Orders of the Day — Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th July 1947.

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Photo of Miss Megan Lloyd George Miss Megan Lloyd George , Anglesey 12:00 am, 28th July 1947

We have had from the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) a racy and lively attack on the Government's housing policy, and on the Minister of Health in particular. The hon. Member proved to his own satisfaction—though not, I maintain, on the facts—that a Conservative Government could have done better. If I may say so, no one can make bricks without straw more admirably than hon. and right hon. Gentlemen above the Gangway—when they are in Opposition. However, I do not want to engender any unnecessary heat this afternoon and it is certainly not my job to defend the Government, but I think we have to judge this issue without prejudice, if possible, and on the facts of the situation. Of course we are disappointed. Hon. Members on all sides are disappointed at the progress of the housing programme.

What is the position? The latest published figures show that we are, in the main, back to where we were before the fuel crisis began; that is, we are back to the close season for building, and this at what should be the height of the building season. That is really the grave aspect of the situation. We have, therefore, to revise, quite honestly and fearlessly, the whole of our estimates. The Minister has told us frankly that the target set out in the White Paper in January is now not possible of achievement. The hon. Member for Hertford may argue as much as he likes about private enterprise and local authorities, but the crux of this problem is the shortage of materials and the shortage of skilled labour. He can give us his six points—they were not 14, only six—but to put them all into operation—and some I should be sorry to see in operation, particularly an alteration in the ratio of four to one—would not make any substantial difference in the programme; in fact, it might hang it up in many serious respects.

The question really is how we can use the maximum available resources of material and labour. That is the only problem we have to consider in the present crisis. Therefore, the target must now be not to dissipate our resources on starting houses all over the country, but to concentrate on getting as many houses ready as possible for occupation before the winter and during the winter. The Minister has instituted zonal conferences with a view to getting what he called a balanced programme. I still think much propaganda is needed to bring home to the local authorities the necessity for concentrating labour and materials on finishing houses for occupation. I had a case only the other day from a progressive local authority in my own constituency. At the time the Minister visited that area there were some houses at roof level. Several weeks later they were still not occupiable, and the reason was because the labour and materials available, were being used for houses at other levels. There must be a great many instances of that kind at the moment. The Minister had a campaign last year to finish the houses up to roof level between the autumn and Christmas. I hope very much that he will have another drive now, in order to finish as many houses as possible with the available materials and labour.

The need for housing accommodation has been acute in the rural areas. It is now becoming critical, particularly in view of the vital need to increase the production of food. The prisoners of war are being repatriated, not as quickly as we would like, but at the rate of 15,000 a month, and they have been accommodated in camps. We shall need something like 100,000 permanent new workers and where will they live? This may hold up the whole of our food production. What are we going to do to meet that essential need? May I quote the position in Aberffraw, a village of my own constituency because it is typical of many other villages? It is a village with a population of 790 people. There are 150 houses, all old and obsolete. Only 40 out of 150 could be called satisfactory by the most elastic stretch of the most vivid Celtic imagination you could find anywhere. Out of that 150, 36 have been scheduled as unfit for human habitation; 64 other houses require extensive repairs to make them habitable under any definition which anybody would think of calling "tolerably habitable."

Let me give two instances of what I mean by obsolete houses. There is one with eight occupants, seven children, sleeping three in a bed in one room and five sleeping in the other room of 70 sq. ft.—that is, large enough for one person only. The other is a parent and six children sleeping in two bedrooms, five in two beds in one room and three in a bed in a room of only 45 sq ft.—that is, not large enough to sleep one. Those are two examples of houses that are unfit for human habitation. I need hardly say that sanitation in the village is primitive in the extreme; it hardly exists.

With all this need for accommodation for new permanent workers on the land, what is being done in that village? We were informed in the last zonal conference that only six houses can be completed at present. Under the best conditions we might have had 20, and now it is to be only six. That is, six for a village which needs 100 new or reconditioned houses. How shall we get new workers on the land in conditions and in villages of that kind? I agree that that village is probably admittedly the worst, but there are many that come bad seconds and bad thirds in my constituency. How many more are there in how many other villages in every part of Great Britain? I agree with the Minister that this is the result, not of 20 years, but of generations—[An HON. MEMBER: "Under the Liberal Party?"]—no, under the neglect of Tory landlords.

Would it not be possible for local authorities to meet this need if they were encouraged to apply for more Airey prefabricated permanent houses? Tenders have been approved for over 3,000, and the rate of production has been extremely disappointing, as I am sure the Minister will agree. The trouble is that the local authorities are not really interested in the Airey house. They think it is not suitable for the countryside, and they have not therefore made applications for it. Would it not be possible to have an exhibition in London, the provinces, and Welsh centres, of the Airey house, where representatives of local authorities could come and see the house themselves, as they saw the Portal house? If they did so, it would encourage them to give orders for this house. After all, it is vital that something should be done to supplement the building of the traditional houses in the countryside.

There is no doubt at all that the housing programme in the main, is held up by shortages of materials and labour. There are shortages of essential fittings, and work is being held up on building sites for lack of cement—and that at the height of the building season. It is perfectly true that the building labour force is up, but the proportion of operatives on bomb damage repairs still seems to be inordinately high. I do not know whether the Minister could look into that to see whether it would be possible to speed it up. That is quite apart from the very substantial numbers still employed on ordinary repair work, and together the two make an alarming number.

I am informed that in many parts of the country there are pools of labour which may not be available for building contracts, certainly not for large building contracts, but which could be used on essential repair work. There are pools of labour which are being liberally—or perhaps I should say illiberally—used on black market or non-essential work. I would be very glad if the right hon. Gentleman would look into that, to see whether, by tightening up on licences for materials, or some other method, he could get hold of some of that black market labour to supplement building labour, or to release building labour for permanent building. As everyone knows, there is still a serious shortage of key workers, and above all of plumbers and bricklayers. Quite as serious as the shortage of bricklayers, is that the production per man is lower than it was before the war. That is perhaps the most serious factor of all. Conditions and wages are not good in the building trade. On the other hand, employers say that it is very difficult to increase the wages if there is to be no incentive for higher production.

I am very glad to see that two advances have been made in this situation, which seemed to be almost insoluble. I am glad to see that the wartime Defence Regulation—and I hope the Minister will confirm that this is a fact—which forbade percentage payments to building operatives, is to be relaxed. I hope the Minister will tell us something about that today. It has been reported that that is the case, and that the Government will no longer reserve powers to fix a ceiling for wages. It is also very encouraging to see that the unions have now given their executives powers to join with the employers on incentive schemes, because that is the only way in which we can get out of the impasse. We hope that the negotiations will not only prove fruitful, but that they will be speedily concluded, because, after all, time is precious. We are wasting summer months, and in another few weeks we shall be in the close building season in this country.

In the months to come we may very well be faced with the necessity for making cuts in many directions in order to meet our commitments. I hope the Minister of Health will secure and maintain as high priority for housing—as high a priority as the stringency of the times will allow. I am perfectly sure that with his natural pugnacity derived from the natural pugnacity of the race from which he springs, he will acquit himself well in any ministerial tug of war. I wish him well, and hope that he will acquit himself well, because I do not think we can get the full benefit of education, improved maternity and child welfare schemes, or anything else, while people are condemned to live in bad slums and in conditions of overcrowding.