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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 Mr Robert Hudson Mr Robert Hudson , Southport 12:00 am, 28th July 1947

This summary says in paragraph (b): The number of family units of accommodation shown are included in those quoted in a subsequent paragraph of the return dealing with temporary accommodation in Service camps. These represent the numbers of units occupied in camps that are at least up to the standard of the temporary accommodation. already included in the summary"— which includes temporary huts and huts in Service camps.

I venture to suggest that those are not what the ordinary man, and still less his wife, would regard as home. On this question it might not be improper to quote from a speech made by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food. She was talking about the miserable accommodation for married couples and she said that the task was to get homes for people who considered themselves homeless, whether they were living in one room or with their mothers-in-law. They were just as unhappy as if they had no shelter at all, but many of those people had not even applied for a house. The demand might therefore be even greater than was apparent. One sentence in her speech I would commend. It was: The time has come when we should put the feelings of the people above the feelings of the Ministers."—[OFFICIAL REPORT 23rd March, 1945; Vol. 409. c. 1202.] How have the Government tackled the problem? I have said that our first charge is that they have grossly understated the problem and that they are endeavouring to mislead the people of this country into believing that the problem is much smaller than it actually is. How have they tackled the problem? We say that the Coalition Government would have got 220,000 new permanent houses built, 80,000 building, and 145,000 temporary houses, by now. Hon. Members opposite criticised those figures at the time as grossly insufficient. The present Minister of Town and Country Planning said that the Government plans for meeting the urgent and immediate demands were insufficient. He went on: We are told that there will be 220,000 houses completed in the first two years alter the war and also that 145,000 temporary dwellings … will, in fact be provided. That makes 365,000 houses which we are promised will be available, against an 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. Then he said: Unless my right hon. and learned Friend"— the Member for North Croydon (Mr. Willink)— can do better than that, there will be very considerable disappointment and dissatisfaction."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 4th June. 1945: Vol. 411, c. 1250.] The Minister of Health has not only failed to do better than that. He has failed to come up to that very low standard.

Why has the right hon. Gentleman failed? He failed because first, of the dissipation of effort, secondly, because of the slow rate of construction and thirdly because he is piling up excessive costs. He asked us what we would do about the production of soft wood timber. He seemed to think that he was scoring a point. The Minister without Portfolio, who was then Lord Privy Seal—I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman remembers what the Minister without Portfolio, who was then Lord Privy Seal, said, when he was standing where I am? The right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Arthur Greenwood) said, on 4th June, just before the Election that the Coalition Government's housing programme 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. There was no nonsense there about soft wood timber from Canada. This was a problem which we could solve if we so choose by our own efforts. The right hon. Gentleman went on: 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 4th June, 1945; Vol. 411, c. 1108.] I commend those words to the right hon. Gentleman, when he is talking about softwood timber.

We say that if we had been in power, the total number of new permanent houses completed would have been greater than it is today and we say that one of the reasons for the ill balance, which the right hon. Gentleman admits is affecting the building industry today, is that there is no relation between the number of houses started and the raw materials likely to be available. The right hon. Gentleman was warned against this in the White Paper of the Coalition and Caretaker Governments. His colleagues who were then in the National Government realised it. The White Paper setting out the Coalition programme—subsequently taken over by the Caretaker Government—mentioned and called attention to this point. It said: As experience after the last war showed, a programme beyond the capacity of the building industry would have the result that many houses would be started but few would be completed. Moreover, there would be powerful pressure on prices if, in the early stages, more work were offered than the building industry could perform. That was a very prescient warning, and it has been completely disregarded by the Minister. The right hon. Gentleman has done exactly the opposite, and the results predicted therein have necessarily followed.

It is obvious, and it should have been obvious to the right hon. Gentleman at an early stage, that bottlenecks were bound to arise. I will not go into the details, because they would be out of Order. Nevertheless, local authorities were encouraged to go all out in starting housing and letting contracts. Then the fuel crisis overcame us. Let us admit the difficulties that were caused by it; but even since then, at a time when he knows that he has not overtaken the arrears of production of raw materials that were caused by that fuel crisis, the Minister is still encouraging local authorities to go ahead. He said this year—I can only go by the figures that show a result of his prophecy—that he was going to have a return to a proper balance. If he will look at the figures for April and May, 1947, he will find that in spite of his desire to get a proper balance, twice as many new houses were started in those two months as were finished and that far from the discrepancy between the number of houses started and finished being decreased it is increasing with every month that passes.

It is sheer nonsense, in the face of figures like that, for the Minister to get up and talk about the restoration of the balance of the industry. I say that as a result of the ill balance and of his administrative incompetence the people of this country have at least 60,000 new permanent houses fewer than would have been the case if we had been in power. [Laughter.] I am making that statement. The right hon. Gentleman went on during his speech to emphasise his belief in the four-to-one ratio. We believe that the four-to-one ratio is bad, for two reasons. First of all, we believe that it does not encourage the use of the best instruments we can get, secondly, that the local authorities build a permanent house which takes longer and is more costly than under private enterprise. I do not want to weary the Committee with a great many figures, but at the present moment local authority houses are taking from 13 to 14 months to build compared with nine months in the case of private enterprise.

One of the results of that is steadily mounting costs. The costs have been given by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford. Let me remind the Committee that private enterprise builders are limited to £1,300 per house, which has to include everything, including the allowance for their overhead expenses, but local authority tenders are running at £1,400 to £1,600, and they include nothing for the overhead costs of the Ministry or the local authorities. As far as the cost of building of houses goes, the local authority—the chosen instrument—is running away above private enterprise.

I would take an example selected by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Works when he was Parliamentary Secretary last year. He was boasting about what he called his chosen instrument. As an example of how well it works, he quoted the case of the two counties, Durham and Hertford. He said that in the old days in 1938, 7,000 houses were built in Durham but the need of Durham was greater than that of Hertford. He boasted a year ago that 8,000 tenders and licences to build had been issued to Durham and only 4,000 to Hertford, and he asked the Committee to assume what a first class chap he was and how good his chosen instrument was. It is interesting to see what has happened under this chosen instrument 12 months later