Orders of the Day — Blitzed Towns

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd March 1953.

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Photo of Sir Harold Webbe Sir Harold Webbe , Cities of London and Westminster 12:00 am, 2nd March 1953

I had not intended to intervene in the debate, but the admirable speech of the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Morley) made me feel that I ought to say something about one-half, at least, of my constituency. I do not propose to attempt any comparison between the claims of the City of London and those of any other blitzed city in the country. Quite naturally, hon. Members who represent cities which have suffered severe damage and grave loss of life, property and rateable value in the blitz will put their cases from the point of view of their own cities and their own fellow citizens. I want to put the case of the City of London solely from the national point of view.

It is beyond argument, I think, that the City of London and the activities which are carried on within its boundaries have always been of enormous importance to this country and today are vital to our survival as a great power. The invisible exports provided by the services of banking, shipping, insurance and of merchanting within the City of London have always provided the balancing factor which has enabled our economy to stand up to international strains and has made us the great commercial and industrial nation we have always been. Not only does the City house the institutions concerned with these activities but it is also the seat of the head offices of administration of great industrial and commercial organisations with international reputations, of international importance and of the greatest possible significance to our national economy.

Yet today, eight years after the end of the war, of that square mile of the City of London, the most valuable square mile of land in the world—not only financially valuable, but vital to the country—over a quarter, well over 1,200 to 1,300 acres, is still completely derelict, occupied by nothing but heaps of weed-grown rubble, car parks and things of that sort. Inside the City the people on whom the recovery and development of our trade and industry depend are sitting almost on one another's laps, working in conditions which make it quite impossible for them to attain proper efficiency.

The workers who flock into the City in hundreds of thousands a day are queueing for anything up to half an hour or even an hour at a time to get a mid-day meal, and more often than not they miss the meal altogether. We have great national organisations with their administrative offices scattered in four, six and in some cases ten or a dozen buildings in the City of London and the boroughs which immediately surround it. Surely, in those conditions, it almost becomes nonsense to appeal to the industries of this country to develop and increase our export trade and save us in the time of acute financial crisis through which we are now passing.

What an advertisement this is for British enterprise. The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen, referred to American visitors who come to Southampton. What about the visitors from all parts of the world who come, not as they do to Southampton to see its beauties as well as its tragedies, but to London to do business and who frankly are amazed that a nation, facing economic trials such as it has never faced before, should be so slow to restore to its businesses and industries the conditions in which alone they can make their proper contribution to our recovery? It is true that something has been done in the City already. Something like £12 million worth of work has been done on substantial new buildings in addition to quite a considerable amount spent on restoring smaller buildings. I do not want to make this a political debate and I will not say why this is so, but the fact is that practically the whole of that space is occupied by civil servants who are living and working in conditions far better than those in which any of the commercial companies are working, and far better than those in which, in past and most properous times, commercial companies ever did work.

Government offices have traditionally occupied twice as much space per man, and often more, than have ordinary commercial concerns. Not only do they occupy the new buildings in the City, but they occupy still under requisition large numbers of vast and fine old office blocks in the City and in the area immediately surrounding it. I make no appeal on behalf of the citizens of London, but I appeal on behalf of the country that something substanial should be and must be done at once to give back to the City the opportunities which it needs if it is to render its proper and continuing service to this country and our Empire.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Works announced a few days ago his intention to grant £10 million worth of licences for the re-building of central London. I confess that I do not find it easy, within the bounds of Parliamentary etiquette and Parliamentary language, to express an adequate opinion on the utter inadequacy of any such suggestion. I welcome it, of course, as a gesture. I think that at least it gives the opportunity for a beginning, but I would remind my right hon. Friend, through his Parliamentary Secretary, who is present today, that already the City Corporation have granted consents under planning powers and approval of projects which amount to well over £60 million outstanding at present.

So the £10 million, even if the whole of it came into the City of London, which apparently it will not, would be a mere beginning and a pretty poor beginning at that. But it is not even true that the share which is coming into the City of London is intended to meet the real needs of that great city, because it is common knowledge that a big part of whatever is coming is ear-marked for the Bank of England. The Bank of England—and I pay them a tribute—have undertaken a substantial scheme of redevelopment within the City. They are to take over responsibility for a substantial redevelopment area, but a very big part of the accommodation which they are to provide will be, of course, for their own use.

In these days it is very difficult to find out anything about these Government and semi-Government organisations, but from personal knowledge I can say that the Bank of England already occupy a large building within 100 yards of Oxford Street. It is a large and modern office building of some six or seven floors. As that building faces the well of the staircase of my own office I am able every day to look into every floor. I can assure the House that for many months past not more than two of those floors have had any occupants at all.

I would estimate the population of that building as being well under 100 and possibly not more than 50. I am told that that building is held as a reserve to meet any special urgent need of the Bank of England. Surely it would be possible to meet urgent needs somewhere other than in the heart of London in one of the most expensive and one of the finest buildings that exist. I do not want to carry that point further. I merely mention it because I am convinced that it would be quite improper to allow additional expenditure by the Bank of England unless the Government are amply satisfied that they are using properly what they have already.

I know the reason which is always given for the Government's refusing to give more than a limited number of rebuilding licences. The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen said that it was wrong any longer to give the shortage of steel as a reason for withholding licences for building of this kind. I agree entirely with him. I believe that in the matter of the supplies of structural steel, Government Departments, as is inevitably the case with all planning Departments and has been for five or six years now, are several months behind the facts. At present, there is a fairly substantial supply of structural steel available for building of this kind. There is plenty of stone and plenty of concrete and there is labour available for this building without entrenching on the field of domestic house building.

I should be the last to suggest anything in competition with the housing programme on which, if I may be allowed, I should like to offer my very sincere congratulations to the Minister of Housing and Local Government. But I would beg him to show in this matter the same imagination, the same courage and the same energy as he has shown in the housing programme. I would remind the House that until some 12 or 18 months ago we were assured time and time again that 200,000 houses a year were all that the building industry and the building materials industry could possibly produce. My right hon. Friend refused to accept that. He set himself a target 50 per cent. higher, and he is today reaching it. He has shown that it is not impossible and that if the demand is there and it is a real and active demand the labour and materials will be forthcoming.

Even with this increased rate of house building I have not heard of any serious hold up for the lack of either materials or labour. I am convinced that if the Minister will make a like appeal in regard to the materials and labour required for a proper rebuilding of these blitzed areas—and, in the national interest, primarily those great and vital areas within the boundary of the City of London—he will meet with a like response.

It must be done; the condition of the country demands it. I beg my right hon. Friend to adopt the same policy that he adopted with such great success in connection with housebuilding, and say to the local authorities not, "Thus far and no farther" but, "Here is your allocation and your quota of licences to start off with. The quicker you get through them the more you shall have." In that way he would produce the answer to the problem of labour and materials.