Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd March 1945.

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Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West 12:00 am, 23rd March 1945

It is somewhat difficult for me to follow speakers who have technical knowledge, which I do not possess, but I certainly support the suggestion which has just been made by the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Bossom) that there should be a time-and-progress schedule. It seems plain common sense, and I am amazed that we have had nothing of that kind so far. When the Minister replies, I certainly should like to hear his answer to that suggestion.

I want to make a few general observations as a Member representing a blitzed constituency, which is a dormitory constituency, of London. Normally it contains many people who are working in London, and who like to live in a place which is salubrious and, at the same time, not highly rented. We are experiencing a flood of people—evacuees returning and wanting houses and so on—and we are a little apprehensive as to the future and about the men who will return. When they come back, the men will want to return to their old haunts. The Serviceman had a limited life before he went to the war and he thinks in terms of the little "local" and his own friends. He does not want to be told that he has to go elsewhere; he wants to return to his accustomed haunts, and he will need accommodation near his job. This has all been said before, but Members representing dormitory constituencies near large towns probably feel more strongly about it than others. What has struck me about all this talk is that Members have all spoken strongly, have criticisèd the Government strongly, and yet one feels that the Ministers concerned are not fully appreciative of the gravity of the problem. When we talk about people without homes, it is a question not only of getting roofs over people's heads but also of getting homes for people who consider themselves homeless, if they are living in one room or living with their mothers-in-law. They are just as unhappy as though they had no shelter at all. Many of those people have not yet applied for houses. The demand will be overwhelming. That beng so, it is an immediate and urgent matter and the Government should adopt special methods. Unfortunately, the problem is insidious in its effects, and the Government appear still to feel that they can sit back and delay day after day and week after week.

I am surprised that the Minister of Education has not been on the Front Bench. He is thinking of up-grading education, but surely the first essential, in any educational system, is a decent home environment. I wonder that the right hon. Gentleman does not bring pressure to bear upon the Government. We have heard, time after time that it is essential to have a king-pin among Ministers to deal with this question. We have heard most of these things before. I stood in this exact place on the last housing Debate and heard speeches like those I have heard today from both sides of the House. I heard promises made, when we asked for the same things, and still we have—is it seven or nine—Ministers "passing the buck" to each other. The hon. Member for Holborn (Sir R. Tasker) put his finger on the spot in his intervention just now, when the hon. Member for Maidstone was saying that we ought to have one Minister with overriding authority. The hon. Member for Holborn said: "Yes, have one Minister with overriding authority, but what about the others? Where will they be?" In other words, he wanted to know what would be the status of the other Ministers.

We have heard plain speaking here. I think it is time we spoke our minds. Here we get to the crux of the situation. The obstacle in the way of having-one Minister with overriding authority is that the prestige and the dignity of other Ministers will suffer. The time has come when we should put the feelings of the people above the feelings of the Ministers. I agree with that, and I say it, despite the presence of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works, for whom I have the greatest admiration. Looking at the matter generally, I think the Minister of Health should have the power, and that the other Ministers should work with him, but I leave that detail to people who know more about it. We are very tired of going from one Department to another. This House is losing its patience and I cannot imagine what another Debate on housing will be like unless something is done. The tempers of Members are becoming just a little frayed. We are getting tired of the letters every day; we are getting tired of the representations from people who blame us individually. Here we are, helpless, because the Ministers themselves refuse to get together or to say: "If it means loss of dignity and prestige, I am willing to stand down." We ask Ministers to do that, because that is the next step in the solution to the housing problem.

I sat here yesterday listening to the speech of the Minister of Health and hoping to hear something new. I listened to just the same imposing list of figures alternating with pious hopes. We have heard it before. The country has been fed on promises and targets. The "target" was an invention of an arch-procrastinator. The target is a delightful way of putting things off. It concerns the distant future. It is an ideal method of calming and quieting the House of Commons—the target. We were given a target before. The hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) told us—I forget his exact figures—that Scotland was promised some months ago about 3,000 houses—a target. They have received 200. We listen to stories of housing conditions in Scotland which should make every Minister on that bench and every Member ashamed to think that such things can happen in a civilised country. This matter of targets is good publicity, but bad psychology. You can fool some of the people some of the time … but you cannot fool all the people all the time. We have had it here again. Yesterday, we were given another promise. Somebody asked the Minister when the American houses would arrive. I remember that we were told during the last Debate on housing to expect a flood of prefabricated American houses. I went back to my constituency and said: "At last the problem will be solved in a novel way." I remember making a speech in my constituency, believing everything I said. I must admit that when Ministers tell me some things, I feel that they are talking with their tongues in their cheeks, but I went away from that Debate with complete faith in the Minister. I went to my constituency, and my speech comforted all sorts of little women who are living in appalling conditions—living and hoping. I told them about American prefabricated houses. Pictures appeared in the papers of these houses. Yesterday the Minister was asked when they were to arrive, and we were told: "On 1st May." Can we hope that on 1st May they will come? I very much doubt it. Nothing will persuade me to go to my constituency and tell my constituents that houses will arrive on 1st May. I will wait till that date and then we shall see.

We have been told that conditions will be aggravated when the men arrive; we know that. We know there will be an overwhelming flood of applications. Do the Government want people to come back to the same towns and suburbs as those to which they were accustomed, or do they want to decentralise the population? If the Government want to decentralise people, and to stop what we fear may be disturbances in the country, why are they not doing some publicity and telling people to stay in the country districts and the smaller towns? Why are they waiting until the end of the war when this overwhelming demand will come? On prefabricated housing, my constituency—I believe the Minister will support me in this—has done as well as any other borough. We have put up about two dozen. I believe we have done better than any other borough. We have 27 pre-fabricated houses up. I suppose that Wendy's house in the treetops could not have been gazed at more eagerly and pathetically by the lost boys, than these little prefabricated houses are gazed at by our homeless children in Fulham. They go up to the windows and stick their little noses against the window panes and look in, but the chances of their ever living there are remote. I cannot understand how the Minister proposes to house all the families that used to live in Fulham on those sites, which are now occupied by prefabricated houses, because in housing one family, we are forgetting the people of two or three other families who might also have been housed on the same site. I take it that we shall hear how it is proposed to deal with that problem.

This is something which has been said before, and perhaps hon. Members may regard it as a detail, but it is none the less important. It concerns the fittings of the prefabricated house. I happened to go round a Uni-Seco house the other day, and I was shown the fitted cupboards and so on. I said what any woman might have said: "Where do you keep the food?" I was shown a little cupboard opposite the gas cooker and I said "Yes, that is all right for your dry food." They said: "Well, you see, that space over there is where the other food will be kept, when the refrigerators come, but that will be a long time hence, of course." The Minister may say that this is a detail, but it is not an unimportant detail. If the houses are to he manufactured in large numbers, and it is intended to fit refrigerators which are not to be forthcoming for many years, surely the whole design should be revised. To the women who have to spend their lives in these places, providing food, without adequate space in which to keep food, it is a source of continual friction and irritation. I do not know whether the Minister will tell me that refrigerators are to be forthcoming. I feel that the demand in the country for so many things is so great that many people will say that refrigerators are a luxury. But houses are being built to-day without any accommodation in which to keep food which might easily become decomposed.

My final word is about men—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am afraid some hon. Members have a one-track mind. I am shocked about what our visitors must think of this House. There are 400,000 men engaged on this work. The population of London and Greater London comprises one-sixth of the whole population of the country, and I think that London and Greater London has been given 142,000 men. Surely, in view of the size of the area in proportion to the rest of the country that is not being overgenerous for London, one of the most heavily blitzed places in the whole country, and when one thinks of the enormity of the job. The Parliamentary Secretary was with me the other day when we met a deputation from one of our heavily blitzed areas in the East End of London, and we were told that in one ward there used to be 2,000 houses, 1,750 of which are totally destroyed. We were told that 5,000 families are on the waiting list for accommodation, and that every day now a queue can be seen outside the town hall waiting to see the housing manager. What is to happen in a few months' time? These people will not be patient. Furthermore, there is another aspect. Local government is being discredited. While this queue of homeless people stand outside the town hall, they criticise the councillors, whom they blame for this state of affairs, and there is always an irresponsible minority which is anxious to upset ordered government. I would therefore remind the Minister that the seeds are now being sown for a major domestic crisis, and it will be short-sighted of the Government if it does not meet it before it is too late.