Before we start the Second Reading of this Bill I ought to call the attention of this House to a printing error on page 25 of the Bill. Paragraph (b) of subsection (4) of Clause 31 should have been printed in italics. As this is a comparatively minor provision, I did not consider it necessary to have the Bill re-issued and I am making this statement instead.
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
The Bill which I am now proposing to the House carries the Government's housing programme to a further stage. In order that I may set the proposals of the Bill against their proper background, I think I should give the House a statement of the housing progress to date and make some observations about that progress which I hope will be considered by the House to be relevant.
It has been common ground in all parts of the House, and I believe, in all parts of the country, that the first task for the Government after the war was to try to make war damage good, and to provide homes for the families who had none. For four years the resources at our disposal have been devoted to those ends. In England and Wales, up to the end of January of this year, 774,512 new homes were provided. I want to make it quite clear so that there shall be no misunderstanding, that in those figures requisitioned houses and service camps are not included. The figures for Great Britain are 852,025 new homes provided since the end of the war.
Yes, I will in a moment. Of those, in England and Wales 400,413 are new permanent houses. The total new houses, permanent and temporary, amounts to 525,383, out of a total of 774,000 odd new homes. For Great Britain the figure is 441,617 new permanent houses and adding the temporary houses it makes 598,815 new houses out of the total of 852,000 new homes to which I have already referred. I think everybody will agree that, having regard to all the difficulties with which we were inevitably faced at the end of a great war, that shows really remarkable progress. I am not asserting that it is as much progress as we would have liked to make, because there are still a large number of families in this country without a separate home of their own. We shall persist in the building of new permanent houses until every family in the country has a good, separate, modern home.
It is, of course, impossible to estimate the number of separate family units in the country, but I have been trying to form some estimate of the housing problem of today compared with what it was in 1938–39. Between June, 1939, and December, 1948, the civilian population of England and Wales increased by approximately 1,750,000. During that time, after deducting houses lost during the war and making allowance for loss through obsolescence, approximately 560,000 additional homes have been provided. Taking the generally accepted figure of 3.5 persons to a family, these would provide for just under 2,000,000 people. The exact figure is 1,960,000. We have, therefore, more than made good the position of 1939. In other words, there are more homes per head of the population today than in 1938–39, so that we have already begun to improve on the 1938–39 position.
I should like the House to look at the significance of these figures. Within less than four years of the end of 6½ years of war we have not only made good war damaged houses and rebuilt a large number of war destroyed houses, but we have also made it possible for the country to enjoy more actual separate habitations per head of the population than when the war started. Yet, despite the fact that the number of houses per head of the population is in excess of what it was before the war, almost every local authority in Great Britain still has long housing lists.
The hon. Member ought not to say,?Larger than ever,? because we shall have to ask how it comes about that the more houses we build—as I want the House again to recollect—and although we have more houses per head of the population, those housing lists are there? The answer arises from two things. First, people are getting married at lower ages than formerly. Of the young people who got married in 1938, 32.7 per cent. of men and 54 per cent. of women were under 25 years of age. In 1946 the percentages were 36.4 and 58.4 respectively. Such is the universal optimism which the Government has created that people are venturing upon married life at an earlier age than when they were living under another administration. I hope those comparisons will not necessarily be considered rude.
They are from the Department of the Registrar-General and are of the ages of people getting married. They are always available and we do not require a census to obtain them. That, I think, is one reason for the situation I have tried to describe.
The second reason also is one which I find it pleasant to recall: that a much larger number of old people continue to live in their own homes than was formerly the case. In very many cases before the war, before the nation enjoyed the social services which it has today, large numbers of those old people were living in workhouses. Today, however, they are living in the homes in which they have lived throughout their lives. They are insisting upon doing so, although very often a considerable degree of under-occupation is involved. But I do not think there is anybody in the country or in this House who would grudge the old people that under-occupation.
It is only an observation, which, I am sure, is within the common experience of hon. Members. The figures relating to people living in workhouses, at any rate, can be got easily. They are negligible today compared with what they were before the war. Most of those people are, of course, infirm persons. Nowadays old people can more easily afford to pay the rents of their houses. They have certain resources to supplement their pensions that they did not possess formerly and can now live their lives in dignity and privacy.
There is a third reason also which I must give the House for reflection, because this extraordinary situation must be explained. A very large number of people are now on housing lists who before the war could not afford to pay rents for new houses and did not apply. In the beginning of 1939 two million people were out of work. Therefore, the housing figures before the war concealed a housing need that could not become monetarily effective.
From those three sources spring the housing lists of today, despite the fact that we have already made up the arrears and are making net additions to the nation?s resources of new homes. We shall, of course, go on providing additional homes until we have reached the position of providing a separate home for every family in the country. The House must reflect that when that is done—and we shall do it before very long—it will be the first time that any nation has done it in the recorded history of mankind. It appears at first to be a modest ambition but when looking back upon the experiences of our own lives, and upon what we know of the Industrial Revolution, it is a matter, I should have thought, for universal gratification that we are now within sight of providing for every separate family the comfort and privacy of a separate household.
I believe that one of the reasons why modern nations have not been able to solve their housing problems is that they have looked upon houses as commodities to be bought and sold and not as a social service to be provided. Housing experts, even in those nations still dedicated to the pure principles of the Manchester School of Economics, are coming increasingly to recognise that the building industry cannot, in fact, be mobilised to meet the needs for modern housing in a modern industrial nation merely by leaving it to the laws of supply and demand.
A house is far too complex a product of modern society to be left to unplanned initiative. Therefore, it is essential that the State should take a hand in the pro- vision of this modern necessity and do so by making housing a service. That can only be accomplished by reposing it in the custody of a public authority. This is especially the case where there is competition for houses. Only a public authority can choose between the relative claims of different applicants for houses. That cannot be done by private persons acting upon private enterprise only. That is the difference between this side of the House and the other side of the House, the fundamental difference.
Most of the houses being built in Great Britain, despite the propaganda of some elements of the Conservative Press, are built by private enterprise. They are built by private enterprise for public authorities. It is not the task of the builder to select the tenants for the houses; it is the task of the builder to build houses and it is the task of the public authorities to choose between the respective claims of the different applicants, so that the houses go largely to those in need of them. To that principle the Government adhere and they will not move from it whilst the housing situation still remains one of our social problems.
Now we have reached this stage, the Government have come to the conclusion that further legislation is necessary in order to deal with the wider aspects of housing policy. In the past, housing has been done by public authorities for the working classes. Housing legislation has always made use of this phrase, but only once has legislation attempted a definition of what?the working classes? are and for whom the working class houses are to be built by public authorities. It occurs in a subsidiary Act of 1903 which says:
?The expression?working class? includes mechanics, artisans, labourers and others working for wages; hawkers, costermongers, persons not working for wages, but working at some trade or handicraft without employing others, except members of their own family, and persons, other than domestic servants, whose income in any case does not exceed an average of 30s. a week, and the families of any such persons who may be residing with them.?
Having accomplished that, no succeeding Government has succeeded in redefining the working classes and I do not think anyone can blame them. I make no reproach whatever against the Members of the Opposition that they did
not attempt a definition of the working classes in their various Acts, but we have come to the conclusion that this ridiculous inhibition should be removed and that it should now be possible for the local authority to provide any sort of house which is required by the community.
I am anxious that the House and the country should pay special regard to this, because, if the House will do me the honour of recollecting what I said on this matter in 1945, they will see that I said that in my view and, I believe, in the view of most people, it was entirely undesirable that on modern housing estates only one type of citizen should live. I referred to them then as?twilight towns? and said that it was a reproach of our modern social planning that from one sort of township should come one income group and from another sort of township another income group. I said that if we are to enable citizens to lead a full life, if they are each to be aware of the problems of their neighbours, then they should be all drawn from the different sections of the community and we should try to introduce in our modern villages what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and farm labourer all lived in the same street. I believe that is essential for the full life of a citizen. I believe it is a necessary biological background for modern life and I believe it leads to the enrichment of every member of the community to live in communities of that sort.
Therefore we are sweeping away all reference to?housing of the working classes.? Furthermore, what ought not to be regarded as a minor matter, we cannot get good architectural compositions into a township which has all the same type of house. We can only get the aesthetics of good modern architecture into a township which has the most variegated kind of housing in it. I hope I carry all hon. Members with me when I say that that inhibition should be removed and that local authorities should now be able to plan their estates in the way I have described. We believe it is essential that local authorities should also provide accommodation for single persons, for persons who are following professional life, and that they should provide for old people.
There has been a necessary emphasis on the provision of three-bedroomed houses; that was the first need immediately after the war; but we must not ignore the fact that there is a need for smaller houses—I do not mean substandard houses, which is not the same thing at all, but houses with fewer bedrooms and houses with more bedrooms—in order that we should again avoid segregation and in order that old people should not live in old people?s colonies, but should live where they have been brought up and where before their eyes every day they can see the living tapestry of a mixed community.
The Bill gives local authorities power and provides them with financial assistance to provide hostels where it is possible for meals to be given to those living in the hostels and where they can have single people and old people living together, because single people and old people often need the same kind of accommodation. In exactly the same way as a professional worker who is away all day needs some assistance for having rooms looked after, or a common meal prepared, there is the same need in respect of old people. Before the old people become the wards of the local welfare authorities, they should have their needs provided for by the housing authority as a housing authority, and assistance is given for that purpose in the Bill.
There are some anomalies which Part I of the Bill removes. It is possible at the moment for local authorities to provide laundries, but not laundry services. It is an anomalous situation that on many of the housing estates of London, for example, housing authorities are putting up washhouses, but are forbidden to provide a laundry service. The Bill enables a local housing authority to provide a laundry service in connection with its own housing estates.
The existing law enables a local authority to hire out furniture but not to sell it. I am quite sure that I shall have the Opposition with me here when I say that it ought to be possible for the local authorities to enable the tenants to become possessors of the furniture. This is my contribution towards a property-owning democracy. I am sure that I shall have the enthusiastic support of the Opposition in enabling the public authority to sell furniture.
I am indeed glad to have this enthusiastic support for substitution for private enterprise in the sale of furniture. I hope that the Opposition will not succumb to any Lobby pressure from any source whatever in this matter. I shall be happy to see the support which I am sure we shall get there.
Furthermore I believe that the time has come to enable local authorities to lend money on houses of a higher value than is at present permitted. I raised the figure to £1,500 on the last occasion. I am now proposing to raise it to £5,000. We on this side of the House have never been hostile to people owning their own houses if they wish to do so. Indeed, in evidence of that, we have even enabled private enterprise to build many more houses for private ownership than they were able to do in the same period after the First World War. As I have said before, and I wish to remind the House of it, our activities have been beneficial as much to private enterprise and private house ownership as to public house ownership.
It seems to me hardly fair that people who want to borrow money to buy their own houses, or alter their own houses, or build their own houses, should always be driven to paying high rates of interest. Therefore, they should be able to obtain money at the same rates as the Government themselves are able to borrow it. Accordingly, we are suggesting that the local authority should have power to lend up to 90 per cent. of £5,000 at the Public Works Loans Board rate of interest. Again, I am quite sure that we shall have the enthusiastic support of the Opposition.
I do not know at the moment to what the hon. Member refers, but the fact is, as I have tried to explain earlier, that the main need in the community is for the provision of houses to rent, and only in that way, only by building houses to rent, is it possible to get the houses first to those who need them most. But that does not mean for a single moment that we are hostile to people owning the houses in which they live because, I repeat, we have made it possible for large numbers—nearly 100,000—houses to be built for private enterprise since the war. We are now—I hope we shall get the approval of the Opposition—to rescue from the clutches of extortionate moneylenders those who want to borrow money to own their own houses.
Certainly, it may be enormous but why should it not be? It imposes no financial strain upon the community, it is not inflationary in its effects, it transfers money from one person to another but does so in the easiest way, which leaves the least taint of profit behind.
Having said that, I now come to that part of the Bill which I believe to be of even greater importance. Immediately we have reached the position of providing a separate home for every family, the next stage is to raise housing standards. That must be done first of all and most importantly by slum clearance. It is pleasing to be able to recall that slum clearance has already started in one or two parts of the country, where local authorities are in the happy postion of having practically cleared their housing lists and can now consider re-housing. So the first main activity will be slum clearance. But there are large numbers of houses in this country, very large numbers indeed, which are structually sound. In many of our old industrial communities there are streets of houses which are structually sound and which only require to have a bathroom, an additional bedroom, hot and cold water and a modern kitchen unit to bring them up to good modern standards.
The Government do not see why people should go on living in unconverted houses that are structurally sound when it is perfectly practicable now to bring them up to proper standards. It was not possible to do this earlier because to have done so would have competed for labour and materials needed for the building of new houses. This must necessarily always be regarded as a general part of the housing programme and must be married to that programme. We must never permit this part of the programme to become the enemy of the other. But as local circumstances vary, and as it is now possible for some local authorities to reach this stage earlier than others, it should now be possible to give them powers not only to do slum clearance, which they already have powers to do, but to salvage houses that are perfectly sound and which can be made reasonably pleasant to live in.
It happens to be a fact that a lot of houses which are brought up-to-date by the additions I have described are often houses with a much more pleasant personality than the new houses. They have fitted into human beings for so many years that they are like comfortable shoes. They have grown up organically, they have been adapted and changed to the needs of each generation. They are often much more pleasant places in which to live. We think that the occupants of these houses should be helped, and to that end we propose to give the local authorities grants to enable them to rescue houses which are in that situation. How the local authorities carry that out will be a matter for empirical administration. It may vary from place to place and from street to street because there are so many variations in local circumstances.
I can visualise a long street. I was brought up in the middle of a street of a hundred houses. They are still there, still structurally quite sound. The additions which I have described would be all that would be required. Here and there, for the purpose of getting rid of the monotony of the street and of giving back access, and in order that there might be a group of buildings organically suitable and attractive, one or two houses could be carved out here and there in the street, and so the whole street could be rescued from obsolescence and monotony, and would provide people in the houses with good houses for many years to come. We are therefore enabling local authorities to do that, and the Exchequer finds three-fourths of the annual cost to the local authorities.
Then we go a step further, and say that it will also be possible for people living in their own houses to have similar help, and for landlords to do it for their tenants, with strict safeguards that the advantage is to go to the occupant of the house and not the landlord as an owner. The Bill provides that the rents are strictly controlled after the alteration is made. If the house is sold, the remaining portion of the grant must be returned to the local authority, because there is no justification in taking money from one citizen merely in order to make another citizen richer. The purpose of the grant is to enable the occupant of the house to enjoy modern amenities, and therefore there are strict conditions under which the grant is given.
In a specific Clause yes, certainly. This is a Second Reading occasion and I do not believe in going through a Bill Clause by Clause on Second Reading. We can examine the individual Clauses on Committee stage, but hon. Members can take it that the provisions that I have described are contained in the Bill.
We have further provided for grants to be made to owner-occupiers and also to landlords in respect of their tenants, under conditions, the details of which I shall not describe at the moment and which are matters for the Committee. There is a limit upwards and downwards. If the cost is less than £100 it does not rank for grant, because we do not want to pay public money out to landlords for repairs. It must be a structural alteration to the house before it ranks for grant. The upper limit is £600. In other words, the house will be looked at, the necessary alterations to bring it up to a proper standard will be estimated financially, and if the estimate comes to £100 and less than £600, a half can be made the basis of the grant.
And of course for such conversion. It is exactly the same sort of thing which before the war was confined to the rural areas. I see no justification whatever for not extending it to the whole population. It is an urban as well as a rural problem, and therefore I always intended, when the time was appropriate, to look at this in order to see whether powers could be made equally applicable to cities and towns and villages.
There is one feature to which I must draw the attention of the House. It is not proposed to make the grant payable in respect of service cottages. Whatever may be the historical reasons for service cottages, and I am not proposing to argue their merits now, I am convinced that it has long been established that it is necessary in the countryside for certain agricultural workers to live near to their work; and there has grown up in the countryside an institution called the service cottage which is part of the contract of service, for agricultural reasons with which we are all perfectly familiar. Nevertheless, we also know that that system is subject to grave abuse. On this side of the House we hold that it is repugnant that possession of a man"s home should be bound up with his contract of employment. We do not think it is a good thing that when a man loses his job he should at the same time lose his home. In the hands of unscrupulous and cruel people it can become the cause of grievous mischief and pain and intimidation, and we wish to end that mischief as quickly as possible.
We believe that the most effective way of ending it is to build enough houses in the countryside so that alternative accommodation is always available. Then the agricultural community can have the benefit of cottages near to the farm and the farmworker be exempted from the mischief arising out of the service cottage system. In view of our attitude towards the service cottage, the tied cottage, we cannot agree that labour and materials should be diverted from the provision of additional accommodation and used on a tied cottage. We therefore say to the landlord that if he wishes to have a service cottage made the subject of a grant, he must effect a tenancy. It is therefore in the hands of the landlord as to whether he gets a grant for his service cottage or not. I do not decide it, he decides it.
I wish to make that quite clear, so that there can be no misunderstanding about it. If it is said that the Bill denies to the occupant of a service cottage the benefit of a grant to help to bring the cottage up to modern standards, I say that that is not the case. All that the landlord needs to do is to lose his right to summary ejectment—a right he ought never to have possessed—and he can have a grant to recondition the cottage; and the tenant will have the benefit of the Rent Restrictions Acts. Most farmers would agree that that is all they really need. I have been told by representatives of the farmers that in the vast number of cases even now they prefer to get a court order rather than to use their right of summary ejectment. All we are doing here is giving the farmer a financial inducement to untie his cottages.
No, Sir. I think that what it means is this, to put it in practical terms. If a farmer has effected a tenancy and the occupant of the cottage leaves his employ, or is dismissed, the farmer has to go to the court in order to obtain an order for possession of the cottage for another employee. In other words, in such a case it is a restricted tenancy. It is done in very many cases outside agriculture. I am not suggesting that it ought to be possible permanently for a landlord to get possession of a house if he is unable to provide alternative accommodation. But that is the law, and I think that in the circumstances the Bill proposes to give the farmer a fair deal. I hope full advantage will be taken of it and that before many years are over this miserable controversy over the tied cottage will have receded into the distance, that we shall have transcended its evils and forgotten its mischief.
The right hon. Gentleman said just now that he thought that this policy would give the farmer a fair deal. Is he sure that the man who is living in the cottage will be getting a fair deal? He will suffer from the fact that the cottage will not be brought up to modern standards If the farmer refuses to do what is suggested.
It is not I who will be deciding that. It is for the farmer himself to decide, but if we made it possible for the farmer—or I prefer to say the landlord, the owner of the cottage—to obtain the grant to bring the tied cottage up to date, we would be postponing the date when all tied cottages would disappear. We would be spending building labour and materials on bringing up to date tied cottages and still leaving them tied. That I am not prepared to do. The provision we have made is perfectly reasonable, because any good owner of a cottage can confer the advantages to his tenant and all he loses is what he ought not to have—the right of summary ejection.
There are one or two other small provisions in the Bill with which I shall not worry the House. I have covered the main features, and the Parliamentary Secretary will refer to other provisions when he winds up the Debate. I believe that the Bill is a valuable contribution to rounding off the Government's housing programme. I believe that, as the years go by, it will benefit the general housing standards of the country and that very many of our citizens will derive great advantage from it.
The House always listens with interest, if not always with the same degree of pleasure, to the speeches of the right hon. Gentleman. He started his commendation of this Bill this afternoon by saying once again a good deal of what we have so often heard from him before, but with figures brought up to date. As I understood it, he claimed, among other things, some credit for the early age at which matrimony is now entered into under the Socialist Government. That is probably a doubtful claim. It is well known that wives are partners of joys and sorrows, and I can well understand the reluctance of any young man to face life alone in the conditions which have so unhappily descended upon us.
The right hon. Gentleman indulged, too, in the delights of prophecy when he forecast a time when there would be a separate dwelling for every family in the country. Taken as an objective of policy, there is nothing new or revolutionary in that. It is a common objective, a minimum objective, of housing policy. Beyond that there is the question of standards and, beyond that yet again, the central question of the moment to which the Minister never referred from first to last—the question of the reasonable cost at which such accommodation will be provided. I must say that it will be a matter of very great disappointment to people throughout the country that the Minister has managed to speak for so long this afternoon without addressing himself for one single second to the subject which is the central basic problem in housing today—the provision of new accommodation at a reasonable cost. So far as that great inescapable problem is concerned, the Minister shrugged it off in an eloquent 50 minutes or so.
I cannot let pass the Minister's suggestion that his party, and the Government of which he is a Minister, view housing as a social service, whereas Governments in the past viewed houses simply as commodities to be bought and sold. I think that the party of Joseph Chamberlain, Neville Chamberlain and Kingsley Wood owes little by way of either apology or explanation to a party represented by Viscount Addison and the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, it is a fact that a good deal of what is in this Bill is already in Acts of Parliament placed upon the Statute Book by Tory Governments of the past. It is for that reason that there was a faint but perceptible odour of moth balls when the Minister opened up his wardrobe for the edification and admiration of hon. Members today. It is perhaps right that I should come to the precise terms of the Bill a little more rapidly than did the right hon. Gentleman.
The right hon. Gentleman misunderstands, but I will do him the credit of saying that I am sure he misunderstands wilfully. My complaint was addressed to the point that since the Minister had chosen to make this general review outside the Bill, it was most remarkable and regrettable that he had chosen to leave out the one object which is uppermost in the minds of the people and which is of foremost importance in this sphere today.
I think I need perhaps hardly say to the House that we on this side, of course, do not intend to oppose the Bill. [Interruption.] It would be highly quixotic, would it not, if we did, considering that we have been pressing for the encouragement of the improvement and conversion of dwellings for the three and a half years of this Parliament. As far as many of the provisions are concerned it would be quixotic yet again, because we should be voting against provisions which are already in the Statute Book and which were put there by a Government with a Conservative majority—[Laughter.] If the hon. Gentlemen who laughed so prematurely and to so little effect would spend more time in comparing the text of the Housing Act of 1936 with this Bill, and if they would then remind themselves what party was in power in 1936, they would not dismiss that observation quite as readily as they appear to wish to do.
I would add that our temperament on this side of the House enables us to take an objective view. If we think that matters are for the public good, then we are prepared to give them our blessing. That may seem strange to the right hon. Gentleman who takes the view that, for example, a Bill for the provision of analgesia would be a good thing if it came from the right hon. Gentleman but a less good thing when it comes from my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. P. Thorneycroft). We are able to take a less personal and proprietary view of public good. We have a less monopolistic approach to these matters. Therefore, I say that our attitude to the Bill is this. We certainly will not oppose it, nor do we regard it in any way with indifference. We do not content ourselves with the view expressed in the lines of Arthur Hugh Clough—
Thou shalt not kill; but need'st not strive
Officiously to keep alive.
We shall take a constructive and co-operative attitude to this Bill, and we
shall do what it is our traditional duty to do—pass it through the sieve of criticism and see that a better Bill emerges as a result.
I say straight away that the claims for the Bill made by the right hon. Gentleman, and the claims made in certain sections of the Press on its behalf, are undoubtedly exaggerated, because this Bill will not of itself add one superficial foot to the amount of housing accommodation in the country. [Interruption.] No, of itself, it will not. It does not, as the right hon. Gentleman admitted, make any contribution to the central problem of providing new housing accommodation at reasonable cost. These major matters arise on Part II of this Bill, but it is right that I should, first of all, follow the right hon. Gentleman in the order in which he made his observations in regard to Part I of the Bill.
The Minister addressed himself to the question of the deletion of the Clause in the 1936 Act limiting its application to the working classes. He rightly told the House that there was only one statutory definition, and that a very old one, and certain rather unsuccessful efforts at interpretation by way of case law. The difficulty of having the working classes mentioned in the 1936 Housing Act was that, when the right hon. Gentleman's policy after the war made the local authorities virtually the sole providers of housing accommodation, if the statutory powers of Part V of the Housing Act, 1936, had been literally applied, it would have been almost impossible for anybody not falling within that somewhat vague definition to have a house at all. That was clearly a most unsatisfactory position. I ventured to draw attention to that unsatisfactory position as long ago as 1946, when the Housing (Financial and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was passing through the House. I cannot honestly claim that my observations at that time encountered much attention from the Minister or anybody else, but after the interval of three years it is gratifying to find that at last the matter has been taken care of.
Therefore, we say that, as far as it regularises the position by permitting the local authorities to incorporate in their housing lists people of all walks of life, this Clause is obviously to be welcomed. I think the further long-term claims made by the Minister perhaps require a little more examination. It is, of course very desirable that the black-coated workers should not be shut out from the benefit of local authority housing accommodation. It is particularly gratifying to find that a Government of which the Secretary of State for War is a member comes to that conclusion, because we have always taken a sympathetic view to their claim even when we were assured on high authority that they did not matter a tinker's cuss. The French have a proverb, "Other times, other manners," and the mere approach of a General Election is a time when Ministerial manners are traditionally on the mend. We can only hope that their attitude this time will endure a little longer when the General Election is past.
When the right hon. Gentleman explained his ideas for a balanced community, to which reference is made on page 1 of the Memorandum, and on which he descanted so eloquently this afternoon, it is right that we should make this proviso. Of course, it is right to have balanced communities of the sort to which he referred. That is a matter of social planning which has nothing to do, or need have nothing to do, with building construction in its technical sense. It is right that, in the lay-out of new estates, plots should be left for the erection of the houses which the Minister has in mind, and it is right as a matter of planning that they should be subject to the architectural supervision of local authority officials.
All that is a matter of planning, but it by no means follows that those houses should be actually erected through the machinery of local authority building. If they are to be so erected, are they to be erected with a subsidy, like the rest of the houses on the local authority estates? The right hon. Gentleman said nothing about that. Or is this really a means of introducing the principle of higher rents on local authority estates? This matter needs much more examination than the Minister was willing to give it. We take the view that, if it is right and proper to have these balanced communities, the actual erection of these larger types of houses should be carried out by private enterprise without the subsidy, which should be restricted to houses provided for people who are in economic need of the subsidy.
The next point which the Minister dealt with was the matter of the provision of laundry services and the selling of furniture. So far as these provisions in Clauses 5 and 6 are concerned, as the Minister pointed out, there are already considerable facilities afforded by Acts placed on the Statute Book by the party on this side of the House. Why the Minister should blandly assume that we should wish to take up a negative attitude in these matters was a little difficult to follow. It was, presumably, that the wish was father to the thought, and I am sorry to disappoint the Minister. I am not going to add anything to his election propaganda in what I am going to say. I am able without much difficulty to resist the invitation so to do, because it is quite clear that we on this side of the House think it a desirable thing that people should own their own furniture.
It is not, however, a good thing that local authorities should go into the industry and manufacture furniture. That would be very stupid, because they would not do it economically or satisfactorily, but there is no reason why they should not sell furniture at the proper economic rate to people wishing to buy it. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the ownership of furniture is part, even though it may be but a small part, of a property owning democracy. It goes back to very ancient times, and the Romans knew it. Lares et penates was the foundation of civic virtue. The right hon. Gentleman, after all these thousands of years, cannot really pretend that he has found something new.
So far as laundry facilities are concerned, the same considerations apply. It is a very good thing that the burden of the manual effort of washing on the average housewife who, I am reliably informed, spends four to five hours a day at the sink, should be relieved as far as as possible either by private enterprise or by local authorities on an economic basis if they are able to do it. It is quite clear that there is no intention here to compete against private enterprise on other than a fair basis. There is no suggestion in the Bill that the local authorities' activities will be subsidised, and there was no suggestion of that in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman. If there were any such intention, I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would have treated this House with sufficient frankness to have taken the first opportunity to make it clear.
The only reason that makes me refer to this matter at all is that it would appear that the provision of meals under this Bill may get round the provisions of the Civic Restaurants Act which makes it impossible to carry on a civic restaurant for more than three years if a financial loss is incurred. As I say, if the right hon. Gentleman has treated the House with the candour which it is entitled to expect—and I am sure he has—the Bill is intended to authorise unsubsidised provision of these commodities by the local authorities where they are able to do it. There is no reason in principle or practice why that should not be welcomed as an amenity.
Before coming to the question of the arrangements for the conversion of houses, I want to add a word on the point about the market value of houses in respect of which loans can be made, a matter to which the Minister paid some attention in his speech. There, again, the principle is good. I would draw the attention of historically-minded hon. Members opposite to the date of the first Small Dwellings (Acquisition) Act, 1899, which was the date of the administration of the then Lord Salisbury. Like so many of these Measures, that was a Tory Act for the purpose of assisting people to purchase their own houses. In present circumstances, it is, of course, right that the limit should be raised beyond £1,500. Whether £5,000 is the right figure or whether it is too high I must confess that I feel a little doubtful, but I hope that side of the question will be explored by some of my hon. Friends who are better financiers than I can ever hope to be. The right hon. Gentleman chose to repeat the expression which he made as long ago as 1945 about the building societies, and once again stigmatised them as "moneylenders." [HON. MEMBERS: "He did not."] I gave the right hon. Gentleman credit for more consistency than he in fact claimed.
Is not that an improper thing to say? The Opposition know very well that if they want to give it, they must also take it, and I can give it. The hon. Member first of all made a wrong statement; he said that I mentioned building societies. I did not mention building societies, and because I did not, he said he thought I ought to have mentioned them. There are a lot of things I did not say. Am I inconsistent because I did not mention everything that I said before?
I shall tell the right hon. Gentleman why he is inconsistent. When he referred to "extortionate moneylenders" he had the building societies in mind. He used that phrase in a housing Debate in this House in the Autumn of 1945. He then referred to building societies as "moneylenders." If, when he now refers to "extortionate moneylenders," he is referring not to building societies, but to someone else, will he be good enough to say to whom he was referring when he said "extortionate moneylenders"?
First of all, I did not speak in 1945 about "extortionate moneylenders"; I spoke about building societies as being moneylenders. I say today that building societies are a little, if anything, better than moneylenders.
The right hon. Gentleman's defences seem to be receding. He is now defending a very narrow front indeed. It appears that in 1945 he did stigmatise these people as moneylenders. Those who remember the speech and those who know the right hon. Gentleman well will realise that the expression was not used in any laudatory sense.
The inconsistency is that the Minister has not yet explained to whom he is referring today. It is quite clear that the Minister does not like the building societies; that, at any rate, we can take as common ground. He does not like building societies, and, in spite of the fact that they have apparently turned the other cheek and have not attacked him, so far as I know a restraint for which no doubt, they will get some reward hereafter, because they certainly do not seem likely to get any from the right hon. Gentleman—
I cannot claim any expert knowledge on this subject. I should have thought that if the House were to be enlightened on these transactions, it would, perhaps, be for me to seek information from the hon. Gentleman.
There we are on firmer ground. Building societies have of course statutory functions and statutory requirements in regard to their functions, but I must watch the clock and not get involved with the hon. Gentleman in these interesting, but perhaps rather remote, exchanges. The point I was seeking to make was that though it is, of course, right that there should be an expansion of the market value limit in regard to advances made for the acquisition of houses, it does not necessarily follow that the whole field should be handed over to the local authorities. It is right to say that building societies have accumulated both resources and experience in these matters, and it would be a loss to the community if full use were not made of them in their proper sphere.
With that I come to the question of reconditioning and conversion. Here may I say that, of course, we on this side of the House, both inside and outside the House, have been pressing for encouragement for reconditoning and conversion for the whole of this Parliament, and we have had to wait for three-and-a-half years before the Minister has condescended to take any action about it. Now that he has brought the Bill in I am going to suggest that there are certain points of criticism about it and that we should be failing in our duty if we did not advance them.
First of all, we say that this Bill is too tightly drawn in that it excludes service cottages, to which the Minister has referred. Secondly, this Bill is put forward in 1949, although the Report of the Committee on the Conversion of Existing Houses, presided over by the present Minister of Town and Country Planning, reported as long ago as August, 1945, having been set up by Mr. Willink in January, 1945. I believe it is right to say that had this Measure been put into operation at the proper time it may be that its period of greatest usefulness would already have been behind it and that many people would be less hopeless, less frustrated and less weary for that reason, that is, if conversion had been operated at a time when labour and materials were reasonably abundant. There was, of course, a certain amount of reconditioning of rural property done between the wars. There was a certain amount of private enterprise conversion of house property between the wars. The reason why there was not more conversion between the wars was the very high figures of the production of new houses during that period.
If I might venture an interpolation in the exchanges between the Minister and my right hon. and gallant Friend, I would say that one cannot on the occasion of every housing Debate make a complete analysis of everything that has happened in the past. But this much I will say: conversion of house property is normally only a second best. If you have a building industry geared up to high-level production of new houses, you are not thinking in terms of the conversion of houses. That was the position in the thirties; it was most certainly not the position in 1947.
I say that this Bill has been brought in at least two or three years too late. The Silkin Committee brought forward their recommendations as long ago as August, 1945, but it has taken three-and-a-half years for the Minister to bring in his Bill. So far as the Minister of Town and Country Planning is concerned, he is presumably a prophet without honour in his own party. There is one further criticism of the processes of conversion which is, as I think the right hon. Gentleman admitted, that it is liable to be competitive with the production of new houses. As I understood him, the Minister admitted that. It is open for him to correct me if I have misrepresented him. That being so, it is necessary to ensure that the processes of house conversion are not being carried out in such a way as to arrest or retard the production of new housing accommodation.
Reverting to the first of those points, the service cottage. I think there is great force in what was said in an interjection by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) that the effect of refusal falls on the occupant. There are service cottages and it is quite legal that there should be service cottages—the Coal Board have them, the Railway Executive have them, the National Health Service have them; all those great State monopolies have them—and a great many agricultural workers are, in fact, living in them. If the grants are refused to the freeholders of those houses, who is going to suffer? There can be no doubt that immediately it will be the agricultural worker who will suffer. He will suffer because he is living in a house covered by a contract of service which is a perfectly legal method of occupancy. I say that it is wrong that the Minister, in order to oppress the freeholders, should oppress the agricultural worker. It may be Socialism but it sounds like spite. [Laughter.] The hon. Lady the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee) laughs. She may laugh. She was in a minority of one on the Hobhouse Committee.
This provision in the Bill is a consolation prize to the hon. Lady for being in a minority of one on that occasion. I do not suggest for a moment that there is anything improper in it. It is merely—
I should never willingly deny myself the rare pleasure of listening to the eloquence of the hon. Lady, but the question of whether and when she catches your eye, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, is a matter for yourself, and I do not think I can be expected to give any firm guarantee. Be that as it may, the hon. Lady was in a minority of one on certain questions in the Hobhouse Committee, and all I say is that she may well afford to be pleased now that, on the whole, her views have carried more weight in the framing of the Bill than they did in the framing of the Report. If, however, the hon. Lady is not satisfied with the Bill, no doubt she will take occasion to say so if she catches your eye, Mr. Deputy-Speaker.
Leaving that point of criticism to return to the major point of criticism as to whether this is the best time for putting into effect the processes of house conversion, that has to be seen in regard to the relationship between materials and labour in the building of new houses, on the one hand, and the converting of houses, on the other hand. Broadly speaking, it is right to say that the ratio between materials and labour for new houses is as 60 is to 40, and that it is just the reverse for conversion. In other words, the time to undertake conversion is when materials are short and labour is abundant, and that the time for worrying about conversion is when materials are abundant and labour is comparatively more of a difficulty.
At the present time, materials, with the possible exception of timber, are in reasonably good supply, but, on the other hand, building labour is in a difficult position. The total figure of building craftsmen today is 500,000, as against a Coalition target of 625,000. In order to keep up even that number of craftsmen we need an intake of 4 per cent. or 22,000 into the building industry each year. After the 1947 cuts, the figure shrank to 13,000. It is right to say that something like an impending crisis exists in regard to apprenticeship in the building industry today.
That is why I suggest that this is not a very happy time for pressing claims for conversion against claims for the production of new houses, where the ratio of materials to labour favours materials as against labour and where there is a technique of mass production which we cannot employ in the conversion of houses. Conversion is an individual and finicky process, making great demands on every form of specialist labour and on the specialist skill of architects, surveyors and so on. That being so, we may well find that if conversion is pressed on with today, as it was not but ought to have been in 1947, it may be done at the expense of the provision of new housing accommodation, of which the country stands primarily in need, although of course there is also the need for converted accommodation. [Interruption.] I am explaining that it would be much more satisfactory if assistance had been given to conversion at the time when we originally asked for it and if it had not been delayed until now when conditions have changed. At the present time the ideal conditions for going ahead with a conversion programme are not in being.
Labour was primarily engaged during those years in war damage repairs. The answer to the question is to be found in the Silkin Report—I do not know whether the Minister has read it—which states in paragraph 54:
Special opportunities occur in the case of houses which are uninhabitable as the result of serious war damage, but are capable of repair.
It advocates that war damage repair and conversion be simultaneously undertaken. [HON. MEMBERS: "They were."] I have already taken considerably longer
over my speech than I intended to, owing to the fact that I have given way so many times to hon. Members opposite. It would be wrong if I further prolonged my speech now in order to answer every form of question being put to me.
We naturally hope that this part of the Bill will do good, but it is fair to warn the House and the country that it might not do as much good as is hoped and that it might do harm if it siphons too much of our building resources away from the production of new accommodation. These proposals must not be regarded as a substitute for finding a solution of the basic, central problem of providing new housing accommodation at reasonable cost. I harp on cost not only from the financial point of view but because cost is the index of efficiency in the production of houses. That is the question which the country is waiting to see the Government tackle, the efficient production of houses at reasonable cost within the means of the people.
So far as the Bill helps towards clearing up certain lesser matters of housing accommodation we shall do nothing to obstruct its progress and shall do everything we can to make it a better Bill. In so far as it claims to be a solution of the housing problem, we must dismiss it as a light-weight, and go on pressing for more practical policies which, we are convinced, can alone bring a solution.
I am sure that on all sides of the House we have enjoyed the most agreeable speech of the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith). If, in the course of it, he has displayed that he, a relatively young man, has extremely antiquated ideas, we on this side of the House are the last to complain about it. He finished his speech by talking about reconditioning. On that last point I agree with him to some extent, but I could not help wondering whether he himself did not need a bit of reconditioning and whether he would qualify as being sound structurally for another 30 years. His personal remarks a short time ago I did not take in bad part. They were not meant offensively and so they were not taken offensively. In spite of that, the hon. Member is writing his own signa- ture, because it is quite plain that he is tainted with the Fascist idea that women in modern life have not their own ideas but simply reflect the ideas of men.
I have been charged with many things in my life but never before has that particular charge been levelled against me. I hasten to assure the hon. Lady that I have not that particular Fascist idea, nor any other Fascist idea. May I reassure her upon another head also? However severe my criticisms of her in her public conduct might sometimes need to be, I would never go so far as to charge her with being merely a reflection of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health.
I do not possess a rose to throw across the Floor of the House. But to show I am not lacking in magnanimity, I say that I do not press the matriarchal principle too far either. I like to see both men and women do their own thinking. If I criticise the Minister for some of the proposals in the Bill, it is because I have not had enough of my own way, in the sense of carrying out the conceptions which I believe are the sound Socialist, working-class interpretations of the housing needs of this country. Before leaving the hon. Member I think we might all notice that, as a relatively young man, he still believes in tied cottages and that he wants public money to be given on that basis. We also note that he is quite satisfied for private enterprise to meet without public subsidy the housing needs of all but the poorest groups in the community. I can assure him that there are many of his middle income friends who do not agree with him there. They are thankful that the Labour Government, having put first things first, are beginning to get on top of the primary need for subsidised houses for those who are hardest pressed and can now help them as well.
This Bill is a very skilful Bill, both socially and politically; it is an excellent piece of engineering; it is imaginative, and it is highly civilised. It is more than time that we got rid of the obsolete and vulgar division of society into classes, which was perpetuated by Members opposite. We do not claim to have done that yet, but we are behind the Minister in the direction in which he is moving in this Measure.
No Member so far has referred to what in one sense is a minor point in the Bill but which, at the same time, I hold to be most important. It illustrates why I call this Bill highly civilised. It provides not only normal financial provision for cottages of special historical and architectural quality, but also special money inducements. The Minister and the Government are to be congratulated on that point so far as they go, but I do not think they go far enough. Experts in this field have estimated that there are between 5,000 and 10,000 cottages of very special historical and architectural interest. If I understand the Bill correctly, the Minister is leaving it to the choice of either the local authority or the private owners of these cottages to have them reconditioned. When we come to the Committee stage I hope that on this issue, choice will be abandoned in favour of compulsion. These cottages do not belong merely to the people who live in them or to those in their communities; they are part of the cultural heritage of all the people of Britain. There was enough vandalism between the wars and in earlier periods. We cannot afford to lose a single one of these cottages. I hope we shall press for their compulsory reconditioning.
Another point which I hope Members will look at with great care in Committee is the provision in the Bill which says that public money will not be spent on the reconditioning of tied cottages. I have looked at the relevant Clause, but I am not sure whether, even in the limited job which the Minister sets out to do, its wording is satisfactory. For instance, it is stated that public money will not be available for the reconditioning of service cottages unless a tenancy is effected. Supposing I were the owner of a tied cottage, and went to the occupant of that cottage and said, "I intend to charge you a rental which is less than two-thirds of the rateable value of the cottage": Supposing the rateable value of the cottage were £30 per annum—
All right, I will make it £10 just to please my hon. Friend. Supposing the rateable value was £10 per annum. If I said to the occupant, "I shall charge you £5 a year rent," would not that mean that there would be no protection for that occupant under the Rent Restrictions Acts? If there was any protection, it would be merely for a week, which is nothing at all. I hope that point will be made clear. I hope, too, that in Committee Members will encourage the Minister to go further than he has done in not spending money on cottages of this kind. My right hon. Friend said today that public money would be available for a restricted tenancy. If an agricultural worker dies, and his wife and family are left in their cottage what happens?
It would be more civilised and in keeping with modern needs if we insisted that public money should not be available for the reconditioning of any cottage unless a tenancy was effected of a kind which would give the occupants the complete protection of the Rent Restrictions Act.
That is the position under paragraph (d) of the First Schedule of the 1933 Rent Restrictions Act. If the agricultural worker leaves, and a certificate is granted by the county agricultural committee that the cottage is required for another agricultural worker who is to take over his job, then that is a ground for getting possession without offering alternative accommodation.
I am aware of that, and that is something to which I object. I believe that the solution of our countryside problem is that there should be enough units of accommodation, particularly new houses, so that we do not have to continue to bear the intolerable disgrace of families being thrown out into the street, as sometimes happens because a breadwinner has differed from his employer, or a wife and her children have had the misfortune to lose their breadwinner.
I ask the Minister to recall what he said earlier today. I took note of his words—I agree with right hon. and hon. Members opposite it is just as well not to take too much on trust. The Minister said, in a moment of eloquence, that a house was not a commodity to be bought and sold, but a social service. He added that a house was best left in the custody of a public authority. My right hon. Friend went on, with much sympathy, to develop the point that, this being the case, when it came to choosing applicants for those houses the applicants with the greatest need should be given priority. But the Minister was less than logical in speaking in those terms and then proposing, in one of the main Clauses of the Bill, to make grants of public money to private landlords, leaving those landlords, as I understand it, to choose their tenants exactly as they please.
We still have a great housing shortage in the countryside. Supposing I owned half a dozen sub-standard cottages, that I was helped to £300 of public money for each of those cottages, and then helped to a further loan of another £300 at 3¼ per cent. Am I entirely free to live in one of those cottages myself, to put my son in another, my father in another, an uncle and an aunt in another and "Uncle Tom Cobley" at the end of the row? Can I do that even though my needs and the needs of my family are, in the eyes of the village, less pressing than those of other people who would be given priority if the local authority had the letting of those houses?
Under paragraph 8 of the Schedule to which the hon. Lady is referring, surely it is the case that we must establish a case of greater hardship than that before having a certainty of getting a house?
I am raising this point not because I am certain that I am right, but because we should be quite clear about these things. The Minister himself said with great sympathy—and I entirely agree with him—that it is very wonderful and encouraging to see old people enjoy the dignity and privacy of places of their own. But young people, particularly young married people, have also the need of dignity and privacy. We have not enough new houses yet for them. One of my fears about this Bill is not that it has come too late, as the hon. Member for Hertford claims, but that it has come too soon. I believe in reconditioning, but it ought to be done by public authorities, when grants of public money are involved for there is then control in selecting the tenants who go into the houses.
No. My view is, as the Minister has said, that housing is not a commodity to be bought and sold any longer in modern conditions, but that it is a social service, and that most local authorities at the present moment, with limited labour and material, have as much on hand as they can cope with in the erection of new houses and in insisting that landlords bring their property up to a proper standard of repair. There may be ideal parts of the country where these problems have all been solved, and spare labour and material are available for reconditioning, but that is not the situation in the Midlands. That is why I am doubtful whether this Bill has not come too soon.
So far as the private owner is concerned, let us give him a loan on favourable terms but not grants. And I ask the hon. Member for Hertford, if he had the choice between a loan from a building society for which he had to pay 4 per cent. and a loan from a local authority for which he would have had to pay 3¼ per cent. which would he choose? I am all in favour of the 3¼ per cent., and I believe that even south of the Scottish Border the average citizen will also be in favour of the 3¼ per cent. I entirely agree that it is a good thing that families who wish to build or buy their own houses should be given a loan from the local authority. It is also just that families who want to recondition their houses should be given a loan. But it is a bad thing that public money should be given to private landlords, because in such a case there is no control at all over who are to be the occupants of their houses.
The last point I would put is this, and it does worry me. Suppose I go to a local rural authority and say, "I am an agricultural worker. I am 50 years of age. I live in a sub-standard house. Will you lend me the necessary money to recondition my house?" Should I be a good risk—if I had no money in the bank, if all I could promise was willing- ness to go on working as long as I was able? Should I be eligible for loan or grant? Or would a richer neighbour, with a good banking account, who owned sub-standard property, be more likely to receive facilities from the local authority? I am not asking rhetorical questions. I am expressing a real doubt in my mind about some of the proposals of this Bill.
It is a good Bill in the main. The Minister is on safe territory. He will have support from 80 per cent. or 90 per cent. of the House. The 10 per cent. of criticism which we make on this side of the House will be on points that have the enthusiastic support of hon. Members opposite. As to the criticism which they make the Minister will have our enthusiastic support. However, that should not deter any of us in this House, even though we know that the vote is a foregone conclusion, from saying that while we congratulate the Minister on what is good in the Bill, we hope that in Committee the Bill will be made still better.
The hon. Lady the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee) has made one of her contributions to our housing Debates to which the House always listens with great interest because of her sincerity and because of her great knowledge. She has already indicated to the Minister that if she is on the Committee upstairs she will persistently maintain the point of view which she has just now expressed. In case he is not quite so familiar with her persistency as I am, let me tell him that those of us who sat with her on the Hobhouse Committee tried for a long time to persuade her to come into line with all the rest of us, but she remained obdurate until the end, and wrote her vigorous and clear dissenting report, to which her speech today, I think, was largely due.
I am glad that at long last the Minister has redeemed the promise that he made in the Autumn of 1945 that he would introduce legislation restoring the grants to be made for reconditioning. I also welcome the fact that they are to be extended to urban as well as to rural districts. I never saw any logic in drawing a distinction between the two, but our sub-committee was a Rural Housing Sub-Committee, and it was not within our terms of reference to deal with urban matters.
When we approached this matter in our third Report we wanted reconditioning to be used as a means for raising the whole of the rural housing in the country to a certain standard. We recommended—we were reporting during the war—that there should be a survey of all the housing in rural districts, and that all houses should be divided into four categories—those that were fit, or in need only of very minor repairs; those requiring structural alteration; those requiring reconditioning; and those requiring demolition and replacement by new houses. I should be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary, when he replies to the Debate, could tell the House what progress has been made with that survey. I have reason to think that it is being undertaken, but I do not think that any official information has been published upon that subject.
When the right hon. Gentleman became Minister of Health he asked the same Rural Housing Sub-Committee to consider the question of reconditioning; and, in particular, the first reference to us was whether there was labour available in rural districts that could be used for reconditioning, and which could not be used for the building of new houses. We took evidence and came to the conclusion on that evidence that there were a large number of builders in small rural districts who, for one reason or another, were not in a position to undertake the provision of new houses, but who would have been able to undertake reconditioning. I, therefore, associate myself very strongly with the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) in saying that I believe that a Bill on these lines could have been introduced two and a half years ago with very great advantage, and that it would not necessarily have resulted in any fewer new houses being built than in fact has been the case.
It is as well to point out in this connection that the Minister has been quite frank in his English Bill—it has been rather different in the case of the Secretary of State for Scotland with his Scottish Bill—when he says that the general effect of the provisions of the Bill will not be to alter the volume of housing work, which is controlled by other factors outside the scope of the Bill, but to alter the distribution of building resources for housing work. I hope that we shall have explained to us in the Parliamentary Secretary's concluding speech how far it is intended to divert materials and labour from the building of new houses to reconditioning and conversion. I still feel, as regards the rural districts, that there are a large number of small builders who, owing to limited financial resources and sometimes owing to lack of transport for their men, could undertake jobs on a small scale in their own immediate vicinity, but who would not be able to tender for the larger scale construction of houses for local authorities.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the Hobhouse Committee report of which, of course, he has a great deal of knowledge. I think that he will agree that the Committee applied their minds to the availability of labour and wrote a chapter on that subject in the report, but apparently they did not pay the same regard to the availability of materials and components, about which they had nothing to say. Surely that is germane to the point which he is making.
I doubt whether in the course of my speech I can find the actual paragraph, hut the hon. Gentleman will find in one paragraph that we referred to the very great economy of material which results from reconditioning. It is an undisputed fact that in reconditioning a house one frequently has to use more skilled labour than if one were building a new house, but so far as the material is concerned it is much more economical to recondition an old house. The need for this Bill in considerable measure arises out of some of the ill-effects of the Landlord and Tenant Bill which was passed last week; and because so much is being done now to do away with the ordinary economic incentives to conversion and reconditioning it is necessary for these large grants to be paid out of the public funds.
I welcome what the Minister said about having in the future all income groups mixed up together and not having areas in which the rich live in one place in solitude and the poor elsewhere. Therefore, I welcome the removal of what, I think, is the completely obsolete limitation of housing policy to the working classes. I think, however, that the Government should consider whether it is not necessary and desirable to substitute some quite logical financial limit to this policy in replacement of what one might call the class limit which is now being swept away. It is entirely unjustifiable for a large sum of money to be raised from the taxpayers and ratepayers in order to use it for subsidising houses, if in fact those houses are to be made available to people who are not in need of financial assistance.
Broadly speaking, most of the recommendations of the Hobhouse Committee have been accepted. In the first place, the scope is much the same as it was in the Housing (Rural Workers) Acts which were passed by Conservative Governments, and, in the second place, it is the rural district councils who are the authorities, as they are already the housing authorities, and not the county councils. The grant is reduced from two-thirds to one-half but the maximum of £300 goes a long way towards bringing the grant into line with the new value of money. The minimum of £100 has been retained against our advice. We did not see any reason why there should be this limit below which a grant could not be paid. We thought, after considering the matter, that no useful purpose would be served by retaining this limit of £100. We thought that in most cases perhaps it would not be worth while applying for it if the sum were small, and the local authority might not care to grant it if it were quite small, but we saw no reason actually for retaining the arbitrary limit. The limit which we also proposed should be removed on the total value of the house, I am glad to see has gone. I feel that the Minister and the Government have belatedly gone a long way to giving effect in this Bill to the recommendations of the Committee.
I want to give one or two arguments in favour of reconditioning because I know that, although they have not yet had an opportunity of speaking, some hon. Gentlemen opposite are very doubtful about the wisdom of reconditioning. It is undoubtedly the case that sometimes in the past houses have been reconditioned which afterwards were not entirely satisfactory. That is a question of administration, and it was never the intention of the Hobhouse Committee—and I am glad to see it is not the intention of the Government—that recondi- tioning should be carried out in any case where the final job would not be satisfactory. I think that the provisions of the Bill are adequate to cover that point. We recommended that the various prescribed standards laid down in the Miles-Mitchell Report should be required in the case of reconditioned houses. The Minister here is taking power to prescribe standards. I hope we shall hear from the Parliamentary Secretary that normally he would intend to prescribe standards broadly the same as those laid down by the Miles-Mitchell Committee.
I now come to the question of the tied cottage. On the Hobhouse Committee we did not think that it was our task to consider whether or not the tied cottage should continue to exist; but what we did consider it our duty to do was to try to ensure that all rural tenants, including tenants of tied cottages, should obtain the same benefit from legislation intended to improve rural housing conditions. I really feel that today the Minister was only indulging in a little bit of clever debating when he said that the responsibility was now put on the shoulders of the landlord, and did not rest with the Minister of Health and the Government. I am, indeed, reminded of Pontius Pilate who washed his hands before he took an action of the same kind.
It was emphasised by a representative of agricultural labourers that one of the most serious things in villages today is the great difference between the standards of living between the old rural cottages and some of the new ones that have been built. One of the arguments in favour of the early introduction of reconditioning was that something like the same benefits of decent housing conditions should extend to those people who have been living and working in agriculture for the last 20, 30 and 40 years. The hardship of living in cottages without water supply, lighting, and so on, has become greater because of the contrast between those old cottages in which they are still living and the new cottages which have been erected for the benefit of newcomers to the villages. It is wrong, I think, to have regard solely to doctrinaire ideas as to whether cottages should be tied or not. It is far better and far wiser to legislate in order to bring about an improvement in the conditions and standards of everyone.
I understand perfectly upon what ground the objection is based, and I shall not be led into an argument on the need for tied cottages on farms.
When the Housing (Rural Workers) Acts were introduced by Conservative Governments in 1926, and re-enacted in 1936, we of the Conservative Party were at pains to ensure that the benefit of the grants went to the tenant and not to the landlord. The way in which that was done, as was explained by the late Sir Kingsley Wood, was that, whereas under the Rent Restrictions Acts a landlord who spent money upon reconditioning and improving the house could add to the rent 8 per cent. of his capital expenditure, the landlord who had obtained a grant from the State was allowed to charge only 4 per cent. upon the capital expenditure which he spent upon improving the house. In that way the Conservative Government were at pains to ensure that the benefit of the grant payable accrued to the tenant and not to the owner of the cottage.
It does indeed. It does apply, except that there is not at the present time a grant made by the Government or by the local authority, because those Acts were allowed to lapse by this Government. The position is still the same.
Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that where there is an improved type of tied cottage the standard rent is fixed by the committee, but that where there is an improved type of cottage the owner can go to the committee and ask for the standard rent to be increased, so that what he is now saying does not apply?
I hope to deal further with this matter in Committee, but I am fully aware of that, although the practice of different counties varies in this respect.
In conclusion, I merely wish to say that, broadly speaking, we on this side of the House welcome the re-enactment in this Measure of the principles of the Housing (Rural Workers) Acts. We are glad that at long last it has been introduced. In most respects it is in accordance with the recommendations of the Hobhouse Committee, but we feel that it will be necessary to ensure that public money is not unnecessarily spent in subsidising housing for persons who are able to pay an economic rent, and we regret that those who are in tied cottages will be penalised by the attitude the Government have adopted.
The Government, the Minister and many, though not all, local authorities are entitled to great credit for the progress that has been made in the provision of new housing accommodation, and I sincerely hope that that progress will not only be maintained but increased to the utmost limit of available resources, because the need is still urgent. I, in common with my colleagues, receive letters from constituents, whose plight is desperate, asking for assistance. The recent survey of rural housing made by local authorities revealed a deplorable state of affairs. In some parishes in my own constituency there were no houses fit to be classed in Category 1—that is, reasonably fit in all respects. In the whole area of the largest rural district council in my division nearly one in 10 houses was classed as unfit for habitation and beyond repair.
I am coming to that. One in four houses was classed as appropriate for reconditioning. This is no new situation, for many of the houses in my own division to which I have referred have been condemned for as long as 50 years, and the present deplorable state of affairs is a most caustic commentary on the newly-found, professed zeal of hon. Members opposite for improved housing conditions.
I am as anxious as anybody in this House for improvement, but I am apprehensive that too much progress in the work of reconditioning may perhaps retard the building of new houses. I regard the construction of new houses for people who have nowhere to live as a first priority. I am supported in this by the Sanitary Inspectors Association.
In giving their evidence to the Hobhouse Committee, they made this statement:
The present building force should be concentrated on the erection of the maximum number of new dwellings in the country as well as in the towns.
That view was supported by the National Union of Agricultural Workers who in their evidence said, among other things:
Our fear is that the reconditioning of houses will require skilled labour at a time when skilled workers will be urgently required for new building.
Where it is a case of the conversion of a house that has not been previously used for dwelling purposes, I think that new accommodation is bound to be provided—that will be fully justified—but in other cases I suggest that great care should be taken to see that there is no undue diversion of labour and materials from fulfilling what I regard to be the first need.
Naturally I rejoice, as hon. Members opposite will expect me to, in the fact that there is to be no financial assistance for service houses. But this deals only with part of the problem of the tied cottage. Farmers have a privilege which no other property owners in the country possess. They can apply to the county agricultural executive committee for a certificate for possession of a house for the use of one of their workers on the ground that possession is absolutely necessary for the cultivation of their holding, and when that certificate is granted they can go to the court and the judge has no option whatsoever but to make an order for possession. This is going on at the rate of 1,000 houses per year in the rural districts. It means that 1,000 houses are being made into tied cottages. It has been suggested, when I have been dealing with this question before, that these things do not happen now, but I can give many instances in my own division of people who have lived in a house from 30 to 40 years, a house that has never been occupied by an agricultural worker, being dispossessed and having nowhere to go, with their furniture having to be put in a stable for many months, because of this unjust provision in previous legislation. We are very anxious that this great injustice and evil shall be removed as soon as possible.
I have never heard of a miner's furniture being turned out on the roadside, or of a miner's wife being evicted from her house, when her husband was lying sick in hospital as a result of an accident in the pit, and having no alternative accommodation to which she could go. The possession of this certificate of the agricultural executive committee dispenses with the necessity of proving that there is alternative accommodation for a person who is dispossessed. The proposal to make grants, which I call a gift to private landlords for reconditioning their property is a serious blot on this Bill. It is inconsistent with good, sound Socialist principles, which I have always supported. In this, I am supported by the Minister himself. I have looked up the Debate which took place on the Housing (Rural Workers) Bill, and this is what was said by the present Minister of Health:
Every time the Government find it necessary to justify paying out subsidies from public funds to private persons, the argument becomes extraordinarily academic and philosophical.
It is academic—
because of the difficulty of trying to justify, on practical or ethical grounds, shovelling out public money to landlords because they have neglected their property.
He then went on to say:
A suggestion has been made that the landlord will get no direct benefit from the reconditioning. It obviously adds to the capital value of the asset. Farms can be let at far higher rents, and the landlord will benefit in that way."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd May. 1938; Vol. 336, c. 909–910.]
The sounder policy to deal with this aspect of the question is contained in the minority report of the Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee) says:
I agree with the main Committee that any new Act should provide that on an appointed day to be decided by the Minister of Health in the light of the labour and material supplies available, a duty should be placed on the owner, or in default on the local authority, to recondition all property in need of this treatment.
She then went on to say, and this is the part that I like best of all:
Any new Act should make grants to local authorities immediately available for recon-
ditioning,but I dissent from the view that grants for reconditioning should also be given to private persons.
A previous sub-committee made this recommendation:
Where owners are unwilling to undertake the reconditioning, we suggest that the local authorities should consider the advisability of exercising their power to buy properties, if necessary by compulsion, and then carrying out the reconditioning.
That is a report of an independent committee. The effect of implementing that principle would mean that public money would be spent on improving public property and not improving property belonging to private landlords.
The local authority will get assistance. [Laughter.] Yes. What I am opposing and criticising is the giving of a subsidy to landlords to improve their private property. In this Bill there is no provision—and the same criticism could be made of the original Bill—to prevent wealthy landlords from getting financial assistance to repair and recondition their private property.
I remember when I was a member of the Gloucester County Council we received an application for a grant, or a gift, out of public resources in order to recondition some cottages belonging to the third richest lady in the whole of England. Because we exposed the affair, she withdrew her application. The same criticism can be applied to this Measure. There is nothing to prevent wealthy landlords who have plenty of financial resources from applying for a grant and obtaining assistance under this Bill as it is at present drafted.
Under the old Housing (Rural Workers) Act, if one of these landlords took a grant for reconditioning a cottage, his rent was restricted to something like 4s. a week and he could not sell the cottage for 20 years; if he did he had to return the money.
The hon. Member is a practical agricultural valuer. Let me put this case to him. A wealthy landlord gets financial assistance to put his cottages in order. A farm of which those cottages form a part becomes vacant. He knows as well as I do—in fact, he knows much better—that as those cottages are in a good state, having been repaired largely at public expense, the landlord can demand—in fact, many of them have done so—a higher rent for his farm. I know from my own experience that it has been done.
I happen to be the chairman of my county valuation committee, and I have had some experience of these things. I know of no class of property in this country which is assessed so scandalously low as farmhouses. The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) knows very well that if he is taking a prospective tenant over a farm, the first thing he wants to know is the state of the land; then he wants to know about the house and buildings, and then what kind of cottages there are on the farm. I myself have been asked that last question many a time. People know very well that unless the cottages are of a decent standard the best type of labour will not be attracted. I think I have proved my point. If these cottages are improved at the public expense, eventually—I do not say immediately—when there is a change in the tenancy of the farm, the landlord is able to demand a higher rent, and in fact he does so. There is nothing in the argument that the whole of the benefit goes to the tenant. The Minister himself said in the same speech to which I have already referred:
We suggest that there should be a means test so that public money should not be given to landlords who do not need it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd May, 1938; Vol. 336, c. 910.]
I have referred to what the Minister said about the increased capital value of an estate and farms being let at higher rents. Clause 4 remedies a long-standing grievance, and implements the principle that where persons have had to be dispossessed of their houses because of some much-needed improvement of benefit to the public, they shall be compensated on a fair and just basis. Clause 30 will be welcomed by all who value the preservation of amenities in the countryside, and
will make it possible for houses in the country districts to be built, and, if necessary, reconditioned, with the material which is available in the district. This applies to part of my Division in the Cotswolds, and I am sure that it will give satisfaction to those who live in that part of the country.
The grants for the conversion of large houses into flats and residential hostels will, for the first time, I believe, result in the full and beneficial use of those places. There are many of them about the country today and the owners regard them as white elephants. Their conversion into satisfactory dwellings for people who need them will remove a source of criticism which has been strongly expressed in times of acute housing shortage. The provision of board and laundry facilities will be a real boon, and it will lessen considerably the domestic toil of many housewives. I should like to say a word about the increase in the limit which has been fixed for advancing money. This power to increase this limit should only be exercised after careful consideration.
I trust that I have not been too critical in my remarks. I regard the Bill, on the whole, as a good Measure, and its operation will remove many of the existing blots on our present housing conditions. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock that perhaps a fair estimate would be that it is 90 per cent. commendable, and 10 per cent. not so good. It is that 10 per cent, that I desire to see improved. I trust that the Minister, on reconsideration, will adhere to his previously expressed Socialist principles. I hope that he will amend that part of the Bill which now proposes to give public money to private landlords, and will restrict the provision of financial assistance to private individuals by way of loan only, if at all. With those two reservations, I support the Bill. I hope that the alterations which I have suggested will be effected in Committee, because I believe that they will improve the Bill considerably. Subject to those reservations. I wish the Bill a very speedy passage into law.
Much in this Bill is long overdue. We on this side have always advo- cated the restoration of grants for reconditioning agricultural cottages, which came to an end in the autumn of 1945. I am very glad that at last these grants have been restored, but I regret that a very deserving set of workers has been left out—those who occupy service cottages. I am afraid that those people may suffer as a result of their omission from this Bill. As has already been said, the answer to this problem is to provide sufficient houses in the countryside, but there will always be those who must live in a house which goes with the job that the man holds. This is now being discovered every day by the local authorities, the railway authorities, police authorities, the Forestry Commission, and many other bodies.
This Bill provides for grants over a much wider area, which is a very different matter. In making indiscriminate grants there is the danger that people who need them most may be overlooked or may go short. The provision of houses by those who are perfectly able and willing to provide them for themselves has almost been stopped in the last three years. As a result, council houses, built with the aid of subsidy, are being occupied by people whether they need a subsidy or not. I am afraid that this process will be further encouraged by a Bill which offers advances and grants indiscriminately. Are we not losing our sense of balance altogether and forgetting that the real purpose of the subsidy is to raise the housing standard of the worst-used section of the community?
The general cost of all housing today is too high. At present a large number of council tenants are unable to pay the rents which the councils are having to ask for their new houses. This situation has got to be faced and dealt with. My own local authorities are at the moment experiencing great difficulties. The Minister knows this, because I have been in correspondence with him. Other local authorities of this country are experiencing the same problems.
There are other provisions in the Bill which involve the danger of further and concealed subsidies. No one can object to the provision of facilities on housing estates for meals, for laundry and for obtaining furniture if those facilities are on a proper economic basis. Experi- ence shows that when these services are provided by local authorities it is very difficult to ensure that a further burden does not somehow fall on the rates. If it is the Government's intention that food, laundry and furniture shall be subsidised by those who are not fortunate enough to be council tenants, then let it be stated quite clearly and shown in the accounts so that the public who will have to pay may know where they are.
All of us appreciate the burden of the weekly washing on the housewife, and we welcome the provision of places where those living in the flats or on the housing estates can both wash and dry their cloths. For these facilities the tenants are willing to pay extra. From my own experience. I know that many housewives prefer to do their washing in their own house or flat, but they welcome, particularly if they live in towns, proper drying arrangements. What the ordinary housewife really requires is modern, up-to-date appliances with which she can do her own laundry and save herself a great deal of work, time and expense.
I had the opportunity the other day of being present at the opening of an estate which had been built by a housing trust. There, I believe, the trust have solved the problem very successfully. They have given excellent laundry appliances inside the flats, with central drying facilities. I talked to many of the tenants, and the majority of them told me that they much preferred that to the central laundry, which does not always serve the purpose as well as do the arrangements which have been made on that estate.
My chief anxiety with regard to this Bill is the danger of losing sight of what really matters—the actual production of good modern houses to meet the still increasing need. We do not want local authorities wasting time or money, and we must keep our eye on the ball. The need is still for more houses. On this side of the House we shall never be happy until each family has a separate house. We have only a limited amount of building labour. What matters is the efficient handling of the building industry. Under the Bill we may well get nothing if the Minister's policy prevents the building industry from developing its full efficiency.
I listened, as usual, with great interest to the Minister's remarks, and I was disappointed when he tried to avoid and evade the question of the terribly high rents that are in existence in the town of Grantham as well as, presumably, in the town in the constituency of the hon. Lady the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Viscountess Davidson). Unless the Minister gives very serious consideration to this all-important question, he will be faced with two grave issues—first, people will not be able to afford the very high rents, and secondly, it will have a very adverse effect on the further building of council houses.
It is no good the Minister presenting a Bill with no provision of any description to deal with this very important question. It is all very well for the Minister to say that the Government are offering subsidies to this section of the community and to that section of the community without taking into consideration the economic situation of the average worker today and the general subsidies to local councils. When the worker gets a council house he must sign on the dotted line that he will pay whatever the local council asks him by way of rent. That is the only way many of these workers can get a roof over their heads, and it is going to impose a tremendous hardship on thousands of them unless the right hon. Gentleman earnestly and seriously tackles the problem of high rents.
In the town of Grantham, which is only part of my constituency, the council house is costing £1,500 to build. To amortise that very large sum of money through rents a heavy demand is being made on the local community, and it is imposing hardship which they cannot afford to pay. The Minister, at the earliest opportunity, should with his experts find some other kind of financial arrangements for local authorities, so that the tremendous burden of the present time may be eased and some relief afforded to working-class people. Workers with an average income of no more than £5 a week are being asked to pay rents of 25s. a week for a council house, plus the cost of the amenities that are being offered to them, because we must bear in mind that these modern appliances, although admirable, cost a tremendous amount of money in electricity bills. I agree with the hon. Lady the Member for Hemel Hempstead that this is a most serious problem, and it has not been tackled by the Ministry of Health at all. Unless the Ministry do something about it in the immediate future, local authorities will find themselves in the difficulty of having to fix rents which the people cannot afford, and the ultimate result will be that additional houses will not, in fact, be built.
The only satisfaction I get from the Minister's remarks is that in the very near future his officials are going to meet some of the local officials from my constituency to discuss the local situation. No matter what transpires from that, however, I do not think it will have the results that the country as a whole expect, unless the Minister successfully finds new financial arrangements whereby local authorities can fix rents that are within the pockets of the ordinary people who are going to pay them. Under the general Finance Bill there is a grant of £16 10s. for the boroughs as against £25 for the rural areas. There has got to be something more equitable between those two grants. Although there are many things in this Housing Bill that are desirable and acceptable, there are very many more things that have been left out, and which should have been included in order to give some relief to the people who are paying rents far in excess of what they can afford.
The hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Kendall) has forgotten that the present Government have been paying the highest housing subsidies for the longest period of time ever known in the housing history of the country. It is not a solution of the costs problem to swing it all back on the State. We are all equally concerned about the costs of house building. As the Minister said, it is very doubtful whether that is strictly relevant to the Debate, but the subject has been mentioned and we ought, therefore, to reply to it. As chairman of the largest housing authority in the country, I am faced with the question of costs day by day. I admit that it is a worry to anyone concerned with providing good homes to be let at rents which the average person can afford to pay. However, what are we to do about it? The Opposition have asked what the Minister proposes to do. We are entitled to ask the Opposition what they propose to do.
I have spent my lifetime in the building industry, and I know what happened between the wars when we had the same kind of problem. Building prices went up to a terrific height after the first World War and then there was a sudden collapse in prices, but it was secured by very heavily slicing the wages of the operatives in the industry. Members of my union suffered a 2d. per hour cut in wages without any notice. Do the Opposition suggest that that is the way to get prices down? If so, my reply to that, partly at any rate, is that in London the building operative is giving the county council a pre-war standard of output on a very much larger house, so that there is no point to that. Do the Opposition suggest doing what their friends did before the war with housing standards? Costs can be reduced by cutting wages, by reducing standards or by getting a reduction in the costs of building materials, which are far too high, as the Girdwood Report pointed out, and without justification. It is particularly unkind to London because London is more heavily hit than other parts of the country.
Do those who seek to reduce the costs want to reduce standards? When I hear that sort of thing, I think of what was done in the past. I know that in 1933, in order to reduce building costs the Conservative Party in London built flats, not two miles from this place, with one bathroom to every three flats, and one w.c. and others with one bathroom for every two flats. Those flats can be seen not far from here. That reduced the costs of house building very considerably, but fortunately the Labour Party won the next election in 1934 and we stopped any more of that kind of nonsense as an effort to reduce building costs.
I believe that building costs can be reduced. I hope that the efforts which the Board of Trade are making in referring some parts of the building materials industry to the Monopolies Commission will result in cuts in cost. The Government might help over the tremendous cost of imported timber. However, we are not entitled to achieve our modern post-war standard of housing at the expense of low wages for the men in the building industry, and therefore what we must do is apply to the industry the modern methods, the efficiency and the economy which have been applied in so many other industries. If the building industry would modernise itself, if it would be less afraid of new machines and if it would take the operatives into much fuller consultation and take their advice through joint production committees and so on, the industry could get an increased output which would cut its costs. I am fortified in saying that because of my experience on the London County Council Housing Committee. We have secured a considerable drop in labour costs in the building of houses in London because we have adopted the method of bringing the contractors and the operatives into regular consultation on the site and at monthly meetings, and have applied all the new machinery we can think of.
Here is a simple illustration, although it is not a machinery one. We discovered that, owing to the war and the shortage of apprentices in the carpentry industry before the war, the average age of carpenters is very high. Many of them do not like working on a roof. Some of them have reached an age at which they almost dare not. Therefore, we now assemble the roof beams on the ground and as soon as the roof is built, we lift it up by crane and dump it on the top of the walls. I find it extremely difficult to get some building contractors to believe that that is any good; they think it is pandering to the men in the industry. However, that kind of thing applied all over the country will, I believe, produce an increased output per man which will reduce the overall costs. I hope that one result of this discussion will be that the Opposition, if they want to talk about high costs in housing they must remember the tremendously high cost of land in connection with housing—will support something along the lines I have suggested. I hope that they will not go back to the kind of thing they did in a very similar situation between the wars.
I was glad that the Minister referred to the very great progress which has been made in finding homes for the people. A total of 852,000 homes is a volume of housing work of which any country might well be proud, and this country in particular, because it is infinitely better than anything any other country has so far done, as the returns of the United Nations organisation show. The Minister referred to the waiting lists. I think he is correct in saying that one reason for the continually large waiting lists is the enormous number of marriages of young people who now want homes to live in. The fact that the old people are, quite understandably, sticking to their homes has a tremendous influence on the lists. However, there are a very large number of people on our waiting lists not because they have not got a home but because they have not got a modern home, and they want to he transferred to a council flat or cottage because it will have modern conveniences. Is anybody going to object to that? So far as London is concerned, we say, "let them all come." We put them on our waiting lists, but it has the effect of making those lists high, and indicates the need for a large amount of new building to be carried out during the next few years.
The point about this Bill which I like best is that it takes out of the housing legislation the reference to the working classes. I do not think those who have spoken so far appreciate what a revolutionary suggestion that is. In the past we have been technically limited to providing accommodation for the working classes as defined in the Act which the Minister quoted. Fortunately, none of us have taken the slightest notice of that definition of the working classes. So far as London is concerned, since the war at any rate, we have been building for all income groups, to use the modern phrase in these matters, and we are building and letting accommodation to members of what used to be called the middle classes.
It is one of my heartaches to have to read every day appeals from people who can afford to pay an economic rent, but who cannot afford to pay £4,000 or £5,000 down for a house, begging to be put into one of the houses which the London County Council is building for them. I think it is right, and that it is in the line of the development of housing legislation in this country, that this phrase should go out of all our housing legislation, and that the local authorities should be free to build for all the income groups within their area. It will have a good financial effect on their housing accounts, too, at the end of the year, and I am glad to see it because it is absolutely correct.
I am glad to see also that the law will make it quite clear that housing authorities can build hostels. I became interested in building a hostel in London for one section of its inhabitants which has not been mentioned in this Debate—the university students who come from the provinces. There are hundreds of them living in London today, not only under bad conditions but under disgracefully expensive conditions. I heard last week of a Colonial student in London University who is compelled to pay £3 5s. a week for a furnished room in order that he may live in London somewhere near his place of study. That is wrong, but apparently under the old law it was not clear that we had power to build hostels to accommodate that kind of occupant, individual married couples, and single persons. I hope that power will be used as widely as possible.
Will the hon. Member tell me, out of his great experience and expert knowledge, before leaving this point of economics, how a man with a wife and two children on £5 a week can afford to pay 25s. a week rent for a council house?
Of course, in London a man with a wife and two children would not pay 25s. a week for an L.C.C. flat. Our rents do not go as high as that for two-roomed flats, and on some other occasion I will give the hon. Gentleman full details if he likes.
If I may continue, I was about to say that I was particularly glad to hear the Minister's references to slum clearance, because many local authorities—and this is particularly true of London—are reaching the stage now where, unless they can effectively carry out large slum clearance plans, they will have no sites to build on in a year or two. It is important, therefore, that we should clear the sites, re-house the people on them, and be able not merely to rebuild but to carry out the great housing proposals which London and many other cities have worked out since the end of the war. I was glad, therefore, that the Minister gave such enthusiastic encouragement to local authorities to get on with their slum clearance as soon as possible.
I do not think there is much in conversion. It will provide some additional accommodation, but I suspect, if past experience means anything, that it will provide it at an expensive price to all of us, and I doubt whether it will produce a large addition to the accommodation which exists. It is interesting to note that already since the end of the war 106,000 families had been put into converted property, and while it is true that there are some parts in many of our great cities, and certainly in London, where there are a few large houses left which can be converted, there are not many terrace houses left in London which ought to be converted.
May I again weary the House with a personal experience? I lived as a boy in a terrace house in London. Every time the Thames came up a bit above the normal high tide, it flowed into the front door of that house. There are still a few such houses, and they ought not to be reconditioned under this Bill, but pulled down. Therefore, while we must do this conversion work so far as it is possible to make good modern homes, too much must not be expected of it, and the emphasis must be kept on the main problem of building new additional accommodation as fast as we can. I am sure the Minister will keep his eye on the proportion of building labour on conversion work as compared with that on new work.
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, who is, if I may say so, making a very valuable speech. He spoke of the clearance of slums. That is a development affecting every big city in this country and particularly the city with which I am associated. What scheme has the London County Council in contemplation to house the people during the process of clearing slums?
If the hon. Gentleman will obtain a copy of the agenda paper of the next meeting of the London County Council, he will get a full answer to his question because there will be a report on that point before the Council. I am not quite sure whether I am not infringing County Council Standing Orders in saying this, but that is the fact. I wanted to stress the importance of seeing that the proportion of building labour used for new building is kept up to the absolute maximum, otherwise we shall dissipate a good deal of the labour in conversion work which will produce some accommodation but will make no large contribution to the supply of additional homes.
There are two other points which will be of great importance to the housing authorities in the London area, and in others as well. The Bill provides for a special subsidy for the purpose of encouraging the building of cottages on expensive land. I am afraid that the provisions in the Bill will work out very differently from the three-to-one arrangement which exists at present as between the State and the local authorities. If it does so, then it will not encourage the development of houses of the cottage type in places like London where land is in any case very dear. I should like the Minister to look at that with a view to seeing whether some more attractive terms cannot be put into the Bill in order to encourage, without undue financial burden, the housing authorities in London, and in all the other large cities where they have this reconstruction problem, to build as many cottages as possible among their flats.
Another point I want to raise concerns the calculation of the subsidy to be paid on houses which are improved and owned or leased by local authorities. Even after reading the formula two or three times, I am still not clear about its exact meaning. It ought to be fairly easy to state clearly that the subsidy shall be related to the amount which remains after all capital charges have been met and all revenue has been taken into account. The clear phrasing of this procedure would prevent difficulties and troubles later on between housing authorities and the Minister and would prevent sore heads and a lot of bad temper.
To conclude, I welcome the Bill. It is a further step in the great scheme of housing the people of this country in decent, modern homes, and I hope that the Minister will be encouraged to go forward until, as he said, every family has its own home and its own front door.
The hon. Member for Kennington (Mr. Gibson) speaks with very great authority on this subject and has, therefore, covered a very wide field, a much wider field than that to which I intend to devote myself. I think that in some respects he went rather beyond the matter immediately relevant to the Bill, under the impression, perhaps, that we were having a general housing Debate rather than discussing the Second Reading of the Bill. I do not blame him for that, however, because he was misled, of course, by the Minister, who himself also covered a very wide field.
I apologise. I assumed that, as so many other people have been led astray by the Minister, the hon. Member for Kennington also had been led astray by him.
The particular matters to which I want to draw attention are those dealt with in Clauses 5 and 6. I am gravely disturbed by the powers to be created by the facilities for laundering, the selling of furniture and the provision of meals. None of us would dispute that the facilities must be made available for the people occupying the houses, but the question is, what is to be the method of provision? If the Bill were to be amended in such a way as to ensure that these facilities could be provided only on a proper commercial basis, which would not give either the State or the local authority that provides them an advantage over those engaged in private enterprise, I should be satisfied, but as it stands the Bill does nothing of the sort.
The hon. Member for Hertford, who expressed, I think, the view of most of us on this subject, that we welcome the inclusion of these facilities, did so, as he expressly stated, on the assumption that the Minister would ensure that there was no undercutting of private enterprise. I think that I have correctly stated what the hon. Gentleman said, and that he expressed his confidence in the Minister in that respect. I entirely agree. If we are satisfied that those safeguards will be given, then the position is tolerable, but I have not the confidence of my hon. Friend in the Minister. I believe that the Minister will lose no opportunity of carrying out his well-known policy of doing everything he can to undermine private enterprise. I have no confidence at all that he will, in fact, enable the provision of these facilities for laundering, providing refreshments and selling furniture in a way which will not amount to subsidising them out of the rates. If that is done it becomes unfair competition and is something which I could not support in any way.
We have seen many examples in this Parliament of new powers being taken by the Government in the field of national and municipal trading. Every extension of it gets us into more dangerous ground. On a number of occasions when this matter has been raised on other Measures we have sought to insert Amendments to the effect that the accounts, for instance, shall be kept in accordance with the best commercial practice. We have endeavoured to import that Amendment into many of these Bills, but for some reason the Government always reject it. I can only assume that they do not wish their accounts to be kept in accordance with the best commercial practice because that would disclose the municipal trader was getting an advantage over the private trader. In the provision of these facilities the private trader ought to be allowed to enter into fair competition with the municipal trader, if the municipal trader is to be there at all. The municipal trader is tolerable only if the municipality enters into it on that basis.
That was my final point, to which I was coming. The proper way for this matter to be dealt with is that we should adhere to the old principle of dealing with these matters, where necessary, by local government Bills. There is no objection whatever, where the facilities are not provided, for the local authority to promote a Bill to take such powers as may be necessary to make provision for those things where they are required. My objection is to taking the overriding power to provide these things whether they are required or not, thereby enabling the municipal trader to enter into unfair competition.
The proper procedure is to see whether the normal channels of trade provide these things or not. If they do not, then, obviously, there is a case for prompting a local government Bill for that purpose. This is a well-tried system, which has worked very well in the past and provides safeguards. I should prefer to see it retained. In every field in which I see this extension of municipal trading it gives great cause for alarm, because the prosperity of this country has been built up on its trade, and it is the competition—the fair competition—between traders which does so much to promote that prosperity. If we undermine it by allowing municipalities to come in on unfair terms, we shall be doing something which may prove ultimately to be a grave danger to the community.
I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe) will forgive me if I do not follow the line of his speech. Of the remarks he has just made, I can only say that in the City of Birmingham, in which lies the constituency I represent, there is no form of municipal organisation that has not shown itself to be extremely efficient. I am quite sure that if that city could have these additional powers it would exercise them with the same regard to efficiency as it has exercised other powers in the past.
I welcome the Bill in the name of the City of Birmingham, because I believe it is really a clarion call to all managements responsible for property in the city to plan upon a comprehensive scale never before visualised. My first speech in this House referred to the subject of housing in Birmingham and I made a special plea for a share of materials and labour to solve the problem of unhealthy houses. I welcome particularly the provisions in the Bill which enable reconditioning to be planned on a thoroughly businesslike basis. I want to ask a few questions on the provisions as they would apply to a great city like Birmingham. There is an eternal conflict between those who desire materials and labour for permanent houses and those who desire them for the building of schools, factories, slum clearance, repairs and reconditioning. I have come to the conclusion that it is necessary for all these various types of buildings in our towns and cities, provided there is a fair proportion between the various types.
We are faced with an extremely serious problem. I am sorry the Minister is not here, as I want to issue this warning to him. This afternoon he seemed extremely optimistic about being able, in a short time, to provide homes for all who need them. I am in agreement with all who praise the Government for their great achievement, but, looking at the problem in the city that I represent, I find that there are 68,000 people on the registers of the corporation estates department. If we deduct a third, after screening the lists, we are faced with 45,000 who are in urgent need of accommodation. The medical officer of health, in a survey issued in 1947, estimated that within 10 years it would be necessary for another 20,000 houses to meet the natural increase in population. That makes 65,000 houses to meet the normal need of the city. With all the force of building and progress brought to solve that problem, at the moment only 40 permanent houses a week are being provided. It does not require much thought to consider how long it would take to meet the problem under present circumstances.
We have a further problem, that of redevelopment and slum clearance. I believe this constitutes one of the greatest dilemmas for a city of the magnitude of Birmingham. According to the survey of the medical officer of health made in 1946 and issued in 1947, we have 29,763 houses within the redevelopment area which have been scheduled for demolition; in other words, there were 29,763 houses unfit for human habitation in relation to which schemes have been prepared. Apart from that redevelopment area, we were told by the medical officer that there were no fewer than 25,000 houses unfit for huban habitation. In 1945 the Government were faced not only with the normal housing shortage, but with a problem of more than 54,000 houses unfit for human habitation. I listened to hon. Members opposite who talked of this Bill as being belated, but in the City of Birmingham do we not think that action on the part of those who previously governed was belated? It means the utmost misery to the people, and presents one of the ugliest problems with which an industrial city is faced.
I apologise for interrupting, but does the hon. Member recall the problem facing the administration at the close of the war? We had the war years behind us, during which all house building was suspended.
I fully appreciate the problem before the war. The war itself added to the problem and made our position much more difficult. I appreciate that, but I was a member of the local authority 21 years ago when we were pressing this on the city council and on the Government. Action might have been taken in those years, when it was easier to deal with the problem. The extent of the slum clearance problem and the general housing problem means that Birmingham requires 120,000 houses. We are getting 40 houses a week to meet the normal housing shortage, but, to meet slum clearance at the moment we are able to get only 25 per cent. of those houses, which means that we are getting houses at the rate of 10 per week to meet the need of more than 50,000 houses. If we doubled the output in Birmingham, we should not be able to meet the housing shortage and the slum clearance problem for more than 30 years. In addition, there is the question of temporary houses, which in 10 years time will have depreciated and will need attention.
Clauses 11 and 12 of this Bill provide for grants to local authorities for reconditioning houses, providing that after reconditioning the life of the houses will be 30 years. I wish to put a question to the Minister on this matter. We are proud of the lead Birmingham has given and we shall endeavour to keep the lead, but in the great slum clearance and redevelopment schemes Birmingham has in hand, and which are to cost more than £17 million, the local authority have repaired up to date 7,900 houses which were of the lower standard type. They have reconditioned 900 since July, 1947, and I am informed that of the number reconditioned, 150 cost more than the £100 per house which is the figure stated in the Bill as the minimum.
The difficulty with which the city is faced is that while it is necessary to spend this amount of money on reconditioning houses which cannot be replaced because the new houses are not coming along sufficiently quickly, they have to plan structural alterations for houses which it is hoped will not remain for 30 years, but which certainly may be there for between 20 and 30 years. That is an enormous burden to the local authority and I do not know whether in the circumstances the Minister could agree that some additional benefit should be given, as there is such a colossal problem. The authority does not know how to plan because of its inability to know the number of houses which ultimately will be forthcoming.
Apart from the scheme of slum clearance and redevelopment, I would remind the House that there is an enormous field for improvement in the houses to which the Minister referred earlier this afternoon. The hon. Member for Moseley (Sir P. Hannon) will be interested in this matter, in view of the question he put to me. In the City of Birmingham there are 283,611 houses and 34,965 are without a separate w.c., while 142,523–50 per cent. of the total number of houses in the city—have no bathroom accommodation. The city of Birmingham must hail this Measure if it means that structural alterations can be brought about and assistance given from national as well as local funds to provide the people with these amenities to which they were entitled long ago.
I welcome the Clause which enables local authorities to build hostels for workers. In the past year I have pressed upon the Minister of Health and the Minister of Labour the need for hostel accommodation. We could probably bring more building trade workers into the Birmingham schemes if we had places in which to house them. There is need for hostel accommodation for those workers in Birmingham who are engaged on important export work.
I found an example of that particular problem, which I raised a year ago, in a night shelter in my own constituency, where 90 to 100 men had to sleep on the floor every night because no other accommodation was available. Although I have pressed the matter both on the Ministry of Health and on the Ministry of Labour, I understand that in Birmingham at present there are still 75 men at the Winson Green Night Shelter, and many of them have to give up jobs because they cannot find a place in which to live. I am informed that as recently as a week last Friday, one man went to every lodging house and hostel in the city and finally came to the Dudley Road Hospital, where there is accommodation for casuals. He was turned away from that place, which I understand was closed at 7 p.m. at night. Sixty people were turned away. Therefore, I say to the Minister that this is a most urgent problem for Birmingham. We welcome the provision in the Bill to enable the city to have a fair opportunity of enjoying amenities. The past history of this great city of Birmingham fills us with deep anxiety, knowing as we do that 50 per cent. of the population are living in conditions which are below the standard which we consider to be reasonable.
Those on this side of the House who represent Birmingham are in full accord with the hon. Member in regard to the tragic story which he has told the House. Would he also tell the House that private enterprise is fully co-operative with the municipal authority in connection with the building programme in Birmingham so as to get the largest number of houses in the shortest possible time?
I am quite prepared to agree. I have formed a definite conclusion, so far as Birmingham is concerned, that I do not mind who builds the houses, so long as they are built. If that means bringing in more people—private builders themselves who want to build—let us do that and everything else that can spur on the building of houses in order to meet this enormous problem.
Is it not a fact—I happen to know it is—that probably every house which was built when those houses were built—including the houses round Regent's Park—was built without a bathroom?
That may be so, but I stand here tonight and submit to the House my protest against the incompetence of previous Administrations. I represent a constituency that was once represented by Mr. Neville Chamberlain in this House for 14 years, yet in my constituency, there are 14,000 houses of which 12,000 have no separate bathroom accommodation. I protest, and charge hon. Members opposite and their party with having permitted great masses of workers to be herded together in these dens and hovels—as many of them are—for years longer than was necessary. I ask the Minister to pay special attention to the problem which I have stated, which is recognised by all as being fundamental and vital. We will give every possible support to him in an attempt to alleviate the suffering of the people as early as possible and bring about new conditions and a new—
Having made that statement to the House regarding 40 houses per week towards the colossal programme, and knowing that I have been a member of the Birmingham City Council for the past 29 years, would not my hon. Friend agree that it would be fair to say that the Minister has recently given the Birmingham Building Group power to build as many houses as they like? The problem is not that the Minister will not let us do it; it is a question of the labour to build the houses not being there.
I fully understand the programme. The Minister has given the utmost support. We have had a conference, not a party conference but one of all Birmingham Members of Parliament on both sides of the House. We have been to the Minister, who has given us every possible support. I am only saying that here is a problem. I hope and pray that this Bill will help to ease that problem and will be hailed as a great Measure by the citizens of Birmingham.
There may be a certain number of Members in the House who are not connected with local government. If there should be such Members I will tell them something which they have not heard. A London County Council election is to take place shortly, and also a number of local government elections up and down the country. That may account for some of the speeches we have heard.
May I first contribute a little item about letting furniture on hire purchase? Some 22 years ago the Estates Committee of Birmingham, of which I was at that time chairman, were much concerned about the problem of young people, possibly with good wages but with no money saved, who were expecting a baby and who had no chance of getting a council house in the ordinary way. They got into touch with the Estates Committee, who manage the houses, and by arrangement 16 maisonettes were set aside and let to young couples for a three-year term, furniture being included on the hire-purchase system. The charge for the furniture was arrived at by calculating an amount that would pay 3 per cent. and redeem the furniture—plus 2d. per week for overheads. The idea was that at the end of the three years the young couple, equipped with furniture, could move into a council house and the process could be commenced again.
I lost touch with that experiment after I left the Estates Committee. The scheme was carried on in three cycles of three years each, comprising altogether some 48 tenants. Two of them absconded, leaving furniture behind which was resold at a reduced price, no loss being incurred. The other tenants were satisfactory, but the scheme was finally abandoned by the Estates Committee in 1936 because it was not being supported. And the reason was that the housing shortage was being overcome—strange as it may appear to people who think nothing of that kind could possibly have happened between the wars—and accordingly there was no further demand for that sort of thing.
Some little time ago the Birmingham Corporation were promoting a Bill and they thought—and I thought with them—that there would be no harm in putting in a permissive Clause of the kind which appears in the Bill at present before this House. However, the electorate apparently thought differently.
I am relating the facts and it may be more to the point for me to continue to do so rather than to comment on "why?" The electorate, I say, thought otherwise. A town's poll was taken, and out of a very large electorate about 8,000 voted for the Clause and about 43,000 voted against it.
Would not it be true to say that after much propaganda, practically the whole of the people who took that hall and voted against it were business people who were afraid of municipal enterprise?
I am relating the facts, and not referring to the propaganda, or to whether it was right or whether it was a good or bad thing. The Unionist Party took no part whatever in the propaganda with regard to that poll. The Labour Party went all out to get people to it in support of the Clause. The significant thing was not that 40,000 voted against the Clause, but that with all that Labour propaganda only 8,000 people could be found to vote for it. Accordingly, I say to the Minister that he must not expect too much from the Clause. In Birmingham there is not a great deal of support for any Clause of that kind.
I now turn to the Bill itself, or more particularly to the background of it. The right hon. Gentleman said very rightly that this is a Bill which is asking for money to carry through housing projects and so the present state of housing should be reviewed. The Minister asked us to remember his words of wisdom in 1945 as to the desirability of mixing up different social classes. I am in agreement with that. I think that most of his very varied words on this subject have been carefully studied and are remembered. For example, there was his statement, made a little later in the same year, that he anticipated that the worst of the housing crisis would be over by the end of 1947. He made a statement later in 1947 that in something over two years the Government had already provided as many homes as were provided in 10 years following the last war which, if correct, would have meant a total exceeding 1,194,000 houses. Those statements are quite well remembered.
There were other more recent statements of a very mixed kind. First of all, there was the remarkable statement last Thursday to the effect that the resources of labour and materials on housing are now fully employed and, accordingly, that if the housing programme were added to, it would be at the expense of hospitals. Then came the fiery challenge, "Are we prepared to vote for fewer hospitals? "I can assure the right hon. Gentleman—and I think my Birmingham colleagues will bear me out—that to the Birmingham people, that dilemma has no terrors at all, because in our favoured city we have been told by the Minister that, we are not to have a new hospital. There is one to be built in Stoke Newington, or thereabouts. Presumably the London County Council elections are more important than the municipal elections.
According to the Minister that is the set-up. What is the housing position in Birmingham at the present time? It is difficult and obscure. A few days ago the hon. Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Shurmer) asked whether more people in Birmingham could be employed on housing. He suggested that somewhere about 1,400 are so employed. He was thoroughly snubbed and set down, and told that he was misinformed, and that really about 7,000 people are employed on housing in Birmingham.
Figures are given of 40 houses a week going forward. The actual number in the last three months is 276, and I am asked by the Government to believe that a labour force of 7,000 people are employed in providing them. Before the Minister speaks so confidently he had better see that all is well with the planning of his own Government, because I should say that there is a serious omission there. As the hon. Member for Sparkbrook said, the housing list, whether genuine or not, is being augmented at the rate of 200 per week. It is a very irritating thing to come from a city like Birmingham and hear the complacent remarks of the Minister about the wonderful achievements of the Government in housing. In effect, if not in so many words, he says, "We have finished that; we have provided new houses; that is all right, now we can go on to something else."
I rather thought that the inference which I drew would annoy the Minister. It was intended to do so. And I would say that some of the evils which the Minister is hitting at in his present Bill are of his own creation. It is to be noted in the housing figures that since the war somewhere about 60,000 new habitations have been prepared and built by private enterprise, that being on the basis—do I understand the Minister to say, "No"?
—habitations have been provided by private enterprise if that is the statement of the hon. Member, he is wholly and completely wrong. The vast majority of the houses, as I have said today, have been erected by private enterprise, some on contract with local authorities and some for private ownership.
The fact is, of course, that in discussions it is rather convenient to keep to one meaning for one phrase. It does not help one very much to Fay that all are "private enterprise houses" because practically all are built by private enterprise. The commonsense meaning of "private enterprise" is houses privately built for private profit. One does not clear things, but one befogs them, by suggesting any remissness on the part of local authorities as being the fault of private enterprise, because they employed private enterprise. I am grateful to the Minister for having given me the chance to deal with one of his favourite sleights of hand.
In the Housing Summary of 30th November, 1948, the total provision of housing accommodation in Great Britain as at 30th November, 1948, it says:
The total number of new houses, flats, and other family units … provided … has been as follows. Use of existing premises; conversions and adaptations—local authorities 41,000; under licence, 63,000.
If the Minister has not read that useful little publication perhaps he will read it. That procedure has been killed stone dead by the new Rent Restrictions Bill which places people who do that sort of thing under most onerous restrictions in future. I pointed that out during the Debate and I voted against the Second Reading of the Bill. There was in it much of which I approved, but I disapproved so strongly of its anti-social tendency with regard to obsolete houses that I voted against it to show my opinion.
The right hon. Gentleman throughout his Ministerial career should have applied himself to the overriding task of getting, by any means or any source, habitations in which people may live. But in his housing policy throughout, he bears the same relation to statesmanship as Heath Robinson bore to engineering. The resemblance is exact. The remarkable fact about Heath Robinson's contraptions was not that they would not work, but that they would. They were all technically possible. It is always technically possible to do things which are disadvantageous, to select ends which are unworthy instead of those which are worthy and to do good deeds in a muddled and complicated manner. That is precisely what the Minister has done.
He began by cutting clown to vanishing point private enterprise in building. I warned him here in 1946 that he was leaving out the element of friction. He was assuming that he could freely divert all private enterprise labour into public employ. I warned him that only a fraction would follow him, and so events have proved. He harasses private enterprise at every turn and talks of profiteering. He holds it out as a merit that housing and houses should not be objects of merchandise or profit, and yet tries to convince us that he really wants to help people buy their own houses. If houses are not to be objects of merchandise and profit, why should they be privately owned? If they are privately owned, are they not objects of merchandise? Such claptrap from a Minister of the Crown makes one despair.
Why on that argument do I not oppose this Bill? I do not oppose it for the very good reason that the housing situation is of such gravity that I would not oppose any Measure which offered any alleviation. That I think much of it has been induced and made necessary by the folly of the Minister is not the point. We must do the best we can for those who are suffering. I would not take upon myself the responsibility of opposing this Bill merely because much of it in my judgment would not have been necessary had events been better ordered. One could wish that the right hon. Gentleman had been here a little while ago during two or three speeches made from this side of the House when it was urged very strongly upon him that the overriding need is for more houses, more homes. The hon. Member for Ladywood (Mr. Yates) spoke feelingly and with complete justice of the plight of Birmingham, but the objectives referred to are not to be secured by a spirit of spite and rancour, by a tendency always to make the smart debating point, the bitter gibe and the paltry display of cleverness. Let those be abandoned, let houses be recognised as a dire and urgent matter of national unity, and then we may get somewhere.
The hon. Member for Handsworth (Mr. H. Roberts) will excuse me if I do not follow him in his objections to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health—obviously, he is not a friend of his—or into his objections to matters concerning Birmingham housing which I am sure many of my hon. Friends will be able to answer most effectively when the time comes. This Bill revives the principle of assisting private owners to improve their houses. In this respect, as public money is involved, naturally it must be carefully scrutinised. I consider that the Measure will be popular in my constituency where there are a large number of working people, including miners, who own their own houses. In that respect, I congratulate the Minister in striking out along a new line now that conditions are a little better in regard to the number of houses built.
The truth is that owners of private houses in rural areas or in urban districts are not now able to finance improvements to their properties because of the general change in the relationship between rents and building and constructional costs. Since the war rents have gone up roughly by only about 30 per cent., but building costs have increased by 300 per cent. That causes an impossible position for many small private owners. In my constituency many working men, including miners, will benefit under this Bill which will assist them to meet the difficult position which has arisen as a result of the change between annual value, rent and building costs. This Measure will give the owner an opportunity under proper supervision to use public revenue provided that the conditions in the Bill which appear to be adequate are observed.
It is absolutely vital at present to introduce fuel-saving apparatus into houses wherever possible. Would it not be possible to assist by this Measure in the introduction of such apparatus into privately owned houses? I realise that there is the condition under which nothing under £100 will qualify, and I wonder whether the Minister would consider in Committee making some modification of that provision to meet a position which would be of vital assistance in the saving of fuel.
My main reason for speaking in this Debate is to raise one special point. I hope that it will be possible under this Bill to allow charitable trusts to benefit. Under Clause 16 persons other than local authorities may benefit. It seems to me that only those people who own the fee simple of their land will qualify. There are a large number of charitable trusts which own almshouses, rest houses and the like, whose deeds are not vested in them but in the Charity Commission. I should like to know whether they will qualify for assistance under this Measure, because they are not actually within the Clause. They administer the property under a trust, but the Charity Commission holds the deeds. This is a vital question. I hope in Committee Clause 16 can be drawn wide enough to cover all these cases.
There are up and down the country a large number of almshouses of this kind which are providing homes for old people, and while not exactly assisting the rates, are assisting the National Assistance funds by keeping these old people from the necessity of applying for public assistance, or, alternatively, from going into homes provided by the National Assistance Board. There are many cases where there may be, perhaps, six almshouses provided by some charitable person about 100 years ago, and containing only two small rooms, with no bathroom. If these six houses could be converted into three, they could provide conditions which would be much more suitable for modern times. I say that it is very desirable that all charitable trusts of this nature should benefit under this Bill, and, if Clause 16 can be drawn wide enough to meet these cases, I hope the Minister will consider the suggestion. It is really a Committee point, but I hope that on Second Reading I might draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to it.
I think it is also Clause 17 to which my hon. Friend should refer. I am not certain about the application to the case where trustees own almshouses, and where a tenancy does not exist. Where trustees or executors own houses they should benefit equally with any other owners under Clause 17.
I must declare my interest in this Debate, because I am spending a great deal of every day in building, both by direct and indirect labour. I want to enter the fray and to say, first, that, on an urgent matter like this, and on a Bill which is not likely to involve a Division, there is an opportunity for all of us to put something into the common pool which can be drawn upon later. If the Minister goes through the OFFICIAL REPORT, as I am sure he does, he will be able to pick up some of the suggestions which have been contributed from all quarters. Therefore, I hope to get down to one or two things which I hope he will look at.
I know that there are a great many houses in London now waiting for conversion, and that some of them have been waiting year after year because of delay by the War Damage Commission. Will the right hon. Gentleman write to the President of the Land Board to see whether some progress cannot be made? If the Minister would like to have the name and locations of these houses which have been waiting to be converted into flats, I can supply them to him.
My second point is that there is in the Hampstead Road a half-built property in course of construction by me, which has been started three times and stopped again three times under various orders. I do not know in which constituency the Hampstead Road is, but I think it may be in Islington. Whoever may be the hon. Member who represents the division in which it is, I hope he will "get cracking" and ask the Minister why this property, which will provide six or seven flats for families, has been held up for so long. First, the work started, and then an order came along stopping it; the work started again, and down came another order. It is this kind of inefficiency which, we must admit, whether we agree with private enterprise or not, is preventing the provision of housing accommodation. I assure hon. Members opposite that profit has nothing whatever to do with the Hampstead Road operation. Hon. Members can easily see what sort of rents can be obtained for such property—£1 a week for a bedroom, bathroom, sitting room and hall. That is the most that one can get in such places, and there is not a penny in the proposition, but the work is being held up by the series of orders issued from time to time.
I welcome the proposal in the Bill for the extension of the £1,500 limit to £5,000. Why was it not done long ago? I know of schemes which have had to be stopped because they did not come within the £1,500 limit. I give the Minister my wholehearted support on that proposal, and also in regard to the compensation Clauses, which I think are very fair and reasonable for the people who are displaced. Nor am I going to oppose the provision of laundries or of furniture. If local authorities are going to handle the housing problem, they should do it in the best possible way, except that I do not think they should do it at the cost of losses which will have to be made good by the ratepayers. I think the scheme should be run efficiently and well, so that it can pay by itself, while rendering the inhabitants a really good service. As between private enterprise and the local authorities, I am sure the Minister would not oppose private enterprise laundries supplying the tenants of these buildings, and I do not see why anybody should be opposed to the local authorities providing that service in these days.
I come to the question of grants to the local authorities, to housing associations and to individuals. On the whole, this is a very generous gesture by the right hon. Gentleman, but at the same time, while I shall probably incur the disapproval of the Minister on this point, it is not such a gift as many people will imagine. I have looked up 20 conversion cases before coming to this Debate, and I worked out the figures to discover the average. I found that the building was worth £3,000, the site was worth £500, the cost of converting the building into ground floor, first and second floor flats was £500 for each flat, making a total of £1,500 which made a total outlay of £5,000, towards which the grant would be £500. I say £500, but it would probably be entitled to £1,500, would receive only 50 per cent. of that figure, which is £750; and it is my experience that the maximum is never granted in such cases. Therefore, I have taken the grant as one-third of the cost of conversion, and I do not think that is unreasonable. If any hon. Gentleman opposite says, "Yes, but you would be lucky and get the whole £750," it will not alter the fact that the actual grant will be about only 10 per cent. of the total money outlay on such a building operation.
Frankly, if people are going to take 10 per cent., it is only fair that restrictions should be placed upon them, so that in some way there will be a return for what they are receiving, but I think the restrictions are pretty powerful. The rent has to be fixed by the local authority, and I presume it will be a reasonable rent. There will be a great many people who will be worried about going into such places, because they will not know whether the rent really is reasonable, and they might prefer to get a decision from the rent tribunal as to what is considered to be a reasonable rent for such property. If the Minister can assure us that the rent will be fixed at what I would call a low reasonable level, it would induce a great many more people to increase their outlay on these conversions. I hope the right hon. Gentleman, during the Committee stage, will give some indication whether the rent will be a low reasonable one, or some indication what sort of rent will be fixed by the local authorities.
There are these very necessary restrictions, but when people are receiving only 10 per cent. of the cost of such building operations, they are really not fully compensated for having taken the risk and done the work. After all, if they break the law, there are heavy penalties, including those rather unkind words in the Clause about compound interest. Those are really very serious points. I cannot help feeling that most of the people who come to borrow this money will be people who have mortgaged their houses. I think the right hon. Gentleman will find that, in most cases, they will go on with the conversions under other arrangements rather than be tied down in that way. The right hon. Gentleman must carefully consider the fact that a great many of the applications will be made by people who have raised a considerable amount of money on their houses by way of mortgage and perhaps want to pay off a few of their outstanding debts.
In conclusion, I would like to say that I am going to trust the right hon. Gentleman. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear hear."] I would tell hon. Members opposite that when I was ill the other day and could not get a thermos flask—it is necessary, I understand, to get a licence of some sort or a doctor's certificate—the right hon. Gentleman sent me his own thermos flask. What I do not want the right hon. Gentleman to do is, every now and then, to make a vicious stab at healthy private enterprise. He has said from time to time that he has to rely upon private enterprise both for the work which they carry out on their own behalf and for the work which they do for local authorities. Gentlemen who have given a great deal of time to various municipal housing schemes have said that they are not too badly served by private enterprise. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members will really try to make this scheme work so that private enterprise and local authority housing can get on with their job in an efficient way. It would be a great mistake to eliminate people who are trying to do their job properly, who are not out for exorbitant profit and who are prepared to take the risk.
The hon. and gallant Member for Penrith and Cockermouth (Colonel Dower) has tried, at any rate, not to be provocative. Of all the speeches we have heard today from hon. Members opposite, it is the first speech which has not been provocative in some way or another. It is only right to say that the hon. and gallant Gentleman has tried to make a practical contribution to the Debate and we must thank him for it, because we so rarely get anything constructive from the Opposition benches.
The question of private enterprise in the housing problem is really a little overplayed by hon. Members opposite. For example, in the recent by-elections it was said, again and again, that the only thing which prevented houses going up in far greater numbers at the moment, was the restriction placed on private enterprise by my right hon. Friend. Hon. Members opposite know that that is utter nonsense when they say that and print it. They create the impression that there are thousands of private builders with millions of men and bricks available for getting on with the job and that my right hon. Friend is saying, "Thou shalt not pass; this must be done, by local authorities." It is as ludicrous as that. It is important that this question of private enterprise should be put in its proper perspective. Private enterprise builders are doing a fine job in co-operating with local authorities, and I think it would be right to say that never before have they been so busy. I would like to know, especially as regards my own constituency, who are these private builders who are waiting for work. I have issued that challenge, but up to date there has been no acceptance of it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee) struck the right note with regard to the attitude of my right hon. Friend concerning the right of local authorities to have priority in the building of houses. Housing authorities are able to assess the need; they are able to say what person shall have a house according to the need of that person. Private enterprise has never done that. I am not complaining because they arc not equipped to do that. Where a person suffering from, say, tuberculosis is living in bad housing conditions, the local authority, operating on a points system, can give him top priority. I can go in my capacity as a Member of Parliament to ask that a particular case be considered in the light of the medical evidence, and local authorities, where they can, will rehouse on the estimate of need. Private enterprise cannot do that. The hon. and gallant Member for Penrith and Cocker-mouth says that he builds houses. I know that he would not let a house purely on the basis of need. Without in any way doubting his humanitarian point of view, I am sure he would say, "I will let the house to the man who can pay or will pay the rent I want."
I am not sure that money is the only thing to be considered in such a case. Very often a man's character is a better guarantee that he will carry out his obligations under a contract than his bank balance. If I knew that a fellow had a first-class character, I should value that much more than if he had money in the bank.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman does not strike me as being in line with his hon. Friends. He must tell them something about his point of view. It is right that I should say that, because it is generally conceded that the Opposition have been in serious straits for some time and need some bright ideas.
I am much obliged to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman because our record at by-elections up to date has been pretty good.
I welcome the whole principle of this Bill and, in particular, the repeal in Clause 1 of the term "working-class." I could really get a little provocative on this question of the working-class, and on the stuff that has been poured out in the past by hon. Members opposite. I am glad my right hon. Friend has repealed that description because that mentality has resulted in the past in such places as Dagenham and Becontree where cottages of the lower standard, and all very much alike, have been built. I agree that they have served a useful purpose, and I am not complaining. But they bear no comparison with an estate such as that at Kidbrooke where the houses are bright, and where the architecture of each one is different. A person living in one of those houses feels that his house is different from that of everybody else. For that reason alone, I think the repeal of this term is going to give local authorities the necessary initiative to see that houses are built in accordance, not with the lowest, but with the highest standards possible.
While on the question of housing standards, I would like to draw the attention of the House to the definition of overcrowding as contained in paragraph 58 of the Fifth Schedule of the 1936 Act. Under that definition it would be possible for a husband and wife with six children between the ages of one and 10 years, and with another child under a year old, to live in three rooms, and for it to be assumed that they were not living in an overcrowded condition. That may sound incredible, but it is perfectly true, and most local authorities are strictly interpreting the definition in that way. A child of under one year of age does not count. In his opening remarks, my right hon. Friend spoke of the integrity and importance of family life. I know he will agree that something must be done to amend this position. In the borough of Bermondsey we have had to refuse applications from people who are living in conditions which are quite frankly deplorable, but who are not statutorily overcrowded. As a matter of fact, we have declined 4,600 such applications. Although this may be a point for the Committee stage, I hope the Minister will give serious consideration to this question of the definition of standards of overcrowding. It could be amended in this Bill because, after all, this is an amending Bill to the Housing Act of 1936.
Another Clause which interests me very much is Clause 6 which, I think, extends the powers of local authorities under Section 72 of the Act of 1936 in the sale of furniture and the supply of furniture on hire-purchase. My local authority, the Borough Council of Bermondsey, have had experience of this in the past. I do not want to make this a local point. The right hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) talked about the local elections. He need not worry about Bermondsey; I could tell him well in advance of the time, what the result will be there, because we have had so much misrule by the Tories in the past that we do not have to ask our people to vote—they simply flock out to make sure that they do not have any more of the Tories.
We have had great experience as a housing authority since 1930, with our own direct labour scheme, and our own housing department and manager, and we have also had a hire-purchase scheme for furniture. I would like to point out that even under the new Bill an anomaly will exist which we have experienced in the past, unless the right hon. Gentleman does something about it. This is what we found. We have supplied furniture to the value of £5,467, so we have had some experience of it. We bought it from private enterprise at wholesale prices and let our people have it at wholesale prices. I think the hon. and gallant Member for Penrith and Cockermouth would agree that that is the right way to do it—no middle men; we did not make a profit and did not intend to, but we let the people have it at the price we paid for it.
The problem that we experienced was that owing to the Hire Purchase Act of 1938, we had no control over the furniture which we sold to some of our tenants if the tenants took it away when they moved. There were quite a few who did that, taking it away when they moved without telling people they were going. They took our furniture but under the Hire Purchase Act we cannot prosecute these people except in the area to which they move. Imagine the position of somebody having taken £40 or £50 worth of furniture away with them to Scotland. My Borough Council are a humane sort of council and will not go all the way up to Scotland for £50 worth of furniture. This may be a Committee point but it is important. I am asking for powers which will safeguard the local authorities so as to make sure that when they supply, say, £50 worth of furniture they can take account of it in the rent, in the agreement with the tenant, and can say, "In future your rent will be so much and when the furniture is paid for it will automatically be reduced."
No, it will not, but it will give us some powers which are not given to us in this Bill at present.
Our great problem, like that of many other borough councils, is our acreage. Our acreage is small and, consequently, the density per acre of the flats which we have to put up is higher than in other areas. Clause 28 of this Bill provides that, in connection with blocks of flats erected on expensive sites, the subsidy provisions of Clause 4 shall be amended so as to enable the Minister, if he thinks fit, to decrease or increase the Exchequer contribution. I think it may be assumed that in the case of Bermondsey the density rate will not generally exceed 40 flats to the acre in our future housing schemes, but there have been schemes already passed and approved by our town and country planning authority, which is the London County Council, where they exceed that figure. We have looked at this Bill from the point of view of our past experience of housing, and where schemes have been introduced and approved in the past we shall not qualify for these subsidy grants. I want to ask the Minister to see whether something can be done to remedy that on the lines I have suggested.
I do not want to detain the House longer and I shall conclude on this note. This Bill, again, is the product of a great Government who have done a fine job and it is also the product of a great Minister of Health. If I may pay him one tribute, better perhaps than any other which one can pay a Minister, it is to say that when the Opposition detest a Minister not only on political grounds, but on personal grounds, then it occurs to me that he is doing a fine job of work. I always regard it with some satisfaction when I see the Opposition attacking my right hon. Friend and I always get a little bit worried when I find the Opposition praising him. Therefore, I say to him, he has the good will of the whole of the party he has the privilege to represent in his Office. On behalf of my own authority, I say this is a fine Bill; we welcome it, but we hope those things which I have mentioned will be included in it so as to make it even better.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Rotherhithe (Mr. Mellish) will forgive me if I do not follow him in all the points he raised. I am not acquainted with the housing conditions in our great cities. I do not think he need worry if his right hon. Friend is attacked by me or by anyone on this side of the House; there is no personal animosity, and I am certain that the right hon. Gentleman is quite capable of looking after himself.
It is not my intention to occupy the time of the House for long and I shall confine my remarks to Part II of this Bill, which provides grants for the reconditioning and improving of houses. Like the hon. Member for Thornbury (Mr. Alpass), who spoke earlier in this Debate, I represent a mainly rural constituency. I find myself in this rather peculiar position: although I am, of course, in no way a supporter of the Government, I am rather more fervid in my support of this Bill and less critical of the Minister, than, I think, was the hon. Member for Thorn-bury (Mr. Alpass) in his speech. I ask the hon. Member for Thornbury, when considering this Bill, not to become obsessed by the problem of the tied cottage, because that is really a small part of the Bill and there are other things in the Bill which, I think, will be very useful to the countryside.
The greater part of the grants for reconditioning under this Bill undoubtedly will go to the towns. Some of the grants and some of the benefits will go to those who live in the countryside and, since many of us have been pressing the Government and the Minister, since 1945, to reintroduce the reconditioning grant and to do something to implement the Hobhouse Report, I think it would be churlish for those of us who represent rural constituencies not to say a word of welcome to this Bill, belated though we may think it is. Speaking from what I think I may describe as a rural point of view, I have felt for some time that our housing policy was tending to become unbalanced, in particular in so far as it affected the countryside. As the Minister said, the whole weight of it has been thrown on the side of providing new houses rather than on the reconditioning and modernisation of existing houses. In my submission, that is a policy which has benefited the towns more than the countryside. The demand for new cottages and additional cottages exists in the countryside, as was certainly shown by the figures recently collected and presented by the county agricultural executive committees.
The demand from the countryside for new houses is partly aggravated by the fact that many people moved out of the towns during the war and that they are occupying countryside cottages and houses really intended for those who work on the land. This was due to the evacuation of many families from the towns during the bombing. In my part of the world it was due to the fact that factories came to our towns, bringing labour with them, with the result that many of our villages tended to become dormitories to those towns. If many of those people moved back to the towns, they would release accommodation. I mention these things in order to enforce the argument that the primary need of the countryside is the reconditioning of cottages rather than a vast programme of new houses.
Another reason why the policy of directing all effort towards the provision of new houses has worked against the countryside, is that the big building contractor prefers a town contract to a contract to build cottages upon a more isolated site in the country. The building labourer also prefers to work in town, near to his home or to a canteen where he can get a hot meal in the middle of the day. There has been a drift of building labour from the countryside into the towns. The small local builder cannot tackle a large housing scheme, although he is admirably suited to reconditioning and to the modernising of cottages. In so far as the Bill will do that, and will bring about a better distribution of materials, labour, and work, I, speaking for the countryside, welcome it.
We ought not to lose sight altogether of the financial aspect of our housing programme or to forget the great burden which is being placed on the backs of the taxpayers and of the ratepayers to provide the housing subsidies. It is quite untrue that, as an hon. Member opposite said in a misguided moment, the Government are paying for all these new houses by way of grants of one kind or another. In the county of Rutland, which is typically rural, it has been estimated that our housing programme, when completed, will benefit under 50 per cent. of the taxpayers and ratepayers in that county, whereas a similar sum spent on reconditioning and improvement would probably benefit some 80 per cent. They are the people who are finding the money for the housing programme. It is high time we began to distribute housing subsidies more fairly among the taxpayers and ratepayers of the country. There is an understandable dissatisfaction among many tenants at having to pay higher taxes in order to provide new houses which can only be enjoyed by comparatively few of the population.
That brings me to the contentious question of the tied cottage. I approach it gingerly because I know that it is political dynamite. I do not see why we should not discuss it in a moderate manner this evening, since we are not discussing whether or not the tied cottage should be abolished, but whether the tied cottage or the service cottage should attract grant under the Bill. It certainly would seem unjust that the tenant of a tied cottage, alone of all tenants, should be denied benefit under the Bill. I do not think anyone can seriously contend that the grant which might go to a landlord or owner-occupier under the Bill will give him any benefit. There is no doubt that the greater part of the benefit will go to the tenant. One realises that the question of the tied cottage is political. One cannot judge it entirely on its merits. I say to the hon. Member for Thornbury, who is longing to interrupt me, that I do not see why it should be a political question.
The hon. Member may say that it is a humanitarian question. Everyone agrees that he would like to see the tied cottage abolished, if only there were sufficient houses in the villages to enable that to be done. I can appreciate the political side of the question and also the difficulty in which the Minister finds himself in tackling it. Speaking as a politician, I think he has found a very ingenious and, on the whole, fair way out of those political difficulties.
The Bill says, if I understand it aright, that the cottage that is tied to the landlord or owner-occupier shall not get a reconditioning grant, but if it is tied to agriculture it will be eligible for one. That is more than I expected the Minister to do. It seems on the whole to be in accord with the position that exists today. We all know that in practice, if not in law, no one would wish to gain possession of a tied cottage without possessing an order from the county court.
I can only speak of the part of the country which I know. I have never heard of a case of that kind since the war, except under an order from the court.
This is a very important point. What happens when the farmer seeks an order is that he goes first to the agricultural committee or to the permit sub-committee. They take into account the hardship factor, but I cannot see why the farmworker's hardship should not be taken into account at the same time.
I welcome the Bill, on the whole, in so far as I believe it will bring about a fairer balance between new houses and the reconditioning of old houses, and will help town and countryside. But though we have, on paper, machinery to enable financial provision to be made for reconditioning and improving houses, if the Bill is to be nothing more than a vote-catching Measure I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will give us an assurance that licences and the necessary materials and labour will be forthcoming so that the benefits we all desire can be secured and implemented.
I want, first, to make a limited reference to a matter which has not been mentioned so far, and then to make a few wider observations on the Bill. In the more limited field there is a matter which affects housing associations, which all will agree are a very estimable body. They are referred to in the Bill several times, and the Minister knows that I have made it my business, in the last year or two, to try to watch their interests. The main powers of these associations are defined in Sections 93 and 94 of the Housing Act, 1936. Section 94 (1) was amended by Section 8 of the 1938 Act, when the provisions were made very much wider, and housing associations could
provide any housing accommodation which the local authority are empowered under this Act to provide.
That was a very wide power indeed, but when we look at the First Schedule of this new Bill, those powers seem to be very much restricted again. What has happened, I think, is that the 1938 Act, with its wide provisions, has been overlooked and that there has been this reversion to the rather narrower terms of the 1936 Act. I should be glad if the Minister would look into this point and, in association with it, certain restrictions with regard to operations on behalf of the working class which are connected with their registration under Section 10 of the Prevention of Fraud Act, 1939. These provisions need to be somewhat amended in order to give these bodies the full scope which was given to them by the 1938 Act.
Now I come to the wider field. The Debate has ranged widely and, I think, rightly, because we do not have a Housing Bill very often, and this is an opportunity to deal with housing policy generally. One thing the Minister did not mention, although I appreciate his reasons, was the present very high cost of building, which is reflected in excessive rents and is causing the local authorities great perturbation. It is no good raising this matter unless one is prepared to make a suggestion, and I should like to make one or two suggestions. One great source of trouble is the excessive cost of materials. This was touched upon in the Girdwood Report, but, unfortunately, we had only a little information about it, partly because the Minister of Works had set up a special committee to deal with the question of building material prices. However, the Girdwood Committee did at least tell us that the 1938 cost of a three-bedroom council house—not the present improved type—was £380 as compared with about £914 for a similar house today—an increase of £534.
It is important to note the way in which that increase of £534 is made up: increased cost of plant is £11; overheads and profits, £49; labour, £190; and materials, £284. This increase in the cost of materials is enormous and, since the end of 1947, has been no less than 125 per cent. I have tried several times to get the Minister of Works to give us information about the reason for this great increase, but he has been very evasive on the subject. We now know that the Board of Trade are pursuing this matter in connection with monopolies, but tremendous profiteering is taking place in building materials. I could give many examples, if necessary, covering the whole field of materials. There is monopolisation and the reconstruction of companies, to the enormous benefit of shareholders. Immense fees are paid to directors. I could quote a whole list of examples, covering many kinds of building material. I do not want to do that now, but I say that this matter must be tackled if we are to bring down the cost of housing. Prices of materials are altogether excessive, and it is beside the point for the Minister of Works to say that he had no evidence of any excessive profits of monopolistic tendencies.
Then there is the high cost of loans, which is another reason for the excessive cost of housing today. I know that we are in the cheap money era, but the fact is that the price of a three-bedroom council house has gone up from £380 in 1938 to £1,242 at the time the Girdwood Committee wrote their report—three-and-a-quarter times as much. That now represents far more than a 3 per cent. interest basis—it means that there is cheap money no more, and that one is really working at an interest rate of about 10 per cent. The rise we had recently, of 3 per cent., represented between 2s. 6d. and 3s. in the weekly rent of the latest type of council house. A loan at 3 per cent. for 60 years on a 1947 house costing £1,364, inclusive of land, roads, and services, represented at that time 18s. 10d. a week out of a total average rent of 22s. 9d., the difference of 3s. 11d. being made up by the cost of repairs, management and so on. I wish to call attention to the colossal sum which represents the cost of the money. Of the 18s. 10d. loan charges, 15s. represents the interest at 3 per cent. and only about 3s. 10d. represents repayment.
The question might be asked: "What, can one do about that? One is tied by the local loans fund." That is what I want to question now. I have never been an advocate of entirely free loans—I think there should be loans from the Government for house-building at a small nominal rate of interest to cover the administrative costs, but beyond that I fail to see why money for house building has got to come from the local loans fund.
If anyone goes to a bank and wants a loan, the bank at that moment creates credit. It is merely a book-keeping entry. So long as the borrower is good for repayment, the money is created; credit is created. If the banks which are now under our control can create credit by a book-keeping entry, why cannot the State do the same thing? If banks can create credit, I do not see any reason why Government Departments cannot do so in exactly the same way, whether for housing or for any other kind of public expenditure. If that were done and if, instead of going to the local loans fund and calling on the local authority to pay 3 per cent., they were to pay 1 per cent. or ½ per cent. to cover the administrative costs of the loan, there would be a saving of about 15s. a week in the rental of the average house. I do not see why it cannot be done. It has not been done so far, but that is no reason why it should not be done.
Those are the points where I think excessive housing costs should be tackled. First, something should be done about these monopolistic costs of building materials, and secondly, radical action should be taken in relation to the cost of housing loans.
When the Chancellor of the Exchequer reads the OFFICIAL REPORT tomorrow morning he will be very interested in the most unusual suggestion of the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Chamberlain) for creating credit. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Rotherhithe (Mr. Mellish) is not in his place, because he introduced two new interpretations of Socialist philosophy. One was that the condition, and apparently the only condition, required of a Minister of the Crown if he is to be really successful as an administrator is that he should be unpopular with the Opposition. The other was that, excepting my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Penrith and Cockermouth (Colonel Dower), all humanitarian instincts were the monopoly of the Socialist Party opposite.
I welcome many provisions in this Bill. I particularly welcome the recondition- ing grants because I believe that by the reintroduction of those grants great assistance will be brought to rural housing. In the field of rural housing there is much work to be done. As several Members have pointed out, the reconditioning grants will enable small country builders to make their contribution to the problem of increased accommodation. There are a large number of small country builders, who are not likely to get a contract for building half a dozen council houses, but they are extremely competent to undertake the reconditioning work. I am not at all certain that the ceiling of £600 is not a little low, having regard to the present costs of labour and building material. I am afraid it may result in a number of appeals to the Minister on borderline cases, which in its turn will involve delays in carrying out reconditioning.
There is one question I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary. In the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum it says:
The grant to be given will not exceed one-half of the estimated cost of the works as approved by the local authority. No grant will be payable where the approved estimated cost is less than £100 or normally when it is more than £600 (or such other sums as may be prescribed by the Minister by regulations under Clause 26).
I do not know what that means. Does it mean that there will be, in fact, under the regulations which the Minister may make, a certain elasticity about this £600. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will be good enough to tell us when he comes to reply. I am quite certain that for reconditioning cottages of historic or architectural value the limit of £600 is too low, and I am equally certain that the grant in well defined cases should be more than the 50 per cent. The problem of reconditioning historic or architecturally valuable cottages is one that is not straightforward. Complicated work may have to be carried out, some fancy brick work may have to be preserved or it may be necessary to avoid pulling about a particular gable. That requires complicated and highly skilled work, which is costly, and I hope the Government will bear that fact in mind.
The next question I want to ask is—whether the Government really intends to allow the private owner to take advantage of reconditioning grants or is the dice to be loaded against him in favour of the local authorities? To touch on a somewhat controversial topic, will the Parliamentary Secretary also tell the House whether it is the intention of the Government to make it perfectly clear to the local authorities that the reconditioning grant is not to be subject to a means test. The whole object of the old Housing (Rural Workers) Act, which the Government failed to renew in 1945 and under which 23,000 cottages were reconditioned between 1926 and 1945, was that it was the occupier and not the owner who benefited. There was a substantial gap between the figure at which the owner could be reasonably expected to let the reconditioned cottage at an economic rent and the rent which the occupier could reasonably afford to pay, and that gap was bridged by the subsidy. The whole benefit of the improvement, in fact, went to the tenant.
I want to quote two paragraphs from the Hobhouse Report of 1947, with which the hon. Lady the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee) will be very familiar. In dealing with this question of assistance to private owners, it specifically states:
The object of the Acts is to secure for the tenant the benefit of reconstruction and modernisation of a far more comprehensive kind than the landlord is under a statutory obligation to carry out at his own expense. The conditions attached to a grant are designed to ensure that the whole benefit of improvement goes to the tenant. In these circumstances, the discrimination against owners' means can only result in depriving the tenants of the advantages which the Acts are intended to give them.
That indeed is the crux of the whole matter.
The further point I wish to make relating to reconditioning grants is the one to which the hon. Lady the Member for Cannock referred when she suggested that the local authorities ought to take over the reconditioning of all cottages whose condition was such that it was an economic proposition to do so. The Hobhouse Report deals with this matter very fully and very wisely, and it says plainly:
We consider that to require the local authorities to undertake the whole of the work involved in their reconditioning 100,000 houses themselves is beyond the bounds of what it is practicable for them to do in a reasonable time, and would mean that many cottages would fall into such a state of decay that they would have to be demolished and
replaced at a much higher cost to the public funds.
That is the complete answer to the hon. Lady's suggestion.
The hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Mott-Radclyffe) is being very unrealistic in assuming that in one year, two years or several years all this reconditioning work can be done. Obviously there will have to be selected reconditioning if all the new building and other work is to continue at the same time. The local authorities will have plenty on their hands, and I believe that private owners could get loans for this work.
That is the view of the hon. Lady, but it is not the view expressed in the Hobhouse Report. I am only stating that in my view the wise approach to this problem is to give every encouragement to the local authorities and to private owners to do exactly what the Hobhouse Report recommends on page 28.
To turn to the question of tied cottages, I am well aware that this is what an hon. Friend of mine described as "political dynamite," but let us talk a little common sense about it. Hon. Gentlemen opposite have a kind of blind spot about the tied cottage. They think it is a very good vote-catching issue. Maybe it is, but two years ago the Minister himself was in the unenviable position of being put up at the Labour Party Conference more or less to defend the tied cottage system against a resolution which was carried against him, though I forget what the majority was. However, the real difficulty in which hon. Gentlemen opposite find themselves is that the tied house is not peculiar to agriculture. The hon. Lady the Member for Cannock put forward the rather interesting argument that we should not spend public money on reconditioning a house unless the tenant occupying it had security of tenure. That is a very peculiar argument, because large sums of public money have been spent on reconditioning and redecorating houses in Whitehall, such as the Foreign Secretary's house, 10 Downing Street and other Ministers' houses of that kind, which certainly are tied but the occupants have no security of tenure and may change at the whim of the electorate or at the whim of the Prime Minister.
The difference is this. I have not heard of this happening to a Cabinet Minister or his wife or any one who lived in a tied house of that description. A month or six weeks ago a man in my constituency living in a tied house, died. I think he died on the Monday. On the Friday the landlord sent a very nice wreath. On the following Tuesday he sent the widow, who had three children, notice to quit. Six weeks later she was ejected. That has never happened to any other kind of occupant of a tied house so far as I am aware.
Ministers of the Crown are not necessarily given six weeks' notice to quit as the result of a general election, and if the hon. Gentleman would look at the records he would find some cases where the Coal Board have treated tenants of Coal Board houses in a most inhumane manner. When the Ministers says that if a private owner, whether he be the landlord or owner-occupier, wishes to get a grant to recondition one of his agricultural cottages, all he has to do is to untie the cottage, why is it necessary for the Forestry Commission to be in possession of 1,300 tied cottages in England and Wales, why is it necessary for British Railways to have 50,000 tied cottages, not to mention those owned by the Coal Board and hon. Gentleman's own Department—
Of course it is a tied house. Why should the agricultural labourer in a tied house, particularly when he is a key man on the farm, be denied the facilities for having his cottage reconditioned by a grant under this Bill? If the hon. Gentleman really wishes to assist the agricultural industry to achieve its production targets, he must adopt a more commonsense attitude and allow the owner of a tied cottage to get a grant in the same way as the owner of a cottage which is not tied. The hon. Member knows perfectly well that unless far more houses are built in the countryside than have been built up to now, it is quite impossible to run farms properly unless a certain proportion of the cottages are tied.
It is just as important for agricultural production that there should be cottages available for the key men on the farm as it is for the efficiency of the Coal Board, for the Police Force, for the Army. In all these, houses must be available for those who have to live near their jobs. I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to look at this with a little less prejudice and a little more common sense, and not sacrifice agricultural interests on the altar of dogma.
The hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. MottRadclyffe) is a constituent of mine and I know he will not think that I shall follow the line of argument that he has taken tonight.
I only want to make one point with regard to what the hon. Gentleman said. So often when we talk of the evil of tied cottages in agriculture, someone at the back of the meeting says, "The Prime Minister lives in a tied house." So he does, but the Prime Minister gets five years' notice to quit; the farm worker in a service cottage does not get a month's notice to quit.
I want to offer my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on the main provisions contained in the Bill. The Bill is the result of imagination and courage on his part, and I approve of most of the proposals contained in it. However, I have my reservations, and I want to express my doubts about the wisdom of some of the points contained in the Bill. I lost no sleep when the Government decided not to renew the Housing (Rural Workers) Act. I said then that with the continuance of the Act there would be a danger of men, materials and money being expended on the reconditioning of rural cottages which would have an adverse effect upon the building of new cottages.
I am not yet convinced that the time has arrived to introduce legislation to provide again grants towards the reconditioning of private cottages at public expense. Why should the farm worker be fobbed off with a reconditioned cottage, and why should the landlord be given money to reimburse himself for an expenditure he should have undertaken years ago? From a fairly good knowledge of the countryside, I assert that there are many thousands of cottages in rural England that ought never to be reconditioned. They are structurally defective, damp and insanitary, and the only remedy for many thousands of them is complete demolition.
Within the last few days I have had the task of going to part of my division in North Norfolk where the sea broke through and flooded many scores of workmen's houses. I saw, what I knew to be a fact in many parts of the country, that although these were cottages with old-world charm, the old-world charm wore off to those who had to occupy the cottages as tenants. Many of these cottages were flooded to ceiling height in their downstairs rooms. Cottages of that description call not so much for reconditioning as for the provision of many thousands of new cottages to take their place. I hope that, whatever is done under the Bill, we shall attempt, in the rural areas in particular, not only to set a standard of housing but to make sure that local authorities and other people observe that standard.
I should like to pay tribute to what my right hon. Friend's Department has been able to do in the progress of housing in the countryside. What we want is an abundance of houses in all our villages. The figures so far given give the impression that we are gradually but surely getting on top of the housing problem in the rural areas. I am afraid that if we reintroduce reconditioning, it will have the one certain effect of retarding the progress of new schemes in these villages. Houses of the utility type should be built—and not only in the villages—to blend with their surroundings. I hope that if the Bill is passed in its present form, and reintroduces grants for reconditioning, it will not have the effect, which I have feared for so long, of preventing rural district councils from getting on with the job of building an abundance of new houses.
A little while ago I expressed regret that only a certain number of the houses being built in the villages were being let to farm workers. I am very glad to report that those fears have gone, because recent figures indicate that many more of the houses being built in villages today are being occupied by farm workers. If I may read from a letter sent by my right hon. Friend's Department to the National Union of Agricultural Workers only a short time ago, it will indicate to the House the great change which has been brought about in this respect. The Minister, wrote his secretary,
has asked me to write to let you know that he has recently made some inquiries about the letting of new council houses to agricultural workers
When a survey was made early in 1948 it appeared that one-ninth of the applicants for new houses in rural districts were agricultural workers and at that time one-sixth of the completed houses were being let to them. The number has recently increased to more than one-fifth. Taking Great Britain as a whole, agricultural workers amount to approximately one twenty-third of the male working population, while in the last six months of 1948, one-eighteenth of all houses completed by local authorities in England and Wales were let to agricultural workers.
You will see from these figures that the arrangements made to ensure priority are working satisfactorily.
I am delighted to have these new figures from the Minister and I hope that the good work will continue. I wish to speak about reconditioning. The Hob-house Report has been referred to again and again in the Debate. In view of the fact that my wife signed the Hobhouse Report, I have to tread very carefully because what I value above everything else is domestic harmony. In connection with the general recommendations on re-
conditioning, I do not share my wife's view as a member of the Hobhouse Committee and I have opinions of my own, although I am a married man. I am taking an unfair advantage of the fact that my wife is not here by expressing these opinions tonight. I might be prepared to concede the grants for reconditioning were the tenants given real security. But the Minister seems to think there is something magic about the word "tenancy." When used in connection with reconditioning in this Bill, there is nothing magic about it at all. What right does the tenant get even when we talk about a restricted tenancy? In these cases it practically means that a man who occupies a house under a restricted tenancy is almost as liable to eviction from his cottage as the other person we all recognise as an occupant of a tied cottage.
The only safeguard in this connection is that before a man can be evicted from his cottage there shall be a court order and alternative accommodation provided. Agricultural employers, owners of cottages, will take the subsidies on the ground that they created the tenancy and will forthwith proceed to the agricultural committee and get a certificate, and the security which the Minister and others thought that man had on a restricted tenancy in his cottage vanishes completely. When the Minister said he thinks that the attraction of a grant will untie cottages which are tied, he is mistaken.
In this connection, I refer to a court decision which very plainly indicates that a tenancy provides no safeguard at all. I refer to the judgment recently given in the Court of Appeal in the case of Smith versus Long Eaton Cooperative Society. I shall be pleased to let the Minister have the transcript of the shorthand note of the judgment in which the court decided, in effect, that the landlord was entitled to possession of the house let on a tenancy, the landlord also being the employer. I strenuously and earnestly suggest to the Minister that he should think again about this business and that there should not be any public money made available for any type of cottage which has the slightest resemblance to a tied cottage.
I have said all along, in connection with the Forestry Commission's cottages, that I wish the local authority had been the builders. Something went wrong and they were not the builders. I should like all houses at present regarded as tied cottages, on the railways and in connection with the mines, to be handed to the Minister through the local authorities. That is the only way to give the people security of tenure, to which they are entitled.
We have been told from the benches opposite that those of us who oppose reconditioning grants for these cottages will be depriving the occupants of the benefit of decent conditions. That is a fair point to make, but I do not accept it. For some years some of us have stood, not for reconditioning of rotten old cottages but for the erection of entirely new cottages in our villages. As I say, the work is proceeding, and I hope that the work of providing modern free cottages in abundance in our villages will continue. The Bill, so far as it applies to reconditioning grants, will not in the slightest degree fulfil its purpose in regard to tied cottages. We shall be giving to the owners of those cottages public money not only to recondition them but to perpetuate a system which we on this side of the House say is entirely wrong. We say that if grants are given for reconditioning it will add to the social tragedy on the countryside, and I warn my hon. Friends that it will add to the political tragedy at the next Election if they are not careful.
I shall vote for this Bill, because, as I say, I agree with most of it. I think it is a fine Bill in almost every respect. I wish the Minister would take his courage in both hands, and go all out to abolish the tied cottage forever. He knows that if he does so he will have the backing of the people. He has the backing of two party conferences in regard to where to "get off" and where to "get on" in this respect. I suggest that he should "get on" this time, and that when we come to the Committee stage that he should think again about these reconditioning grants for tied cottages and have something different from the present proposal. I give the Minister credit for having learned a lot in the past few years about tied cottages. He has learned to abhor them. If one wants an indication of what is in his mind about tied cottages generally, one will find it in the Bill. I say to him that if, instead of giving doles to tied cottage owners, he will give freedom to tied cottage tenants, the farm workers will forever recall the good name of "Nye the blessed."
As I have promised to speak for only five minutes, I wish to refer exclusively to the effect on the countryside of the provisions in the Bill for the erection of new rural houses and the improvement of existing houses. I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his use of the word "improvement" in the Bill instead of "reconditioning." The word "reconditioning" is condemned by Sir Ernest Gowers in his book "Plain Words," and I believe many people in the countryside and elsewhere have not the slightest idea what it means. They will understand "improvement."
I want to mention particularly the external appearance of rural houses. Like the hon. Member for Thornbury (Mr. Alpass), who represents a Cotswold Division, I am delighted with Clause 30, which provides an extra subsidy for stone when it is thought necessary to use it in order to preserve the character of the surroundings. I hope that local authorities and planning officers will make extensive use of this power where stone harmonises with the landscape better than brick. The use of glaring red brick in a stone area for the past hundred years has been disastrous. I hope that the increased use of stone may bring down the cost of stone buildings.
There is one omission from the Bill which I regret. There is no provision for architectural advice. The Lord Justice Scott Committee recommended in 1942 that rural designs should be subject to the approval of statutory panels of architects. The Hobhouse Committee, which included three Members of the present House, made a similar recommendation, and suggested that where the houses are of architectural or historic interest, architects with a special knowledge of reconditioning old property should be used. They went so far as to say that two-thirds of such an architect's fee should be in- cluded in the State grant. They pointed out the advantage of architectural advice, not only for individual houses but also to ensure that village streets were treated as a coherent whole. There is no such provision in the Bill. Perhaps it would have been rather difficult to differentiate between a suitable architect and an unsuitable one. But the Minister has proved his interest in architecture more than once and reasserted it today. If he cannot put anything in the Bill, I hope he will give an assurance that he will use his existing powers to insist on proper architectural advice.
The Minister stated that the main activity of local authorities now will be slum clearance. With slum clearance go, of course, demolition orders. Under the present law a demolition order once made cannot be rescinded. I suggest that that is very inconvenient and unnecessary. There have been a number of cases, and I could quote them if there were time, in which second thoughts or improved methods have convinced the owner, the tenant and the local authority that reconditioning is possible; but there is no legal power to rescind the demolition order. If I am accused of desiring to perpetuate insanitary conditions, I can assure the House that I have no such desire. Surely if all these three parties are agreed, and the Minister also approves, the rescission of a demolition order ought to be made possible. I ask for provision to be made in the Bill for that.
Practically every hon. Member who has spoken from the Opposition side has indicated a qualified approval of this Bill. They have given us the impression that they have reluctantly said, "Yes" because they have been afraid to say "No." I have been wondering whether they are guilty of what they are accusing us of doing, that is, appealing for votes. They know that if they voted against this Bill there would be little chance of their obtaining the working class vote.
Every hon. and right hon. Member in this House who represents a large city could paint a tragic picture of the terrible housing conditions in the city which he represents. We have heard the story this evening of 20,000, 30,000, and even 40,000 people on the waiting list for houses. That condition is not the responsibility of this Government. This Government did not create the housing conditions that prevail in this country at the present time. It is an evil which has gradually grown during the past century, and it is the responsibility of this Government to remove that evil.
As one who represents a very large constituency, I welcome this Bill wholeheartedly. It will help the housing authorities to relieve the pressure which is now upon them. There is one matter with which I would ask the Minister to deal when he replies and that is the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act. This is the second admirable step which the Minister has taken so far as that Act is concerned. A year or so ago, he increased the amount to £1,500. I put a question to him three weeks ago asking whether he would consider increasing this amount still further. He asked me then to wait until the Bill was presented, and I am glad that on this occasion he is increasing the amount to £5,000. I wish to ask him whether there is any condition as far as the loan is concerned? There are a number of people outside who are of the opinion that if the unexpired lease of the house is 30 or 40 or 50 years, then the grant will not be made. I should like to know if there is a number of years specified when deciding whether or not a grant should be made.
I congratulate the Minister on what he has done and I hope that the working-class people will take advantage of the position. We have heard today of the abolition under this Bill of the phrase "working-class" in the description of houses in the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act. I presume that now we shall have to drop the word "small." A dwelling worth £5,000 would not be considered by me to be a small dwelling. On the question of the phrase "workingclass," I suppose that now we shall have to say, just as an opponent of Socialism said 20 years ago, "We are all Socialists now," that in this House tonight, "We are all workers now."
In reference to the provision of laundry services, I recall 25 years ago going to see the washhouses which had been provided in a London borough. I congratulated those who introduced those facilities at that time. It was a step in the right direction. There were no sculleries in many of the houses in London and there was no room to dry clothes which had been washed. I saw women in the washhouses working hard washing their clothes. This Bill goes a step further in that right direction by giving facilities to local authorities not only to provide the machinery but to supply the laundry service itself. I welcome the facilities for the sale of furniture. Hon. Members will recall that not many months ago we had complaints in this House about furniture being sold which was found to consist of packing cases knocked together. After half the price had been paid, the vendors took the furniture back, and the matter was raised in this House. I am glad that there will be some guarantee to people who purchase furniture under this arrangement that the goods will be well made of good timber.
My last point concerns the tied cottage. This is a controversial subject, and I do not propose to argue about when a cottage is tied and when it is not, and whether No. 10 Downing Street or Buckingham Palace are tied cottages. If a farmer wants to repair a cottage and he wants a grant from the Government, then he must comply with the conditions which attach to the grant. If he is not prepared to do that, he must not place the responsibility upon the Government. What many of them want to do is to place the responsibility upon the Government and to say to the farm labourer, "You cannot have your house repaired because the Government will not grant the money." They do not tell the farm labourer that they are not prepared to accept the conditions attaching to the grant by the Government. I heartily approve of this Bill, and I am glad that the Opposition do not propose to divide the House.
The Debate has ranged widely but usefully over a field a little more extensive than the actual limits of the Measure before us. Of course, we intend not merely not to divide against the Bill, but to support many of its provisions. In fact, the Bill carries out in some cases simple reenactments of Conservative Acts of Parliament and, in others, it merely places upon the Statute Book provisions for which we have pressed for nearly the whole of this Parliament. It would be a great mistake for us, from a fractious point of view, to say that we disapprove of matters which we ourselves have placed upon the Statute Book. The Bill makes provisions of two kinds, some minor and one or two major ones. On the minor provisions, I think the field has been very well covered already by various speakers on this side of the House and particularly in the admirable opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith). He dealt amongst other things with the questions of laundries, hostels and the sale of furniture. If furniture is to be supplied upon an economic basis, there is no reason why any of us should object to it, nor do we.
The main proposals with which I shall deal are those which have been exercising the House the whole evening, and, roughly, they raise the question to what extent will action follow upon the passage of this Measure. There is undoubtedly a feeling in the House that, if this is merely a diversion from one field of housing to another, it will be a great disadvantage. The point has been expressed by many hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is not sufficient if this is merely a rearrangement of the horses in the wagon, so that one is to be yoked at the tailboard to push and another in the shafts to pull. What is essential in this is that it should be a trace horse brought in to help the load of housing up the hill, and, unless it does that, I fear it will not succeed in bringing about the results which we all wish.
My first question to the Parliamentary Secretary who is to reply is this: What extra facilities will be made available under the terms of this Bill? What extra materials, and, if we cannot make additional labour available, what acceleration in house building does he anticipate, and from where can reinforcements be drawn to carry out the proposals in the Bill? I do not think any of us would agree to the somewhat gloomy paragraph in the Memorandum explaining the Bill, which, on pages 6 and 7, states:
The general effect of the provisions of the Bill will not be to alter the volume of housing work, … but to alter the distribution of building resources for housing work.
Frankly, if that is the proposal, it is not going to meet either the desires of the House or the necessities of the country.
The Minister, in introducing the Bill, gave some interesting figures about the progress of housing, and drew the conclusion that he had already brought the country up to a position rather better than that of pre-war, and that he was beginning to eat into the deficit. It is an optimistic view which I do not think is borne out by the practical experience of any one of us in our constituencies or in the postbag which any one of us receives. The fact is that not now, not at the next General Election or even the election after that, will any Minister of Health be able to go to the country and say, "The housing problem is solved." It is not so, it will not be so, and the need will pursue him and hammer on his heels. Before the war we built 367,000 houses, not the 220,000 shown in these figures, and our motto then was, "On to the next million." The figure of 220,000 is not sufficient to deal with the housing shortage, and, unless this is an additional provision and not a diversion, a great disappoint awaits everyone who has clamoured for the introduction of this Bill.
Part of the Minister's argument was that the lists have now increased by numbers of people who previously did not register themselves. Their economic circumstances he said, are better. A fresh economic potential has been revealed. But that was not what we were going on before the war. We were going on a survey, and unless the Minister can quote a survey against a survey, the mere movement of the lists one way or the other is really not germane to our discussion. He will have to show that he has actually, by survey, dealt with the numbers of people desiring houses, and when that is finished he will need to start on the enormous task in this country of upgrading the general housing accommodation for which he or some subsequent Minister of Health will be responsible. The gross volume of housing output in this country is insufficient, and this Measure must be an addition to it and not a diversion from it. That is the first point.
The Minister also said that he was in favour of a property-owning democracy. We welcome his conversion to this ideal. He is, of course, still a little amateur at it. His language is not always that of a convinced believer in the object, and he is a little creaky and rusty about it. But
when he gets run in he will, no doubt, be as eloquent on that as he was previously on the opposite tack. For it was not very long ago when, addressing the architects, he said:
It is essential that owner occupation or private ownership of small dwellings should become the exception. We are living in a society which is exceedingly mobile.
He then went on to say that he thought the ownership of small houses was a mistake. But tonight he comes in different role. One of the engaging things about the Minister is that he always does his war dancing with the corner of his white flag sticking out of his pocket, and consequently here, as in other Debates, he is advancing a theory which, in fact, contradicts some of the wilder statements he has made in previous Debates. He will, no doubt, subsequently explain away his remarkable image of the unhappy owner of small property as one "gorging himself upon the tenants." That is not the relation of which most of us have had experience in the correspondence we have received, or in the cases brought before us.
The difficulties in which we find ourselves are not to be conjured away by the mere adoption of a phrase by the Minister. He will need to give action as well as words, and the action as has been pointed out by Member after Member from all over the House, is that, in some way or other, the high cost of building must be cut down or else these things are merely dreams. The question of the tied cottage has been discussed from all over the House, and it has been said by hon. Members opposite that the ideal is, of course, to have new houses into which the agricultural workers can be moved. But if the rents of the new cottages are as disproportionate to the rents of the present cottages in future as they are at present, then the bias against going into these new houses by the people for whose benefit they have been constructed will be terrific. That is the weakness of the present position. The tied cottage is, among other things, a cheap cottage, and the old house is, among other things, a low rented house.
Naturally so, but if we raise all the rents of the country to economic rents then the hon. Member's backing for the Minister will be very necessary indeed, because before he gets the rents of this country up to what it costs to produce houses, at 300 per cent. above pre-war, he is going to have an economic storm which I do not think he fully appreciates and did not fully appreciate when he made that interjection.
The difficulty of the present situation is, of course, that the rents for houses are below the replacement value—below the sums necessary to maintain them and far below the sums necessary to replace the structures of which they are supposedly the rents. The difficulty in which the Minister is placed is this: he first passes an Act, as he did last week, holding down the rents and then he goes round the corner and produces a subsidy to compensate for his action. I am reminded of the epigram of Lord Eustace Percy about the Ministry of Education when he said their pensions were sums of money of indeterminate amount, the payment of which was precluded by the appropriate regulation. The Minister's view of rent is that it is a sum paid for the maintenance of a dwelling, supplemented by an allowance of indeterminate amount rising as the inflationary policy of the Government proceeds. That is a very unsatisfactory way in which to move and the Minister is getting into greater and greater difficulty as time goes on.
The Minister has, with the consent of all, abolished the term "working class" from this Bill. The definition has become entirely meaningless—that is, the definition which he himself quoted, beginning with the word "mechanics." Does anybody suggest that mechanics are now the lowest-paid section of the community? Everyone knows of houses inhabited by persons who come under that definition who are certainly receiving sums of money weekly, in wages, which are far above those being received by the black-coated, white-collared workers, who previously were supposed to be their superiors. It is a word which is now meaningless and, as the hon. Member for Central Bristol (Mr. Awbery) did us the justice to say, we all belong to the working classes nowadays. That is what the hon. Member said and we accept it with gratitude. We hope to share in some of the privileges which are extended to them. We hope this is the first instalment and that many more instalments will subsequently follow. Certainly, the monopoly of council houses by a section of society which in many cases is being paid far above the sums which are being drawn by those who have provided cottage property is an anomaly which it is high time was abolished.
The Minister, for this purpose, makes grants and loans. Again, we fear that these are so tightly tied up with the desire of the Government that nobody should receive one penny of financial advantage from the resulting transaction that the Bill will defeat its own object. I have here a letter which is simply a sample of the letters I receive every day, as no doubt hon. Members opposite receive them every day. One hon. Member gave some examples of that on the last occasion on which he was addressing the House. This is from an old lady. Her name is Mrs. Margaret Mills, and her address is 35, School Road, Tilehurst, Reading, She says:
Just before the war my husband and I put our very hard earned savings into four cottages, thinking my husband could look after them himself … Immediately after the war started my husband died leaving me with four very low rented cottages, the repairs of which soon became so excessive that I sold my own little home to keep things going until after the war, when I never doubted that these very low rents would be increased to meet present conditions … It would have been better if I had kept my own house … and let these cottages rot from the first, because I find they are not my houses. I have no control over the tenants. They are all earning far more money than my husband ever did, I believe, yet they are living practically rent free on our savings.
That is not an exaggerated or an unusual example. It happens time and again. To offer an owner of property—a theoretical landlord—a grant for reconditioning these houses, tied and fettered in the way in which these grants are fettered under this legislation, and to refuse any improvement in the condition of the basic return which she derives from that property, is to offer something of which the landlord—in this case the small property owner—will be totally incapable of taking advantage. That is one of the difficulties which we see before us when this legislation comes to be applied.
I was anxious not to exclude from the discussion any of those who have waited a long time to participate in it, and therefore I have cut my own time down to the minimum. I do not intend to trespass longer upon the time of the House, particularly since the Committee stage is really the stage when we shall go more closely into the Bill. I say again that the Debate tonight is overhung by a certain sense of unreality, and until the Minister can give us some indication of how far a real expansion of facilities to produce houses will be completed to put flesh and blood upon the bones of this Bill, that sense of unreality will persist.
The objects of the Bill are in most cases admirable. The execution of the objects, it seems to me, is in many cases very far from adequate. The danger is that the House may find that in an attempt to do good to some it is doing an injustice to many. By focussing its ideals upon reconditioned houses built in Cotswold stone, with laundry facilities, restaurants and hostels, it may be charging the people who are living in houses which are far inferior to those, rates and taxes in order to give a relatively small section of the community facilities which those who are paying for these facilities will never themselves be able to enjoy.
These are obvious dangers which all of us feel. They can only be removed by a careful examination by the House and by careful administration subsequently by the Minister; but, as has been said by more than one hon. Member on this side, any step which even holds out a hope for the improvement of the housing situation must be accepted gratefully by all in every quarter of the House. It is in the hope that this Bill can be made a step towards an improvement of the housing situation that we give it our blessing tonight.
We have received tonight something approaching a general welcome to this Measure, amounting almost at stages to enthusiasm, or at least as near to enthusiasm as I think we are entitled to expect from hon. Members opposite.
The right hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) commenced by expressing his welcome in very genuine terms, but that welcome seemed to cloud in his final passages. I think it would only be right that we should clearly understand the basis of this Measure which I thought my right hon. Friend had so fully and ably put before the House in his speech this afternoon. This Bill itself does not, of course, provide any new special resources of materials to be made available at the present time. What this Bill does, above all, is to ensure that local authorities and private owners shall have the opportunity of planning their work ahead and also that as it becomes possible—indeed it may be possible already in some areas; the position varies very much from one area to another—this vital and important work of improvement shall proceed. It is right that this issue should be properly brought into the whole scheme of housing development.
It is vital that the first priority today, as it has been before, shall be for the provision of new houses. Hon. Members behind me, as well as hon. Members on the other side of the House, have properly insisted that the need today is still for new houses, and it is right that we should recognise that need, although we can take pride in the very real progress that has been made over the last three and a half years. We are anxious to ensure that this Measure will not interfere with the development of the drive for new housing, with which, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, we are desirous to proceed with every vigour so as to ensure as quickly as possible the provision of a separate home for every family in this country. In some areas it is possible to proceed with the improvement of housing which but for that might lose its value altogether. For that, amongst other important reasons, it is essential that this Measure should now be considered. Hon. Members opposite and in particular the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith), in opening the Debate, suggested that this Measure was a certain number of years late. I am not quite certain at what precise point of time he thought it should have been brought in, and whether that time was in 1945 or 1947.
I suggest again to the hon. Gentleman that obviously it should have been brought in as soon as possible after the recommendations of the Silkin Committee at the end of August, 1945, and certainly not later than that, and to have been effective in, 1947, when conditions for conversion were much more suitable than they are today.
We believe that this moment is the first moment at which this Measure should properly be introduced. Had it been introduced earlier we are satisfied it would have meant a funnelling of resources of labour and material into reconditioning work that more properly should be devoted to what is still the primary object, the provision of new houses. It must be borne in mind by hon. Members opposite that there is a great deal of bomb damage repair work still continuing, which has already dealt with 100,000 unoccupied houses. This, of course, is a reason why it hay been decided that this Measure could not be introduced at any earlier time without detriment to the major objective about which we are all concerned.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed different points on this Bill. Some have been concerned with service cottages, others with tied cottages, and all have expressed their opinions about it. My right hon. Friend properly insisted that there is no reason why Government grants should be made which would have the effect of perpetuating what is, in effect, a feudal system. It is quite wrong to imagine that we should in these days agree to a continuation of this system longer than is absolutely necessary, and we are therefore making this proposal as a step forward. We know perfectly well that the real means of overcoming the problem of the tied cottage is by an adequate provision of new houses in the countryside.
I was very glad to hear the welcome of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Gooch), who emphasised the very gratifying and helpful development of new housing in rural areas which has been achieved during the last few years and, in particular, the extra provision which is now being made for agricultural workers in those houses. The issue is quite clearly that we cannot as a Government be expected to make grants for this service type of cottage, but we do insist that it should be possible for the tenants to enjoy the same opportunities of decent housing accommodation which we are anxious to provide gener- ally. Therefore, it is quite fair to say that the Bill makes provisions to ensure that everyone, whether at present in a tied cottage or not, should be able to enjoy the advantages which the Bill provides simply by ensuring that the owner of the service cottage shall transfer that service cottage into a tenancy agreement.
I would here like to deal with a point raised, very properly, by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee). Two divisions of family life seem to have been expressed during this Debate. However, the hon. Lady very properly referred to the point whether the security of tenure under the Rent Restrictions Acts would be made available under the proposals of this Bill. I can assure her that it is the intention to secure to the tenant that security of tenure under the Rent Restrictions Acts, and should there be any doubt about the matter, it can be reexamined on the Committee stage. It has been suggested that agricultural executive committees automatically grant certificates which will ensure owners the possession of the house. That is not quite so. From the information which I have, only about half the applications to agricultural executive committees are granted, so that there is a very real extension of security by the provisions of the Bill.
I speak from certain knowledge when I say that the percentage of refusals of certificates by agricultural executive committees is almost infinitesimal. I have known of cases where certificates have been granted and magistrates have refused them.
Perhaps my hon. Friend will let us have particulars, but the information that I have suggests that over-all not more than half are granted. As to grants to private landlords, a subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and others, the issue about which we are anxious is to secure that the tenant shall enjoy the benefits of improved housing accommodation. It should be remembered, too, that we are providing here not for ordinary repairs which it is the responsibility, and remains the responsibility, of the landlord to carry out, but improvements to housing to ensure that the tenant shall enjoy better housing accommodation than he has enjoyed in the past. It is true, as well, that local authorities will be obliged under this Measure to investigate these cases in detail, and it is not a question at all of any general provision of grants without proper investigation and without the proper conditions which are being imposed. I was rather surprised to find the right hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities querying these conditions because, after all, they are very much those that were recommended in the Report on Reconditioning in Rural Areas and which, I imagine, had general support in this House.
The hon. Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson) raised a point about the survey. I think he knows that a survey of a limited character has been carried out by some local authorities, but our view is that a national survey will be needed. We have not lost sight of this important fact, and a national survey will be carried out at a later date when it becomes possible to do so. It is a little early to do that while the main need is still for new houses to be built. With regard to standards of reconditioning, I can give him an assurance that they will be prescribed broadly on the lines recommended by the Central Housing Advisory Committee, as he suggested. I might mention at the same time that advice from architects, both for general work under this Bill and for specialised work in connection with houses of archaeological interest can best, in the view of my right hon. Friend, be provided administratively, and that will, of course, be done.
When we come to the general provisions for furniture and for other services, I seemed to detect a certain amount of division of opinion among hon. Members opposite. The hon. Member for Hertford seemed to be suggesting that these provisions were recommended and urged forward by Conservative Ministers in the past, but the hon. and learned Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe) seemed to take a much more unfriendly view of these services and, indeed, seemed to suggest that he would be opposed to them had he the opportunity.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not want to misrepresent me on that point. The difference between my hon. Friend and myself was that my hon. Friend said that he was prepared to accept these services on the basis that he trusted the Minister to execute them honestly; I do not trust the right hon. Gentleman to do so.
Our intention is that they shall be self-supporting. We want to ensure in these services a reasonable amount of latitude for local authorities to develop, instead of cramping them as Members of the Opposition have done in past years. We want to ensure that the housing service provided shall be properly provided, with the natural and proper amenities attached to it.
I was very glad that hon. Members referred to the question of the use of special building materials and in particular to the use of stone, which, unfortunately, has been referred to only in connection with the Cotswolds. As a North Country man, I hope that the use of stone will not be restricted to the Cotswolds. [HON. MEMBERS:" Hear, hear."] Like hon. Gentlemen opposite, I am hopeful that it may become possible to use again more stone than we have been using in recent years. I hope that in the North Country, where I belong—in some of the very lovely villages of Northumberland and Yorkshire—we shall be able to see in future the use of stone as we used to see it in older days.
The hon. Member for Rotherhithe (Mr. Mellish) raised the question of the rates for subsidy on sites of high density; that is, where blocks of flats are being built on very expensive sites, in large numbers and in high density. The Bill, of course, is not a general subsidy Bill, but the intention of the 1946 Act was to provide for a subsidy that will be broadly adequate for the building of houses at an average density of some 35 flats to the acre. Some authorities, of course, because of planning restrictions and for other reasons, have been obliged to build at a very much lower density than that, which has meant very real hardship. In the other extreme, there have been authorities which have built at a very much higher density. It seemed to us only fair that there should be some redistribution here of the subsidy to achieve the object which was the intention of the 1946 Act. That is all that has been done. If my hon. Friend wishes to raise the general subject of subsidy that should not be done on this Measure but should await my right hon. Friend's further announcement on subsidy matters which, no doubt, he will have to make at a later date.
The great value of the Bill we have been discussing is, above all, the widening of opportunities, both for local authorities and for private owners, to ensure that there should be a proper opportunity for both to do work for their housing needs which has not been possible in the past because of the major concern with the provision of new housing. One of the great advantages of this Measure, as I see it, is that it is an imaginative scheme, which gives for the first time real and new opportunities to local authorities. In introducing the scheme to the House today, my right hon. Friend suggested a few ways in which local authorities might plan their developments for the future. While in many cases it will not be possible for local authorities to carry out large schemes of this kind immediately, because of the pressing need for new housing, it will be possible for them to make their plans well in advance. Everyone knows the time which is inevitably taken to translate schemes which are prepared into actual housing construction.
Therefore, we consider this a valuable and helpful Measure to take the country a stage further in dealing with its housing needs. Hon. Members opposite suggest that they have always been concerned with the social needs of the community. Many hon. Members opposite have stressed the measures that Conservative administrations have taken in the past in connection with housing and other matters. As one who comes from an area in the North of England which has suffered very severely from depression and very severely from living under the effects of the administration of hon. Members opposite—
—I take some pride in the fact that areas like my own are seeing some really effective provision made for their people. In areas of this kind we know the truth behind the assertions of hon. Members opposite that they have made contributions towards our social needs. For many years before the war we were obliged to live under the provisions that they made and we know the appalling lack. We know that in the years immediately before the war there were long periods of opportunity for housing development open to them and how urgent was the need of the masses of the people among whom we lived. It is because we recognise that effect on the needs of our areas and recognise how important it is to devote all our immediate energies to the provision of new houses that we bring forward this Bill to give local authorities and private owners an opportunity of planning ahead and, where possible of making immediate provision for the improvement of their housing for the advantage and benefit of our people.
Will my hon. Friend give the assurance in regard to housing associations for which I asked, namely, that the more restricted definition of their powers in a Schedule to this Bill as compared with Section 8 of the 1928 Act does not mean that their powers will be restricted in any way?