Orders of the Day — Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd March 1945.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Horabin Mr Thomas Horabin , Cornwall Northern 12:00 am, 22nd March 1945

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell) said that the housing problem was so very serious that anyone who took part in the Debate should not only be critical but constructive. He was very constructive from the point of view of his vast technical knowledge. I do not pretend to possess the technical knowledge, but I hope that I can be constructive from another point of view. The housing problem, as has been said, is the greatest problem with which we Shall be faced in the post-war years. It is capable of producing a most serious social and political crisis in this country. I find, on reading the White Paper, that there seems to be some discrepancy in the figures given to us from the Government Benches from time to time as to the extent of the gap between the number of houses available and the families available to fill them. I go back to 1st December, 1943, when the Minister of Health said that 1,500,000 new houses were required in order to provide each family with a separate dwelling and so eliminate over- crowding. Since that time we have had many months of "doodle-bugs" and V-2s, and many more houses have 'been destroyed, and yet it seems that the more houses that are destroyed the fewer we seem to need in the end.

The White Paper which was issued on Tuesday says that only 750,000 houses are required in the immediate future to provide every family with a separate dwelling. This is rather an important point and I want to try to analyse the situation, in order to discover which figure is right; whether 1,500,000 houses are needed to deal with overcrowding now, or 750,000. I accept the fact that the difference between the total number of houses in this country, and the total number of families is roughly 750,000, but that is not the measure of the number of houses required to provide each family with a separate dwelling in this country. The shortage of houses, the overcrowding and the whole pressure of this terrible problem are going to be borne mainly by the working classes. The total number of houses in this country is made up, not only by working-class houses but by bigger and better houses as well. If these bigger and better houses are to be provided, the working class cannot afford to pay the rents for them.

We had the situation between the two wars that, of the new houses that were built, the greater part were used for rehousing the middle class. "The Economist" said a few weeks ago that, between the two wars, the middle classes of the country were almost completely rehoused, whereas the truth is that since the beginning of the industrial revolution, we have not built enough working-class houses to keep up with working-class needs. At the end of the last war middle-class houses were 2.4 million, yet 1.8 million of that type of house were built between the two wars, an increase of 75 per cent. The working-class houses were 4.8 million at the end of the last war, and 1.5 million were built, an increase of 30 per cent. The increase in the number of families during that period was somewhere about 2,500,000 and 3,000,000 and the overwhelming majority of those families were working class, so that the working class were worse off.

The Minister said that the majority of houses were built by private enterprise, the speculative builder and the building societies between the two wars, with 75 per cent. of the houses to rent. Of the 1,500,000 houses built to house the working-classes, 1,000,000 or nearly so were built by local authorities, and the other 500,000 by private enterprise. I want to insist on the point that the difference between the total number of houses and the number of families in the country, is no criterion whatever of the condition of over-crowding or the number of houses we shall need. There is another point which affects the position seriously, and that is the number of houses in wrong places, in derelict areas and so on. You must always have a margin of empty houses. You have to turn to the census figures of 1921 to see the situation. Out of 7,971,000 houses—and most of us remember the conditions which obtained in industrial areas at that time—219,000 were unoccupied on the day of the census. To take, as the Minister of Reconstruction did the other day, the difference between the number of houses and the number of families and to say that that is the extent of the problem is most dangerously to under-estimate. I suggest that we need 1,500,000 houses now in order to deal with over-crowding rather than 750,000. My estimate is a little below the 1,500,000 and my statistical friends have estimated it at about 1.3 million. But 1,500,000 is certainly nearer than 750,000. The point I want to make is this: I could say smart things about the Government over this, but I do not want to do that. What I want to insist upon is that if we do not face this problem to its fullest extent at the present moment, we shall be landed in a disastrous situation within the next two years.

That deals with the overcrowding side of it. I now turn to the question of slums. That is, not only slums but, as the Minister put it in 1943, houses in poor condition, or so grossly deficient in modern amenities that they are not fit for human habitation. In 1943 the Minister said that on top of the 1,500,000 houses required to deal with overcrowding we would need another 1,500,000 to 2,500,000 to replace these houses that were not really fit for human habitation. In the White Paper, when the problem is closer and the general election is nearer, we are told that 500,000 houses are required in order to remove homes already condemned and to prevent overcrowding. I say that 1,500,000 to 2,500,000 houses to deal with slums and houses grossly deficient in modern amenities is an inadequate figure. Sir E. D. Simon, of whom the Minister spoke so well in his opening speech, said in his book that the Manchester medical officer of health has already said that one-third of the total number of houses in Manchester, or 68,000, are unfit for human habitation. Thirty-nine per cent. of the houses in Hull before the war had no bathrooms, and if you go to a rural area like North Cornwall, you will find that at least one-third of the houses are unfit for human habitation. I have seen estimates, by people who are well versed in dealing with these kinds of figures, which show that we need between 3,000,000 and 4,000,000 houses now if we are going to house every family with the minimum of housing consistent with health, decency and comfort, and that is what we, at any rate on this side of the House, both above and below the Gangway, will insist upon.

One of the troubles in this question is that there are no qualitative statistics about housing. I do not think that any Government has ever had the courage to produce those statistics and face the country with them. However, we have a yardstick over, at any rate, the work- ing-class houses to which I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) referred, that is, the age of houses. The working-class houses over 80 years of age are not fit for human habitation. I am talking about the houses built since the Industrial Revolution. On that basis, in addition to the 1,500,000 new houses that we need to deal with overcrowding, I am told—again by these figures which have been carefully calculated, and it does not matter if they are half a million out on one side or the other—that about 5,500,000 houses over the next 15 years will have to be built to replace houses of 80 years and over. In other words, if we want to provide each family—and I come back to this every time—with houses providing a minimum of health, decency and comfort, then we must have a long-term housing programme of building 7,000,000 new houses over the next 15 years. To envisage this housing problem in any other form will, as I have said, lead to disaster.

I want to take up the time of the House for a moment or two in considering the implications of this long-term programme, because they fit in with something which the hon. and gallant Member for Preston (Captain Cobb) spoke about during his speech, and also it affects the handling of the short-term programme. One thing we must take into account in considering the long-term housing programme is the change in the size of the population of this country between now and the turn of the century. I am told—again by people who are experts in these matters—that the peak of the population of England and Wales—42,000,000—will be reached round about 1951. After that the popution will decline very rapidly.

Even if we achieve unity of reproduction, which we are far from achieving at the present moment, at the turn of the century, the population of this country will be somewhere about 35,000,000. If we continue with the birthrate of past years, the population of this country will be somewhere about 28,000,000. Again I suggest it does not matter whether it is a million one way or the other, but I do say this, that having regard to the population trend, it is wrong to think in terms of outside housing estates using up valuable agricultural land for extending the urban areas. What we should be doing at the present moment is basing our housing policies on shrinking our sprawling urban areas. In other words, what is needed is a complete and comprehensive town and country planning policy that will lead to the rebuilding of the urban areas as we replace old houses by new ones.

This means that we have to face another problem that has not been faced during the course of this Debate—that as we build we have to demolish. If we carry out this policy of shrinking our urban areas, of housing the people close to their work as they should be housed—it is nonsense to put people where they have to travel an hour or more in order to get to their work—we shall have to demolish something like 6,000,000 during the next 15 years, or an average of 400,000 houses a year—15 tmes the rate of demolition before this war broke out. This demolition is necessary, of course, to provide space for the new houses inside the urban areas, and it is also necessary to prevent those areas becoming derelict inside, as so many of them are going to become if we continue with this policy of outside housing estates. Another reason why these houses should be pulled down is because otherwise the landlords who own them will be putting down the rents as the new housing estates go up in order to attract families from the new houses into the old. I am not suggesting for a single moment that we should start demolishing houses until we have dealt with the urgent and immediate problem of overcrowding.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield said, this building in urban areas raises the land question in an acute form straight away. Neither the local authorities nor the Government can afford a comprehensive building programme of working-class dwellings in urban areas with the people close to their work because of the high cost of land inside the urban areas. The disparity in the value of the land inside and outside the urban centres forces the local authorities the whole time to go into that wrong policy of building their houses in outside housing estates. I suggest to this House, not on ideological grounds at all, but on grounds of sheer necessity, that means must be found of equalising the value of the land inside and outside the urban areas, so that the only consideration that enters into our planning and the use of the land is the need of the community, and not the value of the land in terms of £ s. d. That means one thing, and one thing only, in my mind and that is that the land of this country must be bought under single ownership — nationalisation, in other words. Without dealing with the land, as the right hon. Member for Wakefield said, you cannot have an adequate housing programme. I think, too, seeing what is happening in my own area with the small local authorities there, that the cost of housing, if we are to have a comprehensive housing scheme, has to be lifted from the rates. Housing will have to be the financial responsibility of the central Government, and the local authorities should act as the agents of the central Government—they should select the sites, they should have a voice in the numbers and types of houses to be built in their areas, they should collect the rents, they should manage the houses, they should look after the maintenance of them, and they should be paid a percentage of the rents for doing so.

I want to turn to some more practical aspects of housing. How, in spite of the labour bottleneck, are we to build new houses quickly so that the immediate crisis is overcome? What I suggest is needed, if even the Government's modest programme is to be achieved, is adequate housing research, adequately financed. I would devote £1 for every house I proposed to build; in other words, I would put up £7,000,000 for research, and the results would be cheap at the price. The fact is that we have no adequate research in this country. We have nothing like the co-ordinated research we have for carrying on the war. Bombs weighing 10 tons are not the invention of one man; they require a great deal of co-ordinated research to bring them about, and exactly the same is required for housing. What have we got? We have a building research station which is not a research station at all, it is nothing else but a testing station. In addition we have what the Minister told us about to-day, the unco-ordinated experiments carried out by a number of private and industrial units which have done very valuable work, but that does not remove the responsibility from the Government of carrying on and co-ordinating research. Of course the Burt Committee reviews these experiments and, after a time, grants a permit to try them out, but that is the extent of the co-ordination.

If we do have a proper department of housing research, which I consider is urgently necessary at the present time, we must have the right people in charge of it—men of scientific standing, with engineering experience. It must not be dominated by the architects, although the architects have their place in it. We need research under three heads—statistical, consumer and technical. We need the statistical research in order to get an accurate, qualitative, statistical picture of the housing situation of this country—a thing we have never had; we can only guess at it at present, and every Government that has been in power in this country has always guessed too low. We must have an accurate statistical picture of the houses we have in this country and their condition, the houses we need, the numbers and composition of families, and so on. Consumer research is required to go into the types of houses and the treatment of the living space in order to enable people to live in decency and comfort. Of course, labour saving and other devices come into this. As a result of that statistical and consumer research, we can arrive at the number of one, two and three-bedroom houses that we require. One of the main shortages in the villages is the one-bedroom house. On the research side there is necessity for technical research to find out the most economical and best way of providing living space and enclosing it.

I regard the kitchen as an engine, just as you have the engine in a car. This will deal with the fundamental problem, the labour problem, for which a speedy answer is required. It must be found speedily by co-ordinated research just as it has been in the war. We have to discover how to reduce the man-hours on the site by transferring them to man-hours in the factory, and by the use of labour-saving equipment on the site; that is to say, we have to find the means of building houses at a tremendous speed to meet the immediate housing crisis. I believe the number of families that will be affected by conditions of overcrowding in this country when the war is over will run into millions, and to get a picture of the idea, I would recommend every hon. Member to look up the Debate of 21st July, 1921, when the housing programme was rejected on the grounds that it was costing too much, and read the speech of Mr. Trevelyan Thomson, then Member for Middlesbrough. Middlesbrough was the only town in the country that had carried out a private survey of housing conditions. Hon. Members will be shocked to find that more than 25 per cent. of the houses of Middlesbrough—2½ years after the last war when the housing scheme was considered too expensive—were overcrowded on the lowest basis consistent with decency—a separate room for every young married couple. In many cases single men had to sleep with married men and women.

What we have to do is to see that house-building is stepped upwards in the first years to 750,000 houses per year. I think the House will be convinced that what I am saying does show that at any rate there has been some thought about this problem, and I hope the Minister will not lightly reject what I say. We all know that the curse of the housing problem is the bottle-neck of skilled labour. I am very doubtful, in spite of all that has been said, whether the Ministers of Health and Works will get their 800,000 workmen. I understand that to train 150,000 trainees there must be 7,000 instructors, and they are just not available. Men will have to be engaged on maintenance work, on the building of factories and other public buildings, and that means that, generally, only half the men in the building trades can be used for the building of houses. I must say that judged by these standards the Government's programme is impossible. That is why I am insisting on the necessity for this coordinated research in order to reduce the number of man-hours on the site, and in order to ensure that as much of the work on the site as possible is done not only by craftsmen but by erectors and assemblers. It is not only a question of operators' hours, of labour conditions, wages and so on. It is also a question of the long-term policy. The operators in the building industry want to know what the long-term policy of the Government is to enable them to decide what they are going to do about the increase in numbers and the addition of new methods to the industry.

I wish to turn to another technical aspect that has worried me quite a lot, and that is that we wish to reduce the number of man-hours on the site, and to do this more study must be given to the question of modular planning. The accumulation of materials on the site and their assembly there into the houses by cutting and fitting is the real reason for the wasted man-hours. Modular planning means dimensioning everything that goes into a house so that they fit together—the use of building dimensions consistent with such co-ordinated sizes to enable the house to be built with a minimum of cutting and fitting. That seems to me to be common sense. In other words, it is applying to the building of houses the principles of the Meccano set.

Everyone has said that they do not like temporary houses or the temporary housing programme, but I suggest that there is another approach to this question. There can be a permanent two-storey structure with temporary clodding to be replaced later by a permanent clodding of bricks if preferred. Bricks are the most wasteful things in the building industry, because they use far more man-hours than anything else put together. I think we have to do with bricks what was done with Portland stone. In the old days Portland stone was the support to the roof and the floor. Then along came the steel structure and Portland stone no longer supported the roof but became a filling. We shall have to do the same with bricks by assembling them together in blocks and taking the blocks to the site, and then we can still enjoy the aesthetic beauty of a brick building if we wish to. Then there is the question of labour-saving machinery on the site. A great deal of work has been done with regard to labour-saving machinery and the saving of man-hours and in bringing all the materials possible to the bricklayer. I would suggest that the Minister should take all the steps he can to see that prototypes of these machines are produced and the machines themselves made as quickly as possible, because the resultant saving on the site itself would be enormous.

Finally, I will turn to a question also raised by the right hon. Member for Wakefield and that is the one of finance. I say that we should finance the war against squalor and overcrowding on exactly the same terms as we have financed the war against Hitler, and that is on 1½ per cent. and 3 per cent., for long-term financing; and if the Government see that materials and equipment are mass-produced on Government order and cost-accounted as war contracts are cost-accounted to-day, and the land is dealt with in the proper way, then I suggest that working-class houses will not need to be subsidised. The Government will be able to build working-class houses in sufficient quantities and will not need to subsidise them. I am satisfied that if the Government decide to face the realities of the housing situation as we have been forced to face the realities of the war, and will handle the housing problem as they have handled other war problems, will undertake housing research as research has been carried out for purposes of the war—I say that if they are determined to build houses for the people on the lines of this suggested programme, then such a Government would be able very quickly to build 750,000 working-class houses to rent a year, and I should be very glad to be the Minister to see to it.