Housing, Scotland

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th June 1947.

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Photo of Commander Thomas Galbraith Commander Thomas Galbraith , Glasgow Pollok 12:00 am, 18th June 1947

I was rather disappointed when the right hon. Gentleman rose to open the Debate, because I thought it would, perhaps, have been better if he had waited to see what the attack was going to be. I can assure him that I am speaking more in sorrow than in anger, because no doubt we shall get a very efficient reply to the Debate from the Joint Under-Secretary. The last occasion on which we debated this important problem—a problem which has a greater bearing on the happiness of a people than any other—was eight months ago, and, therefore, I think the Committee will agree that the time has come when it is right that we should again review the situation. The general impression which I took away with me after our last Debate, and particularly after the speeches of the right hon. Gentleman and the Joint Under-Secretary, was that, while progress had been slow up to that point, as a result of the shortage of materials and the shortage of labour and components, these difficulties had, to a very great extent, been overcome, and that we could look forward with some confidence to much faster progress in the immediate future. Indeed, the Joint Under-Secretary, in the closing sentence of his speech, expressed the hope that progress would be faster and speedier, and that was a hope which was shared by the entire nation.

Frankly, the country has been disappointed, and, when I use the word disappointed, I probably err gravely on the side of under-statement. Disappointment has been absolutely universal, and, in addition to that, I know from the correspondence which I have received that there is also despondency and even despair at the very slow progress that has been made. On this side of the Committee, at least, we are very distressed indeed and very disappointed, and I have no doubt that that feeling is shared by many hon. Members who sit on the Government Benches, and, perhaps, in large measure if not most of all, by the right hon. Gentleman himself and his Joint Under-Secretary. I do not see how it can be otherwise. I can very well remember the dissatisfaction that was expressed immediately following the issue of the White Paper in the days of the Coalition Government which outlined their programme for the two years after the end of the war in Europe.

May I remind the Committee that that programme was that there should be 220,000 permanent houses completed and 80,000 building at the end of the second year after the war—that is, by 7th May, 1947. In addition to that we were to have 145,000 temporary houses. These figures were considered much too low by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite. Let me remind the Committee that the Minister without Portfolio called that programme "chicken food," and that the Minister of Health described it as being "not much of a blitzkrieg." However, those two right hon. Gentleman are what I would call rather volatile politicians, and I think the most damaging criticism of all came from one whom I would describe as a stolid and practical politician. I refer to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Town and Country Planning. So that I can bring the Committee back to the state of feeling at that time, I wish to quote the words which the then Member for Peckham used on that occasion. He said: My next ground of criticism, one that has emerged very strongly during the Debate, is that the Government's plans for meeting the immediate and urgent demand are insufficient. We are told that there will be 220,000 houses completed in the first two years after the war, and also that the 145,000 temporary dwellings which have been allocated to local authorities will, in fact, be provided. That makes 365,000 houses which we are promised will be available…Against the admitted need of 1,250,000, and against the need which I put at not less than 2,000,000, 365,000 houses will not carry us very far. Unless my right hon. and learned Friend can do better than that there will be very considerable disappointment and dissatisfaction."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd March 1945; Vol. 409, c. 1246.] It is for that reason, and because these sentiments were shared by a large number of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, that I say today there must be disappointment on the Government benches. They honestly believed at that time that much more could be accomplished.

What actually has been achieved? 78,029 permanent houses and 106,794 temporary houses have been built against the target figures of 220,000 and 145,000. These, of course, are United Kingdom figures, and what we are most interested in today are the figures relating to Scotland. The Joint Under-Secretary may remember that it was as a result of a Question which he put to the then Secretary of State, Mr. Thomas Johnston, on 22nd March, 1945, that we were given the Scottish housing programme. I am going to quote again from the OFFICIAL REPORT, because I think it is necessary that we should have these matters very clearly in mind. Mr. Johnston said: Our target figure…for two years in Scotland is for 50,000 permanent houses and 40,000 temporary houses, a total of 90,000 houses in the two years from now."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd March, 1945; Vol. 409, c. 1095.] Unfortunately, when we are referring to Scottish housing programmes officially, it has become customary to talk not of completed houses, but of houses built or building, a phrase which conveys nothing at all. It may have been that Mr. Johnston's programme was to be 50,000 complete permanent houses by the end of the second year after the war, but I propose to deal with it in the same manner and in the same proportions as applied to the United Kingdom programme. If I apply that proportion to the 50,000, I find that the target for Scotland would have been 35,000 permanent houses completed and 15,000 building on 7th May, 1947.

What have we accomplished? Since 1st January, 1945, until the last day of April this year there have been built 7,521 permanent houses. After 21 months in office the Government have produced 6,857 permanent houses, but we have to take into account the fact that 1,525 of these are of non-traditional type, so that of the traditional type of houses there have been completed only 5,332 in the period of 21 months. That, hon. Members will realise, is a lesser number than, on occasions in the past, have actually been completed by the City of Glasgow alone in the course of one year. It is one-fifth of the number of permanent houses that were built in Scotland in 1938. In the disappointed hopes which they represent, in the distress which they occasion, in the despair which they engender and in the failure which they reveal, these figures are really tragic.

Although I have not the advantage of having the latest figures which the right hon. Gentleman has produced, which places me rather at a disadvantage, I want to consider now the progress that has been made between the date of our last Debate in October last year, and the end of April, the figures for which period are the last which have been officially issued. In that period the Government built 3,230 permanent houses at an average rate of 461 houses a month. That is, admittedly, an improvement on the average rate of 259 for the preceding 14 months. From the figures which the right hon. Gentleman has given to us, it appears that the rate in the first five months of this year has now risen to 700 houses a month; that would be 8,400 houses a year. It is not very much. I hope that we shall improve very greatly on these figures. I would like to ask—and the right hon. Gentleman in his speech today has given us very little information—what is the Government's expectation for completion during 1947.

We know it was to be 24,000. That was in the original programme. Now we are running at the rate of 8,400, but what is the figure which the Government expect to achieve? They must know something about it; they must have some figure. After all, the Joint Under-Secretary thought it right to request a figure from the former Secretary of State, Mr. Torn Johnston, and, therefore, I think he might give us a figure relating to his expectations for this year.

The Secretary of State has explained that the programme has had to be departed from. He lays the blame principally, I understand, on the phenomenal winter weather. Really, that has been very much exaggerated. I am given to understand from reliable sources that in a normal winter, between October and March, the loss of building time is about 11 per cent., and that if I wanted to be very sure indeed that I was not exaggerating, I might put the loss of time at 25 per cent. for the recent winter. It seems to me that even that figure is too small to make it incumbent on the Government to admit defeat at this stage, which is what they have done by departing from the programme as early as this. But that is not the real reason why the programme has been departed from. The real reason lies far deeper than that, and it is to be found in the Government's failure to plan in the building field or any other. I am quite certain that the fuel crisis, which we had in the early months of this year will ultimately have a far greater effect on our building programme than the effect of the weather during the month of March.

But I want to know why progress has been so slow. After all, the Secretary of State in October informed us that we have more men employed in the building of houses than ever before, and that at that time 30,000 men were employed. According to the latest return, we are informed that the numbers are 34,300, of which 30,200 are actually employed on the building of permanent houses. In prewar times it was common to say that for every one man employed in the building industry one house should be provided each year. But if that were so today, then in the seven months' period—and always keeping in mind that we had over 22,000 houses in course of construction in October, and even making allowance for the weather—we should have completed some 15,000 houses between October and the end of April of this year, instead of a mere 3,230. I do want the Committee to think for a moment of these figures, because they are really appalling. Thirty thousand men employed for a period of seven months; 22,000 houses under construction at the beginning of that period; and at the end of it 3,200 houses for the people of Scotland, hungry for houses.