Construction Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:52 pm on 12th June 1980.

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Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle 8:52 pm, 12th June 1980

Some of the worst and most difficult employers are those who have worked themselves up from the factory floor and who find it difficult to accept that other workers are not quite as able as themselves in certain circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman gave the impression that nothing was wrong with the construction industry. He seemed to be suggesting that the construction industry was in perfect health, that it was thriving, and that there was no exploitation of lump labour. He said that when Labour Members advocated public ownership of the building industry, they were not told that there was no industry to take into public ownership apart from the large international firms. He spoke of small companies that hired plant and hired and fired labour as and when the workload demanded. He said that such firms were impossible to take into public ownership by their very nature and that there was nothing in that sector to nationalise.

That says a great deal about what is wrong with the industry. It explains how labour can still be exploited. It tells us why we have too few building apprentices and why national statistics indicate that thousands of building workers are unemployed when we have an economic recession, and that when we have a Government-created boom reputable companies are often unable to recruit the skilled tradesmen that they need.

The nation needs a stronger and better organised building industry. However, the industry is dependent upon government, both national and local, for its survival. It is perhaps more dependent on government than any other industry. It can survive only if it is ensured continuity of work, and that can be ensured only by the Government.

The industry needs continuity to enable it to plan for the future, to expand and to have the confidence to invest in essential apprenticeships. The Government's policies of cuts in public expenditure and deflation of the economy have denied the building industry the continuity that it needs.

One of the reasons, also, for the shortage of skilled craftsmen was the attempt by the building industry and, indeed, by local government and central Government, in the mid-1960s, to engage in industrialised building, particularly in housing. I remember at the age of 16, in my school lessons, being given a vision of houses produced in factories and slotted together on the site, reducing both costs and building times. That vision soon turned into a nightmare, as the deck access houses of the mid-1960s, which were expensive to build and maintain, were finally rejected by the families for whom they were intended.

Traditional craftsmen are needed more than ever now. Nothing has been produced that can beat the traditional low-rise, brick-built house. The building industry also has a responsibility towards Governments and the community, as well as the other way round—particularly towards local government. During the boom times, for example in the early 1970s, because more profitable business was available in the private sector, very few companies tendered for public sector house building projects. For instance, in the city of Manchester at that time we were able to maintain our house building programme only by virtue of our own direct labour department, which tendered and continued to tender, with the odd exception, on occasions, when Wimpey tendered as well, trying to maintain some continuity.

Companies came running back to the public sector when the bubble burst and they are now crying out for public sector work when there is deflation in the economy and not much work in the private sector.

1 hope that when we get the next Labour Government, and there is expenditure in the public sector and the economy starts to pick up again, the construction industry accepts its responsibility to the public sector and local government.

The industry also often turns its back on more difficult and more labour-intensive repair and improvement work, which is essential in improvement areas and to older housing in our inner city areas. A scheme to modernise a few hundred purpose-built council homes that are standardised is easy meat, but trying to let a contract for about 100 houses, acquired in the private sector, that are pepper potted about is not so easy, because even the big builders will not tackle that job. Unless the building industry can face the task of organising this kind of work effectively, and at not too exorbitant a cost, the return of the bulldozer is inevitable. It is interesting to note that few Conservative councils hive off to the private sector the maintenance and repair work that is done by direct labour departments. They hive off the more profitable capital construction and leave the local authority direct labour department with the more difficult and much less profitable loss leader.

Many myths exist throughout the building industry. One, which has been propounded tonight by Government supporters, is that acres and acres of building land are being hoarded by local authorities—land that they are not using but that if released would allow the building industry to build houses for sale. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Perhaps in Liverpool there is derelict land—that in the ownership of the local authority—land that should have been built on but has not been built on because there is no council house building programme, owing to the political stalemate in that city.

In most parts of the country—in the city of Manchester, for example—local authorities are constantly seeking to acquire more housing land in order to maintain a municipal house building programme. Lack of land inhibits that programme. The truth is that the private developers have themselves failed to buy land in the inner city. Land has been available, but they have not bought it. The big private builders are still insisting on subsidised land if they are to risk building in inner cities.

Another myth is that council housing is not built as attractively as speculative housing because of standardisation. We often hear the words "They all look the same". But so does every Wimpey and Barra" home. The truth is that in either sector houses at a price that ordinary people can afford can be produced only by standardisation. The challenge to builders, architects and planners is to produce interest and variety on an estate where standardised components and house types are necessary. The major difference between low-rise council housing and a speculative estate for owner-occupation is density. The public sector has had to build to a much higher density because of absurd yardsticks related to densities. Lower-density council housing in inner areas would produce estates even more attractive than the average speculative estate.

I am also against the Government's decision to abolish Parker Morris standards. If anything, they need improving on. A house without full central heating or kitchen space for a deep-freeze will be unnacceptable in the not too distant future.—[Interruption.] Conservative Members murmur. I bet that they have deep-freezes.

People's expectations will continue to rise. That is to be welcomed. If they did not, we should still be living in caves. The Government claim that we have broken the back of the nation's housing crisis—a statement with which I do not agree. It is ironic that they advocate reductions in house building standards, when this is the time to increase and not reduce standards.

Builders should be practical. They have a lot to offer the nation. Architects and planners often have flights of fancy. The practical advice of builders should be available to all policy makers deciding on schemes for houses, schools, offices or factories. Every local council committee should have access to that advice. That is a further reason why direct labour departments should be expanded and developed.