System-built Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:41 pm on 24th March 1983.

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Photo of Sir Albert Costain Sir Albert Costain , Folkestone and Hythe 7:41 pm, 24th March 1983

I am talking about 1944. Nye Bevan was responsible for housing. That is a matter of fact. I may have made a mistake about the Ministry. I was under the impression that at that time he was Minister of Health. I had many interviews with Nye Bevan. It is immaterial. We are not discussing who was Minister of Health. We are discussing how the housing problem was tackled. The war was coming to an end. Those who read the debate will see that Lady Megan Lloyd-George pointed out that when war broke out a large number of skilled tradesmen in the building industry were aged over 65. At the end of the war there was a shortage of skills. There had been no training of skilled bricklayers.

There was an enormous shortage of housing, due to the bombing, to meet the needs of returning soldiers from the war. Nye Bevan's one ambition was to build the maximum number of houses as quickly as possible. An exhibition of prefabricated houses, concrete houses and other types were displayed at an exhibition at Northolt, where members of local authorities were able to examine them. Following the exhibition, firms were invited to put forward proposals.

It is interesting that the debate should have been initiated by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean). One of the houses mentioned was the Airey house, then partly developed. Edward Airey was a Leeds man. He had established a reputation for building houses after the first world war. The first houses that he built were constructed at Bootle. He produced a concrete block, which was known at the time as the Airey block. One of the specifications of the Airey house was that it could be built by unskilled labour. The idea behind the Airey house was that it could be built in rural areas where there was even less skilled labour available. My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) was wrong in a number of his assertions. The Airey house was made from precision moulds. The moulds were made of aluminium.

A great deal of aluminium was in stock for the building of aircraft. The Government wanted a use for the aluminium, so that if war broke out again it could immediately be put back into aircraft factories. Prisoners of war were put to work on the construction of houses, under British supervisors. This was the only type of work to which prisoners of war could be assigned. They could not be involved in anything concerned with war preparations. About 20,000 houses were built in rural areas. They were designed primarily to be erected as a temporary measure. A great deal of thought was put into the design of the houses so that, in due time, when the structures were taken down, the foundations and services would be available for new traditional housing. A great deal has been said about the cover of the tube and the amount of chemicals in the concrete.

I shall not bore the House with all of the details. But if anyone doubts that good concrete can be produced he should consider the very Airey factory where the railway sleepers that are used throughout the British Rail system were produced. I admit that we learnt a great deal during the development of the concrete that was used in the Airey sleepers. It is wrong to suggest that the concrete will necessarily deteriorate. Those sleepers are used throughout the world—in Russia, Australia, Canada and Britain, for example. If anyone travels on British Rail he will see my name on the bottom of the sleeper. When I was chairman of the company we did not put the name "Costain" on them; we used the "CCC" symbol. I know what railway trains do to sleepers and I did not want my name defaced.

When we assess the problem and try to draw conclusions, as I have the benefit of 40 years hindsight I ask the House to bear in mind that there was a shortage of 4 million houses just after the second world war. Moreover, there were no bricklayers, as none had been trained. Every method of building houses was being considered. I agree that there has been a bonanza, that the houses on exhibition at Northholt set the industry full of bright ideas and that several systems did not survive, but it is not fair to say that there is no good system-built housing. The no fines concrete house system which started its life at Northolt was used to build houses of the kind that are still being built today, and they are the only ones that building societies will mortgage. When the factory at Childerdich was being closed, we considered in great detail whether to continue to build for sale. The building societies did a complete survey of the houses and said that they had a limited life and did not want to mortgage them.

People who live in Airey houses should not be too alarmed. One of the reasons for their failure is that some of the posts have dropped and cracked. I erected a building in my garden many years ago which is as good now as it was then. I also spread several fencing posts around the garden which were never intended for that use, and I have taken a great deal of trouble to see how they deteriorate.

I know that the debate is limited for time and I do not want to hog it all. However, we must get the subject into perspective. It is good that the hon. Member for Leeds, West raised the subject in the stillness of the evenng. When my hon. Friend the Minister considers the subject, I urge him to bear in mind the fact that not all prefabricated or system-built houses are bad. Indeed, a good number of them are jolly good.