Orders of the Day — Housing Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd April 1952.

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Photo of Mr Harold Macmillan Mr Harold Macmillan , Bromley 12:00 am, 22nd April 1952

No, I do not, and that I will deal with in the regulations. I think the words I used were that they should cover and protect the financial interest of the local authority in every respect, but that they should not allow them to be profiteers. In the same way, the purchaser who bought with the advantage of a fair price, with some fixed relation, perhaps, to the rental value, should not be allowed to profiteer in the scarcity market. I think that is as far as I might be asked to go in detail.

There are one or two things I want to say of a general character. This Bill only deals with part of the mechanism of the housing programme and does not pretend to introduce any new principle or to create any new organisation. Therefore, I shall not deal with the general housing situation, which, no doubt, there will be many other opportunities to debate. What the provisions of the Bill seek to do is to make it possible on the financial side for the municipal housing programme to be continued without undue burden on the tenants or the rates.

I do not think there is really any disagreement about that. Had we been continuously in office since 1945 we might have organised the housing programme on a different principle. But I think it is wise to take things as one finds them, and to make that rapid progress which I hope to make I much prefer to preserve a substantial continuity in the existing arrangements.

After all, the need for more houses is apparent to anyone with the slightest knowledge of the condition of the people. But it is not only a social problem; it is not only a human problem. It is an economic problem of the highest importance, for an increase in housing is essential for the re-deployment of our industry, for re-armament, for export and for our whole economic survival. In my Department we are continually being asked for new housing accommodation, for workers for these new factories or installations; they come from the aircraft industry, from the Royal Ordnance factories, and especially to supply more houses for miners. The same issue arises in agriculture, to encourage home food production.

But, of course, throughout the whole industrial field, apart from these special cases, this is true, for modern industrial production disperses work to a remarkable degree in sub-contracts of all kinds, and there is no sizeable place in the country which may not have to man-up and play its part in re-armament or the export drive. In this age it is of vital importance to be able to switch from the production of one line of goods to another, and it is not always possible to bring the work to the workers.

Thus, quite apart from any other consideration we need more houses—apart from the home and social considerations which appeal to us all so strongly—as part of our economic industrial effort. We need a margin of free accommodation in many areas of the country and we must not slacken until we can achieve it. This, I should have thought, was common ground between us all.

What divides the House is sometimes whether more new houses can be secured, in present circumstances, than we have been able to secure in past years. Hon. Gentlemen opposite—and I certainly respect their sincerity—believed that the utmost practicable target, in view of the other pressures upon the economy, was something of the order of 200,000 houses a year. Yet, curiously enough, in the very midst of this economy, alleged to be so over-strained that it could not go beyond that figure, they had little hesitation in introducing a re-armament programme of £4,700 million. That seemed to me a very inconsistent reading of the economic situation. Of course, in face of the re-armament campaign, and, above all, in face of the balance of payments crisis we have a very grave situation to face perhaps more difficult than those of our predecessors.

I want to make only two final points to meet criticisms which I sometimes read or hear of, not so much in this House perhaps as out of it. First, do not let us suppose a production of 300,000 houses of a year, even if we were able to reach it, would signify that we were making some abnormal effort in the sphere of housing. Why, we regularly reached that production and exceeded it in the years before the war for an appreciably smaller population, and accompanied at that time with unrestricted work on repair, improvement and conversion. Our aims, therefore, are not unduly ambitious, and the sights would have to be raised much further before we could be accused of singling out housing for some special favour or undue emphasis.

On the other hand I must admit that we cannot ask for some special first-cut of the cake or a unique slice of the available resources, and then just hand it over to housing to do all that we can do. We have to achieve our end by all kinds of different means—by pinching and scraping, if you like; by making deft use of such material as we can find or such substitutes as come to hand, by the speedy use of opportunities between the peaks of over-demand and over-intensity, by working faster, by getting out at any rate of the idea that there is a limited cake to be baked in this world of effort and energy and that if somebody takes a larger slice here somebody else there automatically has a smaller slice for another purpose. That is not true.

We believe that given the inducements greater productivity can be produced to satisfy more than one need and to play its role over the whole field. So I have tried to get away from the idea of the fixed "ceiling," of the fixed minimum, the clamped-down, narrowing "ceiling" which is so distressing to those who have to work it, and to give people the idea that the more effort they make, the harder they work, the better they go at it, the more they will be asked to do and the more contribution they will be able to provide to this great problem.

I say, in this respect that, whilst we must, of course, have a broad and general strategy under which we are to work, we must have these experiments towards freedom. At any rate, the housing drive must go forward, and I venture to commend this Bill—the details of which we can discuss further at the appropriate stage—to the House of Commons as of value, and, indeed, as an indispensable contribution to the common purpose that we have in mind.