Orders of the Day — Housing, Birmingham

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30 March 1950.

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

11.3 p.m.

Photo of Mr Victor Yates Mr Victor Yates , Birmingham, Ladywood

I rise tonight to raise a very vital matter to the City of Birmingham—the housing of the inhabitants of that city. This is the first occasion that I have had the Adjournment. When I first addressed the House, I made reference to this important social problem as it affected the City of Birmingham. Today a very grave social problem has to be faced. On that first occasion I made reference to the fact that in Birmingham there were 30,000 families living in rooms. I understand today that the figure is nearer 50,000 families, which means there are 100,000 families living together and, on the basis of just over three to a family, one-third of the population of the city is living under overcrowded conditions.

I understand that from 1st April, 1945, until 23rd March, 1950, only 4,151 new permanent houses had been completed, but all who have studied the problem agree that to meet the situation prevailing in Birmingham we need 100,000 houses. That is taking into consideration not only the 50,000 families living in rooms, but also the 50,000 houses unfit for human habitation. I think that the city has done well in building certain temporary houses and in effecting conversions, but the new permanent housing programme shows that only just over 4,000 houses have been built. Although the Ministry have given the allocation to the city, there are still 3,000 houses to be commenced. So far as the Minister is concerned, the responsibility has now passed to the local authority. The local authority are not being held up by any regulations or restrictions on the part of the Government.

It is a very serious matter that the rate of building permanent houses in Birmingham is below the average for the Midlands Region, and it is certainly much below the average for the whole country. The principal reason for this is the labour situation. I would point out to my hon. Friend that my colleagues on this side of the House and myself who represent Birmingham took the opportunity on 17th July, 1948, to confer with the local authority. The initiative was taken by us, and we had a conference to consider the matter at the Council House, Birmingham. We were informed on that occasion that over 1,600 men were engaged in the building of permanent houses.

Looking at the figures for the week ended 9th March last, we find that the number engaged on building permanent houses in Birmingham was 1,392. If one worker builds one house per year, it is quite clear that we have not the means to build even 1,500 houses to meet our enormous demands. There were 1,302 engaged in building permanent houses for the week ending 23rd March, and 225 on non-traditional houses. The number of houses built during the first week I have mentioned was 18, and for the second week ended 23rd March it was 17. It does not appear that we are going to reach an average of 25 houses per week.

I want to ask my hon. Friend about the labour position in Birmingham. It would appear that in the last 18 months over 200 building trade workers have been lost. I understand that there are over 21,000 building trade workers in the Birmingham zone. It is a tragedy that we should lose these workers, and I ask my hon. Friend to examine the position. I do not wish to blame anyone. It does not matter who is in power in Birmingham. There is an enormous problem, and we have to do something about it. I ask the Minister, therefore, whether he cannot consider the question of priority in regard to building. Birmingham is engaged in industrial building, it is an important export area, and some special consideration should be given to the city. I ask the Minister whether he has considered setting up a mobile labour corps for the purpose of drafting people to a city like Birmingham, which for special reasons finds itself in this difficult position.

Further, we on this side have pursued our inquiries with the local authority ever since we met them in 1948, and it is a matter of extreme regret that, although we have been pressing since 5th July last to meet the local authority, the authority has so far refused, or found some reason to decline, to meet the Members of Parliament for the city.

Photo of Mr Victor Yates Mr Victor Yates , Birmingham, Ladywood

It does not matter what the political composition of the authority is, the Members representing the city ought to be taken into consultation. I am informed that the Birmingham Trades Council, which is vitally interested in this matter, addressed correspondence to the local authority on 11th March last, a year ago, asking that a deputation might be received comprising the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives and the Trades Council. I have here a copy of that communication. I think the suggestions put forward by the trades council for consideration formed a basis for reasonable discussion. They included the question of the introduction of laboursaving methods; the discussion of absenteeism—which, for example, might be caused by inadequate transport facilities—and the setting up of a house-building department for the city, to try and prevent the drain of labour. The trade union representatives and the trades council have so far received no reply to their request—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] It seems that some kind of iron curtain has been erected round the City Council.

I suggested on a previous occasion that it did not matter to me who built the houses as long as they were built. I have been looking at the building contracts that have been entered into in Birmingham, and I find that from 15th December, 1948, to 24th August, 1949, contracts were let to 10 builders for 2,015 houses. Not one house has been completed. I want to take two examples. There was one builder who entered into a contract on 19th October, 1945, for 530 houses, and he has only completed 478, and yet to that builder a further allocation was made in August last of 106 houses, and still he has not completed the contract which he signed in 1945.

The second example is of a Birmingham firm of builders who entered into contracts for 65 houses on 15th December, 1948, followed by 94 houses on 24th December, 274 on 8th August, then 112, and 22 on 17th August, making a total of 567 houses—not one of which is completed. Under the contract for 94 houses entered into on 24th December, 1948, the firm have not even placed one man upon the site—in 15 months! I ask the Minister whether he will examine this question of contracts to see why these houses are not being built. There are no restrictions upon the builders, who have complete freedom to build. It is vitally important that something should be done to arrest the drain of building trade labour and to reverse the present tendency, which I think is dangerous.

I represent a constituency that is suffering extreme agony from this problem. I should like to quote two letters which I received a few days ago. One is from a family who live in Icknield Street, Hockley. The man writes: We are a young married couple with one child and another baby due in August and we sleep on the floor at the above address. The baby has to sleep on the floor with us as we have no place to put his cot. The second letter is from the father of a family in Tuder Street, Winson Green, consisting of father, mother and three children under five years of age. He says: A father is forced to see his children's health and vitality slowly sapped away by overcrowded conditions and lack of fresh air. The writer of that letter enclosed a circular letter which he had received from the Medical Officer of Health, dated 20th January, 1950. It said: Dangers of suffocation from overlaying: Provision of Cot. There is most grave danger of injury and even death from suffocation where an infant is put to sleep in the same bed with parents or with older children. Cases with such fatal results come before the coroners' courts in this country from time to time. If from lack of space you cannot give a separate cot, then as a temporary measure for not more than three months a basket or box or drawer would ensure baby's safety. This man cannot even adopt that measure because of overcrowding. In my constituency, not so long ago, we had one of these cases before the coroner's court. I think it is upon our conscience.

We hold a grave responsibility for such conditions in a city like Birmingham, with more than one million of population. I appeal to the Minister to give some special consideration to Birmingham. There are 50,000 living in rooms. We had 12,000 houses completely destroyed by bombs during the war. There are 300,000 houses in the city, which means, if the life of a house is 100 years, that we have an annual wastage of 3,000 houses; and we are not building 50 per cent. of the wastage.

I think the time has come for revolutionary action in regard to housing in the City of Birmingham. If we do not take this action, it will mean that in a few years we shall get social and mental distress falling on the city, equivalent to the kind of financial and economic distress that came in the distressed areas. I ask the Minister to take up these points and to give some hope to the city that he will make inquiries and take every step that is possible to raise our city to a position of hope, in which we may feel that some attempt is being made to set the city on the road to housing its citizens in a reasonable and decent manner.

11.21 p.m.

Photo of Mr Harold Roberts Mr Harold Roberts , Birmingham Handsworth

The hon. Gentleman, in a long speech, has attacked the City Council and the builders.

Photo of Mr Harold Roberts Mr Harold Roberts , Birmingham Handsworth

I am glad of that intervention from the hon. Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Shurmer); I will deal with him in a moment. No-one would suppose that after a smashing victory at the polls in 1945 the electors of Birmingham were exhorted to give Labour complete control of the City Council. They did it, and Labour retained it.

Photo of Mr Harold Roberts Mr Harold Roberts , Birmingham Handsworth

I will give some figures. In 1946, Unionists 66, on active service 2: Socialists 67; Independents 3. Chairmanship of the Public Works Committee was in the hands of the Socialists. In 1946–1947 they had complete control. From 1947 to 1949 as before. In May, 1949, we regained control. At the time they were in undisputed control, the hon. Member for Sparkbrook said that more was being done in this country than had been done in any other period in regard to housing, the housing position in Birmingham was as stable as ever it had been. That observation was made at the very height or depth of Labour control.

When the Unionist Party regained control, an all-party conference was held under the presidency of the Lord Mayor, and it made certain recommendations. These recommendations are being carried out. Meanwhile labour has largely disappeared. Why? I must remind the House that I pointed out to the Minister in 1946 that if the small speculative builder were killed off, labour would to a large degree be wasted or done away with. And so it has. What is the remedy? An election is coming along shortly. This is the first round. The second round will be on Sunday, when there is to be a meeting at the Town Hall, Birmingham, organised by the Birmingham Trades Council, at which the principal speaker will be Mr. Richard Coppock, general secretary of the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives. It was he who in the dire days after the First World War told the listening world that his operatives proposed to exploit the situation. That is his conception of civic duties, and it is he who is to urge a remedy for bad ministerial policy.

11.25 p.m.

Photo of Mr Arthur Blenkinsop Mr Arthur Blenkinsop , Newcastle upon Tyne East

Most of the issues which have been raised this evening are matters for local action rather than national action. As my hon. Friend has rightly pointed out, we have done, and are doing, everything we can to encourage the maximum output of houses in Birmingham, dealing with the problems of labour, materials and everything else. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing my attention to the real and serious problems of labour shortage. As he said, this is the main issue which is holding up house building in Birmingham, as in other parts of the country. Any action which can be taken to overcome this difficulty we are all anxious to take.

The figure I have for the completion of houses is slightly different from my hon. Friend's figure, but I think he has not taken into consideration the number built by private enterprise, in spite of restrictions, and the number of temporary houses. In Birmingham there is a smaller proportion of building labour than in many other large towns. That means that the problem is perhaps more severe in Birmingham than in other parts of the country. It has been put forward in the standing joint committee set up in Birmingham and elsewhere that we must attempt to get a wider spread of orders over more building firms. That is emphasised by the comment my hon. Friend made on the slowness of certain contracts placed in 1945. I understand from the latest report we have that already some of the small number of big contractors who have had the monopoly of building work in Birmingham have been asked to surrender some of their contracts. It is hoped they will be transferred to other building contractors, although I have not heard whether that has yet succeeded.

The senior housing officer has said that the first move has been to reach agreement with the large contractors at present engaged on council contracts for the withdrawal from them of about 600 houses for which they hold contracts. An attempt was to be made to let contracts for 500 houses, the size of the contract ranging from four to 46, according to the size of the site and the firm. We have always been willing to encourage small builders to come into council house building. We have circulated details of the means by which they can come in, and there is therefore no reason why the builders referred to by the hon. Member opposite should not have been able to come in in Birmingham. There is no bar. We are most anxious, subject to the view of the Council, that all possible labour should be devoted to this most urgent work.

The senior housing officer said that the Council were receiving excellent co-operation from the Ministry. I mention that because we have been spending a great deal of time in co-operation with the Council. Our experience suggests that the mobile labour force is a very expensive means of building. That does not rule it out altogether. It has been used in Birmingham on certain temporary buildings. It is one matter that can certainly be considered again, together with the proposals of the Council itself.

With regard to direct labour schemes, that is a matter obviously that the Council must decide for itself. Some local authorities up and down the country do operate direct labour schemes with varying results. Some are extremely successful. In my own part of the country, there are probably more direct labour schemes than in any other part. In the mining areas, we have been very successful with the great majority of our direct labour schemes, but there is no doubt that the most immediate hope of progress lies in transference of some of the orders that have become choked, as far as we can see, in some of these larger firms, which have not been able to carry on their work. In co-operation with the housing officials in Birmingham, we are doing our utmost to help to get these properly transferred and the work properly shared out, so that we can get completions speeded up.

I can assure my hon. Friend and all those obviously interested in this subject, that on our side we will do everything we can to help to speed up the housing progress in Birmingham, and that, as actual building work progresses in that city, we shall, of course, be willing to reconsider the temporary allocations made from time to time, as we are always prepared to do.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.