Orders of the Day — Building Operations (Control)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 31st July 1951.

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2.48 a.m.

Photo of Sir Cyril Black Sir Cyril Black , Wimbledon

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 20th June, 1951, entitled the Control of Building Operations (No. 16) Order, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 1082), a copy of which was laid before this House on 26th June, be annulled. I must express my regret for detaining the House at this hour, but it was not my wish to have brought forward this Prayer tonight. I endeavoured to do so on Monday of last week, when the business of the day terminated soon after 10 p.m., but I did not then have the opportunity of doing so.

The Order against which my hon. Friends and I pray tonight continues for a further period of a year, from 1st July last, the restriction on building operations to the amount of £100 each in respect of residential properties, and £500 each in respect of commercial buildings. It is clear that when this type of control was first imposed in 1941 it was regarded as a temporary and emergency matter only to deal with the abnormal conditions then arising from the war. Certainly, no one at that time contemplated that more than 10 years later, and after the war had been over for more than six years, we should still be subjected to an oppressive control of this kind.

I propose to examine, under three heads, the problem whether this control should be continued for a further period. I come, therefore, to my first question: Is this kind of control capable of being justified now that the war has been over for more than six years? It seems to me that this is clearly a question on which the onus of proof rests upon the Minister who desires to continue the control, rather than upon those of us who are questioning whether its continuance is really necessary. The Minister is, of course, possessed of information regarding the present and the potential resources of the building industry, in labour and materials, which is not readily available to ordinary Members of this House, and I hope that he has come to the House tonight resolved to give us full information in support of the continuance of this Order for a further year.

I turn now to my second question: Are the limits of £100 for residential and £500 for commercial buildings appropriate figures in present circumstances? I remind the House that when this type of control was first imposed in 1941 the permitted amount was £100; that is to say, the same figure as in the present Order for residential properties. If the value of our money were the same today as in 1941, it would still be difficult, in my submission, to justify a control as restrictive after six years of peace as at the height of the war.

When account is taken of the fact that the purchasing value of our money is today not much more than half what it was in 1941, and that the cost of repairs to buildings is nearly double, it becomes obvious that the amount of building work which the ordinary citizen can execute today without a licence is only about half what it was in 1941. I submit that it will be very difficult for the Minister to satisfy the House that this state of affairs is right. It is my contention that, at the very least, the limit for residential properties should be increased from £100 to £200, thereby enabling approximately the same amount of work to be carried out in a year as was possible under the Order of 1941.

I come now to my third and final question: Is the present method of control appropriate, or is there a better alternative? My submission is that the present system of control is quite inappropriate and produces inequalities and inconsistencies which cannot possibly be justified. How can the Minister justify a control which enables exactly the same amount to be spent in a year on all residential properties, whether it be the case of a one-room flat, on the one hand, or a mansion containing 100 rooms, on the other?

Perhaps I may for a moment or two anticipate the reply which I think the Minister will make on this point, and indicate why his reply, if it follows that line, will be quite unconvincing?

Photo of Mr James Hoy Mr James Hoy , Edinburgh Leith

The hon. Member is lucky to have an audience.

Photo of Sir Cyril Black Sir Cyril Black , Wimbledon

I feel sure that the Minister will make the point that in reality the position is not quite so absurd as it would appear to be. In the case of large properties, he will no doubt point out that, where it is obviously impossible for the annual cost of repairs to be contained within the limit of £100, the Ministry is able and willing to grant licences to enable a larger annual sum to be expended.

But may I examine what is involved in this vast system of licensing which has grown up as a result of these controls on building operations? I have made inquiries in one of the boroughs forming part of my own Parliamentary Division, and I find that the number of licence applications dealt with under this Order works out in the neighbourhood of 1,200 a year. Assuming that, based on population, the rate of licence applications is more or less uniform throughout the country, it means that the local authorities are today dealing with licence applications at the rate of about 900,000 a year.

Every licence application needs a minimum of 27 answers to questions and to sub-questions, which means, at the very least, if my figures are correct, as I believe them to me, that something like 24,300,000 questions have to be filled in each year in applications to the local authorities for licences to carry out works in excess of the permitted limits under the Order.

I want to ask the Minister seriously whether this vast system of controls, with the vast amount of paper work involved on the part of owners of houses, builders, local authorities and his own Ministry, can really be justified any longer. I submit to him that the time is more than overdue for some considerable relaxation, both as to the limits fixed under the Order and as to the basis on which the Order is framed.

2.59 a.m.

Photo of Sir Gerald Nabarro Sir Gerald Nabarro , Kidderminster

I beg to second the Motion.

I believe that this Order now represents something of an anachronism and that the figure of £100, which is still contained in it, is a replica of the original figure introduced in 1941, notwithstanding the enormous change in conditions and in the levels of costs both for materials and for labour.

Quite apart from the arguments advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Black), I should like to examine in some detail the materials position in so far as it affects the repair of private properties and residences in the United Kingdom. However we may feel in any quarter of the House as to how new houses should be built, it is undeniable that today there are approximately ten million established privately-owned houses which have to be maintained, and it is undoubtedly in the public interest that they should be maintained on the best possible basis and as economically as possible.

A few years ago, and in fact until 18 months back, there was a very real objection to increasing the limit under the Order on the plea that there were insufficient materials available. The particular difficulty, of course, was with timber. Today, I believe, no such difficulty exists. The softwood position is better than it has been at any time since the end of the war. Imports this year are approaching the figure for the average pre-war year. There is no great shortage of bricks. There is no great shortage of cement.

Photo of Mr Ernest Fernyhough Mr Ernest Fernyhough , Jarrow

There is a shortage of bricks in some parts.

Photo of Sir Gerald Nabarro Sir Gerald Nabarro , Kidderminster

The hon. Member says that there may be a shortage in some parts. There may be local shortages, but over-all there is no great shortage. There is no great shortage of bricks or of the auxiliary materials, including glass, putty and so on, which are required for maintenance purposes. On that score, I believe that the Minister, when he replies, must agree that there is no physical reason for the limitation, or any further limitation, in the amount of money that can be spent on house building work.

The argument has often been advanced that we must restrict the limit to £100 and allow the local authorities to deal by licence method—direct licences granted in each and every case against an application—with jobs which run to more than £100 in cost. But that is creating today a very real difficulty. There is hardly a local authority which can get from the Ministry of Works a sufficient global allocation of money per annum for licence purposes to deal with all the individual applications for licences which are lodged with that authority. Be they rural or urban, all local authorities find themselves in the position of being over-subscribed with applications.

I believe that if the right hon. Gentleman would accede to a request to raise the limit for private work without licence from £100 to, say, £250, that would automatically yield a commensurate lightening of the load of licence applications on the local authorities for work in excess of £100, and would enable a greater measure of conversion work to be done to older houses and buildings which might possibly be made into accommodation units and which are at present being wasted.

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

Where would the building labour come from to utilise all the allowances up to £250?

Photo of Sir Gerald Nabarro Sir Gerald Nabarro , Kidderminster

There is, of course, a shortage of building labour in certain parts of the country.

Photo of Sir Gerald Nabarro Sir Gerald Nabarro , Kidderminster

Yes, but in many towns, particularly in the Midlands, there is a considerable reservoir of jobbing labour available that cannot readily be used for new housing construction, which ought to be used in large measure for maintenance work and for conversion work, but at present it is not beng used for that purpose.

Photo of Sir Gerald Nabarro Sir Gerald Nabarro , Kidderminster

Very many applications have been made to local authorities in all parts of the country during the last 12 or 18 months for fuel economy equipment to be installed in the older houses, notably with a view to saving supplies of coal and coke. Many of those applications for licences have had to be refused by the local authorities because their global allocation from the Ministry of Works is not sufficiently large. Again, if the Minister would agree to put up the limit from £100 to £250, he would automatically enable these applications for fuel-saving equipment to be accommodated within the extra span, and applications for which licences at present have to be granted would instead, under a revised upper limit of £250, come within the licence-free class. I repeat: this £100 limit is an anachronism, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman in due course will allow a relaxation of the limit which is imposed.

3.5 a.m.

Photo of Mr George Brown Mr George Brown , Belper

I think the Debate shows considerable misunderstanding of the position. The reason for the general Order, the Control of Building Operations Order, which we are now discussing, has nothing to do with the war or war conditions, but with the fact that the essential building programme on which we are embarking—housing, power stations, factories, industrial buildings, and the defence programme—is of such an order that unless we take some steps to control the less essential work, the usage of materials and labour, we shall not get the vital, essential part of the building programme done.

It is not in accord with the facts to talk about there being a surplus of materials available, or about there being a great reservoir of building labour anywhere in the country. The hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) mentioned the Midlands, where there is an outstanding vacancy list of more than 4,000 persons and an unemployed figure of only about 700. So, in the very region he chose, there is a considerable outstanding demand for all types of building trade labour, and this is reproduced to a great degree over the rest of the country.

Photo of Sir Gerald Nabarro Sir Gerald Nabarro , Kidderminster

I did not use the word "surplus," and I did not say "a great reservoir of labour." I did say that there is an improved raw materials position.

Photo of Mr George Brown Mr George Brown , Belper

Do not let us quarrel about it. The whole point was that there were materials and a reservoir of labour available. I say that there are neither, and I have quoted figures from the region the hon. Member mentioned to show that so.

The hon. Gentlemen who spoke during this debate have not faced the big issue. If we increased the amount of work which can be done without any licence or without control, what part of the building programme would be cut down to make it possible? I am sure that everyone will agree that the new works, defence work, the industrial programme, power-stations, housing take by far the biggest share in terms of value, ought to go on. The other half of the programme covers the general miscellaneous field. It is roughly divided into two halves—the unlicensed work of £100 or £500 limit, and the work we license in that field other than up to this limit. To the hon. Member who said that we should increase the amount of work done under the limit by raising the amount, which would mean having less controls, I would say that that would achieve no purpose, because the work which had to be done above the existing limit would still be the same by a similar amount.

I went into this matter very carefully to see whether these limits were right, and I considered representations that they should be increased. I also considered representations that they ought to be reduced because of the enormous number of vacancies for labour on the books throughout the country, and also because there were no spare materials to meet the increased programme. I consulted the National Consultative Council of the Building Industry and came to the con- clusion that the right thing to do in the circumstances was to keep the limit where it was.

On the whole, the effect of the increased building programme just about offsets the effect of the increased costs, and if I can keep it where it is the balance will probably be about right for another year. The hon. Member for Wimbledon said that this Order makes more paper work. It does the very opposite. To annul the Order would mean abolishing the licence free sites; and so, in fact, the only way to increase the paper work is by not allowing the Order by carrying this Motion. This Order reduces the amount of paper work by allowing £300 million worth of work to be done without any licences at all. I could go into this matter at great length, but I do not think hon. Gentlemen would want it. The point has been made, and I am certain that, having regard to the available labour and raw materials, I could not increase the limit this year. However, it is only for one year, and it will be a matter for consideration at the

expiry of the current Order whether it will be an advantage to change it.

Photo of Sir Cyril Black Sir Cyril Black , Wimbledon

On the question of the increase in paper work, the implications were quite clear. If the Order is annulled there will be no free limit. The only way this matter could be debated was by putting down a Prayer, and the purpose of putting down this Motion was to ask the Minister to consider substituting for this Order another which would have increased the limit. Many of us feel unconvinced by the reply the Minister has given, but as he has made it clear that before a renewal of the Order, which is to be effective until next year, the whole position will be reviewed carefully. I beg to ask leave the withdraw the Motion.

Photo of Mr Gilbert Mitchison Mr Gilbert Mitchison , Kettering

In order to test the numerical strength of the Opposition and the sincerity behind this Motion, I suggest that the House ought to divide.

Question put.

The House divided: Ayes, 0; Noes, 207.

Division No. 170.]AYES[3.15 a.m.
TELLERS FOR THE AYES: Mr. Mitchison and Mr. Arthur Lewis.
Acland, Sir RichardDavies, A. Edward (Stoke, N.)Hannan, W.
Adams, RichardDavies, Ernest (Enfield, E.)Hardman, D. R.
Albu, A. H.Davies, Harold (Leek)Hardy, E. A.
Allen, Arthur (Bosworth)de Freitas, GeoffreyHargreaves, A.
Anderson, Alexander (Motherwell)Deer, G.Hayman, F. H.
Awbery, S. S.Delargy, H. J.Herbison, Miss M.
Baird, J.Dodds, N. N.Hewitson, Capt. M.
Barnes, Rt. Hon. A. J.Driberg, T. E. N.Hobson, C. R.
Bartley, P.Ede, Rt. Hon. J. C.Holman, P.
Benn, WedgwoodEdwards, John (Brighouse)Holmes, Horace (Hemsworth)
Benson, G.Edwards, W. J. (Stepney)Hoy, J.
Beswick, F.Evans, Albert (Islington, S.W.)Hubbard, T.
Bing, G. H. CEwart, R.Hudson, James (Ealing, N.)
Blenkinsop, A.Fernyhough, E.Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire)
Blyton, W. RField, Capt. W. J.Hughes, Hector (Aberdeen, N.)
Boardman, H.Finch, H. J.Hynd, H. (Accrington)
Bottomley, A. G.Fletcher, Eric (Islington, E.)Janner, B.
Braddock, Mrs. ElizabethFollick, M.Jay, D. P. T.
Brook, Dryden (Halifax)Foot, M. M.Jeger, George (Goole)
Broughton, Dr. A. D. D.Fraser, Thomas (Hamilton)Jeger, Dr. Santo (St. Pancras, S.)
Brown, Rt. Hon. George (Belper)Freeman, John (Watford)Jenkins, R. H.
Burton, Miss E.Gaitskell, Rt. Hon. H. T. N.Johnson, James (Rugby)
Butler, Herbert (Hackney, S.)Ganley, Mrs. C. S.Johnston, Douglas (Paisley)
Callaghan, L. J.Gibson, C. W.Jones, David (Hartlepool)
Champion, A. J.Gilzean, A.Jones, Frederick Elwyn (West Ham, S.)
Chetwynd, G. R.Glanville, James (Consett)Jones, Jack (Rotherham)
Clunie, J.Gordon-Walker, Rt. Hon. P. C.Keenan, W
Cocks, F. S.Greenwood, Anthony (Rossendale)Kenyon, C.
Collick, P.Greenwood, Rt. Hon. Arthur (Wakefield)Key, Rt. Hon. C. W.
Collindridge, F.Grenfell, Rt. Hon. D. RKing, Dr. H. M.
Cook, T. F.Grey, C. F.Kinghorn, Sqn. Ldr. E.
Cooper, John (Deptford)Griffiths, David (Rother Valley)Kinley, J.
Corbet, Mrs. Freda (Peckham)Griffiths, Rt. Hon. James (Llanelly)Lee, Frederick (Newton)
Craddock, George (Bradford, S.)Griffiths, W. (Manchester Exchange)Lever, Leslie (Ardwick)
Crawley, A.Hale, Joseph (Rochdale)Lindgren, G. S.
Crossman, R. H. SHall, Rt. Hon. Glenvil (Colne Valley)Logan, D. G.
Cullen, Mrs. A.Hall, John (Gateshead, W.)Longden, Fred (Small Heath)
Darling, George (Hillsborough)Hamilton, W. W.McAllister, G.
MacColl, J. E.Paling, Will T. (Dewsbury)Taylor, Robert (Morpeth)
McGhee, H. G.Pannell, T. C.Thomas, David (Aberdare)
Mack, J. D.Pargiter, G. A.Thomas, George (Cardiff)
McKay, John (Wallsend)Pearson, A.Thomas, Ivor Owen (Wrekin)
McLeavy, F.Peart, T. F.Thorneycroft, Harry (Clayton)
MacMillan, Malcolm (Western Isles)Popplewell, E.Timmons, J.
McNeil, Rt. Hon. H.Porter, G.Wallace, H. W.
MacPherson, Malcolm (Stirling)Price, Joseph T. (Westhoughton)Watkins, T. E.
Mainwaring, W. H.Price, Philips (Gloucestershire, W.)Weitzman, D.
Mallalieu, J. P. W. (Huddersfield, E.)Proctor, W. T.Wells, Percy (Faversham)
Manuel, A. C.Pryde, D. J.Wells, William (Walsall)
Marquand, Rt. Hon. H. A.Rees, Mrs. D.West, D. G.
Mathers, Rt. Hon. G.Reeves, J.Wheatley, Rt. Hn. John (Edinb'gh, E.)
Mayhew, C. P.Rhodes, H.White, Mrs. Eirene (E. Flint)
Mellish, R. J.Roberts, Rt. Hon. A.White, Henry (Derbyshire, N.E.)
Messer, F.Roberts, Goronwy (Caernarvonshire)Whiteley, Rt. Hon. W.
Middleton, Mrs. L.Robertson, J. J. (Berwick)Wigg, G.
Mikardo, Ian.Robinson, Kenneth (St. Pancras, N.)Wilcock, Group Capt. C. A. B.
Moeran, E. W.Ross, WilliamWilkins, W. A.
Monslow, W.Shackleton, E. A. A.Willey, Frederick (Sunderland)
Moody, A. S.Shurmer, P. L. E.Willey, Octavius (Cleveland)
Morley, R.Silverman, Julius (Erdington)Williams, David (Neath)
Morris, Percy (Swansea, W)Simmons, C. J.Williams, Rev. Llywelyn (Abertillery)
Moyle, A.Slater, J.Williams, Ronald (Wigan)
Mulley, F. WSmith, Ellis (Stoke, S.)Wilson, Rt. Hon. Harold (Huyton)
Nally, W.Sparks, J. A.Winterbottom, Ian (Nottingham, C.)
Neal, Harold (Bolsover)Steele, T.Winterbottom, Richard (Brightside)
Noel-Baker, Rt. Hon. P. J.Stewart, Michael (Fulham, E.)Wise, F. J.
O'Brien, T.Stross, Dr. BarnettYates, V. F.
Oldfield, W. H.Summerskill, Rt. Hon. Edith
Orbach, M.Sylvester, G. O.TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Paget, R. T.Taylor, Bernard (Mansfield)Mr. Bowden and Mr. Royle.

Question put, and agreed to.