Orders of the Day — Rural Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th June 1949.

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Photo of Sir Archer Baldwin Sir Archer Baldwin , Leominster 12:00 am, 30th June 1949

It seems appropriate that I should be following with an Adjournment Debate on very much the same sort of complaint as those to which I have been listening during the Scottish Debate. I want to call the attention of the House to the delay in building rural cottages and, in particular, the delay in building cottages for farm workers. I know that I shall be faced with a history of what has been done in the way of building houses in rural districts; I shall be given figures to prove what a tremendous amount of work has been done. The fact remains, however, that the number of agricultural workers who have had houses built for them in rural areas is extremely small. In many instances where those cottages have been let to farm workers, there is no certainty that those workers will remain on the land after they have been given a cottage.

I know that some rural district councils have been very lucky in their efforts, but some have been very unlucky. If the Parliamentary Secretary is going to say that the delay in building these cottages is due to the rural district councils, I will suggest in advance that it is the duty of the Ministry of Health to see that these rural district councils get on with their job of building houses. It is always difficult in these Adjournment Debates to foresee the arguments that will be advanced against any case that is brought forward. In fact, they are hardly Debates: there is generally a statement on one side and a contradiction on the other. I often wish we could have 10 minutes each way for question and answer. Then it would be a real Debate.

I want particularly to stress the importance of farmers getting houses out in the countryside which are reasonably near to the work which the men have to do, instead of having these houses built in villages far from the work which has to be done. At the present time in isolated parts of the country, such as where I live, we have to depend very largely on casual labour. We have, living under not very good conditions, many Germans who were prisoners of war and who have now been civilianised; they live, as we call it in the country, "a bit rough," but they are doing a good job of work. They will not stay here for ever; eventually they will want to go back to their own country.

We also have to depend on the workers in the hostels which are placed around the countryside. We have to pay these hostel workers 10s. a week more than our skilled men. They are entirely unskilled; very often they are thoroughly inefficient and generally they leave their work around harvest time when the work is in full swing. The cost to the farmer is generally anything up to 15s. to £1 a week more than the cost of his own skilled man. We want to get some cottages out in the countryside so that we can do away with this inefficient, unskilled labour and get back to the days when we could put reliable men in these houses—men who understood the job.

I want to give the House a little of the history of some of these delays, because it may be suggested that I am not being quite accurate. I will give two instances—first of all, the case of the Kington rural district council. They selected the sites for cottages in four villages as far back as April, 1943. In July, 1944, the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and the Ministry of Agriculture agreed that the sites were all right. In February, 1946, the authority received from the Ministry of Health permission to get some tenders. In May tenders were accepted by the council and submitted to the Ministry. The regional water engineer looked into the water supplies, and into the provision of sewers and roads. From then onwards there was considerable correspondence until in May, 1947, the inspector reported that the supplies of water were not satisfactory. The Ministry of Health, in June, 1947, reported that the water supplies at another site were insufficient. So it went on.

In February, 1948, tenders were again invited, and the Ministry considered they were too high. Revised prices were obtained and sent to the Ministry in March, 1949. This time the Ministry replied that they thought the tenders were too low. They suggested to the rural district council that it should take a bond from the builder tendering for the cottages because they did not think he would carry out the work. Incidentally, the builder is one of the biggest builders in my constituency. His is a most reliable firm. I have here two pages of notes that tell a story of frustration starting in 1943, and there is not yet one single brick put down. This is because licences are not issued to private builders unless this ridiculous ratio of one in five is observed, and the result is that the people who want to build the cottages cannot obtain the licences because the rural district council has not erected its quota.

I have a sample here of the sort of correspondence that goes on concerning this business. One individual farmer wanted to get permission to build one house for his stockman. The site was approved, and everything was in order, except that he could not get the licence to build. He wrote to me about it a few days ago, saying: It looks as though I shall have to go without the cottage for some considerable time, and I only hope my herdsman does not leave me when I break the news to him. The farmer wants to build a decent house to replace one which has been condemned. He cannot because of the ridiculous ratio of one in five.

I have another case here concerning a district in Herefordshire and the rural district council of Preston Wynne. This case has not been running quite so long—only three years. However, not one single brick has been put on the ground yet. The case starts off with the usual old muddle. A lady member of the council writes: It is only fair to say that up to 1945 we had not been very active because the clerk was away on war service, but you will see from the history attached that the original delay was due to Ministerial disapproval of the site. The same performance went on in this case as the other. The site was approved and then turned down. The merry-go-round went round and round. The lady councillor writes: This delay means that in April, 1949, we are asked more for an inferior house than we should have had to pay in October, 1948, which was too dear for the Ministry to accept. These are fantastic things that are going on, and I appeal to the Ministry of Health to cut loose from the red tape, to allow the people on the spot, who know where they want their houses built, and who know whether the sites are right or not, to get on with their job. I appeal to the Ministry to stop this ridiculous frustration.

I have a letter from a farmer friend, who lives in that district. I sent to him a letter from the Parliamentary Secretary in which the plea was made that the reason for the delay was that the site was very isolated. It is worth noting that even if districts are isolated farmers are supposed to live in them to produce food, and we have to have cottages in those isolated districts. I should have thought myself that if a district was isolated there was all the more reason for pressure to be put on the Minister of Health to have houses built in it. This farmer says: The history of the last three years has been one of muddle, complacency, inefficiency and drift. The Ministry may say that this place is isolated and in an out-of-the-way part of the world, but the farmer is turning out over £100 gross per acre, and he cannot continue to do that unless he gets some cottages. The Minister calls this isolated: it is half a mile from the school by road and 600 yards by footpath, five minutes from the village hall, 200 yards from the local bus route and 300 yards from the main Hereford bus route. I can show the Minister much worse places than that. The effect is that no one in that area who wants to build a house for one of his men can get a licence to do so, because the rural district council have not been allowed to get on with their job.

Let me now refer to a rural district council which has got on with the job. I want to refer to this council because some of its members rather took me to task after a housing Debate in which I mentioned the high rents they were charging for their houses. I was challenged by the Minister of Health to give the name of the council and I gave it—the Leominster Rural District Council, who rather thought that I was making an attack on them because of the high rents they were charging. I was doing nothing of the sort. They must charge high rents when they have to pay an extravagant price for building the houses. Here is a district council which under contract has built or agreed on 90 houses. In spite of the fact that this rural district council has built all these houses there are still 15 people who want to build cottages for their men. They are still on the waiting list and cannot get a licence, despite the fact that the district council has built all these cottages.

I appeal to the Minister to abandon the idea that we want only council houses in this country. Surely now, four years after the war, it is time that people who want to build a house should be allowed to do so where they think it is necessary. I do not believe in ribbon development, but I think the local people can decide about that. These people should be entitled to build the houses where they want them, on the farm or in the village. Let the men who have to build the houses and the men who have to live in them decide where the houses should be built. We live in this wretched age of over-planning; we are planned from before birth until we get into the grave. We shall soon have our coffins marked "O.H.M.S."

I wish the Minister would give us some freedom to build these houses. To say houses must be built in villages because of what are called "amenities" is sheer nonsense. The farmers themselves have to live on the land; the farmers' wives want amenities; they want running water and electric light. If these amenities can be put into the farmhouses they can be put into the cottages for the farm workers. There is no need to build cottages in the villages merely for the sake of amenities.

I assert that it is necessary for the man who is bringing the money into the home to have a house close to his job, so that if in going to work in the early morning he gets wet he can go home, get a change of clothing, and lose very little time getting back to work. Because of this system of herding people together in villages some farm workers have to cycle two, three and four miles to their work; they never have a hot meal in the middle of the day; and if they get wet early in the morning they have either to work in wet clothes all day long, or else leave their work for a long period. On Sundays herdsmen, who have to go to work in the morning, in the middle of the day, and again in the evening, have to cycle many unnecessary miles. I do plead with the Parliamentary Secretary to tell his Minister that the time has come when we should be entitled to build a house where we want it. If we build it in the wrong place we must suffer, not the Ministry of Health or the council. But we shall not build a house where we cannot get a man to live in it. We know something about our job, and we only ask that we should be entitled to do our job.

Two years ago, in August, we ran into an economic crisis. I well remember the Prime Minister making a statement in the House then on the importance of agricultural production. He stressed the importance of increasing our output. We are again getting into an economic crisis. No matter what the Chancellor of the Exchequer may say, all the signs are that circumstances may force us to devalue the pound. If the pound is devalued, I want the country to realise what it will cost to buy food from abroad. I want the country to look at this question of increased agricultural production from the economic point of view.

We are today spending capital on building new towns. We have more new towns in Great Britain than we can sustain, and in a few years we shall find that out. We are wasting money building new towns. That building could be taking place in the isolated and marginal land parts of the country. Thousands of pounds are being spent on Mobberley, which is to take the overspill of Manchester. I suggest that that money should be spent in the Welsh hills, to get them populated and to get more food for the people to eat. I suggest it should be spent on an estate which has just come into the hands of the nation, where people are living almost under the conditions of cave dwellers. If this job is not tackled and tackled well, the country will be very much more hungry than it is at the present time.