Temporary Shops, Plymouth

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th September 1948.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

9.58 p.m.

Photo of Mrs Lucy Middleton Mrs Lucy Middleton , Plymouth, Sutton

I desire to draw the attention of the House and of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade to the urgent need for additional temporary shopping facilities in the war damaged cities of this country, and particularly in the City of Plymouth. In doing so, however, I would like to point out that this policy of temporary shopping facilities is only an interim policy and what the areas concerned most desire is that we shall be able at the earliest possible moment to rebuild our cities on a permanent basis and re-establish on a permanent basis the shopping centres. We wait for the time and long for the time when we shall get the all-clear from the Government to proceed with permanent reconstruction, but I would point out that even when that happy day comes there will still be need for some provision of temporary shopping facilities.

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put. Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

Photo of Mrs Lucy Middleton Mrs Lucy Middleton , Plymouth, Sutton

Even when we can go ahead with reconstruction, temporary shopping facilities will still be necessary in order, first, to accommodate the displaced shopkeepers while reconstruction is in progress and also to carry through that reconstruction in the most efficient manner possible. I can best illustrate to the House the great handicaps under which private traders are existing at present by comparing the figures of shopping space available in Plymouth before the war and now. In 1938 in Plymouth City Centre and in Fore Street, Devonport, which were the two main shopping areas, there were available 1,538,650 square feet of shopping space. In 1948, the amount of shopping space available in those two areas has been reduced to 300,000 square feet, and that figure includes temporary shops that have already been provided since the war. These figures indicate very clearly without any further elucidation from me the serious depletion of shopping facilities to less than one-fifth of what was available in the city before the war.

In the last two and a half years the Plymouth Corporation has received applications for 230 temporary shops of all sorts other than those which are provided on our housing estates, and a recent advertisement by the Corporation of eight temporary shops in the George Street area of the City Centre brought 65 applications, even though the rentals were at the rate of £700 a year exclusive of rates. The North Hill project, which was the subject of a Question by me on 15th July, and which led to the discussion tonight, was a project for smaller and cheaper shops. Retailers unable to get Corporation shops had entered into negotiations with a private owner to develop this site, and the Corporation, than which there is no more public-spirited body in Britain, recognised the need and granted the licences for development, but the regional office of the Board of Trade refused consent to develop. I could, if I had time, give numerous quotations from letters I have had from retailers in my own constituency with regard to the very great difficulties and handicaps under which they are suffering owing to this lack of shopping space.

However, I am not only interested in this subject from the point of view of the shopkeepers and the retail trade, but am even more concerned about the additional burdens which this lack of shopping space and storage facilities imposes on the housewives of the city. It may be true, as Government officials have argued with me on more than one occasion, that ultimately one can get as wide a variety of retail goods in Plymouth as in comparable cities that have not been war damaged. I dispute that point personally, but even if it is true, the strain on the housewife from having to travel all over the city in order to find what she needs—the point was well put by the Junior Burgess for Cambridge University (Mr. Wilson Harris) in a supplementary question on 15th July—adds to the harassment, the fatigue, the anxiety, and the expenses of the women of our war-damaged cities who, together with the housewives of other cities, have borne the greatest burden during the postwar years. I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, whom we all know as a devoted family man, to look sympathetically at this matter from the angle of the additional harassment of the housewives who have to contend with these great shopping difficulties.

It may be thought, and indeed it may be argued, that shortage of material has made impossible at the present time this development which we desire. If that is to be argued tonight, I would point out that, so far as these shops for which I am asking are concerned, the only materials that are necessary are Nissen huts, which is the main item of construction, a small amount of timber for doors and windows, a little cement and a few bricks or concrete blocks for foundations. The city engineer of Plymouth assures me that we have almost all of these, and the labour, the Nissen huts having been bought from the Government. The only one of these materials for which we would have to call upon resources other than those already within the city would be the small amount of timber that would be needed for window frames and doorways. On the other hand, so far as labour is concerned, the city engineer also assures me that we could, with the labour force already available to the Corporation, deal with the building of these temporary shops without having to add to our present labour force, in that we would be able to work this in with other work which is already under way in the city.

I would also point out that there are positive economic advantages as well as social advantages arising from this programme, such as the programme of 31 shops which was submitted in November, 1947, and was, I understand, turned down by the Board of Trade in January, 1948. My hon. Friend, I know, will realise that these shops will lead to an increase in rateable values, assisting both the city and also the Government in relation to the block grant, while at the present time the land upon which these shops would be built has been vested at very considerable expense and is completely unproductive for any social or economic purpose.

May I point out, in parenthesis, that we would like to have a greater understanding of municipal difficulties of this kind at the regional offices of the Ministries, for I believe it would lead to the easing of differences that now sometimes arise in matters of this sort. I speak only personally here, but I regret that there has not been a larger recruitment to regional offices of Ministries from the ability and experience which is to be found in local government circles. I believe that if that had been done we should have fostered a more co-operative psychology between municipalities and the first line of contact between them and Whitehall, namely, the regional officers.

Plymouth is not unmindful and not unappreciative of the streamlining of national production which has been inevitable in order to achieve the result which the Chancellor of the Exchequer so ably reported to the House earlier today. In that effort the city which I have the honour to represent desires to play a full part in what remains to be done in order to achieve our national economic target. The City of Plymouth desires still to play its full part. But when in the nation's interest cuts have inevitably to be made we claim, and I think with some good reason, that priority of consideration among the claimants for resources that can still be spared for home development should be given to those towns and cities that bore so gallantly the brunt of enemy attack during the war.

I ask the hon. Gentleman most earnestly to look at this matter from that point of view, to realise all that it will mean to the city for this temporary housing programme now to be allowed to go forward, and to give us his assurance tonight that consent will be given by his Ministry to enable the municipality to carry through this project.

10.11 p.m.

Photo of Mr Hubert Medland Mr Hubert Medland , Plymouth Drake

I shall not infringe very much upon the time which the Parliamentary Secretary will require to answer the overwhelming case put before the House tonight by my colleague the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Mrs. Middleton). It only remains for him to see that the necessary sanctions are sent to the city immediately. I look forward with interest to hearing him, and I am sure his speech will be very short along that line.

I want to add only two points. Outside of London, the two cities which received most attention from the enemy aircraft who visited us in 1941 were the city of Hull and my own unfortunate city. Ever since that date I, as a member of the Reconstruction Committee of the city, have been actively engaged in planning its reconstruction. The only method by which we could plan the reconstruction of the city was by following the principles laid down by Act of Parliament, and the only principles laid down for planning a new city such as we have to plan are those laid down under the 1944 Town and Country Planning Act and now under the 1947 Act which has been substituted for it.

In order to rebuild the city, which is no small job, it is necessary to work in the closest co-operation with the Government Department responsible for rebuilding, the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. But what do we find in trying to rebuild the city? We have to deal not only with that Ministry, we have far too many Ministries to attend and to make representations to in this respect. I submit to the Parliamentary Secretary that he should inform his principals and the Ministries generally that if we are ever to rebuild Britain, and rebuild it quickly, we shall have to deal with one responsible Department. That responsible Department cannot possibly be the Ministry of Health, it cannot possibly be the Board of Trade, which issues the licences, but it ought to be the sponsoring Department for the rebuilding of blitzed and devastated cities. Surely that ought to be the Town and Country Planning Department.

Yet, when on 5th July this year the special sub-committee of my city council came to meet the representatives of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, and the very question which my hon. Friend has raised tonight about the granting of sanctions to erect some temporary buildings for offices and shops was brought up at a meeting between our officials and those of us responsible for this business and we said to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, "Can we get on with the job?" they said they much regretted that, as they were not a sponsoring Department, they could not give us the approvals we required. I submit to my hon. Friend on the Front Bench that we cannot go on in that way trying to rebuild cities. If we are to get this job done with any efficiency, we must have one responsible Department which can give a sanction for a loan, can give us the licences to build, and can deal with us.

We have had refusal to allow us a capital expenditure of about £30,000 for building—a very small matter. All the accommodation would have been used by people who have lost their premises in the war and it would have helped us to go on with rebuilding. We have heard in today's Debate that there may be some chance of the burden of capital investment upon local authorities being eased. If so, let me tell the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade that we would infinitely prefer a definite promise from him that we can go on with permanent building and that the licences will be granted to us, than to be told that we can go on with temporary buildings.

We cannot understand why the mean and pettifogging amount of £30,000 is refused to us for temporary building while his Department gives to a city which has not had the blitz and devastation which we have had approval to build five blocks of permanent buildings costing £450,000 per block. We have been informed by officials of Coventry that they have approval to go on with building costing £2,500,000. I am sure that the injustice being done to the most historic city in the country, which I have the honour to represent in this House, will be put right by the Parliamentary Secretary.

10.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Belcher Mr John Belcher , Sowerby

I admire the local patriotism of my hon. Friend the Member for the Drake Division (Mr. Medland). I applaud his efforts to achieve something for his city. I do not know that I agree that it is the greatest city in the country. I am a citizen of no mean city myself, a city which also suffered somewhat from the attentions of the enemy during the war.

I am sure that the House will realise that I have very little time to deal with so large a subject as has been raised. First, on the point about the number of Ministries involved in the attempt to get a building licence, of course it would be ideal if we could confine the activities in this direction to one Department or Ministry. However, Ministries have different functions and different knowledge of a problem. It is essential that the Ministry which issues the licence—it is not the Board of Trade but the Ministry of Works—shall have the advice of the Department which knows the circumstances and knows about the trades and industries with which the building licence application is concerned.

On the subject of what my hon. Friend describes as the pettifogging amount involved in an application which was refused, it is true that we are frequently in the position of having to say no to applications which, by themselves, appear to be so trivial and so small in their demands upon building materials and labour that it is really frivolous to reject them, but it is the accumulation of all these small applications which has to be borne in mind. One application for £30,000 worth of work does not appear very much, but when we get hundreds and possibly thousands of similar applications, taken together they represent a very considerable strain on the resources of the country at present.

Photo of Mr Hubert Medland Mr Hubert Medland , Plymouth Drake

Thousands from devastated cities?

Photo of Mr John Belcher Mr John Belcher , Sowerby

Not from devastated cities, but there are other matters to be taken into consideration. It may not be just a question of building a shop in a devastated city, but an extension to a factory which will make goods to sell overseas to provide food and raw materials without which we cannot exist, and we have a number of cases of that kind.

I was rather sorry to hear the Member for the Sutton Division (Mrs. Middleton) making a criticism of regional officials. I know that she did not suggest they were not doing their job to the best of their ability, but my own experience, and it is by now pretty considerable, of the work of regional officials is that it is of a very high order indeed. They take their jobs very seriously and co-operate very closely with the local government officials. I do not know that local government bodies would welcome the suggestion that we should deprive them of their staff in order to staff the regional offices of the Ministry, but I do know, as far as Plymouth is concerned, that the regional officers have not only tried to be most helpful, but, in fact, have been.

We do realise the difficulty in which Plymouth is placed because of the loss of so much of its shopping space during the war, and these difficulties are all the greater because, as two hon. Gentlemen opposite will agree, it is not a question of meeting the shopping needs of Plymouth alone, because Plymouth is the great shopping centre of the whole of the South-West of the country and represents a special problem for that reason. I am told that before the war Plymouth probably catered for the shopping needs of about 500,000 people.

It is not true, of course, that nothing has been done. Quite a good deal has been done in rehabilitating on a temporary basis towns like Plymouth. Every application that we have had for the rebuilding of shops has been considered on its merits, having regard to the claims of housing, very important in the case of Plymouth, and the industrial building and the limits imposed upon us by the available labour and material. By the middle of 1947, the local authority had erected 58 temporary shops, mainly Nissen hutting, with a total area of 60,000 square feet, for allocation to blitzed traders. In addition, 46 applications for about 50,000 square feet had been approved by the Board of Trade for the reconstruction and repair of existing premises and the erection of temporary shops by private traders. In addition to these, there are the applications approved by the Ministry of Food, with which the Board of Trade has not been concerned.

Photo of Sir Arthur Baxter Sir Arthur Baxter , Wood Green

Does the approval of the Board of Trade mean that these things are carried through, or that that is a preliminary step? I do not ask in an unfriendly way.

Photo of Mr John Belcher Mr John Belcher , Sowerby

I am afraid we do not possess so much power as that. The fact that the Board of Trade says "Yes" does not mean that every other Government Department falls into step, but it does go a long way towards it. Sponsorship by the Board of Trade will assist to a very great extent, but we have to consider other matters. Plymouth has a very great rehousing problem at the present time, and may I here place on record our appreciation of the way in which the local authority is tackling that job?

There has also been an industrial job to do. We must never lose sight of the necessity for providing not only for the housing of the people and for the shopping needs of the people, but also for the employment of the people. I would go so far as to say that we have made a fairly good job of providing for their employment in Plymouth. We were hoping to do much more than we did in 1947, but, as the House well knows, we had to face the necessity of a cut in capital expenditure, and schemes which might otherwise have gone through had to be delayed or stopped altogether. Nevertheless, it is our view that, despite our still existing straitened circumstances, such work as has been referred to here tonight should not be indefinitely deferred, and we have decided that a start should be made in 1949 with the rebuilding of the central areas in heavily blitzed cities where plans are sufficiently far advanced.

It must be recognised that our resources will be severely limited, and, when compared with the size of the job which needs to be done in these blitzed cities, the amount of work able to be undertaken will only be a small proportion of the total required. We cannot afford any priority over other more urgent national needs. We cannot expect or encourage anybody to believe that there will be a great increase in the building labour force or in the amount of steel to be allowed for these particular requirements. In addition to some progress on these lines—rebuilding of the central areas—it will be possible for the licensing authorities to consider applications for modest schemes for repair and rebuilding blitzed shop premises which make no demand on steel supplies.

I hope that this announcement will provide evidence of our desire to do what we can with our very limited resources to enable these blitzed cities to get on their feet again, whether it be in the matter of their industries or of their shopping facilities. I hope that local authorities, industrialists and the shopkeepers concerned, will go ahead as quickly as possible with the preparation of their schemes for early submission so that, in 1949, when we are able to make some small advance, their schemes will be ready to take advantage of any assistance we may afford.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned, accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes past Ten o'Clock.