Orders of the Day — Blitzed Towns (Exchequer Grants)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th June 1951.

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

3.52 p.m.

Photo of Mr Ralph Morley Mr Ralph Morley , Southampton, Itchen

I wish to draw attention to the necessity for securing continued financial assistance from the central Exchequer to compensate blitzed towns for the great loss of rateable value which they have suffered as a result of enemy action during the late war, a loss which subsequent building and reconstruction has by no means restored. I shall take most of my examples from the town of Southampton because that is the town I know best, but I am sure that the argument I shall adduce in the case of Southampton will also mutates mutandis apply to most of the other heavily blitzed towns in the country.

Southampton was one of the most heavily bombed towns in Great Britain. We not only had concentrated night raids on a number of occasions, lasting for several hours and necessitating the use of a large number of enemy aeroplanes, but we also had a number of daylight raids when two, three or four enemy planes came over Southampton, dropped their bombs and flew back to their bases. This very heavy bombardment was endured by the citizens of Southampton with great fortitude. The courage, especially of the women and children, was indeed remarkable. I was, during the time of the daylight bombardment of Southampton, a teacher in one of the council schools, and I remember taking my children into an air raid shelter while the bombs were falling nearby. Every time a bomb burst nearby the boys and girls merely laughed.

The citizens of Southampton expected that some reward for the sufferings they endured in the national cause would be, when the war was concluded, sufficient assistance from national resources to make up for the heavy losses they had incurred during the period of the war. The loss of life in Southampton was not actually so heavy as might have been expected from the heavy and continuous nature of the bombardment. That was because we had an excellent system of air raid precautions and also because Southampton is a rather scattered town and, for its size of population, stands upon a very large area.

Although, happily, the loss of life was not so great as might have been expected, the material losses were very heavy indeed. We lost, altogether, 6,346 houses totally destroyed or made unfit for human habitation by enemy action. We also lost nearly the whole of our big shops. The enemy deliberately destroyed our main shopping centre. High Street, above Bar Street, and East Street were bombed on one occasion in a night raid when the enemy bombed the High Street systematically, destroying every shop, one after the other. The material losses owing to enemy action in Southampton have been very great. I admit at once, and we gratefully acknowledge, that we have received financial aid from the central Exchequer. Since 1941, under the Deficiency Grant, which lasted until 1946, we received £329,362, and since 1946 under the Additional Grant we have received £395,000, making the total grant in aid, for loss of rateable value since 1942, £724,000 But, in spite of that grant from the central Exchequer, we still have not made good by any means the loss on rateable value caused by enemy action during the war.

I wish to quote from the statement made by the Borough Treasurer of Southampton to the Borough Council of Southampton on 12th March, 1951, when he was preparing estimates for the current year. The Borough Treasurer is a man of considerable ability and long experience. I do not think it likely that he would put forward any statistics unless he had prepared them carefully and checked them for any possible error. He said on that occasion: The rateable value of properties in the borough which were totally destroyed, or had to be demolished by reason of the bombing, was nearly £300,000. After crediting the rateable value of all properties erected on the bombed sites, the loss is still over £190,000. Even if an allowance made for the increase in rateable value owing to the use of houses as shops and offices, the loss in rateable value is still very substantial and the town, similar to other blitzed towns, is left to bear the full burden of the loss. I think we may scale down the £190,000 stated to be the loss of rateable value in Southampton as late as March of this year to be about £150,000 if we take into account the rateable value of prefabricated offices and shops erected on the blitzed sites, but a loss of rateable value of £150,000 since the rates in Southampton are now nearly 20s. in the pound means a loss of annual revenue to the town of something like £150,000. Since a penny rate brings in £106,000, this is an equivalent to a rate of 2s. in the pound. We therefore claim that our very heavy loss of rateable value has not yet been made good and that we should qualify for continuing grants from the central Exchequer.

It is true, of course, that there has been some degree of building in Southampton since 1945, but nearly all the building has been of council houses. We lost 6,346 houses during the war and since 1945 we have built 4,912 houses. I think it is generally agreed that council houses are rather a rate burden than a rate asset on account of the subsidy that has to be paid on each house, and because in all the new council estates a new school has to be built as the child population on council estates is always very high and families with a large number of children are first allocated to houses. So the number of council houses we have built has certainly not made up for the loss in rateable value due to enemy action.

If I go to other blitzed towns, I find from statistics which have been furnished to me by the Southampton Borough Treasurer—and these statistics refer to 31st March, 1950—that the rateable value of Southampton is now only 92 per cent. of pre-war, leaving out the decimal figures—

It being Four o'Clock the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Photo of Mr Ralph Morley Mr Ralph Morley , Southampton, Itchen

The rateable value of Plymouth, on 31st March, 1950, was only 90 per cent. of pre-war, and figures for other towns are: Bootle, 93 per cent.; Liverpool, 94 per cent.; Portsmouth, 95 per cent.; and, worst of all, West Ham, 78 per cent. There has been some improvement since 31st March, 1950. Up-to-date figures would show an increase in the percentage of rateable value compared with March, 1950.

In almost all the blitzed towns, the rateable value today is considerably lower than it was before the war. I should like to mention figures for towns which were not blitzed. All the towns are in the neighbourhood of Southampton. The rateable value of Salisbury, which is 24 miles from Southampton, is 113 per cent. above pre-war, and other figures are: Gosport, 110 per cent.; Aldershot, 109 per cent.; Eastleigh, 108 per cent.; Reading, 127 per cent. Of all the blitzed towns, the only town now getting a grant from the central Exchequer towards making up the loss of rateable value is West Ham. The grant to all the other towns has been stopped.

None of us in any way grudges the fact that West Ham is still receiving a grant. West Ham was extremely badly damaged during the war, and there are certain local difficulties there. It is restricted in its capacity for expansion. That is not a difficulty which arises elsewhere. Its rate is very high. Personally, speaking as an old Socialist, to me there is magic in the name of West Ham. West Ham was the mecca of the London Socialist movement. It was there that the Socialist movement in London started and if, in the last 40 years or so, we have captured a majority in London, it was certainly West Ham that blazed the trail. Therefore, none of us objects at all to the grant being continued in West Ham. We hope that it will be continued for a number of years until the rateable value of that borough is totally restored.

We suggest that there is a very strong case for a continuation of the Exchequer grant to the other heavily blitzed towns. Southampton has gained no advantage at all from the rate equalisation formula. We happen to have been honest in past years and to have assessed our properties at their true value, unlike some other towns, such as Merthyr Tydvil, which assessed property at much below its true value. I know that the formula was drawn up by experienced statisticians with the utmost care and much thought. But all formulae are liable to error.

I have never known a formula which could be trusted to be true in all circumstances. The classic example of mistakes under the rate equalisation formula is shown at Portsmouth where, according to that formula, the town is supposed to be wealthier after the blitz than it was before, because the population was lower after the blitz than before the war.

I put forward these main reasons in an appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to resume the grants to our blitzed towns in relief of their rateable value. I also wish to say that in Southampton we could do with a bigger allocation for the purpose of capital expenditure for reconstruction. It is often said that we sometimes claim that Southampton is the gateway of England. According to the point of view, one says if one is a Socialist, Southampton is the first town one sees on coming into "this happy island," and, if one is a Conservative, it is the last town one sees when one leaves "this benighted land." At any rate, we in Southampton do get a very large number of American visitors, and it gives them a rather poor impression of our country when the first sight they see is that of our ruined and desolate streets. It also gives them a lesson in the sufferings which the people of this country endured during the war.

We know, of course, that the first job of this country is to build a great many houses, and that the first priority in building labour and materials must go to housing, but we think that, in addition to building houses, we could do with a greater capital allocation for the reconstruction of the many damaged properties in the town. I would like to quote a letter which was sent to me this morning by the Town Clerk of Southampton, who is a very experienced and very cautious official. He says: In the House of Commons on the 20th March last, the Minister, in reply to a Question stated:'In blitzed cities I must keep a balance between new housing and the re-building of banks, offices and shops in the central areas … I will consider any applications where it can be shown that the total allocation can be beaten by the authority concerned.'My Council are confident that the total allocation of £250,000 can be beaten if building licences are forthcoming without in any way hampering my Council's housing programme. It is reasonable to assume that, in spite of the housing drive, there are available in Southampton 500 building trade operatives who could be engaged on central area reconstruction work, and, if one takes the figure of £1,000 per annum as the average amount of work each man can produce, that would mean £500,000 could he spent in one year. It must, however, be borne in mind that, in addition to local labour, quite 50 per cent. of the labour employed on large projects is specialised labour, and, therefore, with a local labour force of 500, £1 million could be expended in 12 months. Another very important fact to bear in mind is that, if licences could be issued on the basis suggested, I feel sure the output per man would increase and the labour drift from the building industry would be stopped. That is the opinion of the Town Clerk of Southampton, and I pass it on to the Parliamentary Secretary. I have no doubt that the Parliamentary Secretary is a very hardworking and able Minister, and that my hon. Friend, in his reply, will advance arguments against those which I have adduced. He has, I think, taken more debates on the Motion for the Adjournment than almost any other Minister; I have listened to him replying to a good many, and have noticed that he seems to know almost all the answers. Whether he has got the answers from the civil servants of his Department, or whether he has produced them from his own dialectical ingenuity, which is considerable, I cannot say, but I hope that, on this occasion, he will not think of exercising his dialectical ingenuity, but rather of exercising his sympathy.

We in the blitzed towns are the orphans of the storm, and we feel that we are the neglected orphans of the storm. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, in his reply, will be able to give us an assurance which will give to the people in the blitzed towns a realisation that the sacrifices and endurances which they made and suffered are recognised by His Majesty's Government, and that they will get some financial aid towards their loss of rateable value and the reconstruction of their blitzed cities.

4.9 p.m.

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

This is not the first occasion on which my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Morley) and I have spoken in the House on the problem of the blitzed towns, and I am sure that we both hope that this may be the last occasion on which we shall have to bring the problem of these areas to the notice of the Government.

In the few moments available to me there are some additional points to those already made so well by my hon. Friend that I should like to urge. In the first place, I would point out that it was never intended that the equalisation grants provided in the Local Government Act, 1948, should deal with this particular problem of loss of rateable value in blitzed towns. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, replying to the Second Reading debate on that Act, said: Now I come to the question of the blitzed areas, on which matter so many hon. Members are concerned. I hope they will agree with me that the badly blitzed areas present a special problem, and not one suitable to be dealt with in this Measure, which I think we must regard as a permanent Measure."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th November, 1947; Vol. 444, c. 1215.] The Government honoured that obligation. For three years from that date, in 1948–49, 1949–50, and 1950–51, the badly war-damaged towns were given grants for rate aid quite apart from any allocation that might or might not be due to them under the equalisation grants provided under that Act. It was intended, therefore, when that Act was passed, that this special problem should be dealt with by special means, and until 31st March last it has been so dealt with, but on a diminishing scale.

I would remind the Parliamentary Secretary that the amount of those grants was determined before the cuts in the capital investment programme took place, and before the re-armament programme was commenced. In consequence, the amount of recovery which it was thought would have been established by now in the blitzed towns has not been accomplished owing to the fact that there has been a very serious diminution in capital investment expenditure in those towns consequent upon the policy of the Government. We therefore feel that we have a right to ask for rather special consideration in this regard.

I shall not deal with the details of the problem of Plymouth, as I hoped I might be able to do this afternoon, along the lines upon which my hon. Friend has dealt with the problem of Southampton. I would emphasise, however, that even at this late date these war-damaged towns are in a seriously disadvantageous position. When we spend the money, whatever our resources may be by way of rate income, we are not providing for amenities; we are not providing for so many services which we should like to have but we are still having to provide for the very heavy burdens that were laid upon our cities because of the war.

In case the Parliamentary Secretary should, when replying, base his argument upon the criterion of the product of a 1d. rate, I would point out that that is not a reasonable criterion to choose in judging the problem, because even where the product of a ld. rate has recovered to its war-time level—which it has not in all cases—local authorities are being faced with additional liabilities to those faced in most towns in restoring houses, schools and other municipal buildings.

For example, housing is regarded by local government experts as a rate liability. The amount which the blitzed towns have had to spend in subsidies to housing estates and in the building of houses has been very much larger than in most towns; and they have had to do that at a time when highly rated commercial buildings in city centres have been non-existent or just beginning to be rebuilt. Therefore, while they have had to maintain those extra liabilities on account of housing. schools and other necessary buildings they had not had, and still cannot have, the rate income which would even things out and give balanced finances to these cities.

I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to give this matter as sympathetic consideration as he can and to do everything in his power to help all those blitzed towns, not just Plymouth and Southampton, which can prove that their rateable value on 31st March last was something more than 5 per cent. less than it was before the damage of the war fell upon them.

4.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr George Lindgren Mr George Lindgren , Wellingborough

I am sure that all hon. Members present will agree that my two hon. Friends, the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Middleton) and Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Morley), always make a first-class case when they put anything before the House on behalf of their constituents.

As perhaps, later, I shall be what some folk may think a little unsympathetic, may I say, first, that I agree entirely with my hon. Friends that both Plymouth and Southampton among the blitzed towns of this country took a very big pounding during the war and that the population of those areas stood up to it magnificently. They showed courage, stamina and fortitude which put them in the same line as first-class troops. War was brought to their doorsteps and they stood up to it in the same way and with the same courage and endurance that British troops have always shown.

As to finance, if I may put it kindly and bluntly, what my two hon. Friends are saying is "Although we are still comparatively wealthy in Southampton and Plymouth we are not as wealthy as we would have been if there had not been the blitz." I agree with that entirely, but if we went so far as to consider the effect of war on individuals or groups or companies, and so on, taking account of the fact that they are not as well off because of the effects of war, the problems we should encounter would be quite difficult to handle.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton, said that average rateable values did not really amount to much; but I maintain they are vital. After all, the rate product has been the basis of local government finance ever since we have had local government, and the difficulty has always been that where, generally speaking, one had low rateable values and large populations the authorities could not afford to carry out their necessary functions.

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

But it must have relation to rate liabilities.

Photo of Mr George Lindgren Mr George Lindgren , Wellingborough

It does, because one can only have a high rateable value if one has hereditaments in the area of such rateable value as to contribute a surplus to the whole. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen, has said, in many of the properties the actual cost of services provided is greater than the amount of rates the properties contribute. To have a high average rateable value in the area there must be large properties contributing to it. The average rateable value for the whole country is £6.19 per head of weighted population. The rateable value per head for Southampton is £6.87 and for Plymouth £6.77.

Both Southampton and Plymouth are above the national average with respect to the rateable value per weighted head of the population. We have 83 county boroughs in this country of which only 28 are above the national average, and Plymouth and Southampton, in spite of the loss of rateable value which they suffered as a result of the war, are better off than the vast majority of county boroughs.

My hon. Friends said that these grants should have been maintained until at least the pre-war rateable value had been restored. I will not attribute those actual words to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton, but they were the words which I wrote down when my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen, was speaking. In both Plymouth and Southampton the rateable value is today higher than it was in 1938-39. According to my figures, the product of a penny rate in Southampton in 1938-39 was 5,900. The product of a penny rate in 1951–52 is £6,225, so that there has been an increase in the product of a penny rate of £325 over 1939.

When we come to Plymouth, the product of a penny rate in 1939 was £6,818.

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

That is not the highest year. The highest year was 1940–42, when the product of a penny rate in Plymouth was £7,657.

Photo of Mr George Lindgren Mr George Lindgren , Wellingborough

There may be special circumstances, but I am talking of prewar. It was said that these grants ought to be in relation to the loss of rateable value which has arisen since the war. The product of a penny rate in 1938–39 was £6,818, and the product of a penny rate today is £7,153.

Photo of Mr George Lindgren Mr George Lindgren , Wellingborough

No. The figure supplied to me by the Department in respect of the product of a penny rate for 1951–52, for the present financial year, in the City of Plymouth—the rate product which they themselves use—is £7,153. There again, the rate product has increased by well over £300.

Let us look at it in another way. Both Southampton and Plymouth are lowly rated towns. The average for the whole of the county boroughs is 20s. 4d. The rate levied by Southampton is 19s. 9d.—7d. below the national average. In Plymouth the rate levied is 18s. 6d.—1s. 10d. below the national average.

Photo of Mr George Lindgren Mr George Lindgren , Wellingborough

I have not the figures for West Ham before me, but I believe it is about 24s. 2d.

Photo of Mr George Lindgren Mr George Lindgren , Wellingborough

When we consider that the national average is 20s. 4d., and take into account the rateable value per weighted head of the population, the product of a penny rate and the actual amount of rates levied in the area, we find that both Southampton and Plymouth are comparatively wealthy areas, in the sense that they are much more wealthy than most other county boroughs throughout the country. There are only 28 county boroughs which are in the same happy position as Southampton and Plymouth in being above the national average.

What is the purpose of making grants-in-aid? I suggest that if we are making contributions from the Exchequer to local authorities as grants in aid of their services, those grants should be given to those authorities which have the greatest difficulty or the least resources with which to provide the services which they ought to provide in their area. These grants were started in that way. They were started, first of all, for the coastal towns in 1940—towns from which, owing to the possibility of invasion, it was decided that the population should be evacuated to other parts of the country. They suffered a loss of rateable value because people had to move out of their area and there were fewer resources with which to maintain the high standard of service which had been provided for the larger population which normally would have occupied the towns. Grants were made in those cases.

Those grants were extended when the blitz took place. Unfortunately, a number of cities suffered heavy raids and lost rateable value. Again, and quite rightly, there was national and local encouragement for the inessential population of those areas to move away, which meant that there was a further loss of rateable value, and grants were introduced to assist these towns. They were made until 1948 when there was an agreement—or perhaps that is putting it a little too high—when there were discussions with the local authorities concerned who, after negotiation, were informed that these grants must come to an end and that they would taper off and end in 1951 or earlier.

All the local authorities who were affected have known that they would lose these grants and it has not been a bombshell to them. But in the 1948 Local Government Act we made provision in a better way. We said that where cities were below the national average in their rate product, whether they had been blitzed or not, we should help them to maintain their services by giving them a grant which would bring them up to a level of the national average. Since 1948, irrespective of whether the town was blitzed or not, grants have been paid to help these authorities to maintain and improve the social services of their area. These grants are on a basis of need. The need arises because they lack the resources to maintain those services.

I suggest to both my hon. Friends, with great sincerity, that the plea which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen, in par- ticular, that there should be some compensation payment for pain and suffering is not a feasible approach to the problem. The correct approach ought to be that we should provide assistance by grants-in-aid if there is difficulty in maintaining the standard of service which the people of those areas have a right to expect. I have tried to show that on each basis in turn—rate product, the rate levied. and so on—both Southampton and Plymouth are relatively fortunate.

I conclude as I began: I most readily agree that but for the tragic circumstances of the loss of rateable value arising from enemy action they would have been much better off than they are today, but my right hon. Friend cannot agree that that is good reason for revising his decision not to continue these grants.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock.