisations which are skilled and trained in the production and distribution of these materials, but to a new and rival organisation to be set up, according to the Minister of Supply and his officers at this Press conference, in at any rate 20 ordnance factories, with new plant, and new expenditure of many kinds.
This leads me to say a word about standardisation. We did not hear much about it from the Minister in his opening speech, although I regard it as a matter of great importance. I am sure there is a great need for standardisation in such things as baths, taps, chimney pots, gas and electrical fittings, and so forth, and steps to that end were going forward well. But I earnestly hope the Minister of Health will set his face resolutely against unnecessary and disadvantageous standardisation because it is not every part of a house, which has to be produced on a vast scale, in order to get the minimum price. There will be grave architectural and aesthetic loss if the Government should seek to standardise such things as windows and front doors.
§ Mr. Willink
We want the houses, and windows can be made as cheaply as possible without being made by the million, all of the same size and shape. If the right hon. Gentleman will consult the admirable architects on his Advisory Committee, Mr. Keay and Mr. de Soissons, I think I know the advice he will get, and if he takes it he will not be responsible for inflicting huge numbers of houses on this country, all with the same windows and doors.
§ The Minister of Health (Mr. Aneurin Bevan)
Some of the loveliest crescents in this country have the same sized windows and doors.
§ Mr. Willink
In a crescent, yes, but not in every crescent. What I am suggesting is that although it may be necessary to give such orders as result in a minimum price, you will get as good a price for a thousand doors, as for 250,000 all of the same size.
Another matter only slightly touched upon by the right hon. Gentleman was the question, a very large question indeed, of the deferred maintenance and repair of existing property. In March last, his predecessor gave a rough indication of the allocation which, as he saw the position,' would be necessary and desirable during the first year, as between the repair of bomb damage, the repair and maintenance of existing structures, and new building. With regard to existing buildings, of course they need for their repair and maintenance all sorts of varied building components, and there are many factories' producing those components which, I am assured, will not produce to full capacity if the Government insist on an excessive measure of standardisation. 'There will not only be the disadvantage of loss of production, but necessary work will not be provided for, and I hope the Government will both watch the balance of labour allocated for these various purposes and also see that there is no loss of production through a doctrinaire insistence on the production of standardised articles, when existing plant cannot in fact produce those standardised articles.
The Minister of Works seemed to indicate that the power for which he is asking, for distribution of all these building materials was strictly limited to certain special fields. I sincerely hope that is so, because all the information I have is to 921 this effect, that since the right hon. Gentleman has been, in office, there has been very little consultation with the building material industry and none at all with the distributors, the builders' merchants' organisations. I warn the Government most seriously that if they are going to set up, in this complicated field of distribution, a parallel organisation, they will get into a sad mess. We have seen troubles in the distribution of components of temporary houses, and I hope the Minister of Health will give us a clearer picture of the Government's plans.
I have referred to the Press conference held by the Minister of Supply. From all I have been able to gather the effect of that conference upon those who were there was most discouraging. Certainly from this Bill, one would have no idea that the Minister of Supply was to be so heavily involved. It strikes me that over a large field the Minister of Works is something of a lay figure, and the most conspicuous example of confusion and obscurity for the public, the House and producers is that orders for prefabricated houses are going to be in the hands of two Ministers. From the Minister's speech I got no clear picture of which would be in the hands of the Minister of Supply and which in his hands. What is the clarification the Minister has achieved? I have little doubt that the Minister of Health will seek to adhere—I hope he will—to his general responsibility for housing policy. Where is the responsibility for the design of permanent prefabricated houses? Is it with the Minister of Health, is it with the Minister of Works, is it with the Minister of Supply? Is design going to be wholly-separated from production? Is the Minister of Works in regard to permanent prefabricated houses, to be a sort of post office between the Minister of Health and the Minister of Supply, and with all these components, to whom is the harassed manufacturer to look? Is he to look to the Ministry of Supply or the Ministry of Works? I find it most obscure. [Laughter.] If hon. Gentlemen opposite find it clear, I congratulate them, because there is certainly no warrant in the Bill for any conclusion which they have formed.
The list of components which the public were told through the industrial correspondents would be the concern of 922 the Department of Housing supplies in the Ministry of Supply is very long, but there was no indication at that conference, as fully reported in the Press, of the extent and the scale on which the Government were proposing to go into this business. The great trouble in the country at the moment—not least in housing—is the uncertainty which His Majesty's Government are producing, and nowhere is this going to be more disastrous than in the field of equipment and components for housing. For six months I have been concerned over the shortage of a large number of essential articles needed for housing.—cookers are a very good example; but how can producers know how to plan their businesses in face of a Bill of this extreme vagueness, only slightly qualified, and not at all as to quantum, by the speech of the Minister of Works?
I pass to the proposed assumption of local authority housing functions which one finds in Clause I (1, c)—the power to carry out on behalf of any local authority work undertaken by the housing authority under Part V of the Housing Act, 1936. I entirely agree that there are small housing authorities which have not the experience, skill or personnel to carry out the housing drive that we all want to see accomplished in the shortest possible space of time. We would use all agencies for that purpose, but I cannot believe that it is healthy for the Ministry to do anything to lessen one of the great features of this country, the keen local civic sense which one finds in so many places in connection with their housing responsibilities. There was a visit to this country during the war by a distinguished housing director from the United States. He formed the view that this country had something most valuable which his country had not, in that there had been developed—not everywhere but very widely—a keen local sense of responsibility. I should regard it as disastrous if any local authority could say, because of the terms of this Bill, "We think we will lie back. This Government is prepared to do everything on our behalf." The result would not only be a sad diminution in the vigour and life of our local government, but there would also inevitably be the introduction of standardised, centralised housing which I 923 hope would not be at all to the taste of the Minister of Health.
I come to the financial arrangements proposed by the Bill, and take in the first place the raising of the limit of the cost of the temporary programme by£50,000,000. I, and I think the Minister of Works, remain convinced that a programme of this character with all its disadvantages was necessary to mitigate the shortages of the first year. It is all the more necessary now in view of the terribly restrictive policy which the present Government has introduced into housing. But a great deal that has occurred points a moral when the House is considering uncontrolled expenditure. In passing may I ask for information at a later stage on this point? The Minister of Works told us that temporary houses were now being produced at the rate of 400 to 500 a week, 2,000 a month, 165,000 of them to come. That is a very lamentable rate of progress. It is a sadly little increase since last July.
§ Mr. Willink
Four months have run, a period for which all previous plans were based on a far more rapid acceleration than has been achieved by the Minister. I hope he is planning to speed up this programme which in its nature is only desirable as an emergency matter, to the utmost possible extent. Naturally one looks at the most striking example of the cost of this programme, the aluminium house. When an increase of£50,000,000 is asked for it can be looked at in various ways. From one point of view the increase is made necessary by three quite simple causes. In the first place the loss of the great bulk of the American houses adds to the cost of the programme something like£10,000,000.
§ Mr. Willink
That is as I have worked it out. Surely, compared with Lend-Lease, 22,000 American houses now have to be replaced by British houses at£1,000 each instead of something vastly less.
§ Mr. Willink
Yes, but the difference between£800 and the average of the British produced houses multiplied by 22,000 would amount to a great deal. If I am wrong I will apologise to the right hon. Gentleman. Secondly, in spite of the somewhat disparaging observations by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health with regard to this programme, I see that even since the date of this White Paper the provisional programme has gone up by another 7,000 houses, and of course by 20,000 since the White Paper of March, 1944.
The worst addition to the cost arises on the increased cost of the aluminium house which six weeks ago had reached a provisional figure, subject to negotiation, of£1,365 per house. I think the House of Commons would like to know whether the Minister of Works is able to give a rather firmer figure than he was able to do in the White Paper. I should like to know how this figure is arrived at. The aluminium house is made out of material which is the property of the Government. At what price is that material transferred from one Department to another? Why is this house so terribly costly? and if it is so costly, why is it that the programme is to buy and erect far more of the most expensive houses than of any other kind—no less than 54,500? For all I know the additional 7,000 may also be aluminium houses.
We were told in the right hon. Gentleman's speech that not more' than one-third of the total cost is represented by the hull. What percentage of the aluminium house is represented by the hull, and what will be the cost falling on the taxpayer of a house which I hope is still only intended to last 10 years, costing this enormous sum? This was the baby of the present President of the Board of Trade and it is a warning of what can happen if expenditure by Government Departments is uncontrolled, as it is in the Measure brought before us. Can the House, in view of that story, as far as it has gone—and the price is still subject to negotiation and may for all I know have gone up to£1,850—£ be content to leave the Minister of Works with no more obligation than is imposed by Clause 2? I and all my hon. Friends on this side and I hope many others will say "No"; the controls are not sufficient nor adequate.
925 May we know what are the limits to adventures in factory-made houses which may be made by the Minister of Works and approved by the Minister of Health? There should surely be some limit, and some procedure by which the House is told of the deals that are being done with local authorities in regard to these factory-made houses. I entirely appreciate that the early examples will be expensive. But the great advantage of the factory-made house lay in the hope that it would be a competitor with the brick-built house. I have always looked forward to the factory-made house being a potent influence to bring down housing costs. But, if arrangements are to be made which are unlimited financially, that advantage may be entirely lost, and the amount of money which the House is being asked to sanction under this Bill is unlimited. The House of Commons is under an obligation to watch these operations far more closely than it will be able to do under the Bill as drafted.
The story, so far as we were given it, of -the prefabricated houses was disappointing. There was no indication of any orders on any bulk scale having been given yet. All we had from the right hon. Gentleman was a description of the same process that we had been going through during a period of total war, still going forward slowly. I am sorry he has been so slow during the last four months; he has had vastly greater opportunities than we had while the country was at war with Germany and Japan. The objectives we all have are two: the most rapid total production, with particular emphasis on the families, small as yet, of those who have married in such enormous numbers during the war. The letters which I find most difficult are those from a young man and his wife with one child who, if they go to the local authority, are placed very low on the priority list because of so many other cases which stand in front of them. The second objective is reduction in cost. We on this side feel, so far as numbers are concerned, that the Minister of Health has already gravely prejudiced production by his discouragement of private enterprise. Now in the last few days he has again discouraged production by adding 75 square feet and a large amount of plumbing and equipment to the ordinary standard house. The only way in which I could be reconciled to that would be if he could tell us 926 that he is in favour, as I was, of temporarily dividing the large scale permanent house into two small flats, a plan approved by many of all parties in the last Parliament, as making admirable homes for just those young married couples with one child for a period of two or three years.
I do not know if the right hon. Gentleman has seen the experiments, but I have seen one. A house like that can be divided into two flats, one with two bedrooms and one with one bedroom, and they would be a most useful adjunct to our housing. Unless we are willing to provide a very large number of small houses in the next two or three years, we shall be crying for the moon and losing what is good by crying for the best at a time of very great emergency. So far as cost is concerned, the policy of this Bill, unless it is limited in its application, is, I am convinced, likely to be damaging to the programme. Unless, in particular, there is some undertaking to report regularly on the progress of the fund, to limit what is at present the unlimited scope for arrangements for making losses between the two Ministers who are sitting beside one another opposite me, I am afraid this Bill will continue to be very unsatisfactory to those who sit on these benches.
Finally, I am bound to express what I am sure must be, if hon. Members search their hearts, the feeling of disappointment at the speech of the Minister this afternoon, in which he did not in one sentence or one word give one indication of the date on which we were to get any house of any kind whatever.
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ Captain Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)
It is with due humility that I rise on this occasion to make my maiden speech.' As I have sat here these last few months, I have seen numbers of hon. Gentlemen rise and make flawless speeches, and I have said to myself, "Today it is now or never with me." You, Sir, have decided it is now, and, with the indulgence of the House, I hope you will not think at the end of my speech I should have chosen the other alternative. I am particularly pleased to have caught your eye, Sir, on a housing Debate, because to my mind it is the subject which, next to demobilisation, is agitating the hearts and minds of the people of the country. But 927 in this we must, I think, keep a due sense of proportion. We cannot expect His Majesty's Government to repair in five months the ravages of centuries of neglect of the great housing problem.
The Minister of Health in his speech a few weeks ago outlined the scope of this problem and decided—and with him I agree—that the bulk of the housing programme must be to provide homes for rent, and for rent at reasonable rates, so that the people who are now without houses, or are living in overcrowded, insanitary conditions shall have suitable accommodation as soon as possible. From my own experience, I believe there is no problem at all for the well-to-do. I have tried to find a house myself in London, and in the space of 20 minutes I could have bought 50 houses at a price from£2,000 upwards, but, of course, a Member's salary does not run to that. I would go further than the Minister has gone. He is allowing£1,200 for the local authorities for the building of houses. I would say that not one brick and not one workman should be diverted from the provision of houses to rent until such advertisements as we see in the papers for houses at£2,000 and£3,000 have completely disappeared.
I want to deal for a while with this problem of temporary housing, because I think it has not had sufficient attention paid to it. In my own constituency of Stockton-on-Tees we have been faced with this problem of young people returning from the Forces, of people who have been living two and three families in one house, and I know a case of people actually being born, living and dying in one room. I know of a family of 11 living in one room; a baby was born, the baby died, and there it had to remain until the funeral, for want of other accommodation. Whatever the faults of these temporary houses—and there are plenty—they are designed to meet an immediate need, and for that reason I welcome this Bill which will enable the Minister to proceed with completing this temporary housing programme.
I would like to say a few words about the American type of house, because it has given rise to considerable alarm in my constituency. As part of our programme, we were allotted 66 of these houses. We had to take them; we did not particularly want them. I was present 928 when the first crate was undone. I saw a magnificent maple wood floor laid on the prepared foundation, and I thought this was the very thing we wanted. That was three months ago, and up to the present we have not got one of those temporary houses ready for occupation, because they have been seriously deficient in certain articles. Parts of them have been damaged coming over, and there have been no spare parts. The water system has been wrong for the water in the constituency. At this moment, as I say, there is not one ready. I believe that all the jerry-building firms in America rubbed their hands with glee and rushed in to fulfil these contracts, and I, for one, am not sorry that the end of Lend-Lease has come with regard to these American types of houses. But it does not alter the fact that these temporary houses are a solution, and for the returning Forces coming home now and being demobilised these houses will serve their purpose for the time being. In the last five or six years the men in the Forces have had no privacy of any kind, and no private lives; they have lived in barracks, grand hotels and castles all over the globe. I am quite sure that, with all their faults, these temporary houses will give them a satisfactory home for the first time in their married lives and for that purpose alone they are worth while.
But this programme of building is not only a technical one. In fact, I think that this is the least important part of it. To my mind, this is a social problem, and the social security and housing problems are very closely interwoven. On that ground I would like to say a few words about rent. I believe that houses should be let, not because of the rents which the intending occupants can pay, but because of their need. To my mind, we have got to build for need and, as I say, not for profit. I would like to give an example of that from my own constituency; it is very apposite, I think. In 1927, there was half cleared a slum area. The part that was cleared went to a new housing estate; 710 people went to a new, well-built, well-designed, well-equipped housing estate, and the other half remained in the slum area. Before this move, the death rate in this slum area was 18.75 per 1,000. The next five years saw a tremendous change in this death rate; on the new estate, the death rate rose from 18.75 to 26.71 per 1,000. In the slum area it 929 became 20.45. That is a significant factor, and it must be borne in mind by the Minister of Health and the Minister of Works at this time. This great increase in the death rate in what was apparently an ideal housing site, was not explained by the number of old people dying, or the number of young people dying, because the incidence of death was spread over the intervening groups. It can be explained in this way as a contributory factor. The average rent in the slum area was 4s. 8d. a week. When the population moved to the new area the rent went up 9s. Ninety per cent, of the people were unemployed on this estate, and that 9s. was roughly 31 per cent, of their weekly budget. I think we can agree that that left nothing, or practically nothing, with which to buy food. As a matter of fact, under 3s. a week per man was available to buy food for these people. We have to keep that in mind in considering the cost of these houses. We have got to see that the rent in each case is not what is called an economic rent to reimburse the Minister of Works or the local authority for the exact cost of the house, because if we did that now with these temporary houses at the fantastic price of over£1,000 each, it would mean that something like£1 per week would have to be charged for the rent of these houses.
I submit that at. the present time the maximum rent that we can expect for any new house that is being built to rent for ordinary people is 10s., or even under. I would say that 10s. is rather high. That means that the money that is available in this fund for the Minister of Works has got to be used to make up the difference between that 10s. or the£1, or whatever would be the cost of the economic rents of these buildings. I disagree emphatically with the right hon. Gentleman who preceded me, that we have to have some kind of balance between what is spent and what is returned on these houses. In my opinion, this is a great social problem. It affects the whole of the community, and the cost must be borne not by the tenant nor by the local authority but by the community as a whole. On those grounds, I welcome this Bill. I will be brief because we have had many speeches on this problem of housing. If words were bricks and if eloquent speeches were houses, there would be no problem, but I believe that one man on the job with a wheelbarrow 930 or a spade or a trowel can do more than any speech.
We have had references to a military operation dealing with the housing problem. Acting on that basis, in the Government we have a chief of staff in the Minister of Health who has made his appreciation of the situation; he has decided a policy which is to be followed. This afternoon we have had the details of setting up a great quartermaster's store to deal with the housing problem, and I must say that the forceful and direct language of the Minister of Works was in keeping with quartermasters whom 1 have met. We have got to see flowing into this store all the things that we want—doors, baths, door-knobs, window-panes, lavatories and all the rest of it, but I implore him not to get the quartermaster mentality that we have in the Army. In the Army you ask for a thing, and the first reply you get from the quartermaster is, "We have not got it." We have got to see that the articles coming into these storehouses are passed out as quickly as possible, where they are wanted and in the numbers in which they are wanted. We have a chief of staff. We have got the quartermaster-general, but we have not got the men. This problem can only be tackled if we have got all three working in harmony. I want my right hon. Friends the Minister of Health and the Minister of Works to get hold of the other part of the trinity, the Minister of Labour, and make him the sergeant-major if you like, who will say, "Give us the men from the Forces who have had anything to do with building." Then let us march them along to the site, and for Heaven's sake let us get on with the job and break the back of this great problem before it breaks the hearts of many of the people in this country.
§ 5.0 p.m.
§ Mr. David Eccles (Chippenham)
I am glad to have the opportunity of congratulating the hon. and gallant Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Captain Chetwynd) both on choosing housing as the subject of his maiden speech, and on the very sympathetic and informed way in which he dealt with it. The House of Commons wants to hear the facts about housing, and the hon. and gallant Member gave us some facts about which we shall all think. I especially followed him in what he said about the temporary housing programme. I am sure he is right. We have to put our backs into that programme.
931 The Minister of Works, in introducing this Bill, said that he hoped there was a genuine desire in all parts of the House for houses, and that if there was we should all wish the Bill well. There is a very genuine desire, so far as I am concerned, for the houses. I think we are all ready and anxious to adopt new building methods and new building agencies, if those methods and agencies promise to be efficient. For my part, I am ready to take risks in order to get the houses. Indeed, it is a relief to find the Government introducing a control like bulk purchase which is, after all, a positive control. For once in a way the Government are going to tell somebody to do something and to make something which would not otherwise be produced. That is a very welcome change from the almost unbroken list of negative controls which are preventing industry and trade from breaking out of the deadlocks in which they are misplaced, or jammed, as the result of the war. I think I would carry the House with me if I said that an expansionist policy is the only one which will give us full employment and a high standard of life, and that in the armoury of modern employment policies would be found bulk purchase as one of the weapons.
I must now go on to say that all types of bulk purchase are not equally desirable. Some which are desirable when labour and materials are not in full use are highly undersirable when, as now, we are in a period of scarcity. It is because there is general agreement that if unemployment exists we should use bulk purchase to mop it up that a rather uncritical attitude has been adopted towards it. That is why we want to know precisely how the Minister of Works will use. this system now, so that we can judge of the probable effect on the speed and the cost of houses. That is what we are concerned with.
Bulk purchase is not new. We know a great deal about it from long experience. Take, for example*, the winning of the precious metal gold. For many years Central Banks have bought the whole output of gold at prices fixed by Statute. The interesting result has been the astonishing degree of efficiency in the mining of gold compared with the mining of some other minerals. Then there is agriculture, which is another extractive industry which has 932 gone ahead under a comprehensive scheme of bulk purchase and guaranteed markets. On this side of the House we recently welcomed the statement of the Ministers of Food and Agriculture that bulk buying of food was to continue. From my own experience I know how many bulk contracts for munitions were placed by the Supply Ministries during the war. He would be a bold man who said that the building of our corvettes and frigates was not materially speeded up by the placing of bulk orders for the bits and pieces that had to be fitted into their hulls in the shipyards. From all this experience we should approach bulk purchase of building components with hope and sympathy, but as I turn the matter over in my mind I see that there are many special snags and pitfalls, and since we are going to spend a great deal of money under the Bill I hope the House will allow me to dwell a little on the dangers which will attend the bulk purchase of building materials.
In the first place, bulk purchase from an existing factory is a very different thing from bulk purchase which entails the creation and manning up of new plant. Once again in this war we have learned that the erection of new plant always has its teething troubles. If speed of delivery is the objective—it is the Government's objective under the Bill—experience shows that it is better to use the whole of existing capacity to the full, unless it is hopelessly out of date, than to create new productive capacity. That is why we are very concerned on this side of the House about the statements made by the Minister of Supply at a Press Conference, that some 20 Royal Ordnance Factories, and maybe other factories as well, are going to be tooled and manned up for the production of building materials. We should like to have an assurance that none of this new capacity will be created until the existing capacity of the industry has been programmed to the full.
There is a very good reason for asking for that assurance. The output of building materials today is everywhere limited by shortage of labour. The reason that we have not enough baths coming forward is not that there is not the capacity to produce baths but that there is a shortage of foundrymen. It is no good creating new capacity to make baths if the result is merely to prevent the existing capacity 933 from being fully used. What goes for baths goes for many other types of building equipment. I am sure that the man in the street is much more interested in getting houses than he is in any theoretical approach to production. I believe that the House would welcome a statement that no theoretical ideas about owning the means of production are going to interfere with the speed of getting building materials of any kind whatsoever.
The second danger about bulk purchase is that it does not always give cheaper goods. If the Government were to appear as the only buyer of building materials that would almost certainly send up the prices. We are living in a human world in which there is no one so weak as the single buyer whose needs are known to be imperative, and there is no one so strong as the seller whose product is known to be essential. I have some firsthand experience of this matter because, during the early years of the war, I was one of those who bought, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the bitter orange crop of Spain and the sardine catch of Portugal. I can tell the House that we paid far too much in both instances, for the main reason that we were known to be the only United Kingdom buyers. So far as I can see, we shall be in a sellers' market of the same sort in the buying of building materials, at any rate for the life of the Bill.
I therefore ask the Government to be very careful in all the cost arrangements that they make, because they can have cross-checks and cost-accounting and do what they like, but when the materials are desperately needed and there is one buyer only, it will be extremely hard to keep prices down.
§ Mr. Robens (Wansbeck)
Would the hon. Gentleman indicate that that principle works the other way as well and when there is only one seller, as in buying sardines, the buyer is held to ransom?
§ Mr. Eccles
I entirely agree with the hon. Member. That is what we shall find when there is one seller of coal. I do not look forward to there being one seller of a main necessity of life. There are useful functions that bulk purchase can perform, even in a period of scarcity, but they are limited to two points. Bulk purchase enables the Government to get mass production of some standard designs.
934 That is a good thing. Secondly, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink) said, there are occasions when the demand increases so much that private industry is not able to provide the capital expenditure needed to increase productive capacity to meet the demand. Plaster board has been cited as an example. 1 want to ask the right hon. Gentleman who is to reply to tell us of any other major building material or component which the industry is incapable of producing in the volume which the Government require, or are unwilling to increase present capacity to give him the volumned production he requires.
§ Mr. Eccles
The Minister of Health has said that light castings is an example. So we have one instance. [An HON. MEMBER: "Wood."] I am seeking information. I am anxious to know. In default of a target for houses the building materials industry cannot know what quantities of materials are wanted at what dates, and they therefore cannot go ahead. The Minister of Works tells us with evident joy that he is setting up a large programming department, which must be programming something. Presumably they are programming the raw materials to reach a housing target which the Minister knows. That target is not known to the industry. If the industry knew the target, it might be able to promise delivery without all this creation of new productive capacity.
The third danger in bulk purchase has been touched upon already. It is that standardisation can go too far. I will again draw upon war experience, and give another reason in addition to that which was given by my right hon. and learned Friend. It is not only true that some factories have not got suitable equipment for producing standard fittings but it is also true that production of non-standard equipment has to be maintained in order that repairs and replacements and other building can be carried on. During the war, many manufacturers had to be told either greatly to reduce, or even to stop, their output of some new weapon or new piece of standard equipment in order that they might go back to maintaining the flow of spare parts for equipment which was already in use. This indicates a real 935 danger, because a manufacturer may well make more money out of a single contract that occupies all his productive capacity, so that the Minister would be well advised to place no bulk contract with any factory unless he is sure that the flow of spare parts for equipment already in use will not be interfered with against the public interest.
I come now to the fourth, and I think the most important, provision in the matter of bulk purchase. It is no good arranging for very large quantities of goods to be produced if the distribution system is not sufficiently efficient to get the goods from the factories to the building sites on time. I confess I could not quite follow what the Minister of Works said on this most important matter. I understood clearly that there was to be a Ministerial system of distribution for the bits and pieces of the temporary houses. I also understood him to say that the builders' merchants, or the normal channels, were to play some big continuing part. I want to ask whether all the materials associated with permanent houses of the traditional type are to be distributed through the normal channels. After all, we have had some experience of Ministerial distribution. Any hon. Member who was interested in the 3,000 agricultural workers' cottages that were erected in 1943 will know that the distribution of the materials added greatly to the delay and the cost. Today we are considering not 3,000 houses, but, let us say, 300,000 houses, and therefore, the job of distribution will be 100 times greater. The civil servants will be more or less the same people, but—and this, I think, is an important point—the Minister of Works told us there are to be three Departmental delivery schedules all of which have to be tied in. There wilt be the production schedules of the Ministry of Works for the major building materials; there will be the production schedules of the Ministry of Supply for the components, and then, to my horror, I heard there is to be a Board of Trade production schedule for the timber. This means that somebody—and I would like to know who—will have to dovetail those three production schedules into the contractors' progress charts. That will be a matter of very great difficulty and will cause many a headache. I am glad I 936 am not responsible for dealing with that matter.
While on the subject of distribution, I would like to tell the House exactly what is happening in regard to the deliver}' of bricks in Chippenham. Last week I warned the Minister of Health that I intended to raise this point. The Chippenham builders have had before them two quotations for bricks, one at 121s. a thousand, delivered to the site, from a Bristol firm—the only big brickfield in the neighbourhood, as the hon. Member for Thornbury (Mr. Alpass) will know—and the other from the London Brick Company for 82s. yd. a thousand, delivered to Chippenham station, and on to that one must add 10s. for haulage to the site, because the Minister of Works in his wisdom will not allow anybody to charge less than 10s. for hauling bricks even 100 yards. That is a good piece of State control. The two comparable quotations for bricks which the builders are considering for Council houses at Chippenham are 121s. on the one side, and 92s. 7d. on the other. The' Minister of Works has forbidden the London Brick Company to sell in the Chippenham area, with the result that the cost of the houses will be put up by£ 35–25,000 bricks at 30s. a thousand extra. I ask the Minister who is to pay the extra£35, which is the direct result of State control? Is it to be the general body of taxpayers? Is it to be the ratepayers of Chippenham, or the tenants of the houses? Somebody will have to pay£ 35 a house more, on account of State control, under Government order. This is a matter of principle, and it may affect many other materials besides bricks. I have examined the brick question very carefully.
§ Mr. A. Bevan
What brick is involved? What was the type of brick for which the London Brick Company quoted?
§ Mr. Eccles
I do not know the name of the brick, but I asked the contractor whether it was suitable. He said that, with the exception of a very few bricks that might be needed in some foundation work, the bricks were entirely interchangeable.
§ Mr. Eccles
I can only say that the contractor said that the bricks were inter- 937 changeable. I have not much knowledge of what a Fletton brick is. From all this, I hope the House will recognise that bulk purchase, although it may be very desirable, as I think it is, in times of unemployment, is not so speedy or efficient as some people would have us believe when we are in a period of scarcity. When labour and materials are as short as they are now, the ordinary man in the street may think that this Bill is putting the cart before the horse. What is the use of all this money if the labour is not there to produce the goods the Government want? If speed and cheapness are their primary object, would they not be better advised to study some drastic speed-up in the demobilisation scheme instead of advertising that there is£100,000,000 or more of public money spent on scarce materials? If the Government think they are going to get production by spending money before the labour is in the factory or brickfield, or on the building site, they are making a great mistake. All that will happen is that prices will go up.
Where are we going in this matter of the total cost of the building programme? We ought to have had some figures by this lime to enable us to know what proportion of the national resources is to be devoted to the housing programme. I do not suppose that the average cost of permanent and temporary houses will be kept clown to£1,200, but if it is, and supposing that 400,000 of both are erected by 1947, where will the£500,000,000 come from? After listening to the Budget statement two or three weeks ago, we know that none of the money under this Bill is to come out of revenue. All the revenue is already mortgaged. Is then the money to come from the genuine savings of the people or from inflationary additions to the National Debt? I am waiting for the day when the Government will face the fact that in time of high employment it is impossible to finance a great capital programme without causing inflation except from the genuine savings of the people. I know it is unpopular to suggest that we have not enough money and resources to carry out all the promises that were made at the General Election, but having looked at the Budget, and seeing what this Bill and other matters of reconstruction are going to cost, I begin to wonder which will break first 938 —the promises or the price-level. The financial situation of the country is very strained, and we ought not to waste a penny. Under this Bill vast sums of money are to be spent; I wish I could be certain that not a penny will be wasted. Only time will show whether the Minister and his colleagues are going to use this money to get true value.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his courage, because he is assuming in this Bill complete responsibility for the whole of the housing programme from the erection of complete houses down to the price and provision of every brick. He is a brave man, and as I and all my hon. Friends on this side want the houses to be built, we wish him luck in his endeavours, but let him not think that if he or the Government fail anywhere in any corner of the housing programme, they can now put the blame on to the industry, the builders' merchants, or on to any private agency or citizen, or on to the local authorities. This Bill stops a resort to any such alibi; all is concentrated on their heads. They are, and they will be, held responsible.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Yates (Birmingham, Ladywood)
I approach what to me is a most formidable task in addressing this great Assembly for the first time, but I know that there will be extended to me that generosity which the House always extends to an hon. Member making his maiden speech. I felt an urge to take part in this Debate not because I have any special knowledge of the housing problem or because I can throw any special rays of light upon the subject; indeed, in this respect I am only too conscious of my own shortcomings. I feel very similar to a former Member of Parliament for Birmingham who was elected to the House in 1876, and after having sat silent in the. Chamber for three months rose to make his maiden speech. I refer to Mr. Joseph Chamberlain. In that speech, it is recorded in HANSARD, he said:he had so recently come into the House that he felt reluctant to trespass on its time, being of the opinion he should best show his respect to the Assembly he was so proud to enter by refraining from, addressing it while inexperienced in its forms and practices, but the question under discussion was one in which he was deeply interested.I feel similarly today. I desire to submit to the House some evidence from 939 the constituency which I have the honour to represent. The constituency of Lady-wood will no doubt bring memories to hon. and right hon. Gentlemen because during the past 20 years it has been represented by two Cabinet Ministers, one of whom rose to the rank of Prime Minister. I can well remember that when the late Mr. Neville Chamberlain was representing the constituency 18 years ago, I became councillor for a ward in the constituency, and at that time I could not contemplate worse conditions of overcrowding, but today I have to admit with some anxiety, that the position is infinitely more serious than anything it was then possible to contemplate. As far as Birmingham is concerned, the problem may be divided into two parts. In the first place, there are at the present time 30,000 people residing in rooms, most of them being ex-Service-men waiting for houses; and to provide that number of people with houses in Birmingham will mean that we shall have to construct within our city buildings equivalent to a town the size of Wolverhampton. The second problem is the one to which I want specially to refer, and concerning which I want to make a special appeal to the Minister. It is the problem of the very large number of houses in Birmingham which are at present in a state of disrepair. I have in my possession a report, published in the "Birmingham Press" in which the public works committee of the city is bringing before the City Council a redevelopment scheme to deal with 26,183 houses.
We are told in this report that it is estimated that, throughout the city, there are 50,000 houses of such a standard that they can be condemned under the 1936 Housing Act. When I heard the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Croydon North (Mr. Willink) talking about the financial considerations, I could not but feel that thousands of my fellow citizens in Birmingham are not so much concerned about what it costs to build a house. This assembly did not argue so much during the war about what it cost to build a bomber, or an aerodrome, and these people having given of their best during years of war, now ask for the assistance of this House, without any financial discourse about how much it will cost for one type of house against another particular type.
940 I make a special appeal for the occupants of these houses, and I would bring three examples from my constituency to the notice of the House. In regard to the first example, I put a Question to the Minister of Health a few weeks ago about a case in Ladywood where there were 36 persons and there was only one lavatory available. The Minister's reply to me on that occasion was that it was a question of labour and materials, and that the corporation were doing their best. I welcome this Bill because it is giving power to the Government to deal with the question of materials, and it is on that question that I want specially to appeal to the Minister—that a fair share of labour and materials should be devoted to these very unhealthy houses, because we cannot wait until new houses are built. As regards the second example which I wish to put before the House, I would read part of a letter I received a few days ago, from a war widow. She says:My husband died and was buried at Munster in Germany after five years' service in the Army. I have five children, and we have only one room downstairs and one room up. The attic floor has fallen in and I am fed up telling the landlord. We all sleep in one room, three boys aged 12, 9 and 7 years, a girl aged 5 and baby 2 ½.Is it not reasonable to expect that a family like that should have the conditions made at least tolerable when the bread winner has paid the supreme sacrifice in the war?
For the third example, I quote another letter. A lady wrote to me a few days ago in these terms:I am shortly going into a sanatorium as I have got tuberculosis in one lung. Before I went away, I thought I would write and ask you if you could help me to get a house. The one I am living in is so badly in need of repair and is so damp that more often than not I stay downstairs because the bedclothes are too damp to get into. I also have two little boys who have to share the same bedroom as my husband and myself as the other room is not fit to put them in. Please help me to get out of this place. I am 25 years of age and I do not want to die yet, but if I have to live here when I come out of the sanatorium I know I shall be back in there again before very long. My mother died since coming to live here with tuberculosis, so you can understand that I do not want the same thing to happen to my little boys that has happened to my mother and myself. The house we are in is a terrace house which has one room downstairs and two small rooms upstairs. The landlord will not repair them, as they have been condemned for six. years.941 With characteristic humility, she concludes her letter by saying:1 must apologise for taking up your time, but I am getting desperate and hope you can help me.Those, I submit, are the words of a real English lady, whose patience and fortitude must commend themselves to every hon. Member of this House. This is a human document, an appeal through an elected representative to this, the highest court in the land
Such are the conditions in modern Birmingham. The cases which I have outlined are not isolated cases. I should not feel so distressed if they were isolated cases. But, added to this great burden, we have had in Birmingham the results of the air raids. Strewn right across the city from end to end we see heaps of debris and brickbats, harbouring rats and vermin to a terrifying degree—I say that with a good deal of personal experience—to a terrifying degree, hitherto unknown in the history of our city. I would submit that, in my judgment, the management of unhealthy property ought to be taken out of the hands of private enterprise. In fact, when I consider the terrible consequences of the atomic bomb which fell upon the town of Hiroshima, I sometimes think of areas such as I have seen in Birmingham, that it would serve a very useful purpose if we were to evacuate all the people from this area, place an atomic bomb in the centre, and flatten it completely. I think we could then coin a new word, "Hiroshimation," which would be more important than "nationalisation," so far as this unhealthy property is concerned.
The Minister of Health 'has a great opportunity of giving practical expression to the revolutionary fervour which has characterised his activities in the past. I have listened to him with very great interest at Labour Party Conferences at which he has, sometimes, been referred to as "enjoying his annual day out." He has now a very great responsibility, and, to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench, I would say that ours in a tremendous responsibility. This Government will stand or fall as a Government, not by what they do about demobilisation, or by what they do about the atomic bomb, but by the power and drive that they put into this great housing programme. One other word concerning our ability to provide employment 942 for our people. Surely this country will never tolerate unemployment for long, when people are in need of houses to this extent.
Having spoken to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, I would say to right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite, that I come here as a new hon. Member, in the place of one of their former colleagues. I represent the ordinary people of one of the wealthiest cities in the world, a city whose proud boast it has been that it is the city of a thousand trades. In war, the city has produced munitions, machines, aeroplanes and guns, and, in time of peace, it turns its hands to the great crafts, to art and culture; yet, in this city of a thousand trades, thousands of men and women who have helped to create this great wealth are stabled worse than animals. That is the fact which I wanted to bring to the notice of this Assembly. Our brothers and sisters are herded together in this manner, which I can only describe in the words used by William Morris in referring to the slums of London. He said:Places of torture for innocent men and women, or worse, stews for rearing and breeding men and women in such degradation that that torture would seem to them mere ordinary and natural life—places whore crimes of class murder are committed.We want to see houses going up as quickly as the munition factories went up during the war, as speedily as the aerodromes were built. I would say to all hon. Members of this House that there is something very significant in the Election figures. Britain is awake, demanding social justice, and, in welcoming this Bill, which gives the Minister and the Government the power to move forward in a great drive to solve this problem, I say that no rings, no combines and no vested interest must be allowed to block the way. The people have made up their minds. In this country, they are determined that something shall be done to solve this great problem. They have, as it were, become awakened, at the call of the great poet, Shelley, who called upon—Men of England, heirs of glory,Heroes of unwritten story,Nurslings of one mighty Mother,Hopes of her and one another;Rise like lions after slumberIn unvanquishable number,Shake your chains to earth like dewWhich in sleep had fallen on youYe are many—they are few.943 I ask this House to take up this Bill, to hold it as a torch and to carry it forward in helping to solve one of the greatest of all human tasks—the provision of homes for our people.
§ 5.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Bossom (Maidstone)
I think we have all been very much touched by the very human appeal which has just been made by the hon. Member for Lady wood (Mr. Yates). 'The hon. Member undoubtedly feels the situation very keenly, and I am sure that we shall all look forward to hearing more speeches from him, and, if he will bring more of that human touch into our Debates, his speeches will really be very valuable.
After expressing pleasure at the speech of the hon. Member for Lady wood, I am afraid that I must speak, myself, with a certain amount of sadness. I am rather disturbed because I feel we need houses and we are not getting houses. The matter that has disturbed me so very much is the terribly slow progress that has been made during the building season this year. We cannot put houses up in the middle of the cold weather, and much valuable time has been lost this season. I think it is regrettable; we shall all, in whatever part of the House we sit, be sorry for this. I am also worried to see that housing is being treated as a political issue. I have said before in this House that the building of houses is a constructional task, not a political issue. As I see it now, we are liable to get involved in the political question instead of keeping to the construction of homes.
This Bill deals largely with finance. It does not inspire me with much confidence, when I think of the pressing housing demands of the people. Over a million young couples today want houses. They do not want to hear us talk about money, they must have homes. But we have to do so; it is one of our serious considerations, and for it we are responsible to the nation. This Bill does three things. First, it calls upon every Member here to vote to provide this£100 million revolving building fund, the existence of which permits the Minister of Health to tell the Minister of Works to do literally anything he likes for or with the building industry. I cannot think of anything he cannot do with this money under this Bill.
§ Mr. Bossom
I am afraid that the interjection of the Minister was hardly the full story. What will be done with this£100 million? The industry has existed for a great many years and has done a vast quantity of work. It was fully equipped to do this. If the Minister had brought in a Bill saying, "I want a great demobilisation scheme to see that we get the men out of the services to do the work," I think the House would have felt happier.
The Bill indicates that this£100 million fund may be refunded, but Clause 4 (3) refers to its repayment being provided by Parliament—in other words, loss is anticipated, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink) said. There is no doubt that there is a possibility of losing the whole of this sum, and we must realise that today we are giving a blank cheque to the Minister for£100 million.
§ Mr. Bossom
Then the Bill provides that if the Minister of Works, in agreement with the Minister of Health, should provide local authorities with prefabricated permanent houses at a higher cost than that at which it would be possible to build a similar traditional house, this House has to provide all the money needed to make up the difference. No one has yet told me—and possibly I know as much about pre-fabrication as the average person—why a prefabrication house should cost more. It is a fact, and no one can deny this, that in the country where they use prefabrication much more than we do, they are actually able to pay a mechanic four times as much an hour as we can, and, at the same time, erect a commercial building at the same cubic price as we can. There is something wrong with our handling of the system if we cannot do better than was indicated by the Minister. I do not know whether it is the Government's handling of the situation or not, but those facts as 945 to the costs cannot be refuted. But this possibility of bearing these higher charges means that we are here giving another blank cheque to the Government to spend just as they like on the housing situation. Clause 5 provides for£50 million, in addition to the existing£150 million which we voted before for the production of houses under the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act, 1944. What is the£50 million going to do? We have seen the figures in the White Paper. The Ministry have already spent or committed themselves to spend£184,669,470—in other words, this is in fact paying a deficit of£34 millions odd which exists today. The Ministry is already committed to this expenditure, otherwise this White Paper figure does not mean much. The Ministry have agreed to purchase 158,480 prefabricated temporary houses. This all means that in this Bill we are asked to pay two huge blank cheques and make good an existing overdraft with but little over. It is useless the Government denying those facts, and I feel sure the Minister himself, who understands his Bill, will agree.
§ Mr. Tomlinson
I am not disagreeing with the argument of the hon. Gentleman, but if he will look at the last paragraph in the White Paper, he will find that, provided Parliament is prepared to find the money, we shall enter into those commitments. It does not follow that we have entered into them.
§ Mr. Bossom
I am interested to hear that the Government are not yet committed to the 158,480 houses as we had been led to believe.
§ Mr. Bossom
I thank the Minister much for explaining, for I was under a misapprehension. With this situation of Parliament being asked to provide the funds for these two blank cheques and the large overdraft, would it not be appropriate that Parliament be given the exact state of this account once every quarter disclosing how the situation stands instead of only about once a year as the Bill provides? I am sure that is perfectly fair in the circumstances.
May I now look briefly at these three financial items once more? Bulk purchase, on the face of it, may look very attractive, but in a situation of this sort 946 shall we get real competition? We have heard that the 20 ordnance factories are to start housing production but we know that if they are to equip themselves with tools, jigs and so forth, that alone cannot be done in less than a year, and in this, I doubt if we shall get any competition at all? It is indeed much to be doubted. Again, all building materials so manufactured or purchased have to be widely distributed, and that is not easy. It is all very well with bulk purchase where you deal with one or a few items, but where you have to collect several hundred, assemble them and then distribute them again, there is great difficulty and liability to confusion and delay. Does the Minister realise that there are no fewer than 30 different trades concerned in the average building and all have their bits and pieces gathered from all over the country, and that having brought all those items together in assembling plants they have to be shipped out again and delivered to the housing sites in proper sequence? If they are not there in proper sequence, what happens is delay and trouble. I doubt if there is a Member of this House who has not had complaints about the way distribution has been held up in his division because odd pieces have not come when needed. A very great number of the present programme of prefabricated houses have been seriously held up on this account.
Let us carry this one stage further. The Minister has assumed full responsibility for everything now. He has relieved the builders from the problem of getting these things for themselves which is the normal and traditional procedure. The Minister is doing all that himself now. What will happen? One certainty is there will be an interminable amount of paper work, and that may easily be a cause of protracted delays. I really warn the Minister that he will encounter these delays; he cannot avoid them, I fear, if he takes full control on his own shoulders and eliminates the system which has grown up through the years and is known to everybody in the building industry. He said he would allow builders' merchants to play a certain part, but he was rather cryptic; he did not say how much they would do or how they would fit in. Builders' merchants understand the building game, and I assure him that he will have a very real problem if he jumps in 947 and attempts to handle distribution without their aid. May I take the liberty of suggesting that he should get the best and most experienced help he can on the subject of distribution of materials, for its absence or bad handling eliminates site planning. Site planning is not, in the normal way, recognised by the uninitiated, but if you do not have all the materials and equipment at the right place at the right time, it is exceedingly confusing, and adds exceedingly to the cost of all building operations.
May I tell the House what happened in the case of Maidstone due to slow deliveries and so forth? The Minister may know that these facts are strictly accurate. It was agreed that Maidstone should have 132 emergency prefabricated bungalows, and it was agreed that work should start on 4th June. German prisoners were sent to do the ground work. They were good workers, they worked hard; I do not like the Germans but I like their work. The first group after about two weeks were withdrawn and some others, who were thought to be Hitler Youths, were sent to take their place. The work practically stopped and was hung up until 13th August. These temporary houses should all have been finished, and could all have been finished easily by September. All the foundations were ahead of time, and everything to be done locally was finished for all the 132. To date, we have had 53 of the hulls delivered, 48 have been erected, 44 of the interiors have been delivered, 34 of the interiors have been installed, and five of the houses have been by last week finished. Now one more is completed to-day; that is, there are actually now only six of these houses by 26th November, when they ought all to have been finished in September. Is that the result of bulk purchase and bulk delivery when something goes wrong? The whole situation is most serious, for if the Minister's great plans go wrong on a huge scale, what will happen to the nation's housing scheme?
I want to ask a number of questions. How are the materials coming out? Are they being prepared? Where are they? Where are those component parts; do they exist yet? Are there any stocks? I asked a question and the Minister gave me a list of 76 items. May I mention just 14 items which are, I understand, not ready 948 for even today's requirements? They are baths, facing bricks, cast iron underground drain pipes, electric cookers, gas cookers, glass, locks and latches, electric meters, gas meters, steel sheets, steel tubes, timber, refrigerators—these, by the way, are not even mentioned. Yet the Minister told the House this afternoon about the fine equipment these houses are to have, and these refrigerators are not even on the list as either existent or nonexistent. Yet the houses are supposed to have them. This question of the needed materials coming to hand in time is a very trying problem. It is an unusual situation, and this Bill requires the Minister to collect and to provide all these things. In an emergency like this, would it not be much safer if the Government adhered a little closer to systems that are known and understood by the building industry? The system of production and distribution is well known and understood, and I hope the Minister will use the builders' merchants much more than he indicated in his speech.
§ Mr. Tomlinson
May I interrupt the hon. Gentleman?. I hope, when he attempts to condemn bulk purchase, he will recognise that it is dependent on supplies being available.
§ Mr. Bossom
Yes, but the Minister has said that he is going to take charge of all such items and those 20 ordnance factories are going to be an important source of production, and that he is going to get up to his peak production in time to meet the housing need. Surely by the plan he outlined he will not get up to peak production for a year and a half or two years from today. It is almost impossible and I assume he knows it. Why not get the peak production earlier by using existing factories and save possibly even a year by so doing? I am sure that the Minister understands the importance of this; I really fear that by following rigidly the process he outlined when speaking of controlling everything he may well delay the production of houses much more than he or the nation desires.
§ Mr. Tomlinson
We know that the ex-Minister has been attempting to encourage all the people that the hon. Member is speaking about to get on with the production.
§ Mr. Bossom
As has been said, the normal manufacturers in this country are 949 capable of producing the equipment for 500,000 houses a year. Two hundred and ninety-two thousand new houses were produced satisfactorily as the average for each year between 1931 and 1939, and in many years this number was greatly exceeded. Therefore, why stop these manufacturers and start to do the production by a new method, particularly during the emergency? Regarding the grant of money that is to be made to local authorities in respect of permanent prefabricated houses supplied by the Ministry, the Minister of Health has said that he would only recognise a traditional house built by a private builder which had 1,000 superficial feet. It has to have three bedrooms, living room, dining, kitchen, and bathroom, and land and services, and it must not cost more than£1,200. At the same time, the aluminium bungalow, covering an area of only about 636 superficial feet, and having only two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom and no land or services, is allowed to cost£1,365. There is something wrong somewhere if we are to spend that amount of money. Have not the taxpayers already paid for the aluminium which is to be used in the construction of these houses? I do not know what it is but something seems to have gone off the rails in respect to this house. The original estimate for prefabricated houses voted in this House was for 250,000 houses, but in answer to another Question I was told that for that money we were only going to get 125,000 houses. There again the Government control of the situation has not produced what they thought it would produce.
One of the best men in this country on building matters, the hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. G. Hicks), was a party to that estimate when it was made, and now, instead of getting those 250,000 prefabricated houses for£150,000,000, we are to get only 125,000. The£50,000,000 we are to vote now is, really, to pay off that overdraft and we shall get a few more houses. The House will think a lot over this production and see where the estimates have gone wrong. It seems largely due to the aluminium house, and I believe that the production of that type of house is not being done in the way that houses are built but in the way that aeroplanes are built. In regard to aeroplanes, you cannot have large tolerances, but in regard to houses you can have con- 950 siderable tolerances. There is something wrong and I ask the Minister to look into it.
Unless there is careful handling of the vast responsibility which the Minister is assuming, he will not achieve the goal at which he has aimed. He is liable to have a lot of serious disappointments and great unexpected expense. He will risk not getting the houses because of the difficulties of new methods which the building industry is not used to following. The building industry has an established proceedure and it is impossible to train a great building army overnight to follow new methods. I ask the Minister to be very careful, because these houses are vitally needed. Even at this very late date I would strongly urge the Minister to get the key-men out of the Forces. The Minister of Health rather chided me when he was making his first speech from that Box as Minister of Health on this point. We have urged in this House for nearly two years the release of key men. Houses cannot be built without them. On 22nd November the Minister said that only 691 technical officers had been released under Scheme B, and to have only 691 technical officers so far released is unfortunate. You cannot get bricks lifted or you cannot get a house built without the services of men, and speeches and White Papers will not do it. You have to have the men.
§ Mr. Bossom
The right hon. Gentleman was asked how many technical officers and he answered that the technical officers so far released under Scheme B numBèred 691. It is in HANSARD.
§ Mr. Bossom
There are 1,400 odd local authorities and many of them need two, three, four or half-a-dozen such men.
§ Mr. Bossom
I will ask the Minister that question, but anyway I say, "Get your key men out." Do let the builders who are equipped have the men so that they can get on with the task. Let the normal builders' merchants do the distribution. Try to get the size and type of house decided, and let private builders get on with that. In the end, they are the men who do the work, whether they do it for themselves or anyone else. You might let them do it voluntarily, and do it well. Give these men the opportunity to do the jobs they are used to doing rather than changing the system at this late day. I hope that the Minister will obtain practical advice, not that he has not good men at the Ministry of Works. I hope he will get the buildings so much needed, but I am certain he is more likely to get them if he adheres to methods that the industry understands, rather than trying out new ways when there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people waiting not too patiently for homes.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ Miss Jennie Lee (Cannock)
The Debate, so far, has been so placid that I was rather tempted not to rise to my feet at all. There is, obviously, no real division in the House on the main principles of the Bill, and I rise chiefly to ask one very simple question which is causing me great anxiety. We have a responsibility in this House that goes beyond the statement of broad general principles. We also have the responsibility of following through and seeing that proper steps are taken to implement the decisions of this House. The last time we discussed housing the Minister of Health was cheered when he said that he wished our main emphasis to be placed on the building of working-class houses, From that he went on to say that the local authority would be the main builder, and the local building firms would be asked to give tenders for the building of houses. There was no disagreement at all, at least on this side of the House, about those broad principles. But since that time, many of us have had extremely complicated correspondence with the Service Minister, the Minister of Labour, the Minister of Works, the Minister of Supply and the Minister of Health, when we have been doing our job in trying to ensure that the key personnel that is required, if 952 we are to have the maximum number of houses in the minimum rate of time, is made available.
I thoroughly approve of the principles of this Bill, but when my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works was speaking, I noted that he began by saying that we are to attack housing as a military operation. I am waiting for the occasion when some military expert in this House will point out some of the limitations of military operations. It is not my understanding that the maximum efficiency and the best possible use of material and personnel are always factors in military operations. Nevertheless, we do accept the phrase, as meaning that in the building of houses, as in the winning of the war, we shall give everything that is required, in order to get the job done. I am certain that we are going to build houses, and good houses, for the people of this country, just as certain as I was that we were going to defeat Hitler. But our responsibility here today is to leave, absolutely nothing undone to see that those good houses are built as soon as possible. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Works said that he has an excellent statistical programme department. That is splendid. He went on to say that it would be the job of his Department and of the Ministry of Supply to see that we have the right goods, in the right quantities, as reasonable prices.
The one simple question I want to ask the Government is this. When they seek the consent of Parliament to the spending of a vast sum of money, when they come to the House of Commons and ask us to endorse a principle which is very strongly supported on this side of the House—that of bulk purchase, bulk distribution, so that we can eliminate unnecessary waste, and profiteering as far as possible—then not only the reputation of the Government, but the good faith of all of us, is at stake. We want to be sure that, in asking for this power, the Government are, at the same time, making certain that they have the essential personnel to follow through those decisions. I say this because, although the Minister of Works is so charming and reasonable if you are talking to him as a private citizen, when you start correspondence with him in his departmental capacity, he can become extremely strained and unyielding.
953 I was writing to him some time ago about a builder, aged 61—and this is very relevant to the doubt in my mind this afternoon—in my constituency, who wishes to have his son out of the Forces to help him to build houses. I got a very gruff reply, telling me that the son was not eligible for release, because he was not a partner in the firm. The father then produced a certificate of partnership and I thought that my battle was won. I sent another letter to the Minister of Works; back he sent me another of his official documents, in which he said he had looked into the matter and he was sorry that the son was still not eligible for nominated release.
The Minister did not in the last three or four letters—I have lost count of the number—tell me "Yes" or "No," whether the father had made a mistake, or whether his Department had made a mistake, about the certificate of partnership. I then tried another way. I thought that I might be able to sneak this builder out of the Forces if, by any accident, the father of 61 happened to be in bad health. I wrote to the father, thinking at the back of my mind that if I was unable to get the son out directly, I might be able to get him out on compassionate grounds. I said, "Look here, you are not sick by any happy chance, are you?" The honourable old man wrote back and said, "I am overworked, I am overworried, I am understaffed, but I am sorry to say I am not yet able to produce medical evidence of a duodenal ulcer." That being the case, I had to give in.
I cite this one instance—and this is a very serious matter—but I could cite many others; any one of my colleagues in this House could cite similar cases relating to men who were, as we in our simplicity believed, essential personnel to speed up the building of houses I do not understand the way in which, for instance, nominated Class B releases are regulated by the Minister concerned. I would not have intervened in this Debate if I had not wanted to do what little lies in my power to ensure that difficulties may not arise under the Bill, such as have already arisen in our dealing with local authorities and local builders, through the lack of key personnel. We in this House have decided to ask the building firms to make their 954 tenders to the local authorities, but there has not been any Government decision to build houses by a national centralised system of direct labour. We all know, through personal experience, that many building firms in this country are run on such a limited scale that there are no official forms of partnership between a father and son, or a builder and a leading man who is in the Forces.
I, therefore, make this plea to the Minister. Will he not use that gruffness which, not in his personal capacity but in his official capacity, he turns against us, and turn it instead against his colleagues in the Service Departments? Will he make quite sure that there is a much broader, and what I would call a much more sensible interpretation, particularly of the position of key men, who are needed in the factories, as well as in the local authorities? We have to face the facts. If it were a secret I might keep it to myself, but it is not a secret that, so far as bulk releases under Class B are concerned, the Government today have got a 50 per cent, failure.
We know that our Government will build more and better houses than the hon. Gentlemen opposite would have built if, by any misfortune, they had been the Government. It is delightful for some of us on this side of the House to be able to get up and record the fact that 500 to 600 temporary houses are being built in a week. I am trusting to memory, but I believe I am right in saying that there were only between 500 and 600 houses built in the first year after the last war, when there was more labour, and an infinite amount of private enterprise available, and when all the values of the hon. Gentlemen opposite were being tested and found wanting. I do not speak in the spirit of claiming that our Government is the best of all possible Governments the people of this country could have elected. I say today, as I have said on an earlier occasion, that, good though it is, it could be still better, and the Achilles' heel in the Government's building and reconstruction programme, is the rate of release of key men from the Forces. I beg the Minister to make the Government's present good record a better record, by improving on this, which, I believe, to be their one serious shortcoming.
§ 6.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Wadsworth (Buckrose)
I have arrived at that moment in the life of a Member of Parliament when for the first time he addresses the House. I can assure hon. Members that I do so not without some trepidation. I know—and I have already seen in fact—the courtesy which is shown to hon. Members both inside this House, and, if I may say so, outside this House. From that I have gained a good deal of confidence. It is typical of every new Member, speaking for the first time, to refer to his own division, and I feel that I cannot be any exception. I shall not give specific cases, but I must say that I have seen a good deal of the housing conditions of this country, both as a town councillor in the town of Halifax, and in my present division. I represented a ward in Halifax which I think has the greatest slum area, and, yet, when I visited Buckrose, for the first time, and began to make research into the conditions of life in the villages, I found to my horror that the conditions there were worse than any we had in the slum areas in my old town. Many of the houses, indeed all the houses, of the villages appeared to be without water, gas or electricity; many of the roofs were in very bad condition and the sanitation was deplorable. Yet people are expected to bring up large families under those conditions. I am not going to give details, because Members of this House are obviously fully aware of the situation and I do not think there is any doubt that Members on all sides wish the present Government well, in building houses at as rapid a rate as possible.
This Bill makes financial provision for the extensive Government plan for rehousing, and I want to draw the attention of the Minister to one or two points, which I hope that he will bear in mind, when shaping his final policy. I looked very carefully through this Bill and I seized on Clause 6 with a very great deal of joy, as a Member of the party which I represent. Clause 6 increases from£800 to£1,200 the amount which can be loaned by the local authorities to people who desire to build privately. I do wish to say on this particular Clause something for the encouragement of private enterprise. There is no reason why a man who wants to own his own honse, should not build to this limit of£,200.
956 I am not asking for a luxury building, because I know that the Government have wisely set their minds against that, but I am asking for support under this Clause for those who do desire to own their own houses. There is nothing to be ashamed of in owning one's own house. It is a matter of pride; and I am sure that some of the finest citizens in this country are those who have saved, so that they can own their own houses.
Why I want to refer particularly to this Clause is this: For many years I sat on the housing committee of a town council, and I think that I can count on one hand the number of applications made, when the limit for building a house was£800. At the same time, throughout the country, there were great societies lending millions of money for the purposes of purchasing houses. I feel that, through the Press and in other ways, ex-Servicemen should be acquainted with the fact that there is in this Clause provision whereby a man can borrow money from the local authority to build his own house. My special interest in this is because I feel that unless this Clause is utilised, the full building capacity of this country will not be utilised. I am informed that there are 80,000 builders in the country—I agree that a lot of those are probably small working builders, but they are all very expert craftsmen—and I feel that if during the next two years the Government were to direct the whole or most of the building through the local authorities, the only people who would be able to contract for these large schemes would be the large building contractors. If that is so, a good deal of the labour and the skill of these thousands of small builders will not be utilised to the full. I plead on this occasion for the Government to bear in mind that, if they are to make a real success of this building programme, they must utilise everybody in the building trade; and under this Clause, I feel, judging by the speeches which have so far been made by the Government, that they are excluding thousands of small builders.
Although this money could be borrowed under Clause 6 from the local authority, whether this money is utilised or not will depend to a certain extent upon the rate of interest. I would like to see the Government lending money to municipal authorities free of charge. These loans are paper transactions, and one must remem- 957 ber that the greatest cost in a house prior to the war was not the labour, not the goods that were used in its construction, but in the interest charged. With a house costing£500 built on money loaned at 5 per cent, over 40 years, the total interest charge would be equal to the original cost of the house. I do not see any reason why the Government should not lend money to the authorities free of interest, and then charge a small rate, say i per cent., to those people who want to build their own houses. I do hope that when the Government finally establish their policy, they will bear in mind the two points to which I have drawn their attention—to publicise as much as they can Clause 6 of the Bill, to bring down interest rates on loans to the lowest possible point, and down to nothing at all for municipal authorities. The housing question is the most important task of the Government, and if they do succeed—and I hope they will, and I believe that Members on all sides of the House hope they will—then there will not be any difficulty about the next election. If they fail, they will bring the greatest disaster and social unrest to this country that it has ever known. They are definitely on trial more on this particular question than on any other.
§ 6.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Gibson (Kennington)
I have very great pleasure in congratulating the hon. Member who has just sat down. His contribution was helpful and showed knowledge of the problem and a great desire to assist in the producing of houses. I would like to remind the House that the object of this Bill is to provide powers for the production and bulk purchase of materials, among other things. The case for that depends, it seems to me, on the need of the moment. I happen to represent a constituency in London which was very, very badly bombed. Indeed almost one-third of it disappeared, and it has a very great housing problem, which, so far as I can see, private enterprise will not be able to solve for the next 20 years. I have also some responsibility in a wider field in connection with the housing work of the London County Council. The House will be surprised to know that on the L.C.C. waiting lists for houses there are no fewer than 45,000 at the moment and that applicants for houses of any sort, old or new, good or bad, are coming; in at a rate of 1,000 a week. That is 958s duplicated in all the blitzed towns of this country, though not perhaps to the same extent, although all of them have the terrible problem of finding sufficient accommodation for their people.
That being so, anything that this House can do to speed up the production of building materials ought to be done. I hope that the Minister of Works will not be unduly alarmed by the grim prognostications of some of the hon. Members on the opposite benches, at any rate those who have spoken so far. I think this Bill is a good one, because it does provide the powers to do something which some of us appealed to the late Government for three years to do—to build up in this country large stocks of building components of all kinds so that, as soon as the men were out of the Army and out of the factories, and could be got on to the building of houses, the materials would be ready for immediate use. That was not done. The result is that those of us concerned directly with building now see conditions that indicate already many difficulties about supplies of all sorts. One of the most amazing things to me is that, at any rate a week ago, there was a shortage of screws. If, with the powers under this Bill, the Minister of Works can organise in a very large way the production of all the components necessary for the building of houses, components of any sort, then he will be doing a good job of work.
May I call the attention of the House to the brick position? According to the Committee of the Institute of British Architects it takes 18,000 bricks to build a working-class, house. The total prewar output of bricks in this country was somewhere between 7,500,000,000 and 8,000,000,000. If it takes 18,000 bricks to build one house then it is clear that the housing programme of this country, for working-class houses, would absorb the total output of the brick industry for the next nine years. If that is so, it seems to' be common sense that power should be taken by the Government to do everything possible to increase the output of bricks, and to speed up the supply, so that we may be able to get on much faster with the building of houses than at the present time. In doing that, I know we are bound to tread on the toes of private enterprise, and that 959 accounts for the lugubriousness of Members on the benches opposite. I think, and I am quite sure that my constituents think, that any Government which allows housing to be delayed because of tenderness towards private enterprise will be kicked out immediately. Houses must come before private profit, and if the Ministry of Works can produce large numbers during the next few years, even if it may mean a total loss of profit to private enterprise, it will be well worth the doing, and in any case it is good Socialism.
I do not understand why any date was put on this Bill at all. I hope the Minister of Works will be so successful that when he comes to September, 1947, the House will tell him to go on and build up a permanent Department of this kind as part of the normal economy of this country. I want to make this further point. The production of bricks, baths, stoves and the rest of the components in this country will depend to some extent upon the degree to which industry can keep the good will of its workpeople. I was very much struck with one statement, in a report which the R.I.B.A. produced in the March of this year, to the effect that the brick industry for instance had not made itself an attractive industry. It seems to me therefore that the maintenance of the policy of bulk production must go together with cooperation and help from the men in the various industries. They should be invited from the beginning to come in and help with their advice and to give their assistance, and generally they should be made to feel that they are of importance in the industry, and that they are having wages and conditions of work which will make their help worth while. It is no use grumbling about the shortage of bricks if the conditions in that particular industry are not attractive to the workers. It is no use grumbling about the shortage of baths if the foundry industry does not offer attractive terms to its workers. For this reason I hope the Minister will keep in touch with the trade unions in these different industries, will invite their fullest co-operation not only of the executives but of the men in the shops and the foundries. If that is done, this country will be able to see a much faster rate of building of working class houses than that which was achieved under the late Government.
§ 6.42 p.m.
§ Captain Marples (Wallasey)
I can sympathise with the hon. Lady the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee) because I have had the same experience, but unfortunately I am not able to bring the same amount of pressure to bear on the Front Bench as she can, and therefore she comes out of it better than I do.
I am going to speak tonight as a practical man, although I do not propose to say too much about that. I do not want to be political, but the last time I was practical I had about 12 applications for my flats, which were built by my private enterprise, and the majority came from Members on the other benches. I can only ask them to practise what they preach. What I do want to comment on is the question of the vast powers which the Minister has taken under this Bill. Those powers, if used wisely, will undoubtedly produce houses, but I do want to warn the right hon. Gentleman against the suicidal tendency towards oversimplification of the problem. You cannot plan an industry with a pencil and the back of an envelope. I am tonight going to try to present a united front of practical people to counter the tendencies of some hon. Members opposite. I only wish the hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. G. Hicks) were here to join this united front with me.
If we are going to discuss the question of the distribution of materials, which I wish to deal with tonight, we have to take into account the composition of the industry. First I want to discuss the set-up in the industry in May, 1945. These figures were given to me by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Works, who is always very kind to me. There are 71,900 building firms in this country of which 43 per cent., or 31,000, are one man businesses; 36 per cent., or 26,000 businesses, have less than five operatives; and 14 per cent., or 10,000 firms, have less than 19 operatives. In other words, 93 per cent, of the building industry, totalling 67,000 firms, have operatives numbering 20 or less. Only one per cent, of the firms in the building industry have over 99 workers. With a set-up like that in the building industry, it is obvious that a large majority are small men, who, in the past, relied on builders' merchants for good service in providing materials. The Minister of 961 Works made me quite happy when he started off because he said—I hope he will correct me if I am wrong—that he was going to make use of the well-tried channels of distribution. That included builders' merchants. He went on to say that it was necessary to supplement these arrangements by a special distributive organisation. I thought that something small was coming along, but he went on, cheered by hon. Members on the benches behind him, to say that the intention of the Government was to go into manufacture and distribution. If he intends to do that in a big way, it pretty well covers everything. Does he intend to go into it in a big way, or to supplement builders' merchants, and to use them to their fullest capacity? That is a very important point.
I wish to deal with the history and composition of some of the large firms of contractors, because it is on those firms that we shall have to rely for most of this housing. It may be the local authorities who give them the orders, but those firms, with their existing organisations, will have to do the building.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Dower (Penrith and Cockermouth)
When my hon. and gallant Friend gave the numbers of the various builders, did he mean that those firms at present control the men he mentioned, or that they controlled them before the war?
§ Captain Marples
The figures related to May, 1945; and at that date those figures applied. They are the most up to date that I can give to the House.
About 100 years ago, in 1844, there were fairly large contracting firms who had their own building yards. In their yards they had their paint shop, the plumbers' shop, the shop for stonemasons, etc., and they would carry out the whole work by direct labour. It was a tradition of craftsmanship which I regret had largely disappeared from the trade in 1944. At present we get sub-contractors taking a large part of the work in the building industry. There are structural sub-contractors who contract for lifts, central heating, constant hot water, etc. There are also the specialist sub-contractors who deal with cork and rubber floors, acoustics, terrazzo, marble and the special items which one finds in building. There are even craftsmen sub-contractors, 962 who deal with joinery. The cheapest way of building was probably to order 200 or 300 kitchen fittings complete from a specialist firm. This was an inevitable trend, because these industries were subjected to outside pressure. It means that the big contractor now is an organiser and a financier, rather than a craftsman. One may or may not like it, but that is the trend in the industry today. His main task is to organise and co-ordinate two prime factors. The first is the provision of labour and the second is the delivery of materials.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. Bossom) has spoken about the time and progress schedule. It is absolutely vital in the building industry to get that schedule accurate and carried out according to plan. In order to emphasise that, I wish to quote from a report on the methods of building in the U.S.A. made by a mission sent there by the Ministry of Works in 1944. The team that went out included Mr. Frank Wolstencroft, head of the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers and a past President of the T.U.C., also Sir George Burt and other distinguished gentlemen. In paragraph 75 of their report, they give as a reason why American methods are better than ours, the fact that expeditors are used by architectural contractors to ensure that materials and components are delivered to the site at the correct time. These and other devices secure a timing of operations. I do not think it is sufficiently realised in this House that the timing of a building contract is a most vital factor in the cost. There is no point in saving 10s. on a lavatory basin, if you waste£10 in the wages of men waiting for it. That is what has happened in the past. This business of bulk orders reminds me of a play I have seen, "Pink String and Sealing Wax," in which a rather pompous husband comes home saying to his wife that the thing to do was to buy in bulk and adding, "Here is a half cwt. of fish," failing to take into account other factors. In that case I think that fish would have gone bad, to the distress of my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby).
Another point—I wish to make a point later about the right hon. Gentleman's existing organisation and distribution—is that rhythm and flow in the building industry are just as important as in the 963 factory. It entirely depends on the delivery of materials by the various people engaged in the industry. Rhythm and flow are as vital in that case as they are for Members in the House of Commons. We all know how difficult it is to work, with little green cards coming in to us and Committees to attend upstairs. One of the reasons why the building employee is "browned off," is because of materials being delivered at the wrong time, and because there is not enough supervision.
I want to take four points, comparing distribution under the present régime of builders' merchants, and distribution as it will take place under the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Works. Who is the nearest manufacturer to the job? In the case of the building merchant he pays the carriage, therefore he has an incentive to find out the nearest manufacturer for the job, and he does so. With the greatest respect to the Minister I would point out that there have been cases of another kind In connection with his Department, one notably at Bootle, where the Bootle Corporation were erecting prefabricated houses. Some of the parts which were missing were also manufactured in Bootle, but they had to go to London first, and then return to Bootle to be incorporated in the houses. That has happened before, and it is not right. The builders' merchant would not allow that to occur because it would cost him money. Secondly, a builders' merchant will always arrange to deliver the materials direct to the site. Here again, he will pay for the transport, and will take good care there is not double handling, because if there is, after he has given a price, the cost comes out of his pocket. Therefore an incentive is present for him to avoid double handling. I do not think that incentive is there in the case of the Ministry of Works organisation. If there is double handling it is just too bad, and the taxpayer foots the bill.
The third point is delivery on time. If the merchant does not deliver on time, he loses his customer, and may possibly have a claim for damages against him for loss of time on the site. So far as the Government are concerned, I do not think they care very much if they lose their customer. They will be a monopoly, and will have no incentive to deliver on time. At least there is no financial incentive for them to do so. I will give a few examples 964 of failure to deliver on time. A builders' merchant will have quite a large number of building materials for delivery to a customer. If it is required, he will send an earthenware pipe from one end of London to another to help a customer out of a difficulty. If a house is 99 per cent, complete but needs that piece of plumbing, it is absolutely vital to get it, otherwise, the house is not habitable. So far as the Government are concerned, I remember when I was in charge of M.T. in a small unit in the Army we had to indent in quintuplicate, for every item we needed. We had to do so when we lost a screw valued 3d. and I would get into trouble with my commanding officer for ringing him up because that was not the usual manner. All that happened would be that the screw arrived about three months later, and meanwhile a car had broken down merely because a screw had not come from a vast ordnance factory. The Army Council then decided to allow army commanders to pay up to£10 for these materials—provided they signed in quintuplicate.
The organisation of the merchant is flexible and elastic. He has an incentive. In the building industry, which was quite a cut-throat industry before the war, he still survived, and if he did so in that cutthroat competition, he must be super-efficient. I make the plea that he must be maintained and used to the greatest extent possible. I am glad to see that the right hon. Gentleman opposite agrees. So far as the Government are concerned they are rigid. I know of a case of a contract, not so far away, where they delivered a vertical section of plumbing and a horizontal section for a prefabricated house. The vertical section was from one manufacturer and the horizontal one from another, and the union would not fit, so they had to put a special plumber on, to put that right in something like 300 houses. That is where the cost arises. If a merchant did that, he would lose his business straight away.
§ Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)
Has the hon. and gallant Member no experience of a local authority having to spend money for the reason he has mentioned after private contractors have built houses?
§ Captain Marples
If a local authority had to spend money in that way, what was the district surveyor doing? If he has 965 not done his job, the hon. Member should go back to his constituency and do something about it.
There is an excellent document called "Organisation and Management in the Building Industry" by T. P. Bennett, late Director of Works, Ministry of Works. At present I think he is busy re-organising one or two industries a month under the President of the Board of Trade, but previously he was helping the building industry, and this is a good report. On page 13 he says that the second most important portion of the builder's organisation is that devoted to the buying of materials, and that contractors pride themselves on their ability on this side of their work. I think it will be agreed that it is essential that we should retain the builders' merchants and use them to the utmost of their ability. The Government cannot assume the responsibility for organising the production and distribution of building materials without, at the same time, assuming responsibility for any costs which may arise due to a breakdown.
The point I am coming to is that there will undoubtedly be inefficiency in timing. At the present moment the profit and loss account in this Bill is drawn up by showing the cost of the items on one side and the selling price on the other. The Minister of Health will come here and say, "I have saved 10s. a lavatory basin on 200,000 lavatory basins, that is a saving of£100,000," yet probably by a breakdown, if he has delivered those lavatory basins late, it may have cost the country£3,000,000 in wages paid to men while they were waiting. Where will that be reflected in these accounts? The answer is that it is hidden. Hon. Members opposite may disagree with some of the things I have said tonight, but they must agree that this House ought to have the profit and loss account of this scheme laid before it, and under this system it will not be, because the contractor will make a claim on the local authority and say that an£800 or£1,000 house has cost£1,100 and the local authority will deliver a bill for£100 for "extras" and it will be in respect of delayed materials and it ought to go down on this account.
I know what I am talking about, and hon. Members can take it from me that claims will be made against the Government, because if the building materials are not supplied on time—if they were ex. 966 pected on Tuesday and do not arrive until Thursday—the contractor will be having to pay his men all that time and he will have a claim for damages. We have a secret document from the Ministry of Works dated 8th November, 1945, about the temporary housing programme in which it says:There is every indication that during the next few months, at any rate, the production of fixtures and fittings for temporary houses will fall short of the production of hulls. It has been decided to press for 100 per cent, delivery of hulls, which are to be erected, made weather proof and then locked up until such times as components are available. This may involve closure of the sites and the withdrawal of all labour except watchmen.That is a classic example of maldistribution and mal-ordering of materials. I want to be given some indication of where that cost will be reflected in the account. It is essential that we should know whether we are to have an efficient or inefficient system of distribution. If the right hon. Gentleman likes to tell me now I will give way, but at any rate, I hope he will give us the answer at the end. He may or may not agree with what I have said about these things, but Professor J. D. Bernal, the Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Works, has said, as reported in the "Builder" of 16th November this year:We must attempt to get a scientific answer to one of the questions raised in this controversy, namely, what are the real economics and not the paper economics, of the purchase and distribution of building materials.That is what I want from the right hon. Gentleman—the actual economics and not the paper economics. It is no use saying you have saved so much by buying on a large scale if you distribute wrongly and in that way cause tremendous loss to the country. In conclusion, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman not to do away with builders' merchants. Remember what the Minister of Fuel and Power said:I have been talking about nationalisation for 40 years and have only just realised its implications.You will have the same problem, mark my words. If you are determined to have your own scheme—and with the cohorts behind you I see no reason why it should not be bludgeoned through—
§ Mr. Speaker
It is not my scheme. The hon. and gallant Member should address the Minister. When he says you, it means me.
§ Captain Marples
I beg your pardon, Mr. Speaker. I would not dream of addressing you in the same manner as I would address Members opposite. If the Minister of Works insists on having his own scheme, by all means let it be so, but let us see the profit and loss in clear terms so that every hon. Member can see what this costs the public.
In conclusion, I want to try to correct the bad impression there is abroad about building trade employees. On page 11 of the Report on Methods of Building in the United States we have the figures for the cost of building and the craftsmen's wages in America. The cost of building in America is 125, as against an index figure of 100 in this country—it is 25 per cent, higher. The wage rates of craftsmen in this country are as 100 against 365 in America. The answer to that position is the progress schedule and timing and during the whole of this Debate we have not had a word about it. Our craftsmen here are getting a bad name, not because they are bad or the employers are bad but simply because the organisation on the site is bad and the reason is that the Government are doing badly in distributing the various materials.
§ Mr. Tomlinson
Whenever have the Government been interested in distributing the materials upon which that particular analogy is based?
§ Mr. Tomlinson
No, I meant the American report, which I have read and enjoyed reading. It deals with an entirely different subject, nothing to do with this problem.
§ Captain Marples
The right hon. Gentleman has got me wrong altogether. I am dealing with the cost of building under this Bill, with the wages that are paid to employees, and with the cost of building in America and the wages paid to employees there. There they pay the workers more and produce buildings cheaper than here, and the reason for that lies entirely in the timing. That is my point—the timing of the materials on the site. [HON MEMBERS: "By whom?"] At present, the timing in this country is with the -Ministry of Works. The Minister of Health may entirely disagree, but if he wants the reference to the letter here 968 it is—letter ADT/28/6, 8th November, 1945-
§ Mr. Gibson
Will the hon. and gallant Member agree that the reason for the increased output in America as compared with this country is that in America the employers use a lot more modern machinery?
§ Captain Marples
It is one of the reasons, but the other reason given is the timing and progress schedule. Now that we have got on to this report we might hear some more of it. I was going to sit down, but I have been provoked. I will read what paragraph 89 says:To meet the difficulty of obtaining delivery of certain materials in scheduled time Government ordering in bulk has been resorted to as a wartime measure. It was, however, the considered view both of Government officials and industrial experts that these methods have not proved economical in the long run.That is signed by a past-President of the T.U.C. All I say is, give the employees of this country a chance and give the building industry a chance, because unless there is a smooth flow in the deliveries it will not work at all.
§ Mr. Tomlinson
I am fully prepared to accept that, but I think the hon. and gallant Member might have drawn attention to the other remarks in the Report which suggest that in addition to the two things he has mentioned the price of materials affects building costs.
§ Captain Marples
Then let me give the whole thing. The cost of materials in this country, taking the index figure as 100, is as 100 to 160 compared with America. The cost of materials is higher there than it is here. Therefore, the position is that in America the materials are dearer and the craftsmen are paid more and they produce more buildings. Why? Because they have less Governmental interference. [Laughter.] Hon. and right hon. Members opposite may laugh, but I have built some flats, and some of the hon. Members sitting behind the Government bench have come to ask me for some of my flats, and the reason I cannot give them is that we are not getting a smooth flow of materials from the Government.
§ Mr. Jack Jones (Bolton)
Will the hon. and gallant Member please tell the House why he has so many applications for his flats?
§ Captain Marples
The hon. Member cannot ask me. Probably it was because they thought private enterprise was better.
§ Captain Marples
The only person who can supply the reason is the person who applied. All that hon. Members on this side of the House can do is to provide the facts, if you give us a chance.
To get back to the original point, employees in this country have at the present moment a very bad name, and I want to see that bad name done away with, be cause as craftsmen they equal any others in the world if given a good chance, with modern methods and smooth delivery. Let us see the economic cost of your scheme of distribution; do not hide it so that the Minister of Health can say, "I have saved£100,000," whereas in point of fact he has lost£100,000,000, and then turn round and say that it is the wicked employers. He will get promotion on false pretences, and we cannot have that. Do give the building operatives a chance. They have, with the public, a bad name, unjustifiably, because there is no flow and no rhythm. It is the flow and the rhythm, the steady delivery of materials to the site, and all that I ask is that we should see—
§ Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)
I am speaking as a building trade operative. I understand you are a very successful builder—
§ Mr. McKinlay
The hon. and gallant Member said he was speaking as a builder and practical man, and I want to ask a simple question. I understand you had all the scientific organisation in the building of your flats; does it mean that your operatives had a better wage?
§ Earl Winterton
I want to call attention to the fact that the hon. Gentleman in the course of an interruption made an insulting remark. Is he entitled to address an hon. Member as "You"?
§ Mr. Speaker
I pointed out that when hon. Members say "You," they address me, and that is not correct.
§ Captain Marples
I rather forget what the original interruption was. All I am saying is: Do let us give the building trade operative a chance, let us give a smooth flow of materials, and let us have light on the Minister's activities.
§ 7.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Champion (Derby, Southern)
While "stooping to your clemency" I know that I have no need to "beg your hearing patiently" for this House is, I find, a very strange mixture of cruelty and kindness. It always uses kindness to a maiden speaker. I want to give a hearty welcome to this Bill, which I regard as another indication of the will of this Government to honour the substance of its pledges with a rapidity which the Opposition must find extremely disconcerting. Following a recent Parliamentary fashion I might have waved a pamphlet with a big Victory "V" on its cover, but I feared that 1 might be reminded that we did propose to institute a Minister for Housing and Planning. I do not like this division of function and division of power between the Ministers of Health, Town and Country Planning and Works. I must say, looking down upon them from the back benches, that I regard this trinity as not being a very bad lot. They look quite decent when you look down on them but I do lean towards the monotheistic in this matter. I think there should be a single Ministry dealing with these important matters.
The main factors in housing costs have been variously estimated, but I accept the broad estimate that building materials take up 60 per cent, of the cost, labour 25 per cent, with land interest, etc., taking up some 15 per cent. Accepting that estimate, it is immediately apparent that building materials and the price of building materials are the most important factor which goes into the cost of the house and, subsequently, into the rent which is to be charged for the house It 971 is encouraging to see that this Government have learned something from the mistakes of their, predecessors. The grave mistake of the Addison scheme, which came into operation in conditions very similar to those existing today, was that of putting a premium on inefficiency. I believe the Government will have to do everything in their power to avoid that mistake, and to avoid another and perhaps crowning error, that of putting a premium on cupidity. I think this Bill does something in that direction by giving the Government powers to control the rings, monopolies and cartels which have sprung up around the industry. We must not sign a blank cheque for the manufacturers of building materials for builders, or for suppliers of builders' materials.
It seems to me that in this great housing emergency we shall have to use them all and to use their accumulated knowledge, because I recognise that the suppliers of building materials have an accumulation of knowledge which we might well be using in present conditions. While we are using them for the public interest, we must not make the mistake of allowing them to use the public in their interests. I ask the Minister to use the powers, which this Bill appears to me to confer upon him, ruthlessly to smash the rings and monopolies which have grown up to bleed the public and to indulge in a very definite anti-social practice. The term "the free play of economic forces" has long since had no force or meaning in conditions which have enabled businessmen to form monopolies and combines, and without drastic action it is not possible to prevent firms acting together when a higher rate of profit is in prospect. In 1935 76 per cent, of the output of cement was in the hands of three large firms, 76 per cent, of stoves, 60 per cent, of drain pipes, 64 per cent, of cisterns, baths, etc., were in the hands of three large firms. There is no reason to suppose that there has been any improvement. Actually there has been a tightening up by the combines.
Sir William Larke, a vice-president of the National Council of the Building Materials, said, in July, 1943, that 60 associations and federations were members of his council, and he went on to urge the small man to 'link up with him. The importance of this was brought to the 972 attention of the House in the Debate on 15th May last, when the hon. Gentleman the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson) said:
There is a widespread impression that the cost of building materials at the present time is much higher than it should be, owing to restrictive practices among the manufacturers of building materials. I have here a letter written by Sir George Burt, head of the well-known contracting firm of Mowlems, and chairman of the Burt Committee which has done such valuable work in connection with housing. He says:'I do not know of a material used in housing of which the selling price of manufacture is not controlled by a combine, ring or other selling arrangement and, generally speaking, its distribution as well. My personal view is that in too many cases the selling price has no proper relation to the cost of production. If there are not too big profits, then there are too many.' "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th May, 1945; Vol. 410, cols. 2428 and 2429.]That is a clear indication of the recognition that something had to be done. I am glad the Government are taking powers under this Bill to ensure that they will be able to manufacture articles themselves and use bulk purchase for keeping down prices to a reasonable level.
It appears to me that this Bill also permits the Government to use the production forces of the country as a whole for the purposes they have in mind. 1 know that we shall not have to press the Minister to do that, but I am hoping that, in addition to using war factories—Royal Ordnance factories, and so on—he will use some of them in the great job of research. Research is a vital factor in relation to these matters, and if the Government are going to succeed in the gigantic task that awaits them, they will have to give ever-increasing attention to research, not only in the building industry but in every industry. We undoubtedly lag behind our competitors, and it is absolutely essential that the Government should take notice of that and use the powers they have to enter into research on a very large scale. We want research into a healthy and economical kitchen—the "woman's workshop.'' Most of the women's workshops in working-class houses are so badly designed and insanitary that they would be condemned out of hand by any decent factory inspector. By research and improvement of design we can do something to alter the woman's workshop and improve it tremendously. There should be research, too, into heat- 973 ing systems. Central heating should be set up, not for one house, but for many. We ought to be conducting research into the manufacture of refrigerators so that they could be supplied to people who cannot now afford them.
The Minister of Health is quoted as saying in Cardiff on Saturday that Wales is very far behind the rest of the country in the housing drive. He attributed this to the fact that Wales was regarded by many as a place to get away from. The result was that little new building went on there; contractors did not find it a profitable area in which to operate. I think there is something in the Minister's point. My experience as the chairman of a housing committee in South Wales for many years was that the powers at that time had made up their minds that South Wales was to die. I came up, time after time, to the Ministry of Health. The Ministry would say that the scheme I put forward was an excellent one and that I could get on with it. The schemes prepared at that time would have solved the housing problem of the town where I lived, but, although the Ministry gave us - the sanction, the Public Works Loan Board said there was no money for us. We found that one Government Department was cancelling out the work of another. I would ask the Minister of Health, in this connection, not to say that schemes are sanctioned unless the money is going to be provided. That will require greater co-ordination than existed under the old Tory administration.
There is one point I would make in answer to the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down after making an excellent speech. I would tell him that, in the case that was mentioned from this side of the House, the surveyor was sacked, and the rest of the building was done by direct labour which, to my mind, was an excellent and wise thing to do in the circumstances. I regard this Bill as being an important contribution towards our full-employment policy. The terrible housing shortage, the postponement of repairs and decorations, and so on, open up a prospect of very rapid expansion in the building industry as a whole, but, unless the planning is done very carefully and related to other industries, that expansion will be followed, eventually, by a very sharp decline and consequent human misery deriving from unemployment. Unless building trade workers have a very 974 definite pledge, that they would be justified in opposing dilution. They know what happened in the past in connection with dilution in their industry. They will probably have memories of the fact that the housing policy of John Wheatley, and the pledges given to that industry by him, were ignored and broken by the subsequent Conservative Government. That fact was disastrous for the building operatives and industry as a whole. The maximum use of the Wheatley Act would have solved the housing problem of this country before the war, but we failed to use it. Its continuation would have prevented, to some extent, the slump and decline which followed after 1928, by which time the full effect of the repudiation of the Wheatley Act actually came into force. If 'the Ministry use their powers jointly with the ether Government Departments they will be able to do much towards assisting us in this great full-employment policy which we pursue.
Finally, I would say to the Government, "Use your powers boldly, and courageously to smash the rings and cartels which batten on the public purse and which would not hesitate to restrict production in the interests of higher rates of profit. Make the utmost use of war factories and materials, and arrange matters in such a way as to make large-scale migration of people, leaving derelict towns in their wake, impossible." It was the policy of the Government in the past to leave derelict towns in South Wales, and I hope the Minister will watch that point very carefully. I again urge upon the Government to conduct research on an unprecedented scale, and to build factories, where necessary, to meet the overriding necessity for exports. I have not time, in a maiden speech, to deal with that particular aspect, but I realise the importance of taking command in the building of factories in order to secure that they are properly equipped so as to ensure that the exports, which we must have if we are to pay for our imports, are properly assured.
I would ask the Government to pay special attention to devising a method for building schools to meet new educational needs. Schools appear to me to be out of date in ten years. If we go on building schools on the old solid method, we shall find that people will not be prepared to scrap them when educationally they are no longer ideal or practical. Finally, and 975 above all, I would urge upon the Government that they should be adventurous in this matter of building. Given these things, this trinity—although I said I did not very much like a trinity—will be able to go on and create beautiful and noble cities. I believe they will be able to remove from this land of ours much of the blot of the hideousness which now sprawls across it.
§ 7.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Dye (Norfolk, South Western)
As far as I can see, the principal purpose of this Bill is to produce the largest number of decent homes for the people of this country as soon as possible. It is, therefore, most attractive to the people of the towns and industrial areas. I represent an agricultural area, and so far there has been little inclination to accept the prefabricated house in rural Britain. When I read through the opening words of this Bill, I find:A Bill to make financial provision for the purpose of facilitating the production, equipment, repair, alteration and acquisition of houses.It is that aspect of it which was not touched upon by the Minister when he introduced this Bill. He did not say to what extent it was the intention of his Department to acquire existing houses and alter or repair them so as to make them available for the immediate needs of 'the people. I am interested in this aspect of the matter, because I was present at a meeting of the Advisory Committee for Town and Country Planning in Norfolk just over a week ago, when representatives from three rural district councils, speaking on a resolution, recommended the councils to consent to the erection of old railway carriages and other hutments for the Servicemen who were returning home. They definitely said that their councils were giving consent to applications for the conversion of old railway carriages into human habitations. They said it was necessary, and the only objection they felt towards it was that they were unsightly.
It seems to me that the principle on which we should judge a home is not on whether it is sightly or unsightly, but whether it provides decent accommodation. If we make the same mistakes after this war as were made 20 to 25 years ago, we will do very little. It was a 976 great mistake to allow Service people to buy a small patch of ground and then go to the expense of buying an old railway carriage and putting it there. Is there not something else that we can do straight away to meet the needs of these people throughout rural Britain? From my own humble home I can look across the countryside and see two large mansions empty, and both with lodges near them. They were, and still are, under requisition by the military authorities. As such, they have perhaps been misused and are in need of repair, but they are not derequisitioned yet. They are not being used. The question I want to put to the Minister is: Is it his intention to take over existing empty houses and repair or alter them to suit the needs of families who are needing them now, this very winter? If that is his intention, there is considerable scope in Norfolk, and not one ex-Service-man need go to the expense of buying an old railway carriage and making that into his home. To what extent is it the intention of the Government to take over existing houses, large or small, and alter them for the immediate needs of the people?
A further point I would like to put is one which is continually put to me and to other people who represent divisions in the Eastern part of England. We have a large number of aerodromes on which are buildings which have been used for human habitation and are still suitable for it, if they can be adapted. They are empty. Is it the intention of the Government to meet the immediate needs of the people this winter and next year by taking over some of these buildings, adapting them and making them of use to the ex-Service people and others who are needing them? I am not saying that they should be made into permanent buildings, but until 'the time when a sufficient number of traditional houses can be built of brick and mortar, are these buildings to be made available for the immediate needs of the people? Is it part and parcel of the purpose of this Bill? If so, I hope that immediate steps will be taken to put it into operation.
Three weeks ago, together with one or two others of my colleagues of this House, we met representatives of the building trades in Norwich. They told us they had considerable numbers of men unemployed, including carpenters, and they 977 wanted work to give them. On Friday last week a building contractor rang me up. He is an employer of 50 people in Dereham. He had no work for them to do. They could be set straight away on the job of repairing, altering and adapting a considerable number of large empty houses and making them immediately available. He is in this difficulty that he is awaiting orders from the local council to get on with the building of houses, for which he has already put in his tender, but the contracts for which have not yet been given out. He would get on with building houses himself, but he is unable to do so because under the town and country planning schemes, land is zoned for building purposes or for agricultural purposes; the owners of the land in that area which is zoned for building purposes will not sell, and he has no power to buy. Only the local authorities have the compulsory power to purchase, and they, being in rural districts, and mainly of course, if not entirely, made up of the representatives of the land-owning interests, are very slow in getting off the mark in building houses. I ask, therefore, whether it is the intention of the Government to get to work and take over some of the existing empty houses which have been used by the military and which can be adapted.
Further, we have in Norfolk a considerable number of empty farm cottages which, we are told, are essential to the good working of the farm, but they are empty. They are no good whatever to the farmers, who cannot get men to go into them. Why not take over some of these cottages, adapt them and improve them and let people have them? The right hon. and learned Gentleman who spoke from the opposite side has been interested in this aspect of the problem, the reconditioning of rural houses. It should be possible for the Government to take over many of these cottages and recondition them. Let them be owned by the State, which is the one method that we, as representatives of the farm workers, would willingly agree to see done, or would support, at any rate. I ask the Government, because of the time-lag in the rural districts, whether they will not consider extending their activities so that the empty houses which exist in many small towns and villages can be repaired and made available as soon as possible 978 while they get on with all the plans for the new houses we all want to see built.
§ 7.41 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Derek Walker-Smith (Hertford)
The pleasant duty falls to my lot to congratulate the hon. Member for South Derby (Mr. Champion) on his very pleasing maiden speech. This is naturally a subject on which I would like to dilate but, at this late hour, when so little time remains for contributions from the back benches, I think it will detract nothing from the sincerity of my tribute if I content myself with saying that the hon. Member has chosen to make his maiden speech upon a subject which lies very near to the heart of the people of this country, and that the quality of his contribution is in no way incompatible with the greatness of the theme.
The Bill appears to me to follow the precedent set by recent Government Measures. It is a Bill of varied content and unequal merit. It may be that the Government feel in these cases that the bad in their Measures is lost in the good; but I do not think that that is wholly so. I believe that there is no precise record of the exact proportions of good and bad in, for instance, the curate's egg; but it is a reasonable assumption that whatever those proportions were, the effect was bad upon the curate. I believe that in the same way the effect of this mixed good and bad legislation may be evil on the body politic.
The right hon. Gentleman has said that the Bill consists of four parts. On some of them there will be no issue as to merit; on the main principle of the Bill there is also no issue as to merit, but there is an issue as to the way in which these Measures are brought before us. It would be right, in my view, first of all to define policy and then to ask the House for these extensive powers and extensive financial provisions; but in this case that is not done. The only definition of policy that we are given is that the Government intend to go into business in a big way. So far as I am aware, the effects of big business are got by results and not merely by building up big staffs and indulging in big expenditure, on both of which the right hon. Gentleman laid stress. I for one would not oppose in principle the granting of financial powers to him for his programme of prefabricated 979 houses. Indeed, it would seem to be all the more necessary, because prefabricated houses will have to play a very large part in the housing of the people of this country, since we can get but little idea from the Minister of Health as to the part it is expected that traditionally built houses will play.
We cannot let this Measure pass without some comment upon the largeness of the powers given. They are so large as to invite a certain disquietude. There are large powers of bulk purchase. It has been emphasised upon this side of the House that bulk purchase, unless it is related to an existing organisation and to the existing structure of industry, is dangerous. We have had our attention directed to the parallel of bulk purchase during the war; but there is a closer parallel to which attention has not been directly drawn in the course of the Debate. It is the case of the bulk purchase of building materials after the' last war. There was a body set up, and known as the Directorate of Building Material Supplies, which had its origin in the Ministry of Munitions. There were people then as now, who were seized with the idea of perpetuating the supposed benefit of bulk purchase. A Ministry of Supply however was not set up after the last war, and therefore the Directorate of Building Materials Supply was grafted on to the Ministry of Health, of which it became a subdivision.
This Directorate ran for a short space of time and was finally wound up, after it had involved us in the maximum of cost and the minimum of productive effort and with an over-all loss of£882,000. It involved local authorities in many claims by building contractors for breach of contract, by reason of failure to deliver materials at the appropriate time. It is not surprising that this Directorate, which was known as "D.B.M.S." was popularly known as the "D.B. Mess." The precise significance in that nomenclature of the letters "D.B." I have not been able to discover. Such is the unhappy experience that we are now invited to repeat.
It seems a strange thing that in this brave new world of Socialism we should so slavishly imitate a precedent set up in the aftermath of the last war. Only last week the Emergency Laws (Transitional 980 Provisions) Bill was defended from the other side of the House on the ground that a similar unsatisfactory process took place after the last war. If it is the policy of the Government to find out whether a precedent is bad and then to give to it a slavish and unthinking adherence, it is a policy which they would be wise to abandon. It has been well said that those who forget their history are forced to live it again. I hope that we shall not be forced to live through the same experiences as this country had in the four years following the last war. The experience of the period 1919-23 was that bulk purchase of building materials was tried, and housing by the exclusion of private enterprise was tried. Both those things failed, and the abandonment of the Directorate of Building Material Supplies occurred in about 1923. That year was in fact a watershed dividing the initial period of Governmental control and no houses, from the period of the admission of private enterprise into the field, and steadily increasing production of houses resulting therefrom. I hope we are not going to follow the precedent of insufficiently thought-out bulk purchase. One can judge the likely efficacy of bulk purchase of materials only by the effect upon the site. It has been pointed out by the hon. and gallant Member for Wallasey (Captain Marples) that the price at which materials are purchased is irrelevant if the delay in what he called the rhythm and flow of the building industry is going by dislocation to add to the over-all cost. It is the cost on the site and not in the Government office that is important. The builders of this country are accustomed to synchronising the work of production. They can synchronise it if, in the matter of materials, they are permitted to deal with agencies which they already know and on whose workings they can rely. They cannot synchronise it, if they are dependent on the rigid and inelastic procedure of a remote and bureaucratic agency.
I want to say a word also on Clause 3 of the Bill. Clause 3 is designed to give a blanket cover to losses involved in the programme of prefabricated houses. So far as economy and efficiency are concerned, the provisions of this Clause are more likely to be a wet blanket. They are more likely to be that because we have in this Clause the machinery for ensuring an idemnity for any deficit while 981 at the same time covering up the cost involved. I regard this Clause as a retrograde measure. It is a retrograde measure because it degrades the function of the Treasury into one of pure arithmetic and it puts up a sort of monstrous double-headed Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the Ministry of Works and the Ministry of Health to keep from this House, the extent of the liability in which the prefabricated housing programme is going to involve the nation. It has been said from the other side of the House this evening that the people of this country are not interested in the question of cost. I think that is a dangerous statement to make. I would grant that if it could be shown that the greater the cost the greater the efficiency, there would be some case for disregarding the incidence of cost; but the whole of experience goes to show that cost and efficiency are in a virtually direct inverse proportion. In the past, the greater the cost the less the production of houses, and I believe it will be the same in the future. Therefore, I say it is wrong to come to this House with a Clause which is designed to deprive the House of its most ancient, and not the least important and enduring, of its tasks—that of keeping a vigilant scrutiny upon the expenditure of the Executive. I believe that the blanket indemnity which we are asked to give will increase costs without, at the same time, giving any increase of production.
The right hon. Gentleman has proclaimed the desire of his Government to go into business in the matter of house building. This is not confined to the bulk purchase of materials; it is not confined even to the production of materials in Royal Ordnance Factories; it is extended by Clause 1 (1, c) of this Bill to stepping in and doing for local authorities those duties that are laid upon them by Part V of the Housing Act, 1936; that is to say the part that relates to the provision of accommodation for the working classes. This is surely a very strange enterprise for the Government to embark upon. Before the war there were two main agencies for house building. There was the agency of the local authorities which built one house in four, and there was the agency of private enterprise which built the other three.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Walker-Smith
For the people of this country and the workers of this country, both to sell and to let.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Walker-Smith
The hon. Member says, "Not to let," but as I pointed out to the House in the first speech I made to it in the Debate on the Address on 17th August, taking the two-and-a-half year period from the Spring of 1937 to the beginning of the war, one-third of the total number of houses built by private enterprise, that is to say, 163,000 houses were, in fact, built for letting. The reason that a larger number was not built for letting was that the local authorities built only to let; and as there was a very large, genuine, and, in every sense of the word, popular demand for houses for sale, that demand had to be satisfied by private enterprise. A very large number, of houses built by private enterprise were, in fact, built at a rateable value of less than£20. There fore, I say that there were those two agencies before the war, the local authorities building one house in four, and private enterprise building three houses in four. The action of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health has handicapped and virtually excluded the stronger agency from the task of contributing to the housing of the people of this country, and it would now seem from Clause 1 (I,-c) of this Bill that the Government, after all, have their doubts that the weaker agency will in all cases be able to fulfil its share of the building programme. What is their remedy for that? The remedy one would expect, surely, is that they would seek to call in that stronger agency which has proved itself in the period between the wars. So far from that, they give powers under that Clause for ah entirely new and untried agency, for governmental building by direct labour in the field of traditional building, to come in and try its prentice hand in building houses for the accommodation of the working classes. I regard that as a dangerous and unproductive venture, and I deplore that Clause because it will take from local authorities their feeling of responsibility for the task which they are doing, and I deplore it because if they are going to be supplemented by any agency, they should be supplemented by the agency of private enterprise.
983 It is a relief to turn to Clauses 6 and 7 of the Bill. Those Clauses we can unite in approving. On Clause 6 I wish to make only this point: the limit of value under the Small Dwellings (Acquisition) Act has been raised from£800 to£1,200, thereby putting it at the same figure as that to which it was increased by the Housing Act, 1923; but it seems to me that that figure should not necessarily be fixed at the sum of£1,200, to which private enterprise is confined if it is to build today, because the cost of house building by local authorities, as the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health will very soon discover, if he has not already discovered it, is likely to be something substantially in excess of that sum. Clause 7, I think, we can all approve, because that Clause prevents the resale of a£1,200 house at any higher figure for the next four years. I can only say that anybody who is lucky enough, in face of every obstacle, to acquire a£1,206 private enterprise house would be unlikely to wish to resell it in the course of four years, and, while I applaud the principle of that Clause, I doubt whether its practical value is very great.
Here is a Bill to the main principle of which we must subscribe, and in which there are certain good provisions. But I would ask the Government to look carefully at this Bill before it returns to this House to see if they cannot improve the provisions which have been criticised, and make sure that its provisions are such as to invite the financial scrutiny of Parliament and not to exclude it; and to ensure that those provisions will be such as to stimulate efficiency and economy and not build up costs and staffs without building up the production of houses. For the production of houses is the one thing on which the minds of the people of this country are centred, and, if the right hon. Gentleman, in his reply, does not satisfy us on these points, he will be aggravating the feeling, now growing in the minds of the people of this country, that the present Government prefer, in their approach to the problem, their doctrinaire solution, to the great practical contribution which they could make to the housing of the people.
§ 8.2 p.m.
§ Mrs. Castle (Blackburn)
I welcome this Bill with very mixed feelings. It 984 closes one disastrous chapter of housing effort and opens a new and promising one. I do not think there can be anybody in this House who is very happy at having to foot a bill of such heavy additional cost for temporary housing, as we are having to do through this Bill. Clause 5 cannot be considered anything but a necessary evil, necessary in order to settle a legacy of muddle left us by our predecessors. I think the record of the war years, and the way in which the temporary housing problem has been tackled by the predecessors of this Government, are symptomatic of the interest of the Conservative Party in housing, which is just about as genuine as its interest in this housing Debate tonight.
§ Mr. Manningham-Buller (Daventry)
May I ask the hon. Lady whether she is not aware that the temporary housing programme started during the period of Coalition Government, in which Socialists were members?
§ Mrs. Castle
I am perfectly well aware of that, but this does not distract me from the remark I was going to make, which is to the effect that at one period during this Debate there were, on the Conservative benches, only four hon. Members. In the "bare ruin'd choirs" of the Opposition benches one saw reflected the poetic justice of the fate which had befallen them. Ever since March, 1944, when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) said that the Minister of Works was "working wonders" on 500,000 temporary houses which were to come rolling off the production lines in a very short time, the whole question of temporary housing has been mishandled. The local authorities were not happy about the temporary housing scheme either from the point of view of the cost being visualised or the fact that they were expected to sterilise building sites which they would need for permanent housing by the erection of houses of a sub-standard quality which they would desire to pull down at the earliest possible moment. The fact was that in those areas where the need for housing was most urgent—the congested industrial areas which had taken the blows of the blitz—it was most difficult to find sites of adequate size to take temporary houses in groups of 100 at a time, and I am very interested to note that one of the factors contributing towards that average 985 increase in cost per house of£268 is an item of£47 due to the fact that siting arrangements had to be altered which had been worked out on paper in an academic and remote way by the predecessor of my right hon. Friend. I think it was inevitable that we should wind up this temporary housing scheme. It had to be continued to its conclusion; it was a legacy, and the death duties had to be paid. But I hope that that is going to be the end of a temporary housing scheme., and I am glad to notice that the Ministers concerned are going to press ahead with what was, obviously, always a much better solution—that of the encouragement of permanent prefabricated methods.
I would like to say that, as a member of local authority during the relevant period and as a member of the housing committee of that local authority, I was aware, as many other local authority representatives were aware, that, far from the Minister's predecessors encouraging enterprise, private firms were very wroth at the way they were obstructed in the making of those experiments in prefabrication, which would have enabled us to face this housing situation in a very much higher state of technical development. Thanks to the former Minister of Health and Minister of Works, this Government do not start their housing work from scratch, but, indeed, start off in a very much worse position than that, through having to clear the ground of the muddle which existed and has been left to them to handle.
I want to ask the Minister of Health two questions on this Bill. First, what is the reason for fixing a time limit of September, 1947, for the operation of this housing fund? The right hon. Gentleman may reply that, in fact, it is only that after that date no further advances will be made to the housing fund, which should be working itself out by this time and standing, as it were, on its own feet. I suggest this to my right hon. Friend. The purpose of this fund is not merely to encourage the production of permanent prefabricated houses—at least, I hope not. I hope the Minister is going forward very boldly with the development of bulk purchase schemes for housing components for the traditional houses to be erected by local authorities. The local authorities have not, as yet, had any indication that 986 that is his policy, but they are looking to the Minister for a revolutionary advance, on this housing question. We know that one of the best ways of speeding up production and of gaining economy, is through the extension of standardisation far beyond anything yet achieved, and the best way of encouraging standardisation is through the placing of bulk purchase orders centrally by the Minister.
We have seen the wonderful economies obtained by the Supplies Department of the London County Council, and we are hoping that, in the vast field of traditional housing, the Minister will be bold enough to extend his policy to include bulk purchase of components so as to give assistance to local authorities in the big job they have to do. Now that task will only just be getting into its stride by the end of 1947: we shall just be beginning to unfold our great programme, which will have to comprise before we are through very much more than 4,000,000 houses if we are to get rid of the in-between types of inadequate and non-modern homes that we want to abolish as well as the slums. If that is so, why do we imply that the purpose of this Fund will have been met by the end of 1947? And why does it say in Clause 2 (4) that:The Fund shall be closed at such time after the end of September, nineteen hundred and forty-seven, as the Treasury may direct.I would like the Minister to clarify that implication in his reply.
There is one point I want to make on Clause 7—a very important Clause in this Bill which has not received a great deal of attention tonight. We welcome Clause 7 as one which will help to end racketeering in the buying and selling of houses, but it is not only in the price of houses that racketeering takes place. What about jerry-building, which so darkened the record of private enterprise building before the war? My right hon. Friend's predecessor issued in July Circular 125 which dealt with the issue of licences by local authorities to firms wanting to engage in private building. That circular does not go anywhere near far enough in ending once and for all the scandal of jerry-building in this country. In my constituency at Blackburn, there was a firm which built a number of private houses in the years just before the war, and it was a notorious local scandal that 987 one of those houses had to be condemned as unfit for human habitation a very short while after it had been erected. I ask my right hon. Friend to appreciate this: that at a time when labour and materials are so scarce and so precious, even in the field of private enterprise building we do not want to see those materials and that labour wasted on houses which are of an inadequate standard. The circular to which I refer calls only for the conformity of a house that is built privately to local bylaws and to town planning arrangements, but it is the quality of the house through and through that we want to ensure. The Pole Report issued during the war made it quite clear that the building industry has, as yet, failed to put its own house in order in this respect, and there is ho guarantee to any purchaser of a private-enterprise house that he will get a sea-worthy proposition and one which is genuine value for money.
Therefore, I would ask the Minister if he will make it a condition of the issue of those private building licences that local authorities shall inspect the building work in all its stages, satisfy themselves that no shoddy materials are put into the houses, and that, in fact, a good house is being built. I appreciate that local authorities are very short of technical labour at the moment, and that may be an obstacle which is too great to overcome. Failing that, if we cannot make it a job for the local authorities, can we not make it one for the industry itself and, at the very least, make it a condition for the grant of a licence that the builder who erects the house shall become a member of the National House-builders' Registration Council, which seemed to find it so difficult to make any progress voluntarily among building industry firms before the war?
I appeal to the Minister to realise that, although private enterprise building may be a small section of the plans he has in mind, we want it to be established as a principle that, so precious are our labour and materials, they shall not under any circumstances—even in the case of the small number of private enterprise houses that are to be built—go into houses which are not worthy of the new standards which he is to set' in municipal building, and which I believe will leave private enterprise building far behind.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Manningham-Buller (Daventry)
The hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) made some reference to jerry building, and I am sure she will not find in any part of the House any disagreement with her expression of the wish that jerry building should be prevented in future. I was a little intrigued by her reference to what had happened in Black burn, with regard to a house which had been built shortly before the war, because I should have thought that there were sufficient powers under the bylaws for the local authority—of which I think the hon. Lady said she was a member—
§ Mr. Manningham-Buller
—if it had been active in that matter, to have stopped the erection of that building. I am sorry that she should think fit to pass such strictures on the temporary housing. She complained of a legacy of muddle, but I rather gather that her complaint was because the temporary houses are now costing more than was originally anticipated. That was a little inconsistent with the remarks of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Ladywood (Mr. Yates), who thought that finance mattered not at all. I can assure the hon. Lady that those living in the temporary houses that I have seen, are indeed grateful for that provision and, if she wants to use that as a stick for beating the Tory Party, she had better remember that it hits her own party to some degree at the same time.
The right hon. Gentleman, in introducing this Bill, said that some reference had been made to housing being dealt with as a military operation. I was glad that he adopted that metaphor. I think I am right in saying that those who put forward that proposition did not, in fact, succeed in securing a mandate from the majority of the electorate. He said that, as it was to be dealt with as a military operation, there was no necessity for considering finance, because finance was not considered in wartime—he will correct me if I am wrong. My recollection of the War Office, when I was there, is that it was considered in some degree but, be that as it may, we on this side of the House are concerned with this: We agree with the right hon. Gentlemen opposite in every possible step that can be taken to produce houses as 989 quickly as possible, and in the expenditure of all money required for that purpose. However, we on this side are concerned to see that there is no waste of money and, let there be no mistake about it, under this Bill the right hon. Gentlemen opposite are seeking to obtain an unlimited warrant for State enterprise in housing—absolutely unlimited.
It has been said that£100,000,000 is the limit. When you examine the details of this Bill it is no such thing; that is merely the working capital; that has to be refunded on such terms as to payment of interest and dates of repayment as the Treasury direct. That, as I see it, means that any sum which the Ministry of Works borrows from the Treasury for this purpose has to be recovered ultimately either from the person who occupies the house or from the taxpayer. Although hon. Gentlemen and right hon. Gentlemen opposite may express no concern for finance, we on this side of the House—we may be alone in this, though I hope we are not—are concerned to see that the rents of these houses are not a penny more than they need be, if the money has been properly expended and that prices charged for administration.
For what is this working capital required? It is working capital in order to buy building materials and permanent equipment. If the Ministry of Works buys building materials and permanent equipment for buildings, is that going to mean any more houses in the future for the people who want them? It is going to be one more link in the chain. I could understand that power being taken if it was for materials and equipment required from abroad. There is a case for the Ministry having that power, which, I think, they have already exercised, when it comes to purchasing overseas. But this power, as framed, enables the Ministry of Works to get a complete corner in particular materials and to say to the industry: "If you do not get it from us at our prices, which must cover the interest charges of the Treasury and our expenses, you will not get it at all." The prices charged by the Ministry of Works may be higher than if the goods were bought direct from the local builder.
The dangers of bulk distribution have been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles), by the hon. and gallant Member for Wallasey 990 (Captain Marples) and by the hon. and gallant Member for Hertford (Lieut.-Colonel Walker-Smith) and I do not wish to repeat what they have said. We on this side of the House—and I wish to emphasise this—are concerned to see that any increased cost which results from the Ministry coming in and engaging in these bulk purchases is limited as much as possible. The increased cost is bound to be passed on to the person who is to occupy the house, whether it is sold to him or whether it is let to him.
I am surprised that we have had no indication of what extra cost is likely to be added to the cost of these materials as the result of the intervention of the Ministry of Works. We have had no information as to what the extra charge will be to the public, and we are asked to give these wide powers without receiving the slightest indication from the right hon. Gentleman as to the number of houses likely to result from this Measure and when they are likely to result. He is asking for a blank cheque. How is the sum of£100,000,000 fixed? Why should not we be told? We ought to have an opportunity for determining whether that is the right or the wrong sum. How can we be told unless we know how many houses the right hon. Gentleman is to produce within the year, or two years or the currency of this Bill? It really is asking a lot of this House to give an unlimited warrant for State enterprise expenditure without giving any assurance that any number of houses will be built within any specific period. What is the reason why the right hon. Gentleman is so secretive on the matter? Is he frightened that the country will be disappointed? Is he frightened of putting forward a figure which he may not be able to realise? I want him to say, when he asks for this money, what programme the Government have in view for this expenditure?
I turn to the next thing for which this working capital is required—" the making and carrying out of arrangements for the production and distribution of any such materials." There may be cases where this power is required. Generally, I should think that it was not required, and I would welcome perhaps a little clearer statement than that which the right hon. Gentleman made in moving the Second Reading of this Bill as to the extent to which existing channels are to be utilised for distribution, and existing fac- 991 tories used for the production of building materials. I believe—and I do not think that any question of ideology exists—you will get your building materials quickest if you use existing factories. I agree with the hon. Lady the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee) and with an hon. Friend behind me, both of whom said that the trouble was the shortage of key men. I do not think that that covers the whole of the labour problem. Part of the trouble is the shortage of unskilled men who can follow up the key men in the bricklaying and other operations. The real problem which the right hon. Gentleman now has to attack is the problem of supplying the labour forces in the factories and in the building industry. If he can deal with that with more definition, and indicate with more clarity the sphere that the existing industry is going to occupy in their programme, it would be to the general advantage of all concerned in producing houses at the quickest possible rate. With my short association with the Ministry of Works, I would perhaps be the last to suggest that they can be actuated by what hon. Gentlemen opposite think to be such an evil thing—the profit motive. Close consideration of the Bill indicates that the Ministry must, when it uses this money, always look to getting a profit on anything it buys, and on any work it does, in order to make the necessary refund to the Treasury.
How long this system will continue no one can say, because under the Bill it merely provides that no further advances shall be made from the Treasury after September, 1947. But this system of State finance may continue for an indefinite period after that, and with money being collected from the local authorities, with a profit to the Ministry of Works, and being poured back into the Fund, it may be—one does not know—a profitable State enterprise. What we are concerned with is houses, and we are concerned, too, if it is not a profitable State enterprise—and some of us do not think it will be—that actual costs and losses incurred in the enterprise should not be concealed. In Clause 3 there is an unlimited power of subsidy. It is a disguised subsidy. Any sale below cost will mean that the Ministry of Works has to have the difference made up by the Ministry of Health. There is no limit to the amount which the right hon Gentleman the Minister of Health 992 can pay, out of moneys provided by Parliament, to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Works. I would like some assurance that there will be some form of return which will indicate to the House, if the cost of sale by the Ministry of Works is in excess of the cost of sale of the traditional type, the extent of that subsidy per house. I regard that as an important matter. It will not be revealed from the return which goes before the Auditor-General. He will only see what amounts are paid in by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health; the total amount of this unlimited subsidy. The poor private enterprise builder gets no subsidy at all. They will envy the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Works. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give an assurance that he will make such a return quarterly.
One other point on that. One of the reasons, I suspect, of the increase of cost in the erection of temporary houses is because of the difficulties in wartime of distribution, and the delay in getting the right piece to the right place at the right moment. Local builders may make all sorts of claims for being held up in the execution of their contracts, because they have not got the materials. That will all add to the cost. I think that, if possible, some sort of return should be made, showing to what extent the cost of these dwellings is affected through delays and defects of distribution of these bulk purchases. I regard that to be in the public interest, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give very clear and specific assurances upon that point.
This matter of finance is, I should have thought, one of considerable importance. I want to make it quite clear that we on this side of the House are not opposing the Minister of Works acquiring finance for this purpose, but we are concerned to see that- the finance available produces the biggest quantity of houses of a decent character that can be achieved. When the right hon. Gentleman introduced this Bill he omitted, I think, two of the customary arguments. He made no reference to the mandate which the Government claims. He made no reference to the mandate for the erection of a Ministry of Housing. I sympathise with him, and I understand why he did not, when he happened to reveal a little further on the part which the Ministry of Supply 993 was now going to play. Again the right hon. Gentleman departed from precedent in that he did not wave in his hand this document as if it were an answer to all arguments. [Interruption.] I look at it with interest, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to see how far this election winner, as hon. Gentlemen opposite call it, now accords with their performance. When I turn to page 9 I find this pledge about a Ministry of Housing is implemented by bringing in the Ministry of Supply. On the previous page I saw this:Only the Labour Party is ready to take the necessary steps" —If the right hon. Gentleman would tell us what they are no doubt we should have greater confidence in his performance, and his supporters would be comforted. Let me read it:A full programme of land planning, and drastic action "—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman opposite always likes drastic action, whether it is good or bad. [HON. MEMBERS: "Read on."]that is to ensure an efficient building industry that will neither burden the community with a crippling financial loan "—And yet one of the first Measures they pass is a Bill which has no limit upon the extent of the loan which can be placed upon the community, either by way of taxation or by way of increase of rent, because what the Ministry of Works charge must be reflected in the rents of these houses that are to let. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about the price of land?"]—What the Ministry of Health pay to the Ministry of Works—the difference between the cost of the production of these houses and the amount for which they are sold, under Clause 3, must be found from the taxpayer; and between the two there is no maximum to the load which can be placed upon the community. Indeed, we shall watch with interest to see. [An HON. MEMBER: "And edification."]—I am careful of my words, and it will only take longer if hon. Gentlemen opposite really think it desirable to interrupt in that matter. We shall watch with interest whether, indeed, the burden is a crippling one upon the community, and also to see whether the vast expenditure envisaged does in fact produce houses in accordance with the requirements of the community.
Now let me turn to another point, which will perhaps not irritate hon. Gentlemen 994 opposite so much. They do not like to be reminded of this pamphlet "Let us Face the Future." I dare say that they will be publishing a new edition for private circulation called "Let us forget our promises." [An HON. MEMBER: "Will you write the foreword?"] I shall be glad to do so. With regard to temporary housing, the right hon. Gentleman opposite referred with some pride to 400 houses a week going up now. One knows that when this programme of prefabricated houses starts, it comes off in a trickle—and the trickle may come rather later than one anticipates—and then we get a flow, and then, we hope to get a flood. When the right hon. Gentleman talks about 400 houses a week being a vast improvement on what was happening in last June and July, I hope he will give the information as to what was the flow forecast last July to be coming off now per week; then we shall be able to judge whether he had kept up to the programme. Can he tell us, quite shortly, what was the forecast and the rate for this week, and then we shall be able to judge of the measure of his achievement.
I want to say a few words about a part of the Bill with which I, personally, and I am sure those on this side of the House are in agreement, so far as its object is concerned—Clauses 7 and 8. There is I think unanimity on all sides of the House on this: If you build a house under licence, you should not in the next few years be entitled to exploit a shortage at the expense of the rest of the community. One defect, as I see it, in the Bill as printed now, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider it carefully, is this: If a man sells a house in breach of his licence he can be prosecuted and fined the excess of his charge over what ought to be the permitted selling price, and£100 I think on top of that. But that does not help the purchaser. The contract is not affected by the fact that it is a sale for a illegal amount. Clause 7 (7), hon. Members will see, states:The commission of an offence under this section shall not affect the title to any property or the operation of any contract.So, as I understand it, the man who sells for£1,500 may be fined and punished, but the man we want to protect—the purchaser of that house—still has to pay£ 1,500—and the Government make the profit. The same applies to where a letting is above the permitted 995 rent. The lease is valid, and the lessee whom you want to protect has to pay the increased rent, and the lessor can be fined. I do not think that that is a very satisfactory provision. Speaking for myself, I would welcome some provision, where there was a sale or letting above this permitted price, that the contract could be varied by the Court so as to reduce the purchase price to the permitted sum. That would, in my view, be a far more favourable protection to the purchaser than the provisions of this Measure as it now stands. I would like the right hon. Gentleman to deal with that point and I would also like him to answer what is perhaps a rather technical question and that is, what is the operation of Clause 7 (2) on a seven-year lease, starting from the date on which this Bill commences. He might like to reserve that until later. It is a somewhat legal problem, but I have racked my head over it for quite a time, and I am not sure whether the effect is not to extend the period of restriction of the rent under the tenancy agreement beyond four years.
Subsection (5) is most curious, because that provides that although the purchaser or lessee does not pay any sum in excess of the permitted purchase price or permitted rent, if it can be shown that the vendor or the lessor gained any advantage from the sale or tenancy on the purchase price or the rent, he is liable to a criminal prosecution. I wonder what the object of that is, and I wonder what its scope is. It might be inserted perhaps merely to please Socialist ideology. Does it mean if- I sold a house because it is inconvenient for me to live in it, because it is too far- from my work, and for that reason it is advantageous for me to sell it, and it is sold for the permitted price, that I shall 'be committing a criminal offence? The right hon. Gentleman nods his head. I am quite sure that that is certainly not the intention of the Subsection, and I conclude by saying that I do hope the right hon. Gentleman will look at that part of the Bill with a great deal of care, to see that it carries the intentions that are in common with the wishes. of both sides of the House in this matter. The proof of the pudding, so far as this Bill is concerned, will be in the eating. We shall watch what the Government do under the wide powers that they are taking fin this Measure. We do not want to 996 stand in their way in providing houses for the people. We will support to the best of our ability any attempt in that task, but we are concerned to see that the people of this country are not made to pay any higher rent than they should, because of Wasteful administration and gross incompetence on the part of the Government.
§ 8.43 p.m.
§ The Minister of Health (Mr. Aneurin Bevan)
I think my right hon. Friend who introduced the Bill, in what I consider was an admirable speech, has had no reason to be disappointed by the Debate which succeeded it. It has been practical, it has been directed to particular points, and my task has been made easy by virtue of the fact that the Opposition have not found it possible to disagree with the provisions of the Bill on any matter of fundamental principle. As a matter of fact, I confess to a sense of disappointment. I had arranged with my right hon. Friend that he should open the Debate en this occasion, because I had become somewhat tired of the placidity of opening speeches, and I thought that I might, at least on one occasion, have the opportunity of engaging in a Debate. But, unfortunately, hon. Members opposite do not seem yet to have made up their minds on what to join issue. They have been spending today somewhat burdensomely trying to find some point of disagreement. They have fastened, for the most part, on the Financial Clauses in the Bill, and have made a charge that we are seeking to obtain from Parliament, a blank cheque.
As a matter of fact, hon. Members know perfectly well that the Government already possess all the financial powers that are in this Bill. My right hon. Friend explained that in his opening speech. We have thought fit to promote the Bill for the purpose of regularisation and of giving the House of Commons an opportunity of hearing and examining the reason why the Government wish to act in this particular way. It is, as my right hon. Friend said, characteristic of the scrupulousness with which we always guard public finance.
Is the right hon. Gentleman really telling the House of Commons that this Bill is unnecessary, because the Government have all the powers that are in the Bill which they 997 could properly use for this legislation, or is he telling the House that the Government have the powers but could not use them properly without this Bill?
§ Mr. Bevan
The terms of this Bill regularise the position and, in fact, limit the exercise of financial powers, and we desire, therefore, to make it quite clear that the terms of this Bill are devised in order to give the House of Commons an opportunity of seeing, within the limits of the Bill, the way in which we propose to exercise the financial powers already possessed.
§ Mr. Willinkrose—
§ Mr. Bevan
I am sorry, but I have less than half an hour and I must deal with a number of important points. There are also some important things I want to say concerning the powers that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works will exercise. The suggestion has been made—and I really must deal with this because otherwise a great deal of misunderstanding might be created—that the Minister of Works, acting as a builder, will be using powers which the local authorities, at the moment, are using, and that the Minister of Works will be setting aside some of the local authorities in actually building houses for them. It is not proposed in the Bill, nor is it the intention of the Government in any circumstances under the Bill to set aside the housing functions of any local authority. But what we do desire is to have powers to reinforce the building strength of any area where it needs to be reinforced.
For example, hon. Members in all parts of the House are deeply concerned about rural housing, and they know that one of the difficulties in getting enough houses put up in rural areas quickly is that the normal building labour is not there in sufficient quantities. We desire to use building labour where it exists, and normally the building force distributes itself in accordance with local needs. But there are two exceptions, rural areas and blitzed areas. In the rural areas we want all the building forces to be used by the rural authorities to build traditional houses, but I want to tell the House with perfect frankness that it will not be possible to solve the rural housing problem unless we can find ways of reinforcing building labour in the rural areas.
998 Therefore, our purpose is to allow the Ministry of Works to organise flying building squads, and, with the consent and co-operation of the local authorities in the rural areas, to become contractors for them, and to construct certain forms of prefabricated houses that lend themselves easily to quick construction with unskilled labour. In this way we hope to try, if we can, to supplement the building forces normally available in the rural areas. Do hon. Members opposite challenge that?
We have heard the whole evening dark suspicions about what my right hon. Friend proposes to do. It has been suggested in speech after speech that we have some sinister intentions of organising building contractors which are in some way or other going to interfere with construction, whereas what we desire to do is to use building contractors to the utmost and, when they are deficient, to supplement their efforts by the use of direct building by the Ministry of Works. The same is true of blitzed areas. Building labour distributes itself over the country, but hon. Members know that in places like Coventry, Plymouth and Bristol, it will be essential, if we are to limit the sufferings of the population, for the Government to do it by direct labour, and we propose to do it. It has been said over and over again that this matter of housing must be tackled like a military operation. We do not propose to permit any conventions or traditions to stand in the way of building all the houses the British people need. Therefore, we are not to be deterred—I quite admit I might have been frightened from direct building through the Ministry of Works—by "our experience over temporary houses, but I have more confidence in the efficiency of this Government than I had in that of the last one. I refuse to believe that the temporary housing disasters of the last Government should form a precedent for what we are going to do. Therefore, we shall not be deterred in this matter in the exercise of these powers.
The same thing is true of bulk purchase. It was suggested from the other side of the House that the building materials industry is sufficiently large in normal times to satisfy all our requirements, and that we shall therefore not need to have any bulk purchase; that all we need to do is to supply them with the necessary labour and we can. have all the building 999 materials we desire. Why should we deprive ourselves of the advantages of bulk purchase? Why on earth should not the Government place orders with factories, with manufacturers, for the kind of building components we want? Why should we leave it entirely to the initiative of private industry to produce what it likes? We would be neglecting our duty if we did not limit the number of types of equipment for the houses and place bulk orders for them. Only by placing bulk orders can we cost them, and we propose to cost them. If we do not place bulk orders we cannot cost them. If we merely allowed the building components industry to respond in a normal fashion to the stimulus of private purchase from the building merchants, we could not put costing clauses in any of our contracts. Therefore, bulk purchase is an essential condition not only for standardising production, but for giving the Government effective control over the prices of building materials.
The same thing is true of a suggestion from the other side of the House that we ought not to go in for making materials ourselves. There are two answers to that. In the first instance, many of the Royal Ordnance Factories which the Minister of Supply is taking over and using for this purpose are in distressed areas. They are in areas which are monuments to what hon. Members on the other side accomplished between the war years. Already, as a consequence of the fact that we have not been able to catch up with their achievements, unemployment is higher in those areas than in the rest of the country. We therefore propose to assist in bringing about a redistribution of industry by using these Royal Ordnance Factories in the distressed areas to make housing materials. There is a further reason why we should do this. It has been suggested—it was suggested in a letter which appeared in "The Times," which was used, I think, by an hon. Member opposite—that the building materials industry could produce enough materials for 500,000 houses a year. That savoured somewhat of hyperbole, I think, but that was the statement. Therefore, it has been asked, why do we want to bother about any direct production ourselves? The answer is that, in addition to costing clauses in contracts, we want to have comparative costs, and we want to make 1000 materials ourselves for the purpose of checking the cost of production in private concerns. We want to have a double check. We had a double check during the war and we want to have it after the war.
I accept what hon. Members on the other side of the House have said in speech after speech, that it is our duty to try to bring down the cost of housing. It has been suggested in some quarters that housing costs are going to rise. Housing costs are not rising. As a result of a tug-of-war that has been going on between the Ministry of Health and building contractors for the last four months, housing costs have been held, and in some cases tenders are coming down. If I had surrendered three months ago to tie importunities of the other side of the House, and had mentioned programmes and targets, I would have been caught now. The building contractors would have known what we had committed ourselves to, and I would have been caught. The result of the building contractors not knowing is that at the moment effective control is being achieved over building costs, and by the same scientific organisation of material supplies we shall progressively reduce the costs of building.
§ Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)
Surely the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the country and this House already know the ultimate target, and that is some 4,000,000 to 5,000,000 houses. Surely that is the point.
§ Mr. Bevan
If the House and the country know the ultimate target of 4,000,000 or 5,000,000 houses, why bother me? What hon. Members opposite really desire to know is not the global target but the phased target. We have for ourselves—between the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Supply and the Ministry of Works—a working hypothesis upon which we have based our own production, but we are not disclosing it at the moment.
§ Mr. Manningham-Buller
If the right hon. Gentleman is unwilling to disclose his promises about the future, he might at least say what he has done in the last four months.
§ Mr. Bevan
I have already promised that from the beginning of the year we will give more particular, more precise 1001 and more regular information in three months than the party opposite gave in 10 years. What we are not proposing to do is to attempt any mere guess-work. People are much more concerned about houses than about programmes. I make this further promise. We shall build a lot more houses—very many more—in the first 15 months after this war than the friends of hon. Members opposite built after the last war. Bulk purchases and organised direct labour are the principles that are guiding us in asking for these powers from the House this evening. As hon. Members have said, obviously we are going to be judged by results. [An HON. MEMBER: "Hear, Hear."] Of, course, that is not an original statement. We shall be judged by the way in which these powers are applied. We have been asked to what extent we are going to set aside the builders' merchants. We are going to set aside or supplement the builders' merchants just as much as is necessary to carry out the job. If the builders' merchants are doing the job and doing it efficiently and economically, then the vast bulk of building materials will be distributed through those normal channels. If, on the other hand, the builders' merchants are failing us, either as to a section of them or in any part of the country, then we shall distribute the materials and equipment through our own distributive agencies.
§ Captain Marples
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right in saying that, but what I want to know is what profit and loss account will be rendered to this House in respect of that distribution. How shall we know the profit and loss?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)
The hon. and gallant Member made a very long speech and was not interrupted.
§ Mr. Bevan
I—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I was asked a number of 1002 questions which I desire to answer. For example, the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles) asked about the distribution of bricks. Here, again, there is a difficulty which arises immediately out of the supply position; the difficulty that in one area bricks are higher priced than in another and that building contractors are having to purchase the higher priced bricks. I agree, the simplest proposition probably, the most drastic and direct proposition, would be for the Government to take over all the brickworks If hon. Members want that, they can have it. They can put it in the Vote of Censure. We know they are in difficulty about the terms. But there are large numbers of brickworks, closed down during the war, which desire to reopen, and we shall need their total capacity in order to be able to build houses in sufficient quantity. If we allow much more cheaply priced bricks in such areas, those brickworks will never be opened. We can do it, but the private owners of those brickworks will never start them unless we can afford in the meantime a market for their bricks slightly higher than the cheap bricks flooding their areas at the present time. This is well known; it is a difficulty with which we are faced, and a difficulty we propose to deal with. We do not propose to continue zoning, but we propose to continue zoning sufficiently to nurse the old brickworks back into production.
§ Mr. Eccles rose —ߞ
§ Mr. Bevan
Hon. Members know that no one is more anxious than me about this. The point has been made in the Debate that the Bill arms the Minister of Health to pay an unknown amount of money for prefabricated houses, and it is said that we should have a quarterly statement as to what is paid in this way. The answer is this: we desire to supplement conventional building by prefabrication. We cannot start on a policy of pre-fabrication unless we have strong financial backing. Factory built houses are an unknown proposition. We have to do one of two things, we either have entirely to abandon any new system of construction in this country or to be experimental. If we are to be experimental, the local authority cannot carry the burden of the experiment. We cannot start producing experimental prefabricated houses and expect the local authority concerned to 1003 buy houses at the actual cost of production in the initial stages. Private enterprise cannot do that. Private enterprise has failed. [Interruption.] Hon. Members must face the facts. The only prefabricated houses which have been produced within recent years have been by the stimulus and subsidy of the Ministry of Works. The fact is, therefore, that if we are to embark on new systems of domestic architecture and new material, someone must start, and as we have accepted responsibility for the housing programme we propose to experiment wherever we can do it intelligently. It is obvious that we should have to have funds with which to finance the early stages of the experiment.
The House of Commons will be able to judge whether our decisions are correct or not. I am not prepared to rely entirely for the building programme upon the construction of brick houses, although I believe that, if we could get a large enough building force, properly balanced, and could properly organise our supplies, we could not get a better house more cheaply than by brick building. We have not the force, and it will take a long time to build it up. In the meanwhile, therefore, we have to resort to other systems of construction. I regret that hon. Members opposite, after having started and spent about£2,000,000 on the Portal house, went no further with their experiments. Had they gone on we might, today, have a factory system of construction which we could operate in large quantities. But they made no progress; they gave it up. If, in wartime, it is worth while spending millions of pounds on the construction of battleships, aeroplanes and bombs with which to destroy people, is it not worth while experimenting in peacetime, with millions of pounds to build homes for the people?
§ Mr. Willink
We have had a great deal of rhetoric during the last few minutes, but there is no controversy about the matter at all. The point is whether the Government are going to let the country know at frequent intervals, what they are spending on housing.
§ Mr. Bevan
The objection has been made that no ceiling has been fixed to the amount of money the Ministry of Health can spend in this matter. The Ministry cannot, at the moment, give any 1004 estimate of what is necessary, but hon. Members opposite have every Parliamentary means at their disposal to discover what it is, whenever they want to. This House knows that in using that argument they are merely attempting to smear the whole issue. The House realises, from this Bill, that the housing plans of the Government are unfolding themselves. The main strategical principles have been determined, as hon. Members opposite will discover to their chagrin, because they are so patriotic that they would rather the Government failed to produce the houses. I have been meeting representatives of local authorities all over the country, and I am satisfied they are anxious to build houses. Fortunately, there has been a slight change recently which has helped us, and I believe that by the middle of next year, we shall have confounded all our critics and shown that the housing programme has really been tackled as it should be.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House, for Tomorrow.—[Mr. Mathers. ]