Housing (Scotland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st December 1944.

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Mr. McNeil:

No one will differ from the burden of the argument that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has made, but I do not think we could accept his premise that you will necessarily lengthen the war by taking men from the Services. It is surely plain that we have reached a stage at which production of the essentials for making war is being impaired by the appalling housing conditions. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman said that next winter we should be in the seventh year of the war and that we could not continue sprinting for seven years. He might have added that we have been extremely fortunate in the matter of the weather in the last four winters, and extremely fortunate that we have not had epidemic conditions in any part of the country. If we did have them, in the gross overcrowding which we know in the West of Scotland it would be a dreadful blow at our war effort. When we plead that men should be withdrawn from the Forces for this essential job, we, too, are thinking of the most effective way of shortening the war.

Could the Secretary of State tell us how far the allotment of temporary houses which he made some five or six weeks ago to local authorities is affected by the later statements that we have had in relation to Portal houses? It is incomprehensible to me that the right hon. Gentleman should have made these allocations and that within five weeks another Member of the Government should tell us that the Portal houses are right out of the reckoning. It is difficult to understand how, in such a short time, such a big difference could have taken place. There are, I know, five other varieties of temporary houses. I hope we may be told when, and in what proportion, we must expect these temporary houses to be delivered to local authorities.

Secondly, can we be told how the servicing of sites is going along? My right hon. Friend last Spring stimulated some of us, and I hope local authorities too, with his enthusiasm for the grouping of sites and transferring the engineering potential released from the air fields on to these sites. My impression—I hope it is hopelessly wrong—is that relatively little is being done after a great deal of talking. If it is the fault of the local authorities, the House should be informed whose is the fault. As far as Members on this side can aid him in his approach to local authorities,I should not think he has any right to doubt the response. I hope I am wrong in my impression but I should like to hear factually the progress that has been made there.

Thirdly, can we be told a little about the attempts that have been made in temporary housing in my division and in Dumbartonshire? I believe from my own observation that it has been a complete failure. In my division 200 temporary houses were authorised some 15 months ago. So far, we have not got one house fit for occupation. It is very difficult to believe that this is a speedy way of solving our difficulties. I am told that the actual construction has been faulty and that makeshift repairs are now being attempted. I am also told that some non-ferrous pipes which were used have been a complete failure and have had to be replaced. Can we be told who was responsible for authorising the construction of these houses? I should like to be assured that the man who made such dreadful mistakes, is not the man who is authorising the other types of temporary houses with which I understand my right hon. Friend means to go ahead. I am not cavilling at any one person. I am only interested to ensure that a similar failing will not be repeated. To find after 17 months not a house fit for occupation makes it difficult to believe that this is a speedy method of creating temporary houses.

I now turn to the construction of permanent houses. I cannot overstress the importance of the confession which the Secretary of State makes in the figures that he gave us this week. It is not only that after 20 months only 167 houses are fit for occupation. It is worse than that. If I read the answer correctly, my right hon. Friend failed after 20 months to tell us what had happened about 58 houses of the first programme which do not yet seem to have been started. What has happened after 20 months that apparently tenders have not been made for 58 of these houses? Moreover, after nine months there are still 370 houses in the second programme not mentioned in the answer which my right hon. Friend gave.

I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) in saying that I do not want to embarrass my right hon. Friend. I have frequently been in his debt and experienced a great deal of kindness from him, and I have publicly admitted my admiration for him, but no one can be spared in an examination of this kind. There is nothing more important than that we should have these houses. There are, therefore, few things more important than that this House or, at any rate, this part of it, should understand the explanation behind the appalling failure to build houses in Scotland in the last 20 months. There are really only four elements concerned-contractors, local authorities, material and labour. There is no reason to believe that contractors are lacking in the sense of having an organisation. If the local authorities are failing in their job, we must be told. We have not been told that there is any shortage of material that cannot be overcome.

We are, I expect, to be told once more that labour is short. The last time we debated this and I pressed my right hon. Friend, he said that the question I had asked should be addressed to the Minister of Labour. I protest that that is not so. When my right hon. Friend urged Scottish local authorities to go ahead with their allocations under the first emergency programme and under the second emergency programme which we have had this year, either he had seen that the necessary labour was being made available or he was perpetrating a cheap, cruel fraud on the people who are waiting for houses. I do not say that heatedly; I say it measuredly. When my right hon. Friend came to the House last year and told us that we were going to have an emergency programme of 1,000 houses, I repeat that he ought to have satisfied himself that the labour was available for the programme, or he was not behaving with the administrative honesty which is usually associated with him. At Question Time, he pointed to the flying bomb, but I submit that that is not a sufficient excuse. That was not visited upon us until June this year. In my absence, following a representation from my division, my wife wrote to the Ministry of Labour on this subject, and in a letter dated 9th November, the Ministry of Labour said they had taken no people off the labour engaged on maintenance for bomb repairs in London. There may be a reason why Greenock should have been singled out for extraordinary treatment, but I imagine that the position is no worse there than it is in Clydebank or any other part of Glasgow. I can understand the reluctance of the Ministry to transfer labour.

I ask my right hon. Friend to look again at some remarks I have made about the lag between the authorisation of a programme and the approval of tenders. I am certain—and I have already gone at some length into this subject—that this period, which is never less than three months, can be shortened. My right hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has, I know, done some work on this subject, and perhaps we can be told now at what stage the work is and what progress has been made in persuading local authorities to accept a standard plan. If a standard plan is accepted could we have a standard schedule? What saving in time would this mean? My own impression is that, if we got a standard plan, the Secretary of State should be prepared to allot all the work direct to the contracting capacity available at the time, and that price should be agreed upon later.

May I add my plea to those of the two hon. Gentlemen who have already spoken upon the utilisation of labour which is now being labelled redundant? I am delighted to see the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour here. I have already had an informal discussion on this subject with him. In my division women are being taken out of factories which we understood were being engaged on work of a high priority. They are now being directed outwith my division to work which I am prepared to discuss more fully and which, I am certain, is not of such a high priority. Why cannot these women be used to release male labour from marine engineering and from shipbuilding so that such labour could be turned onto house building? I know the difficulties and I sympathise with my right hon. Friend, but is he persuaded that no ancillary use can be made of this skilled and eager labour, labour which has already offered itself in such districts as my own, for this purpose?