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.