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 George Buchanan Mr George Buchanan , Glasgow Gorbals 12:00 am, 7th June 1945

I agree with most previous speakers, and particularly with the hon. Member who spoke last, that there is no serious dispute on one or two issues. No one will dispute the terrible urgency of the matter nor the gravity of the situation as far as living conditions are concerned. In parts of Scotland, and in parts of my native city, there are awful conditions which beggar description both in terrible over crowding and in shockingly low standards. I am anxious to discover whether we cannot take a greater step forward than we are doing. The housing problem is as serious as the problem of war and peace. It calls for the same emergency measures and for the same ruthlessness in our struggle. These are common-places which are uttered by nearly everybody, but we never do anything. No one would dream of being as easy-going with the war problem as we have been with the housing problem.

I trust the Committee will forgive me for raising what might appear to be almost a personal matter. The incident I propose to recount, however, tends to show that we do not regard this problem as having anything like the human urgency that prevailed in the war. The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland is not responsible for the Noble Lord who is now Secretary of State. May I say, with as little heat as I can, that to appoint the Noble Lord as Secretary of State for Scotland when he has so little knowledge of our housing conditions, was one of the worst affronts to my native country that I have ever known. I say that more in sadness because I want to see decent conditions of housing established, and we cannot get them by such an appointment.

The Minister to-day mentioned many types of houses, such as the Phoenix, the Tarran and others. There is a firm of contractors in my Division which had been repairing ships. They came along like a sensible group of men, and said, "We see ship-repairing coming to an end, and we will start to build houses." I wish that the Whips would allow the Minister to pay a little attention when one is making a serious contribution. I maybe touchy on this one subject, but it is the only subject on which I am touchy; all my other touchiness has gone. This firm decided to embark on house-building, and the Tarran type was allocated to them, the Government inspector saying to them, "If you have the capacity, your job is to build the Tarran house under instructions from the Tarran Company." They were asked to make about 600 houses by the end of the year, and the contract was fixed. The firm went to the division of the Under-Secretary and bought a factory, an old carpet bowling factory. It is capable of making a magnificent factory, but at the moment it is stored with mattresses and clothes. I wrote to the Secretary of State four days before he left office, and I have not even had a reply yet. I have been four times on the telephone, and I have been assured that the mattresses will be shifted out at once, but the firm are told by an inspector from the Department of Health that, owing to the difficulty of the railway taking the mattresses from Glasgow to England, they will be lucky if they are out within ten weeks. You would not deal with a matter connected with the war like that.

There are also contractors from Aberdeen, Falkirk and other places. They read in the newspapers that the Tarran Company had a financial crisis, so they met together to see how they could get the money to build these houses. That, again, would never have been necessary in war-time. In the urgency of war they would have said, "No matter what the risk with regard to money, our country is in great danger and we will carry on." These contractors met in Glasgow and they had to say, "We are not going on with building Tarran houses because we are not sure we shall get our money." I have a letter to show that in my possession. If contractors had said such a thing in war-time about guns, the Government would have dealt with the situation within 24 hours. That does not end the story. The firm in my Division to which I have referred said, "We are going on with the houses for, after all, the Government allocated us to do the work, and if the houses are being built by us for the Government, we will be paid." Then enters the bank and says to the firm, "You must stop. If you don't we will not give you credit to carry on." I have the correspondence in my pocket. All this happened over the building of one type of house, and then we talk about the urgency of the problem. In time of war that sort of thing would not have been tolerated. I remember the firm of Shorts being pilloried in this House for inefficiency, but it was nothing to the laxity of method which is being shown now in the housing problem.

There is a good deal of argument about the land question in connection with housing, and I think that it ought to be made far more readily available at the disposal of the local authorities than landlords often make it. On the question of finance, I want to say to my Tory friends that if small building contractors are to go in for housing on anything like a large scale, one of the first things that they have to get is capital with which to work, and they cannot be left to the mercy of the banking companies. I will mention another issue, even on the eve of the General Election, which may annoy friend and foe alike. The Minister dealt with only two ways of augmenting labour. I never thought that politics could be so ungenerous as the last week or two has shown me that they can be. Who will deny that the right hon. Member for Central Wandsworth (Mr. E. Bevin), the former Minister of Labour, had to do perhaps the most disagreable job in the Coalition Government? I quarrelled with him more than once and divided against him, but who will deny that he worked hard and with ability at his job? What does he get to-day? He gets flung at him with contempt the fact that he happens to be absent at a housing Debate, not merely by the Back bench but by the Front bench. That is what he gets for the disagreeable, hard and toiling task that he performed during the war. One would have thought that there was sufficient generosity in politics to forgive a miserable little thing like that.

With regard to adding to the labour force, I would say that, even given the land and adequate capital to get houses in abundance—and I am for having houses in abundance—there must be a large labour force. I do not want employers and men to use housing as a dripping roast to suit them for years to come. Just as we shall have to use the methods of war on the financial side and in the requisitioning of land, so we shall have to add to the labour force in ways other than the orthodox ways. There must be brought within the pool of the building industry groups of people who are now outside it. We must not merely wait for men to be demobilised or men to come out of factories; we must utilise other methods for adding to the labour force. There are men in engineering trades who, with a short period of training, could become first class workers, and I do not see any reason why the labour force cannot be added to considerably in that way. Our fate as Members of Parliament will be decided in the next four weeks. I do not know what my fate will be any more than others know theirs. I will not prophesy who may be the Government. I know whom I want to be the Government. Never have I wanted more that the Labour movement should form the Government than I do to-day. No matter who wins the victory, the real victory will not be won in the Election. That victory will be won when we have given greater numbers of the people the decent home which is their earnest and fervent need.