Orders of the Day — Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th June 1945.

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Photo of Mr Arthur Greenwood Mr Arthur Greenwood , Wakefield 12:00 am, 7th June 1945

We are now approaching, in the dying days of a long Parliament, one of the most vital human issues, the housing of the people. What is really the true position about housing in this country? At the beginning of this war we were left with some millions of houses which had been built 75, 100 and even more years ago. They were built in the days of free enterprise, which I understand that my hon. and right hon. Friends opposite still feel is the goal of their economic effort. They were built at a time of an industrial revolution, the brunt of which this country took, in days when there was no sanitary science and the new Liberal manufacturing interests, so hated by the Tories of that day, believed in the gospel of each for himself and the devil take the hindmost. Those houses are old houses. They are described in the White Paper as obsolescent, but they are more than obsolescent, they are rotten, according to modern standards, and that really is the core, the heart, of Britain's housing problem. It is not merely a case of patching up what is left, it is not merely trying to catch up the leeway. The fundamental housing problem is the rehousing of the vast majority of our industrial population.

During the war there has been very little building. The White Paper refers to the houses which were erected in the interwar years. They were not sufficient, and in the six years following we have got behind with any reasonable national house building programme. We have had in addition six years of cumulative obsolescence, six years in which old, unsanitary houses have become older and older and more and more decrepit. Further, unfortunately, there has been a substantial amount of enemy action, which put out of existence a very large number of houses or damaged them beyond repair or brought them to such a state that very little could be done to them. Then, during the war, young people have insisted upon getting married—they do so more in war time, I think, than in peace time—and so, on top of all the cumulative arrears and of our deficiencies in the past, comes this problem of providing houses for the newly-married couples or the couples who will be married when the soldier or the A.T.S. is discharged from the Forces. It is very likely that they will feel more indignant, perhaps, than those large numbers of people who have during lifetime learned to put up with bad housing conditions.

This is the most gigantic problem on the home front. This is not a problem like that of the restoring of our foreign trade, where we are to some extent in the hands of our friends overseas. This is a problem on our own doorstep which we can solve if we so choose by our own efforts. Failure, therefore, to solve the housing problem cannot be placed at the door of unwilling Allies overseas. Failure here means our failure to deal with what is a fundamental problem.

The present position is most unsatisfactory. The labour situation is a very grave one. When this war broke out more than 1,000,000 people were employed in the building industry in Great Britain. About a third of them were permanently employed on repair and maintenance and not on the building of new houses. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Works can check me if I am wrong, but I think that is broadly the fact. Today we have a building industry which is about one-third of what it was at the outbreak of war; the shortage is a very grave one. As regards materials, both manufacture and distribution are unorganised. With regard to finance, into which I cannot enter in any detail, the building industry has in the past, broadly speaking and apart from what local authorities have done, been financed by the bankruptcies of large numbers of small men. Ambitious, they go to a bank or an insurance company, get money to build their houses, build very bad houses—it is the only way they can make their money, if they do make it—and before they have made their money the loan is often foreclosed and they come to grief. From the point of view of financial organisation no industry has been more shabbily and more unprofitably conducted than the building industry.

What is really the nature of the problem which confronts us now? The fundamental problem, one which the late National Government was unable to solve, is how the limited and precious land of this country can be best used in the national interest. The control of the use of land is fundamental. It is no good building houses unless you know where to build them. It is no good pretending you can have a housing policy unless there is a policy for dealing with the land that is available to us. During the war, and it was inevitable in the circumstances, some of the finest agricultural land was used for bomber aerodromes. I do not complain about that, but as a national policy in peace time I should regard it as disastrous. It is not the case that Members of Parliament have not had guidance in this matter. There was the Barlow Report. It is true that it was published in the early days of the war, when people were not much interested in these problems. Then we had the Scott Report, and two Reports from the Uthwatt Committee, the final Report being published in December, 1942.

We have never had a discussion of this fundamental problem in this House. In the last Housing Debate, in March I think, I raised with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, the present Foreign Secretary, the desirability and the urgency of a discussion on this very important problem, but we have not had one. Now we have entered into the realm of controversy. That is not displeasing to me; I have borne my burden of non-controversialism for quite a long time. The truth is that the late Coalition Government could not in any circumstances come to an agreement about the use of land, because that is the most precious thing that the Conservative Party thinks about. I am not blaming the Conservative Party, but only stating what is an obvious fact. Therefore, in the dying days of this Parliament, the country is now placed in an impossible position, because it must know, and intelligent people do know, that you cannot build houses on a proper national plan unless you have made up your mind about what land you want to use for what purpose. Agriculture is vitally concerned. I should hate to see towns sprawling out into the rural areas, eating up good agricultural land. That would be wrong. I should hate to see houses or other buildings put in wrong places.

This subject has not been thought out, and we may as well face it, because any hon. and right hon. Friends opposite must face it, and I have no doubt it will recoil on the heads of all of us when we take to the hustings in a very short time. The fact that no decision has been taken on the Uthwatt and the earlier Reports means that a solution, a real beginning of a solution, of the housing problem has been postponed for at least a decade. That we have to face. The Government have concealed their inability to deal with this problem under a smoke screen of superficial activity. In the Debate on the White Paper two or three months ago I described it as chicken feed for a hungry nation. I am bound to say that now I do not think it is chicken feed for even an urban district council.

Let us look at how this problem is being handled. There is my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health. There is the Secretary of State for Scotland. There is the Board of Trade, which is now a housing authority. There is the Ministry of Aircraft Production, which has shown great interest in the building of aluminium houses. There is the Ministry of Supply, which is interested in the raw material needed for houses. There is the Ministry of Production, which seems to be dying on its feet, but as long as it is there has some responsibility for the supplies needed for house building. And there is the Minister of Agriculture, who is very much interested in the housing of the people of the countryside.

Then there is the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Works who has emitted a lot of noise—sounding brass and tinkling cymbals and all that—but does not seem to have produced any houses up to now. Up to the recent change in the Government the Minister of Reconstruction was the Pooh Bah of the circus of Ministers, all of whom were dealing with one aspect or another of the housing of the people. He seems to have faded out now. There is no Ministry of Reconstruction, and I do not regret its going. We had this very large and complicated circus which produced very little. I quoted from the speech made by the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister, who has many qualities and wide knowledge, but knowledge of the housing question is not part of his equipment. He told a good story; I do not want to quote it again, although I have here a copy of Hansard of 22nd March, in which there appears a most glowing account of the young couples who were to be housed in the most remarkable conditions and so on. Three months have passed and I would doubt very much whether half a dozen young couples are occupying these houses.

The right hon. Gentleman called it a military evolution. The Prime Minister loves to speak in language of that kind. I have a suspicion that he would like every evolution to 'be a military one. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Works appointed General Pile, a very distinguished soldier who has made a very great contribution towards winning the war. It was on my tongue in March to say, "You cannot build houses with Piles of Sandys," but I did not do it because we were not then, so controversial as that. We have not got any results out of this Pile driving. I submit that we are now facing a very grave national crisis. It is said that Nero was fiddling whilst Rome burned. I think the right hon. Gentleman and his circus of colleagues are fiddling whilst this country is rotting. I think it is a most unfortunate and desperate situation. The right hon. Gentleman and others with him have been driven to the expedient of temporary houses. I have said before, that we must provide shelter for our people. It may be very modest, but we must provide shelter for them. But the more the Government have to resort to temporary houses, the greater is the Government's failure. Many of us are very anxious about these temporary houses. We fear they may not be so temporary as has been envisaged in legislation. In any event, I cannot think of a greater waste of our national assets than pumping, I think the Government said £150,000,000, into houses which are not going to live for more than 10 years. The more temporary houses you have to put up to give shelter to the people who are coming back from the Forces, the greater is the Government's failure in facing this major problem.

What must be done? I assert there must be a policy for the control of the use and utilisation of land for purposes appropriate to the character and the position of the land. I think there can be no escape from that. Unless that is done everything else fails and we embark on another campaign of complete folly, disorganisation and probably the creation of an increasing amount of economic inefficiency and a good deal of housing congestion. I cannot assume anything—this Parliament has not got many days to live—but if one assumes that there is to be control of the use of land, it is possible to tackle the housing problem on a big scale—as the Prime Minister would say, as a military evolution—with the same organisation of resources as we have applied to the prosecution of the war.

We have to organise the mass production of materials and of the manufactured units for houses by collaboration between the Government and local authorities. That must be done, I think. Prefabrication can be carried out with traditional building on a much bigger scale than it could be done 20 years ago, and it would be absurd and fantastic if some of these more or less standardised parts were allowed to be produced in driblets with minor differences in detail when mass production would turn them out not only in larger numbers but at a much lower price. It is quite clear, though this may be distasteful to some hon. Members, that we have to keep a close hand on the prices of building material and of the manufactured products, for unless we do, fewer houses will be built.

In the next place I would say that, assuming this policy of large-scale production, assuming there is to be some control of prices and so on, then the Government in collaboration with the local authorities should embark on a big scheme of bulk purchase. Bulk purchase on a big scale might easily reduce the prices of building materials by 25 per cent.—in some cases, I believe, even more. After bulk purchase there must be organised distribution, and those kitchen units and household fittings or whatever they may be ought to go first where the need is greatest. That seems to me to be a reasonable, very modest and moderate programme. I do not believe it will be accepted by the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to-day, but I put it forward as a scheme in which I believe.

The labour situation is very difficult. I would like to see early demobilisation of building trade workers, who are eating their hearts out in munition factories and doing nothing. We have to use the building labour which is available far better than we have done during the last year or two. It is undeniable that to-day on maintenance staffs in munition factories there are men who are doing building and dodging the Distribution of Industries Bill, when their services could be far more profitably utilised in the national interest outside. With the shortage of building trade labour, unless we pool our labour resources for building purposes so that they can be taken to the areas where they are needed most we shall waste a good deal of opportunity for building houses. I would like to see a time and progress programme so that every man should pull his weight, whether he be a building trade employer, or a clerk in the works or a foreman, or an ordinary operative. That, I think, would reduce the financial burden. I realise I cannot enter into this in any kind of detail but it seems clear that if we adumbrate any large and generous house building policy over a term of years local authorities will be put in a position of great embarrassment and, indeed, of potential bankruptcy unless somehow or another we can come to their aid.

There are two things I would say in passing. The first is that it would be sound economic policy for the Government to buy land and let it at nominal rents to local authorities, having regard to the purposes for which the land would be used. In the blitzed areas, I think, there should be a war charge. It is going to be a crippling disability for the places like Deal, Ramsgate and Coventry if they are made to bear a burden which arises out of enemy action. Do we mean to settle the housing problem? I put it to hon. Members opposite; do they mean to settle the housing problem? Do the public of this country believe that the Government are in earnest about it? My feeling is that they do not believe that the Government are in earnest. The country has no confidence in the Government's efforts. I regard the housing problem as fundamental to the spiritual life of our people. I remember many years ago as a young and active propagandist—I am going back 40 years—hearing at street corners the criticism that my party wished to destroy the sanctity of the home. What nonsense; what rubbish. It is even worse than the Prime Minister's broadcast on Monday night, which really was a piece of misrepresentation.

The Party to which I am very proud to belong—whatever service I have given to the public, has been done with the support I have had from my colleagues—believes in the sanctity of family life. We believe that houses are the temples of the spirit of our people. The ordinary people of this country have, with enormous courage, fortitude and sacrifice, beaten down the deadliest enemy which, democracy ever faced in its history, and they did that notwithstanding the intolerable and inhuman conditions under which so many of them have lived all their lives. Despite those conditions—I have seen it in the East End of London and by the riverside during the blitz period—how magnificent they were. They were men and women who had but the smallest grip on life, people who never had a real chance in life, and who always lived on the raw. They could not help it. I have seen their magnificent spirit and I, as a Yorkshireman, felt proud, living in London during that time. Bred as I was in a contempt for the Cockney—allYorkshiremen are—I take my hat off to the Cockney spirit.

One thinks of those people, having suffered and having been denied the elements of a decent human existence, still standing against the dreaded enemy in the greatest hour of trial this country has ever faced. They are surely worthy of something better than they have had in the past. A proud and worthy people such as we have proved ourselves to be are entitled to honourable and dignified conditions of life. Until we get those things, the magnificent possibilities, the real potential, of our people, which has been displayed during the war, will lie dormant. I believe that we have the finest man and woman power in Europe and in the world, but it needs to be treated with dignity and with honour. Our greatest national asset is not in our material resources but resides in the spirit of the common man. That spirit is, in my view, worthy of an honourable habitation.

What is to be done? Unless something is done and our people are convinced that this House is determined to solve this problem, the war will be well on the way to being lost, for it would be terrible if social disorders, social bitterness, social disappointment and new hatreds were allowed to grow because the ex-soldier and his wife have nowhere decent to live.