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 Lieut-Colonel Sir George Hutchison Lieut-Colonel Sir George Hutchison , Edinburgh West 12:00 am, 18th June 1947

I was referring to the year 1939. As the Secretary of State said, housing continues to be the most pressing of our social problems in Scotland. Not one of us is not conscious of that, because every one of us receives at any rate several letters every day from people who are diving under the most distressing conditions, many of whom are reaching a condition of despair as they see their prospects of ever obtaining a house disappear into the future. It is not only from individual constituents that one gets very sad letters. Indeed, only a few weeks ago I received one from the Managers of the Simpson Memorial Hospital in Edinburgh, which is the foremost maternity hospital in that city. In it was a report for 1946 by the almoner, which commented in the gravest terms on the conditions under which many maternity cases are having to be treated at the present time, in overcrowded housing conditions, with consequent danger to the health and life of both the mother and child. The report also commented on the need for increased hospital accommodation.

I say in all sincerity to the Government and to the Joint Under-Secretary of State, for whom I have a personal regard, that I feel that the Government have failed to live up to the somewhat rosy prospects which were held out to the people of this country at the time of the Election. Indeed, the figures show that they have failed to live up even to their own rather more restrained post-Election target figure. In his opening speech, the Secretary of State gave us a good deal of statistical data about progress in 1946 and 1947, but as a datum line I would like to remind the Committee of the statement which was made in this House by the Joint Under-Secretary on 16th October, 1945, in answer to a question by myself. He then said that the Government aimed at having 50,000 permanent houses built or building, and 34,000 temporary houses completed by the end of June this year. I have always regarded that as being a datum line by which one could b gauge the progress actually made. As we now know from the last official return, Cmd. 7130—I have not the Secretary of State's later figures—the position at 30th April, with two months to go, was that we were some 9,000 permanent houses short and very nearly 16,000 temporary houses short of the target. Those facts speak for themselves.

That is a rather serious state of affairs, and one which calls for the fullest explanation on the part of Members of the Government. All reasonable people appreciated the fact that immediately after the war building would be difficult, that there would be the changeover from wartime to peacetime conditions, and that there was bound to be a shortage of labour and materials in the transitional period. 'The only unfortunate fact is that we on these benches faced that prospect with a modest and realistic programme which was derided by Socialist Ministers, while hon. Gentlemen opposite rather glossed over the possibility of these shortages. They cashed in and won the Election. Possibly, in days to come, the people of this country will remember which of the two parties put forward a practical programme and which one put forward a rosy programme. Two years have elapsed since the end of the war in Europe and I say to the Government that the housing programme is still hanging fire. I spoke to someone associated with the housing programme in Edinburgh the other day and he made a remark which has stuck in my mind. He said that going round the housing sites reminded him more of cemeteries than hives of industry. That is a terrible thing to have to say. It seems to me that there is a lack of urgency. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Cathcart (Mr. John Henderson) said much the same thing. There seems to be a diminution in urgency and drive on the part of the Government in pressing forward with the work of construction.

I wish to ask the Minister some questions on the subject of material shortages and priorities, which matters have also been referred to by other hon. Members. Admittedly, it is a matter which rather comes within the scope of the Minister of Works, but the Secretary of State for Scotland is obviously closely concerned with it. We have heard from him that there is at the present time a general shortage of cement, which is the chief immediate trouble. This is certainly the case so far as Edinburgh is concerned. As soon as a cargo of cement comes into Leith Docks it is at once seized and distributed among the various contractors in the city. They are living from hand to mouth, and there are no reserve stocks in the city. That is exercising a serious psychological effect on the building operatives on the spot. They have to be careful with the material they use, or, they may be out of work for a day or two through lack of supplies, and thus they tend not to go as fast as they might have done. One must sympathise with them in that predicament. The psychological effect is nevertheless most unfortunate.

I have been looking at that useful paper, the "Monthly Digest of Statistics," to find out the cement position. I find that in February, when the fuel crisis was at its height, production dropped to 192,000 tons. It improved in March to 366,000 tons, and in April there was a considerable recovery, for the five week period, to 601,000 tons. Even so, that production is considerably below the average monthly production in 1938 which was 643,000 tons. It is not only the actual production figure with which I am concerned, but also the fact that there is a shortage of stock in hand. Stock in hand appears to be abnormally low. According to the "Digest of Statistics," in April there were only 178,000 tons of cement in stock compared with a normal average figure of about 250,000 tons. The Joint Under-Secretary of State will remember that two days ago some questions were put to the Minister of Works on the subject of cement. I call his attention to a reply made by the Minister which runs: There is a shortage of cement arising out of the fuel difficulties in the early part of the year. Production is now increasing, and by the end of the month I think that we shall have overcome our difficulties."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th June, 1647; Vol. 438. c. 1587.] That is gratifying if indeed it is entirely correct. I would like to be assured that the Joint Under-Secretary of State is satisfied that the position will be cleared by the end of this month and that that bottleneck will be eliminated. Further, I would like to know what steps, if any, he contemplates to ensure that there will not be a similar bottleneck in the course of next winter. A great many people, including myself, are very much afraid that we shall be confronted with another breakdown of fuel supplies next winter.

On this question of cement, I wish to make a suggestion. I do not like doing it because I hate the idea of importing a commodity which we can make ourselves. But, if all else fails, will the hon. Gentleman make arrangements for the importation of cement from Belgium? I think that was done before the war, on occasions, to ease the position at difficult periods. The hon. Member for North Edinburgh discussed the question of priorities. I understand that at the moment the Hydro-Electric Board gets first priority for cement. I must say that in the existing circumstances of fuel shortage I personally would not challenge that decision, but I would like to think that housing came very definitely next on the list, and that there were not a lot of other intervening undertakings. I have heard it said in Edinburgh that there are other undertakings which get a measure of priority. The Joint Under-Secretary shakes his head, but I would point out that my statement is rather confirmed by a reply given by the Minister of Works in this House on Monday. He then said: Special priority has been given to power stations (including hydro-electric stations), gas works, coal/oil conversion plants, projects to assist the production and transport of coal, and atomic energy projects."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th June, 1947; Vol. 438, c. 1586.] These all seem to rank above housing.