§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. J. Taylor.]
§ 10.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Sparks (Acton)
I wish to draw attention to the recently issued White Paper on the Temporary Housing Programme. The White Paper is important, because it gives a complete picture of the temporary housing programme, and it enables us to understand what has been done following the passing of the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act, 1944. I wish to point out one or two important maters which arise. In the first place, the White Paper informs us that the temporary housing scheme will be brought to a conclusion in May of this year, and that by that time there will have been built 156,667 temporary houses at a cost of £215,905,000. It has been said that the expenditure has been excessive, and the Government have been criticised for having recently come to the House and asked for an increase upon the original estimate contained in the White Paper of October, 1945.
In that White Paper, the Government estimated the erection of 158,480 houses at a cost of £184,669,000. It is important to quote these figures, in order to emphasise the increased cost, as revealed in the recent White Paper, 692 compared with the White Paper issued in October, 1945. I am not criticising the Government's conduct of this programme, but intend to show that the increased cost has not been as much as it might have been, if other factors are taken into consideration. The White Paper of 1945 gives the cost of each house erected at £1,165, whereas the cost of each house constructed at the present time is £1,378. In other words, there has been an increase of £213 per house over the 1945 estimate, or roughly an increase of 18 per cent.
It is important that the House should note a very interesting factor in connection with this question of costs. Wholesale building materials have increased in cost by 36 per cent. during the period 1st August, 1945, to 31st December, 1947, and the standard hourly rates of building craftsmen and labourers have also risen by 25 to 28 per cent. according to the district concerned. When we realise that wholesale building materials have increased in price in this period by 36 per cent. and the standard hourly rates of building craftsmen and labourers by a minimum of 25 per cent., we see that the increased cost per temporary house of 18 per cent. is very low compared with the increased costs in the building industry as such. Therefore, the Government have nothing to be afraid of or ashamed about in the fact that they have been able to complete this scheme during their period of office with an average increased cost of only 18 per cent.
I would like to draw the attention of the House to Section 2 of the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act, 1944, in regard to the removal of structures. This is of some importance to local authorities and it would be advisable, if it is at all possible, to give them some further guidance in this matter. First of all, the temporary housing scheme is to last for 10 years, and at the end of 10 years its life is supposed to be extinct. Section 2 gives the Minister power at the expiration of TO years from the passing of the Act, which will be in 1954, to remove the structures from the sites. It also obliges him to remove the structures from the sites if the local authority should request him to do so.
What I am anxious to find out from the Minister, if I can, is just how he envisages that Section 2 of that Act is likely to be operated. Will the Minister exercise his 693 powers to remove the structures by agreement with the local authority or will he exercise them arbitrarily? The Minister bears a very heavy financial burden in connection with the temporary housing scheme and I would like to hear him say that any action which is likely to be taken arising from Section 2 will be by agreement with the local authority concerned. That is most important because the local authorities will then have some degree of confidence in knowing what their obligations are likely to be from 1954 onwards.
Failing agreement, assuming the Minister wants to demolish the structures from the site and the local authority is in disagreement with this Measure, and assuming that the Minister is insistent that the structures should be removed, could he in such cases waive his powers, and not only waive his powers until such time as the local authority ask him to act but at the same time give some kind of undertaking that the heavy capital expenditure on the structures which the Minister will bear will not on that account be passed on to the local authorities? If that heavy capital expenditure upon structures were passed on to the local authorities, the financial burden of the scheme would obviously be too great for them to carry because they would have to increase rents very considerably and probably increase them beyond the means of the average tenant who occupies this type of house.
I would also like to draw the Minister's attention to Section 2 (2) which lays down the conditions under which these sites shall be cleared. It places upon the Minister the responsibility for clearing the sites and the substructures. In the case of a freehold site there is no great problem because, where it has already been prepared with roads, sewers and other services, the local authorities can build a permanent scheme upon that site when the temporary structures are demolished.
What I am concerned with, and what the Ministry will sooner or later become concerned with, is the fact that a considerable number of these sites and temporary dwellings are upon land held on lease by the local authorities. It was the principle of the previous Minister of Health that, as this was only temporary housing, the land upon which the houses were erected should also only be held temporarily on lease. So it was the 694 policy to compel many local authorities to acquire leases of 10 or 12 years on the sites for temporary housing schemes and, at the end of that period, the land would revert to the original owners.
These local authorities have entered into legal contracts with the owners of such land at the end of 10 or 12 years to remove the structures from the site and, in some cases, to take up roads and sewers and, in other cases, to leave them for the owner to take over and use if he feels disposed to erect permanent houses, flats, or for any other permanent development. It is important that we should have some indication from the Minister of his policy in relation to these leased sites. Local authorities want some definite guidance on this because, if at the end of the lease they have to make arrangements for accommodating the people who will be displaced, they will need some fairly considerable notice.
On the other hand, if it can be said that the Minister is likely to exercise his power of compulsory acquisition and con sent to the local authority compulsorily acquiring these sites at the end of the period of lease, that will help the local authority in the development of its housing programme. It must be borne in mind that on many of these sites aluminium houses have been erected and that those houses have a much longer period of life than some of the other types. They have a life of at least 40 years, whereas some others will be completely worn out and should be pulled down at the end of 10 years; so it is important that we should get the maximum value for the capital expenditure entailed in the erection of the aluminium house by seeing that it remains on that site as long as there is a housing problem in that area, and not be demolished at the end of 10 years just because the local authority, at the end of its lease, must demolish the structures and hand over the site.
In a recent Debate answered by the Minister of Works, this point was raised, but the Minister said it was not a matter for him; as far as he was concerned, the scheme ended in 10 years' time, and what happened after that was a matter for the Ministry of Health. I think there is a sound and substantial case for the Minister conducting an investigation into the sites that are held on 10 and 12 year leases, first, in order to give some guidance to 695 the local authorities of what they may expect when these leases expire. Secondly, I hope he will be able to indicate to them that in suitable cases he will be willing to consider giving consent to compulsory orders, so that those sites may be acquired by the local authorities, not only to continue the lifetime of the aluminium house, but so that the local authority may use that site for the future development of a permanent housing scheme.
Section 3 of the 1944 Act outlines the terms on which structures are made available, and also deals with land of exceptionally high value. In most cases local authorities must make a payment to the Minister of Health for structures which are received and erected, but in the case of land of exceptionally high value the Minister may absolve the local authority from any such payment. Indeed, he may go further and make a contribution to the expenses of the local authority on account of the exceptionally high value of the site. What is going to be the position after 1954, when the Minister has power to terminate the agreement, and ask that these structures shall be removed? If there is this agreement between him and the local authority, can he give an assurance that he will not wish to withdraw the contribution he makes to local authorities under this Section, and that he will not require a local authority to make a payment to him merely because they want the structures to remain on the site, while he wants them to be demolished?
I know I am asking my hon. Friend to answer a number of hypothetical questions and that it is very difficult for him to give any concrete decision on what he is likely to do from 1954 onwards. The object of my securing the Adjournment tonight will be achieved if he can give some clear line of policy to local authorities showing what they might expect the Ministry to do at the end of the life of this temporary housing programme. The scheme is a temporary one, and local authorities will have the responsibility of rehousing people from these temporary structures. If they have to do that at the end of 10 years, can we not tell them long enough in advance, so that they can make preparations? If it is suggested that we should extend the life of these houses, in the case of aluminium houses for 40 years, let us give that indication to the local authorities, so that they will 696 know exactly where they stand in regard to their responsibility for rehousing tenants of temporary houses. Local authorities will welcome anything that my hon. Friend can say which will throw some light on what will happen at the time of the ending of the scheme.
§ 10.19 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. John Edwards)
I very much appreciate my hon. Friend's concern about the future of the temporary houses provided by the Government under the 1944 Act, but I feel it is rather early yet, before we have put up all the temporary bungalows, to begin to consider the question of their ultimate fate. Psychologists nowadays are talking a great deal about precognition, but even if I possessed a modest degree of foresight, I should not be able to predict what is to be the position in 1957, or 1958. I think I can best serve my hon. Friend's purpose by making as plain a statement as I see it, even if I cannot, at this stage, give him all the assurances for Which he asks.
As he has already indicated, the statutory provisions governing the removal of these temporary houses are contained in Section 2 of the 1944 Act. Until 10 years from the passing of that Act, which will be October, 1954, the only person who can cause these bungalows to be taken down and removed is the Minister of Health. This he can do at any time on giving due notice to the local authority, and under the terms on which the houses have been made available, this notice must be given at least three months in advance of the removal. But as from October, 1954, a measure of initiative passes to the local authority. At any time thereafter local authorities may request the Minister to take down and remove the bungalows, and on receipt of such a request the Minister must comply with it unless he is of the opinion that housing conditions require that the bungalows should remain.
The Minister's power to remove the houses on giving due notice still continues, but in addition, his hand may be forced by the local authority, unless, of course, the Minister feels that he cannot comply with their request for the reason I have given. My hon. Friend will agree that the determining factor in the decision which will have to be taken at the appropriate time must be the welfare of the local community, and that whatever is 697 done then must be in the best interests of the community. The temporary housing programme was never intended to be anything more than a stop-gap. It is not an end in itself, but only a means to an end—the solution of the country's housing problem. Temporary houses have played an important part in meeting the immediate needs of the situation, but it will be generally agreed that they must be replaced as soon as possible by houses of permanent construction which can be incorporated in the long-term plans evolved by local authorities to cater for the housing requirements of the population in their areas
I have no doubt that local authorities are fully alive to their responsibilities in this respect, but it will still be the duty of the Minister to be vigilant in detecting any tendency towards allowing these houses to remain in being after they have outlived their real usefulness. The Minister's power to order the removal of the structures constitutes an important safeguard against any such inclination. I hope that it will not be necessary for him to come in in that way, and that it will be done by agreement, but these residual powers remain.
While we are all at one in desiring that these houses should be done away with at the earliest possible moment, we must not proceed to the other extreme of removing them just for the sake of getting rid of them, if they are still serving a useful purpose to the community. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works pointed out in the course of a Debate in this House recently, some of these houses, particularly the aluminium bungalows, are technically and physically capable of a much longer life than 10 years. Looking at the matter purely from the point of view of suitability for continued occupation, it would be wrong to cast them aside simply because the 10 years period had expired. This is not inconsistent with the intention of the original Act. It is simply being, realistic.
The Government have no intention of going back on any of the guarantees which were given about the length of time that these houses would remain in being. This is a programme of temporary houses, and temporary they will remain, but we ought not to shrink from the possibility that some of these houses will 698 be occupied for more than 10 years. There are adequate safeguards against any undue prolongation of their life, firstly because, as I have said, the local authority can press for their removal, and secondly because the Minister himself can order their removal without any request from the local authority.
§ Mr. Sparks
Could my hon. Friend say a word about the question of leased sites, which is rather important.
§ Mr. Edwards
In due time. Whether the Minister will take the initiative in the matter or will leave the timing of the removal to the decision of the local authority is a question which cannot be answered at this stage. I hope it will be agreed that everything will depend upon the circumstances obtaining at the end of the 10 years. On this the considered views of the local authorities must be given full weight, but the Minister will have to keep the position under review and, if necessary, intervene to prevent any undue reliance being placed on the continued use of temporary houses. The housing needs of the community, as they are then, will have to be balanced against the desirability of dispensing with these structures as soon as possible. I am sure the position will vary from area to area, and no other general rule can be laid down. There need be no anxiety about the question of costs, because costs are essentially determined by the Exchequer and the annual payment by the local authority to the Minister ceases when the houses are removed. I do not think that my hon. Friend should have any worries on that point.
So far, I have dealt with the matter from the general aspect, but the situation in individual cases will be affected by the nature of the sites on which the bungalows have been erected. These sites are of various kinds. I do not think, in view of what my hon. Friend said, that I need deal with the question of sites, which are basically housing sites where temporary dwellings can be replaced by permanent dwellings. I should like to refer to the open spaces which have been taken for temporary houses, and which are in a special category. Their use is governed by the provisions of the 1945 Act, under which the Minister's authorisation enabling them to be diverted to this purpose is limited to 699 a period of 10 years, after which the local authority is required to take forthwith all steps necessary for securing the reinstatement of the land in the state in which it was before the authorisation was given.
Finally I come to the type of case which causes my hon. Friend the greatest concern, where the land does not belong to the local authority but is only leased for a period of from 10 to 12 years. It is true that the expenditure which has been laid out on roads and services in connection with these sites is of no value to the local authority when the lease terminates, but the same position arose in connection with other sites. Indeed, even in the case of permanent housing sites used for temporary bungalows, there is always a certain amount of expenditure which ceases to be remunerative when the structures are removed. Although the main roads and the services are planned so as to meet the requirements of the subsequent permanent houses, there are connections made for the temporary houses, so that this factor of unremunerative expenses cannot be avoided.
The method of taking land on lease instead of acquiring it by purchase was adopted in the main for land which, for one reason or another, was not considered as suitable for permanent housing. Therefore, there was not much point in using compulsory purchase powers if the owner was willing to lease the land, and the question whether the site ought to be leased or acquired outright was determined on the merits of each case, includ- 700 ing the rent, the cost of site preparation, and so on.
Where difficulty may arise is if it is desired to keep the site for a period beyond the term of 10 years. Should this happen, the local authority would be able to negotiate in most cases a suitable extension of the lease, but if the landlord should prove obdurate it would still be open to the local authority to submit an application to the Minister for authority to acquire the land compulsorily, and should there be such a request that authority could not unreasonably be withheld. My hon. Friend need not be unduly concerned about the position of these leased sites. Although it is rather early yet to take a decision, my hon. Friend can be quite certain that in ample time we shall give the authorities all the advice and help they need.
Perhaps I may end by saying that this temporary housing programme is a legacy we inherited from the previous Government. It has been a somewhat expensive undertaking. Nevertheless, when completed it will have been the means of providing accommodation in a relatively short period for more than 156,000 families in houses which are very well equipped, and with which I am certain the occupants are thoroughly satisfied. To that extent we may regard the cost, heavy though it is, as having been well worth while.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.