Orders of the Day — Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th November 1960.

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Photo of Mr William Deedes Mr William Deedes , Ashford 12:00 am, 8th November 1960

I appreciate that the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) may have greater problems arising from the Rent Act than some of us. I therefore quite understand his wish to make the bulk of his speech on that subject, but I think it perhaps a good thing that most of the speeches we have had in this debate so far have gone a little beyond that particular issue.

I only wish I felt that establishing justice between landlord and tenant would in itself solve the tremendous other problems which lie ahead in the housing field. I do not belittle the landlord issue, but, just as I have disagreed with some of my hon. and right hon. Friends who think that rent control is the Gordian knot of housing policy, so I must disagree with some hon. Members opposite who see nothing bigger in housing than the Rent Act. I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his persistent attempts to keep this particular difficulty in perspective in relation to the rest of the housing problem.

What we are increasingly up against here, surely is the problem of demography, where people want to be, where they have to be and why. That is a point which the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart), who opened the debate for the Opposition, touched upon. I confess that it rarely happens in this House, but I was disappointed that his speech was not longer than it was because I thought he was getting on to an interesting point and was going to develop this particular theme. Perhaps I may be allowed to develop some of the unspoken passages for him. I am quite sure that getting this right goes to the heart of the housing problem and will have a fundamental bearing on the problem of for sale or to let for the next ten years or so.

One talks loosely of "housing policy", but I must say, without any disrespect to my right hon. Friend, that I find it very difficult as things are to say that we have a housing policy. Housing seems less governed by policy than by the product of gigantic pressures far less within the control of Her Majesty's Government than some of us like to think. There are pressures between the cities and conurbations, which are desperate for space, and country areas which are defending their land like tigers. There is the pressure of industry, which in reality holds the whip hand more than most people recognise. It is not so much directed as persuaded by the Board of Trade to go to certain areas and against this are those who must work out the social consequences in the provision of housing there.

There are pressures within the Ministry to give local authorities the autonomy which is their statutory right and wider national considerations. There is pressure between what needs doing and the resources available. I noted what the Parliamentary Secretary had to say, I think yesterday, on the subject of the resources available and the progress of the improvements scheme. There are pressures between commercial demands and domestic needs. A point which the hon. Member for Fulham only touched upon is the pressure exerted by perhaps the most rapidly expanding social influence of our time, the motor car. That emphatically enters into this field.

There is also the pressure between the aspiring home owner and forces which sometimes contrive to make that an arduous and expensive adventure. In parenthesis, although some of my hon. Friends may not agree with me, I hope that we shall consider very carefully the next step in home ownership. Statistically, there can be no doubt that in the past it has been successful and has still great potential success. It has many virtues and I think most of us have extolled them. I do not accept entirely that it is a case of "the more the merrier". I think there remains, and always will remain, a proportion for whom public arrangements are the better alternative. What gives me some reservations on this subject is the large proportion of home owners, new and aspiring, whose wives must become wage earners.

Such reservations are held in some minds to represent "a fuddy-duddy doctrine", but I remain uneasy. I think that this will lead to some problems. In particular there is the problem of the young wife who goes to work at the same time as she may be having children. The results on family life might shift certain problems from the Ministry of Housing one door down Whitehall to the Home Office, which is next door. This policy needs watching to see that we do not reach a stage when home ownership exercises a social compulsion which tempts certain families to overreach themselves.

However, this remains one of the pressures. It is one of the factors which govern where our homes are to be built. Weighing up these conflicting pressures, I think the most remarkable thing is that we have done so well as we have.

What alarms me is the clear signs that some of these pressures, and in particular the newest of them, are becoming very much stronger, and unless we are careful they may threaten to overwhelm us. I have no doubt, for example, which is winning in Central London between commercial demand and domestic needs. I am one of those who regret the fact that fewer and fewer people live as residents anywhere near the centre of London, because I think that the problem of cities with decaying hearts, or without hearts at all, may be partially attributed to the fact that nobody lives but everybody wants to work there. Indeed, I understand that we have reached a point in Central London at which it is virtually impossible to build any form of domestic blocks at an economic rent. The price is such that it cannot be done. This is one of the troubles with which my right hon. Friend is confronted.

This problem of cities without hearts, which means cities without people in them except during the working day, is a problem which we must not allow to slide, without seeing whether there is something else we can do about it. I think, too, that we need a more realistic appraisal than we have yet had of the probable course of our housing needs over the next ten years. Given that, I think that it would be easier to do what, with respect to my right hon. Friend, we have never done—to lay down the course which we should like to see him follow on the broadest lines.

For some years, some of us—and I include myself—have been handicapped by the belief that the end of the housing problem, if it is not in sight, ought to be in sight. But this is a chimera, a complete illusion. According to the best information which I have been able to lay my hands on, we are likely to want housing at an average rate of 200,000 a year for 20 years. That includes slum clearance, but it represents, in sum, between now and 1980, about 25 per cent. of our present stock.

What kind of a pattern are we aiming at? I find it very difficult to envisage, and I am bound to say that I think that many other people do, too. I do not think that any Government, short of dictatorial powers, which would be intolerable, can decree that pattern; and no one, least of all myself, is suggesting that they should. But I think that a Government can, and perhaps should, give a much clearer indication of the broad lines which they would like to see it follow. We tend to be governed here—and this is partly due to the statutory relationship between my right hon. Friend and the local authorities, which we all appreciate—by a series of somewhat negative and occasionaly conflicting edicts which together do not provide a very coherent or creative picture.

"We must hold the Green Belt; we shall clear the slums"—as indeed, we are doing most successfully; "we shall encourage overspill; we shall build up but we must also build out; we shall push new industry into areas where low employment can absorb it"—which is another department; "we shall avoid sprawl; we shall encourage home ownership; we must build homes for the old—and I emphatically agree that that is one of the major problems ahead of us. All these form a quite unexceptionable doctrine, but I question whether it forms an adequate picture to guide, still less to inspire, those who will have the responsibility during the next decade or so of building the 4 million houses which we must have.

Of course, this is no longer a self-contained housing problem. Perhaps one of our worst errors is to imagine that it is. This is a point on which I hoped that the hon. Member for Fulham, who is no longer here, would develop his remarks. It is profoundly affected, as we all know, by industry. It will be increasingly and mercilessly affected by the motor car.

I do not want to digress here on the ordeal which I think lies ahead of the Minister of Transport, save to say, which is not irrelevant to this theme, that I believe that we are approaching a real crisis in which we either resolve to discipline the motor car in a manner which is unthinkable at present to the motorist or resign ourselves to chaos This will be a major political decision.

I will not develop that theme at the moment, but in this context it has another significance. The motor car is producing an entirely new race of commuters. The pattern of life which London and the Home Counties and certain other big cities have known since the end of the First World War is now being reproduced in countless towns and villages throughout England. People are living in the village and going to the nearest town to work—an admirable thing, if one can manage it.

It is clear to me that a surprisingly high proportion of the new houses which are to be built will be built in rural England, in what its protectors call "virgin countryside". I do not think that much longer all of our so-called affluent society will be content to live in urban compression, as so many of them have since the first Industrial Revolution. Many will have to be so content, but some will not, and I think that we may be on the threshold of a tremendous social explosion—and it is a social force which will not be contained by the Town and Country Planning Acts.

I calculate that possibly the rural district councils will have to build about 75,000 to 100,000 houses a year. That will surprise a good many of them. Some of these will belong to the new race of commuters but some will be the second houses of those who occupy the central urban areas—the country cottage, which may not be within the reach of every man but which will shortly be within the reach of many more. In my view the caravan is a social progression which thinly disguises that fact.