§ Major LLOYD-GREAME
I beg to move,That this House views with apprehension the slow rate of progress in the building of houses under the Housing and Town Planning Acts.In raising, on the first private Member's motion, the question of housing, I think I shall be consulting not only my own wish but the general sentiment of the House in giving the first possible opportunity to the Minister of Health to give us an account of how the new measures he took are going forward. It needs hardly any words, in introducing a motion of this sort, to emphasise the continued and increasing urgency of the position. It is hardly too much to say that by the present position, in many cases, the mobility of employment is held up. A man cannot move from one employment to another, or from one place to another, to take up fresh employment because he cannot find a house to go to if he leaves his existing employment. The young man rising in life cannot get married because there is no house to go to. What has always seemed to me to be a particularly pathetic case is that of the discharged soldier who got married sometime when home on leave, who has managed to get through all right, and has come home expecting to find a house where he can start a new family life, only to find that he cannot get a house and has to live in one room, either in the house of his parents or his wife's parents; he cannot make that start in life which everyone knows who is married makes half the charm of life in starting, that is in having your own house to begin your married life in.
I need not urge that position, which is doubtless present in the minds of every Member of this House when he goes round his constituency, and certainly it is in 814 the mind of a great number of our constituents. I want to make one further point in beginning, and that is that we ought to recognise that this is not simply a working-class question. It is as much a middle-class question. There is nothing I remember with so much satisfaction as the occasion. I took last spring to press upon the Government the desirability of extending the scope of the Increase of Rent Restriction Act, and make it apply to what I may call middle-class houses. If the Government had not taken any action then I am perfectly certain that hundreds of thousands, I think that is hardly an exaggeration, of men and women of the middle classes, who have had very little increment, earned or unearned, during the War, would have found that they had either got to submit to a very great increase of rent or would have had to buy their houses at an exorbitant price.
On the very last day of last Session this House passed a measure which gave still further discretion to magistrates to extend the provisions of the Act. There is now a general discretion that eviction may be refused in any case which comes within the scope of the Act where alternative accommodation is not available. I want on that point to put a specific question to the Minister, and I hope he will give an answer to-night. That Act, unless extended by the Government, ends on Lady Day, 1921. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that people are buying up house property in the anticipation that the Act is coming to an end in 1921, and that the housing shortage is not coming to an end in 1921. Against that there are thousands of people who are extremely anxious to know the position. They want to know whether they are to settle with their landlord "while they are in the way with him," and whether they had better settle now. I do hope that the Minister will give us an assurance to-night that it is the policy of the Government to continue, if you like, in a modified form, the Restriction of Rent Act until such time as the houses are built, and until it is impossible for the owner of house property by an artificial monopoly value to exploit the occupiers of house property.
§ The Motion which I have moved is couched in very moderate language. I am bound to say, if the Minister 815 had not introduced the Act giving additional powers at the end of last Session, and which is now on the Statute Book, that Motion would stand in rather different terms. Possibly some hon. Member may remember the reply of a Presbyterian minister who was disputing with a Roman Catholic colleague as to the way of doing something. The Roman Catholic colleague said to him, "After all, even if you are right, may there not be something in my way as well as in yours?" The Presbyterian minister replied, "Yes, we both serve the same Master, you in your way and I in His." I am bound to say that there was a certain pontifical insistence by the Ministry of Health on their one and only way of solving this question and that the original Bill was all sufficient. The insufficiency of the original proposals is shewn by the fact that they have now granted additional facilities to public utility societies and private enterprise. I believe that there has been considerable delay because those new powers were not taken sooner. At one time I was afraid that there might be inscribed as the epitaph of the minister words which hon. Members will remember in the Koran: "This life is but a bridge; let no man build his house upon it."
§ I feel justified in making these criticisms which are of a retrospective character, because I did not on the passage of the Bill indulge purely in destructive criticism. I offered on that occasion certain constructive suggestions which I am glad to say were to some extent embodied in the Act passed at the end of last Session. I think that there is now a genuine effort to bring in both the public utility societies and private enterprise, and I am sure the House is very anxious to know how far these efforts have proved successful. I think the House will agree if you are going to assist private enterprise you must comply with two conditions: The first is that the terms which you offer must be adequate to induce private enterprise to come in and build and, secondly, that those terms must be reasonable, that is to say that while they give the builder a fair profit the balance of the benefit passes to the occupier of the house. When under this Act either the private builder or the public utility societies have to decide whether it is economically possible for them to take advantage of its provisions, they want to 816 know one basic fact and that is, what rent are they to be able to get for the houses which they put up? The Minister will admit that that will depend largely upon what rents the local authorities are going to charge for corresponding houses which they set up in the same areas. We had a very long discussion last session on certain regulations which were laid on the Table. Those regulations were ultimately withdrawn, and the Minister substituted regulations which I think are now on the Table and which seem to be much more satisfactory. I take it that it is quite clear, and I hope the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, that both now and after 1927 the liability of the local authority is limited to the produce of the penny rate. It is very essential that not only that private enterprise and public utility societies, but also that the local authority should know what kind of rent the Ministry will insist on being charged. Can the right hon. Gentleman give us to-night precise figures showing what is the rent in the Metropolitan area for houses and in the provincial cities and in agricultural districts. If he cannot give us precise figures, can he give us a figure which will say so much per £100 of cost, because we really do want to know where we stand in this matter; and a figure is very much more effective than a formula. What we have got so far is a formula as to the rent being the best obtainable "having regard to all the conditions. That as an abstract proposition is admirable, but in the concrete to the builders who are going to erect the houses, or the public utility societies, it really does not mean anything. They want to know what is the precise rent for a house of this kind which the local authority is going to charge. That does not only go to rent; it also goes to the purchase price on sale, because the public utility societies and the local authorities have power to sell their houses. They want to know, therefore, whether they are going to be undersold in the open market by a local authority which has built houses. Considerable impetus will be given to building if the Minister can give us an assurance on that point.
§ I have asked a certain number of questions, all of them I hope, relevant, but I am quite conscious that one is not justified in bringing forward a Motion of 817 this kind in a purely critical or even in an inquiring spirit. I hope to offer, as I always try to do both inside and outside this House in connection with these schemes, some constructive suggestions, because I am sure that we all want to help in this matter. I think I am right in saying that the average number of houses put up in a year before the war was something like 80,000. Let the House realise what that means. It means that until we build 80,000 houses per year we shall not have caught up even with the normal yearly requirements. We have got to do much more. We have got to make up the deficiency over all' the years of war. Do not let us minimise the task. We mean to get it through, but it is a vast undertaking, and I do appeal to Members on whatever side they are that it is so vast an undertaking that we want every single authority, every single combination, and every single class of people who can come in and build a house, and that we ought not to take any academic objection to the particular form in which they are going to act.
§ Whoever is going to build these houses, there are three essential conditions which must be present. First of all, cheapness of construction; secondly, expedition in building: and, thirdly, output. All these are inter-dependent. I shall try to summarise very shortly some of the factors which govern the position and the action which we can take. Let me begin with the Ministry itself. I am quite sure that what is wanted there—I believe that the Minister is getting at it—is that there shall be the fullest possible devolution of executive powers to local representatives of the Ministry throughout the areas. You want to give your local man on the spot the power to decide the question on the spot. That really will make for an enormous saving in expenditure. Transport is difficult and production is difficult. A person undertaking a scheme suddenly finds that he cannot get a particular type of material. He wants to substitute something else, or he finds that some point in the design cannot be complied with without a delay of weeks and even months. It is a practical proposition such as we have to decide in everyday life, and if the man on the spot can say "yes, that is a reasonable thing, go ahead, make the substitution," it is going to make all the difference, not only in getting the house quickly, but in 818 the price. Builders who are taking contracts now have put in a cost variation clause. I do not think there are many absolutely firm contracts, and, even if there arc, I am quite sure that in tendering the builder, if he thinks that he is likely to be held up by delays of this kind, puts in a large extra sum to cover the contingency. It will have a further advantage. It means that you will have the opportunity of using to the full local material. That is not only going to be cheap in itself, but it will also be an advantage when you come to deal with some of the more difficult labour questions.
§ I want two things. I want the local officer of the Ministry of Health to have full powers to decide these things quickly. The great thing that is needed in the Civil Service is that people should be able to take responsibility and give decisions. I am perfectly certain that in nine cases out of ten a man would rather have the answer "No" given to him by return of post than an indeterminate answer or even an affirmative answer after it has been minuted and passed through all the stages through which these things have to go. The Minister of Health is a practical man, and I know that he appreciates this point. May I make another practical suggestion. I do hope that when things come to Whitehall they will come to the same man. An authority has a housing scheme. It comes up to one particular official in the Ministry for approval. If possible, lot the first man to whom it comes be able to give the approval, but, when that scheme comes back again, for Heaven's sake let it come to the same man. I have had complaints of schemes being held up in the Ministry through no fault of the right hon. Gentleman, because the thing has not come back to Mr. Brown who first dealt with it, but to Mr. Jones, necessitating the whole scheme being argued out afresh. That is a very simple and practical question of administration with which the right hon. Gentleman can deal. When dealing with the thing on the spot, give the local officials power. I do not want a horde of new officials. I do not think that it needs a great new staff. It needs adequate men on the spot with adequate powers and with determination and authority to use them. I want to be sure, also, that women are being brought into this scheme. It is essential, if we are to get practical 819 results at a cheap price. I am perfectly certain that there is no Member of the Government who would dare to build a house or even to take a furnished house without taking his wife into consultation. If the Minister denies that, he is either unmarried or—
§ Major LLOYD-GREAME
I do hope that in this big national problem women are being brought in, because i am quite sure that they know the practical things that are wanted in houses. I want to be sure that they are there to see that the practical and necessary things are insisted upon and that the other things are allowed to go by the board. I have seen the Ministry criticised for agreeing, in particular cases, to modifications of the high standards which are being set. That is the kind of criticism which is academic and wholly unreasonable. There must be discretion in these mattersWe needs must love the highest, when we set it.If we have really no prospect of getting it, or if it requires the eye of faith to see the highest, let us in common sense realise something little less Olympian. If we ask a discharged soldier who has come back from the Front, and who, with his wife and child, has only one room to live in in his mother-in-law's house, whether he would rather have a castle in Spain or an Army hut in Tooting, it is only the most academic pundit who would refrain from guessing the right answer.
Of course the crux of this problem is the question of finance. We all receive a very illuminating broadsheet issued by the Ministry of Health, and I have read it with increasing interest and increasing approval. But this broadsheet is rather like a legal document. It consists partly of recitals and partly of the operative part. We really only come down to business—I am not saying that the stages you have to go through are too long or too many, so long as you get the answer quickly, indeed, I do not think there are too many stages—but we really do not come down to the operative part until we reach the stage of a contract for houses which has been placed against money which has been found to pay for that contract. That is really the operative part of the document, 820 but if I am able to extract that information from it, it is what I look for week by week. I want to say nothing which can deter anybody from subscribing the maximum, and something more, to local housing bonds. It is a real duty, as much a duty as it was to subscribe to the War Loans. But it is obvious that the more you have to borrow the higher will be the rate of interest at which you borrow. What is the rate of interest which the Minister expects the local authorities will be able to borrow at? If you can reduce the amount of money which is to be found by the public you will make the task easier. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will explore a little more closely the possibility of making a grant or subsidy in the shape of fully-paid housing bonds which the builder will be able to discount at his bank, because it might even be worth while to pay a little more in the long run to get that done. There are two ways of getting the money, there is the attracting investors to subscribe for bonds, and the borrowing from the bank by the builders. In a vast operation like this you want to combine the two, and you want to have recourse to the bank for the balance which you cannot get from the general fund. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not leave that possibility unexplored.
There are two factors which, it seems to me, are absolutely vital—both to the question of cost and the question of output. One affects Capital and the other affects Labour. Is the Minister satisfied that the prices which are being paid to-day for building materials and fittings are in no case excessive? I admit I have not got exact proof. It is extraordinarily difficult to have exact proof in these matters. While I am quite sure there are many trade arrangements in these days which are absolutely necessary and beneficial, because you cannot conduct business in water-tight compartments, yet when I watch the prices of these various building commodities and fittings, when I see them rise to an extent which does not seem to bear a direct ratio to the ordinary increase of cost, I feel bound to ask whether there are any arrangements in these trades which are unnecessary and whether it is never the case that some commission is paid without corresponding services being rendered? I hope the Board of Trade will use the full powers which we 821 have given them to make the fullest possible investigation into these things. My hon. Friends opposite will, I think, agree that it would be possible more effectually thus to inquire into these than some of the profiteering undertakings upon which representatives of local authorities have embarked in other cases. I have been frank on this point. I want to be equally frank on the Labour side. Is the House sure that the record of Labour is absolutely clear? It is no answer from one section to say that the other section is in fault. This is not a question which is being tried one side against the other before an independent and disinterested judge. Both sides in this matter have to answer at the bar of public opinion.
There is undoubtedly an enormous shortage of labour. The building trade sent its men to the War in large numbers and they gained a very honourable record. Many formerly in the building trade have been diverted into other industries. There is a shortage and there is a need for reinforcement. Yet the door is shut or only a little ajar. I do not want to elaborate that further. I understand there will be an opportunity of discussing that side of the question to-morrow at some greater length, but it is impossible to touch upon this question without including that within the scope of one's purview. You cannot leave out the question of reinforcements. We hear talk of restrictions. Our challenge is denied. I admit I cannot point to any written restriction. I have not looked for a written restriction but I have seen a steady diminution in the number of bricks which are laid by men in that industry. I will grant at once that there is no written restriction to which one can point, but some of the unwritten laws are the sternest and the most effective. You can look through all the statutes on the Statute Book and you will not find any reference to the Cabinet, and yet that body has, or had until recently, a very real existence. These unwritten laws are very often quite as strong as any written law. If there is no written law is there a convention which is holding things up in the building trade? But I go further. When we were taught the Commandments we were told that each "Thou shalt not" connoted a corresponding "Thou shalt." Has that been considered by the leaders of the building industry on the Labour side? Surely there should be not only 822 "You shall not restrict output," but there is implied "You shall do all you possibly can to get a maximum output." I have been taunted from the Benches opposite that we have not been very quick and we have not yet made this a land for heroes to dwell in. Perhaps we have not, but has your conduct in this matter up to now been very heroic? The man who deliberately restricts output in the building industry to-day is just as much a profiteer at the expense of his fellows as the merchant who tries to rig the market. I would make an appeal to the Government. I believe everyone wants to help in this matter. Take us in the House of Commons fully into your confidence. Take the country into your confidence. It wants to know your difficulties and to help you in your difficulties. The force of public opinion, once it is informed what those difficulties are, once it is informed what it is that is holding you up, if things are holding you up, will be too strong to be resisted. Take us into your confidence. Tell us your difficulties. Your difficulties are our difficulties. Our resources are your resources.
Lieut.-Colonel W. GUINNESS
I beg to second the Motion.
I do not wish to enter into a criticism of the administration of the Ministry of Health. There was a time during last Session when I feared that that Minister would very likely fall under the burden of centralised control and administration which was laid upon him by the housing legislation which was agreed to, but I am glad to recognise that he is surmounting his difficulties and that he has been very successful, as far as the outside public can judge, and as far as local authorities can judge, in freeing his Department from red tape, and now from all accounts it is working very satisfactorily. The modifications of the Statutory Rules and Orders to which my hon. and gallant Friend has referred, giving much more elasticity to local authorities, are a case in point, and anyone who has had experience of the London Housing Board will know that from being a by-word for obstructive inefficiency a few months ago, they have made a remarkable development and now are capable of giving big decisions in a short time, and almost of answering letters by return of post. The satisfactory working of this administrative machinery has only brought into stronger relief the inefficient methods which this 823 House has so far had explained to it to deal with this problem. There are two fundamental obstacles which remain unsolved, finance, and the inadequacy of the building trade under present conditions to meet the greatly increased demands which are thrust upon it. The financial position is that in the case of local authorities with more than £200,000 rateable value, housing loans must be provided locally. Smaller local authorities beneath that rateable line are financed by the Treasury. As those smaller authorities are estimated by the Ministry of Health at about 60 per cent., about 40 per cent. of the money will have to be raised locally.
It is no exaggeration to say that the greatest municipal authorities in this country are in a state of consternation at the burden which has been placed upon them I will only give one case. I have here a report of the Birmingham City Council Finance Committee. They point out that owing to the authorisation of housing bonds at the rate of 5½ per cent. a considerable amount of money which they have borrowed at 5 per cent. has been called in. On top of that the Treasury has since offered 5¾ per cent. Exchequer Bonds, which have the very novel feature that they are repayable at 12 months' notice. This has necessarily dried up perhaps the most important source of borrowing on the part of these large municipalities, because they formerly had the field of these short term mortgage bonds almost to themselves. The Birmingham Finance Committee reports that there is such dislocation in the local money market that they cannot even hope to raise the £500,000 which they were taking steps to issue at the time when these bombshells fell, and owing to the fact that they have to raise £4,000,000 this year for other purposes the City Council has now decided that it will sign no more housing contracts under present conditions. They do not stand alone. There are many other large municipalities in the same position. I need only instance Southampton and Portsmouth, which find themselves absolutely unable to finance the housing obligations which they feel are all important to be faced in the national interest. The position of the smaller rural authority is even more serious. Those rural authorities, and the 824 small county councils, have not the large capitalists to whom the large city councils can in many cases appeal. I have been given the case of a rural district council—I will not offend it by mentioning its name—and the centre of this rural district, which is typical of many, is a conglomeration of colliery villages, with a mud heap in the centre, which is dignified by the name of a town. It has grown up without any industry except the coal industry, and the inhabitants have to live in its grimy atmosphere owing to the needs of their colliery work. The rest of the area from which its rateable value of £230,000 is derived is of the same character. There are no landowners in the district in a position to put up money for housing. Who is going to find it? Surely under the present conditions of uncertainty in the mining industry no one will expect the colliery proprietors to do it. They probably feel that before the houses are built they will be expropriated in view of the demand in certain quarters of this House for nationalisation. You cannot expect the trade unions to put up the money. They must keep their money in a liquid form, and they certainly should not invest in the security which they could not realise, because it has only a very restricted local market, and it is not quoted on the London Stock Exchange. Therefore, these districts, with the greatest need for housing, districts which are most neglected from the point of view of houses, are very often in the worst position to find the necessary funds.
There is only one obvious way out of the difficulty and that is a national housing loan. The taxpayer in any case is to be responsible for all expenditure over the proceeds of a penny rate. Quite apart from the housing point of view it is obviously unsound from the financial point of view to raise this money other than centrally. You would get much cheaper money and much better financial arrangements if the matter is dealt with by the Treasury rather than having a multitude of local authorities bidding one against the other. The money will not all be wanted at the same time. It is easier for the Treasury to organise by means of propaganda campaign the gradual collection of this money for housing purposes and to give it out as it is wanted, but it would be almost impossible for the local 825 authorities to go on collecting the money in the small instalments which would be necessary year by year to meet the calls upon them in connection with housing. The problem is unmanageable by the local authorities but quite manageable by the Treasury. I will not go into the figures. My hon. Friend mentioned that 80,000 was the normal housing rate before the War. This year we shall have to build 100,000 houses, and in subsequent years at least 200,000 houses. The last figures of the right hon. Gentleman, contained in the fortnightly housing returns, show that the houses are costing now £742 on an average, apart from the cost of land, sowers, and roads, and when you add the capitalised value of the 25 per cent. allowance for empties, administration and repairs, you are not going to build these houses on the average for less than £1,000 each. That means that you want £100,000,000 in the first year and £200,000,000 in the subsequent years. In any case the Exchequer is finding about 60 per cent. of the cost for small authorities with less than £200,000 rateable value. While they are providing this housing money, could they not find the extra 40 to 50 millions a year which will be necessary to provide the whole amount required for all authorities? It is not that you will be borrowing more but simply that you will be putting the responsibility upon the central authority.
With respect to the building trade, it is admittedly unequal under the present conditions to the demands that are being put upon it, and will be put upon it, not only for housing, but for our industrial revival for many years to come. The last census showed that over 800,000 men were employed in the building industry. I am advised now that the most liberal estimate does not place it at more than 600,000. It is safe to say that for an indefinite number of years twice that number will be needed in the national industry. The fear is that the Government in this matter is drifting, and it is a matter in regard to which drifting is extremely dangerous. So far as we can judge by public evidence, the Government are simply using violent statements as to the defects of certain trade union regulations. This is not a matter where abuse is going to do any good. Violent statements have been made as to the obstructive attitude of certain trade anions and they have naturally met with 826 equally violent replies. The matter is not going to solve itself in that way. In any case, it would take far longer than we could afford to wait. There is very much suspicion on both sides and a great deal of the suspicion is by no means difficult to understand. The builders are in rather a suspicious frame of mind. They are sore because they have been treated in certain sections of the Press and by certain controversialists as thieves and rogues. I am sorry, to say that one of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues, who ought to help in the solution of this housing difficulty, is not altogether blameless in the matter. These builders are in an extremely difficult position. Owing to the unstable condition of the industry, and the impossibility of seeing a few months ahead, they have to put into their tenders, if they want to secure themselves against disastrous loss, a far larger margin than they would have done before the War, and there are so many demands for the employment of their resources, that they are naturally not keen on going into this class of work, which, under the present conditions of uncertainty, is very risky indeed. The Minister of Health has taken a very wise course with the builders in allowing an alternative to the fixed tender in the shape of working at a fixed rate of profit based on prime cost, He is also allowing and is encouraging, I believe, in certain cases, a method whereby that system is extended by giving the builder a certain percentage of the saving which he may effect on the estimated figure which has been arrived at by competent authorities. I only say that incidentally.
I return to the position as between the builder and the workman. The builder has some natural excuse for feeling rather sore, uneasy, and mistrustful. On the other hand, the workman has a very natural fear of unemployment. Under the conditions of unregulated competition, which he remembers before the war, he knows that he was very often out of work. If no thrift and no hard work can ensure him against the tragedy of want and a broken home, it is not altogether to be wondered at that men, in ignorance of the whole situation, should feel that it is bettor to take no risks, to work slowly and to keep down the number of those working, so that the employment which they are enjoying should last the longer 827 Of course, we know that under present conditions any idea of that kind is absolutely absurd, but it is no good abusing people for having that in their minds. We have to bring it home to them. If by working harder and increasing output the purchasing power of money is increased—a great gain—men will naturally want security that their wages shall not fall so as to leave them no benefit for their harder work. We have to get over this prejudice and suspicion which survives from the conditions before the war. Even if trade unions were to cease the alleged obstruction, I doubt very much whether labour in the building trade would increase sufficiently to solve our difficulties without Government action. It is very doubtful, if you compare the rates of wages, whether builders labourers are sufficiently paid to ensure an adequate supply under present condition's, because, although their earnings are nominally higher, we have to take into account that that is counterbalanced by the loss of pay incurred in that industry under pre-war conditions.
We have also to remember that recruits cannot come into that industry, unaided, as men. They can only come in as boys, because during their period of instruction men could not possibly live on the wages they would earn. We cannot afford to wait for boys to grow up into the building industry, and it is imperative in the national interest that we should train in some way those who missed their turn as boys owing to Army service. This is a matter far too large to be settled by employers or workers without the help of the State. The Government must take a hand. They ought to prepare a scheme for training ex-service men—men who have missed their chance as boys—and bringing them into the building trade, in consultation with the trade unions concerned. Before they can do that we must have the facts before the House and the country. It is alleged that the output of bricklayers per hour is now only two-thirds of what it was before the War. Well, let us have an enquiry and sift this and other allegations of decreased output. If the facts turn out as stated, the Government would get invaluable strength from public opinion when they deal with the matter. I would ask the Minister of Health to 828 urge upon the Government the appointment of an inter-departmental committee to go into the whole question without any further delay. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Platting Division (Mr. Clynes) and other trade union leaders have invited such an enquiry. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government hang back. I know that this matter is not one concerning the Minister of Health alone, but I feel that he could do very much to expedite its satisfactory tackling by the Government. There is at the present time an enormous amount of impatience on this housing question. I am sure that every member of the House must realise that if he has been among his constituents lately. It is a matter of great danger, because great expectations have been aroused. I will conclude with a story which has reached me from my constituency to show the present shortage of houses. A man was walking along the bank of a river and saw a crowd. When he came up to it he was very sad to see that a friend of his had been drowned. He went off quickly to the house agent and said, "Jones has been drowned. Can you let me have his house"? The house agent replied, "I am very sorry to disappoint you, but I have already let it to the man who pushed him into the river.
§ Mr. W. GRAHAM
I am quite sure that I express the feelings of every Member on the Labour Benches when I say that we join with the hon. and gallant Members who have spoken in the view that we should treat this question as broadly and as generously as possible and avoid all abuse of one another. I agree also that it is far too urgent and important to be the subject of diatribes on those lines. We have to make every constructive suggestion we can make and it is in that spirit that I shall address the House on the subject. There are three problems at the moment with regard to the housing difficulty from the point of view of labour: first, the problem of dilution and output, which are really associated with each other; secondly, the problem of trusts and rings in regard to the supply of housing materials; and, thirdly, the problem of finance, whether from the national or the local point of view. I understand that to-morrow in this House there will be an opportunity for fully and frankly discussing the question 829 of dilution, We therefore propose to postpone that part of the Debate, as far as we are concerned, beyond offering this observation, that many Members of this House, and certainly a very large section of the outside public, seem to assume that all the dilution should readily come from the ranks of the manual workers. There is nothing wrong or unjust and there is nothing contrary to the best and highest interests of the State in manual workers protecting themselves by regulations, by trade union devices and by maintaining their corporations for their good in the industries in which they are engaged. We know, of course, that at a very critical time in the country's history the medical men proved themselves to be members of the most powerful trade union in the country, and the lawyers, of whom I speak with great respect, are equally well organised for their protection. We have never complained of that, but we have always argued that a similar right should be extended to people engaged in manual occupations, because, after all, their training is just as sacred in its way as the training of professional men.
In the building trade the great diminution in numbers is not disputed, but we have got to ask ourselves what dilution would achieve, and if a controversy with the trade unions on this important matter would really help us towards the solution of the housing problem? Many or the operations in the building trade are skilled and can only be learned as a result of considerable experience. For many years before the war broke out we had very few apprentices in the building trade in this country. I regret to think that even in the present year with the tremendous housing shortage confronting us and with apparently permanent and full employment for large numbers of men hardly any apprentices are being trained in probably the majority of the districts in this country. That is a lamentable and very striking fact. But the dilution according to many of the advocates would apply only to unskilled processes, that is what is generally called labouring work. I suggest that you have at this time all the dilution you probably want.
There is no particular difficulty in any man starting as a labourer in the building trade. I speak more particularly of Scottish conditions, but substantially the same conditions obtain south of 830 the Tweed. Excluding the skilled and semi-skilled processes you depend upon a very great deal of unskilled labour and if men are willing to engage in that work there is no particular union regulation which would debar them from doing so, and even if they are not organised they take the advantage of what the unions win for them. These things must be admitted, but I should not be opposed personally—and I am expressing only my personal view—to the desire that this matter should be fully and impartially investigated at the earliest possible moment. Bound up with dilution is the problem of output. Under that head we lose time in the discussion of output in this country by assuming that it is a problem of a human character, shall I say, confined to manual workers. There is a very great diminution in the output of ideas according to many of our current writers. There is a great diminution of the output of professional people which is admitted by impartial critics of existing conditions. Diminished output is fastened, by a great section of the population, only on manual wage earners, but if we look at the foreign press we will see that at this hour it is a question which applies to Western Europe, the United States of America and other parts of the world, and that this question of diminished output is really a world problem which goes far beyond the human factor. It is a problem of transport, of finance and of a hundred and one other conditions which perhaps we do not sufficiently realise, and I think that it is unjust to say, as many do say, that labour is willing to consent to diminished output for its own purposes. All responsible persons in labour—I think I am safe in saying that that accounts for every Member in this House—recognise that we must have the maximum output in this country. But they always attach to that the condition too often forgotten, that we have got to get a scientific distribution of wealth. If Members can bring together the two propositions then there is not a single thing to divide us across the floor of this Chamber.
On the other two points I shall be purposely brief. I desire to criticise very freely indeed the attitude of the Government towards the trusts and combines in the building trade. Very often this is regarded as a stunt by people in this 831 House and the people on these benches who are unfit to govern. But all I am going to say now has already been embodied in impartial reports by committees or bodies appointed by the Government from time to time to consider this problem. In the report on the Committee on Trusts there was a section devoted to the question of building material and the existence of rings in the supply of building material in this country, and that report made it perfectly clear that there was three classes of material on which we depend. There was a class which was not controlled by a ring. There was a second class which was partially controlled, and there was a third class which was practically completely controlled, and the second and third classes accounted at the date of that report for about 50 per cent. of the building materials necessary in this country. Now although that report was presented a year or two ago, the Government have systematically refused to take action until very recently to deal with the existence of trusts and rings in Great Britain. I. personally, and many other Members of this House have put question after question to the Government as to what they intended to do in reference to this problem. We have been promised anti-trust legislation at an early date but the Government have not yet indicated when it will be introduced, and only now within the past few days we have been offered an inquiry into the existence of rings in the supply of building material.
Everybody knows that the trust influence in British industry has made enormous strides during the War. No one can have had access to the files of controlled establishment or have read the records of impartial investigations without being thoroughly convinced of that. We see evidence of it in the world of finance in the amalgamation of banks. We see it in the realm of industry and commerce. I am not complaining for a single moment, because I and many of my colleagues regard it as a necessary process in the evolution of the capitalist system in this country. That progress has been made, and the unfortunate fact is that at this hour the Government has allowed these building materials to be controlled by, and to be at the mercy of, rings and combines, and they have had to take their tenders on the footing of that 832 great imposition on the State. We have seen tenders in most parts of the country which indicate that the cost of houses runs to anything from £700 to £1,000, and these are not large dwellings at all, houses suitable for Members of the Government, but the humble dwellings which we on these Benches as a rule have to occupy. There is not the slightest doubt that if the local authorities and the State are to pay that price housing is going to be a very costly experiment indeed.
We in Scotland computed that in terms of the Report of the Royal Commission it would cost, in existing circumstances, not less than £200,0()0,000 to £250,000,000 to solve our housing problem. If that is what Scotland requires, with all its modesty, I hesitate to think of what is going to be involved before England, and probably Ireland, are included too. The Government should have embarked at the earliest possible moment on a study of those rings and combines, and they should have done everything in their power to get down the price of these building materials in order to economise in the solution of this difficulty. My complaint is that they have come along with a form of anti-trust legislation, or at all events with a promise of it and of inquiry into this matter, too late in the day, after the evil has been allowed to operate, after the pace has been set, and when we shall find it very difficult indeed to go back. Probably Ministers themselves would be inclined to concede that they have not taken the best course in this very important matter.
With regard to the financial difficulty, we have always urged from the Labour Benches that this was a matter for the State. We recognise that a very large proportion of the houses existing in this country have been provided by private enterprise, but that for reasons which we could not control private enterprise has broken down in regard to housing. We thought that the scheme financially was perfectly clear and plain when the Government decided to provide the money for housing and to limit the liability of the local authorities to the product of a penny rate. By that scheme we believed we could get the houses and we also thought it would be our business frankly and courageously as a State to find the money. Since that time the proposal has been made to embark on an effort to find 833 the money in the locality. I am sure that the great majority of the Members of this House who know the conditions under which the local authorities are working to-day will agree that there is very little hope of getting any substantial sum in that way. All these local authorities are faced with heavy arrears of work. We have only to look at the magnitude of the municipal debts to realise how very difficult it is going to be to raise money on those lines. Even if we did place that duty on their shoulders, I think the local authorities are still entitled to argue, as they did two or three days ago, that they will be compelled to offer at least what the Government is offering for money, and that will have the effect of placing in the most serious position all the money which they have already raised in the localities, their existing debts, and will raise problems as to transfer and conversion which will make our last state worse than our present.
Surely the Government must appreciate that this can be most economically done by some form of central effort? I am going to make what I believe to be a practical suggestion to the Government for their consideration. I think we can divide what we have to do in this country into two classes. There are probably more classes, but I will take two. There is work which we must do and there is work which might be postponed. Many of us have studied the long list of companies which are being floated at the present time, and one of the most striking facts which emerges from that study is this—that not only is there a tremendous amount of money involved, but there is no need to appeal to the outside public to subscribe; they can get that money in small groups or syndicates. Where these companies are being floated for beneficent purposes or for commercial progress I am not going to complain, but we are entitled to complain that a very large amount of money is being raised for the purpose of what we can rightly describe as idle luxury, or one form or another of waste. Is that a wise use of capital in this country? I am no lover of compulsion in any shape or form, but I do suggest that we are simply refusing to face the facts unless we demand that at this crisis capital must be directed into those channels which would minister in the highest sense to the common good. If the State and the Government would face 834 that problem, I think it would be found that the reserves of resources were greater than had been imagined, and that the money required could be raised. We must also find some method of keeping down the rate of interest.
I cannot conclude without saying that we agree at once that every discussion of this kind must be constructive in character. We believe that these are constructive suggestions, because they would help to keep down the cost of housing, and we believe also that if effect were given to our desires as regards trust influence and the financial difficulty, there would be a real response on the part of labour in this country to the solution of this great difficulty.
§ Mr. G. THORNE
I do not know of any subject which more readily than this would lend itself to political debate. The mover and seconder of the Resolution obviated any temptation in that direction, and brought the House down to the real consideration of the vital question of how houses can be obtained to meet the needs of the people. This housing difficulty is such a pressing one, that all political considerations are forgotten, and every Member of this House, I believe, is animated solely by a desire to assist the Government in any way he possibly can in securing the end in view. The Resolution is a very modest one, but I think I have never known a Resolution submitted to this House which I think can be supported by every hon. Member better than the present one. The terms of the Resolution areThat this House views with apprehension the slow rate of progress in the building of houses under the Housing and Town Planning Acts.Without any distinction of party, I believe the whole House and the whole nation view with apprehension the very slow progress that is being made, and I am thankful to the hon. Member who, after being successful in the ballot, has used his opportunity to bring this vital question before the consideration of the House. We want to see that apprehension allayed. It is vitally necessary that it should be allayed, and it cannot be allayed by what private Members say. They may hold their own individual views and express them, but the anxiety of the country can only be allayed by an authoritive statement from the responsible Minister.
835 I could have wished that after the mover and seconder had made their speeches my right hon. Friend opposite (Dr. Addison) had found it possible to immediately reply, because those two hon. Members pressed home some very strong probing questions, and it is those questions we want answered absolutely and fully in some way in order to allay the apprehension referred to in the Resolution. I only intend to emphasise the questions which those hon. Members have so admirably put before us. Of course the Government admit that there is a very great shortage of houses. The hon. Member who moved the Resolution indicated what he understood was the ordinary pre-War provision of houses. From my information I should say that he rather lessened than exaggerated what pre-War building was, and I should like to know from the Government, who alone can speak with authority, if they will tell us what it was, and then contrast what the pre-War rate of building was with what the actual building was during the last twelve months.
§ Mr. THORNE
When we realise the contrast between the two and realise that the normal rate is so far from being reached, and that the shortage which necessitated all this at the end of the War is now being added to, the problem becomes all the more serious, and the apprehensions are all the better founded. I am the more anxious to hear those facts stated by the Government authoritatively in order that the country may understand what is the ground for this apprehension. The hon. Member opposite put this question to my right hon. Friend and I would like to emphasise it. In regard to the houses already built, we would like to know what rents the Government are going to insist upon. This is one of the most vital and practical questions we have to consider. I know that one authority, having built a certain number of houses, desired to let them. The housing committee prepared its scheme as to what the rents should be. They submitted those rents to the Government and the Government did not consider them sufficiently high and somewhat raised them, and when the scheme came back to the local council and was submitted 836 by the housing committee, the council sent it back to the committee because they refused to submit to the people such high rents. If you cannot let the houses at rents which the people can and will pay—
§ Dr. ADDISON
I know the case which the hon. Member refers to, but I understand that there was not any shortage of applicants for the houses.
§ Mr. THORNE
My point is that the Council referred the proposal back to the Housing Committee because they considered the rents too high to submit to the people. The whole question of the rent is a vital matter that has to be considered, and that is a point on which I urge the right hon. Gentleman to give us a definite reply to-night. To my mind the way my hon. Friend put the question was very effective. We want to know in regard to the houses being provided for these working people what rents they will be expected to pay. I think the other question put by my right hon. Friend is also of vital importance, and that is supposing the Government insist upon local bodies providing the money what interest do they expect those who lend the money will receive? The situation in that respect is one of the most serious we can possibly have to face. My hon. Friend has already indicated the difficulties in the way, and I invite my right hon. Friend to tell us what interest he anticipates the local authorities will be expected to pay for the money they borrow. I also wish to ask whether the Government intend to insist upon the method announced of securing the money through the local bodies. I for one am very doubtful whether the money is ever going to be secured in that way.
I understood the hon. Member, who seconded this proposal, took that view, and strongly urged that the only way of facing this question was to do what we thought was going to be done entirely as a national matter, and that the money should be provided through national bonds. I invite the Government to tell us precisely what course they are going to take. I am more anxious about the 837 reply of the Minister than I am of speaking myself or listening to any other private Member. I believe the nation throws the responsibility of this matter upon the Government, and they are not prepared to have it thrown upon the municipalities, on the one hand, or upon labour upon the other hand. They look to the Government now to provide the schemes whereby these houses can be provided and their apprehensions allayed, and I hope the Minister will take the earliest opportunity in this Debate and in the fullest possible way answer the questions put to him, and I earnestly hope that the apprehensions so widely held may be largely allayed.
§ Mr. MYERS
If I now encroach upon the time of the House at so early' a stage it is because I come fresh from the council chamber of a large municipality, and I have for some considerable time been engaged in the discussions and the attempt to carry out the administration of this great question with, I should say, more or less indifferent success. A year or two ago, when our municipalities were sending deputations to Whitehall and the Government Departments generally, there was held out to us some measure of hope that this matter would be, at any rate, dealt with in a businesslike fashion. I remember being on a deputation to the then President of the Local Government Board as far back as September, 1916, and we were told at that time that when the War was ended schemes would probably be in operation which would provide both for the civilian population and the returned soldiers. It was nearly a year after that when the circular reached the local authorities setting forth the conditions under which houses should be erected, and I think I am right in saying that it filled every enthusiast upon this question with consternation and dismay. The questions which were addressed to the Local Government Board arising out of that circular were voluminous in character, and some of the replies which we received tended more to confusion than to enlightenment, and the discussion which raged round the responsibility of the penny rate was difficult to understand and when understood difficult to put into operation. The Government were prepared at that time to take the responsibility of a penny rate or a sum equal to a 838 penny rate, and the whole of the financial obligation in addition to that put upon the local authorities. These were told that they could fix the rents of the houses at a figure which would compare with houses providing similar accommodation in the same district, but the agitation of the local authorities which came along subsequently caused the Government to abandon that idea, and they limited the operation of the penny rate to the responsibilities of the local authorities.
They then turned round upon the question of rent, and, answering the call of the speculative builders of the country, the Local Government Board at once, in a circular to the local authorities, gave the local authorities the hint that they would be expected to approximate as nearly as possible to the economic rent of the houses that were erected, and with that suggestion to the local authorities they turned us into the open market for materials to enter into competition with one another and with the Government itself for the limited amount of building materials available in the country. They did more. Local authorities were instructed to go into the open market for loans, and in the teeth of the request and the desire of the local authorities that the Government should finance housing loans, we were turned into the country in competition with one another in the money market to secure what satisfaction we could in that direction. As the question developed in its relationship between the Local Government Board and the Ministry of Health and the local authorities, restrictions and limitations were applied in order to keep down the cost of the houses. Instead of tackling the high price of building materials, a standard of economy and a limited line of construction were imposed upon the local authorities, and instead of dealing with the prices of raw materials, we had to cut down the amenities of the houses that were proposed to be erected. The housing manual of the Ministry of Health, an excellent document in its way, has at least one very objectionable feature, for it imposes upon local authorities the necessity of having rooms eight feet in height. That is an altogether unsatisfactory feature so far as our industrial towns are concerned, and as one who is familiar with the limitations of a working-class house, there 839 is only one thing that I would do to the person who supports, approves, or demands a living-room eight feet high, and that penalty would be to ask him to live in it and stop there for a decent length of time. It is altogether an objectionable feature of modern house building to confine the height of rooms to eight feet, and I remember coming down to Whitehall with a deputation and contending to be permitted to erect houses with rooms eight feet three inches high. The Government declined to permit the three inches, but we were contending for that point in a room, containing three Government officials, which would probably be sixteen or twenty feet in height. These restrictions and limitations, in order to effect economy, have been carried too far in the directions of sacrificing the amenities of these dwellings.
I agree with the hon. Member opposite who has discussed this matter from the point of view of finance, and I would respectfully suggest to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health to consult a report of a deputation to the President of the Local Government Board in October, 1918. It was a representative gathering from the country boroughs of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and with the President of the Local Government Board at that time this question of housing was discussed in all its ramifications. I would respectfully draw his attention to the matter relating to finance, and he will there find that what is being discussed to-day is nothing new, having regard to the information that has been given to his Department. It is not, I think, a question of housing bonds. It is not a question as to whether housing loans are raised in the ordinary way, if loans are raised by municipalities, whether from private individuals or from the Commissioners who supply local authorities with funds. The great question is what is paid for the loans when the loans are got, and my view is that the housing development of the future is not going to be satisfactorily carried out with housing loans on a 5 per cent. basis. I am of opinion that local authorities ought not to be asked to carry on housing schemes under conditions which compel the cost of a house to be paid for three times over in sixty years in interest alone. Some better method will have to be found if housing schemes are to be a success in the future.
840 10.0 P.M.
The schemes which have been submitted to the Ministry of Health are the direct indication, in my judgment, of the willingness of local authorities to undertake this work, but when we compare the number of schemes that have been submitted with the magnitude of the problem with which we are confronted, we find that even that number is insignificant. When we come to analyse the problem from another point of view and compare the number of houses that have been erected or are in process of erection with the number of schemes that have been submitted, it is quite evident that something is wrong at some point or another. The fact that local authorities have tendered a large number of schemes, and are only building a very small proportion of houses in comparison is proof positive, in my judgment, that there is something wrong at some point or other. I believe that difficulty to be the great one of finance. There is another side to this problem which has been ignored, or has not been referred to by any of the hon. Members who have already spoken. That is the problem quite apart from the wartime shortage of houses. It is recognised that if we make up the building shortage of the war-time, not less than half a. million houses will be required. But that altogether ignores the pre-war housing conditions. In every industrial town in the country there are large areas of cheaply-erected house property, over crowded generally, which has been erected for a period of 50, 60, 70 or 80 years, and every conscientious public authority knows the bye-products that are being thrown off these great housing areas. The Minister of Health will be acquainted with the statistics which his Department compiled. We can record the number of deaths from tuberculosis. We can estimate our infantile mortality. We also recognise the general death-rate which comes from these housing conditions. But there are factors which cannot be recorded. One-third to one-quarter of the entire population of Great Britain is said to be living in houses of three rooms and under. Those conditions, impose either one living or one sleeping room. These conditions are driving our children into the gutters, our growing youths into the streets, our adult male population into the club and public-house, and condemning our women folk to the 841 monotonous existence of six square yards of house room.
The effect of this aspect of the problem cannot be calculated, and cannot be set forth in statistical form, but it is producing, and has produced, one of the greatest social problems of our time in many of these districts. There is little, so far as I can see, in any of the proposals set up by the Government on this question of housing but which tends to perpetuate that condition of things. At the present moment, according to the report of the Ministry of Health, the whole of the houses in course of erection, or those which have been erected, do not total 100,000. It is a liberal estimate, and we require 100,000 a year. Really that assumes purely the question of quantity, and it assumes all the rest of the houses are in a satisfactory condition. Now this question of the financial aspect is one which is going to affect directly the houses which at present exist.
As the right hon. Gentleman in front has said, the whole question is one of rent. We have had no light up till now from the Ministry of Health as to what the rent of the houses shall be, except that they will approximate to an economic rent. The rents of new houses must inevitably affect the rents of the houses that remain. There are, too, "interests" in the country with which the Ministry of Health must be acquainted who are clamouring for the removal of the Rent Restriction Act. The removal of that Act will be a calamity of the first magnitude. It will restore slumdom as a business proposition in all those great areas of property, most of it undesirable, most of it which ought to be condemned, a great proportion of which would do with a charge of dynamite inside it. It would be economical to the State if that could be done. If the Rent Restriction Act is removed, with high rents for the new houses, we are going to play right into the hands of the owners of this doubtful property. The available evidence would seem to show that the Ministry have left the door right open for this to be done. It is quite conceivable, with a competitive scarcity of houses, and the high rents which will be paid for the houses erected, that the subsidy of the Government is nothing more than a paper promise which can be completely eliminated by the competitive fact of rising rents.
842 When this House has had its last word upon this question the local authorities are the pivot on which the education, the efficiency, the enlightenment, and the health of our working-class population must turn. Everything that can be done by this House, through the medium of these housing regulations, ought to be done to assist our local authorities. At the present time the local authorities of the country are embarrassed not with carrying out the work which has been entrusted to their care: they are troubled with the responsibility of providing the means by which that work can be done. I agree that the responsibility for financing housing schemes should be upon the State and not upon the local authorities. Some of us on these Benches do not fail to recognise that the national debt at present is something like £8,000,000,000. The national credit has been pledged to that extent for something which has made the world worse and not better than it was before the first shilling was expended. If the national credit can be pledged to that extent it has for that purpose, it can also be utilised in the development of housing schemes, so that wherever a brick is laid it will be a contribution towards that better world about which so' much has been heard. Whether it is in the direction of a challenge to rings amongst builders, combines in building material, or removing the onerous restrictions and penalties which are upon local authorities from the point of view of finance, it is up to the Government to do everything that they can in the direction I have indicated, so that the local authorities can have freedom to go ahead in making provision for the greatest need of our time.
§ Sir W. SEAGER
I have listened with very great pleasure and profit to the speech of the hon. and gallant Gentleman who introduced this Motion. The Debate has developed on lines such as one would naturally expect. The hon. Member who has just sat down has given us a very gloomy picture of the housing conditions of the country. I would venture to assure him that all the houses in the country are not as bad as he has outlined.
§ Sir W. SEAGER
It has been my pleasure in the Recess to visit the valley which adjoins the city I have the honour to represent. I have been through the Monmouthshire and Glamorganshire valleys trying to help and seeking to guide to local authorities and the federated builders in their efforts to overcome the enormous shortage which we all greatly deplore. I can assure hon. Members that the picture is not nearly so gloomy as they have tried to paint. Efforts are being made and will be successfully made to get over these difficulties and I want to plead with hon. Members to-night for patience. Do not let us spoil a good job by being in a hurry. If you hurry this you will spoil it. The Act has only been on the Statute Book five months and there are difficulties in procuring the land, laying it out, and sewering it, and all those operations take a considerable time. Hon. Members opposite will, I am sure, bear with me for a few minutes when I tell them that these difficulties are being got over and houses are being produced and will be produced in greater numbers month by month, if you will only have patience.
§ Sir W. SEAGER
We have lost a million men during the War, and thousands of men who were in the building trades have gone into the mines and the steel and tin works, and you cannot get them back into the building trade. All those difficulties will be got over if we only have patience, and nothing but patience will do it. Much has been said about the builders. I do not stand here in any sense to defend the builders or the trade unions, but my experience has been that the trade unions and the Federation of Builders are working very amicably and satisfactorily together. I have been trying to show to the local authorities that the contract system was unsuitable for the conditions which we find to-day, and the Minister of Health will, I am sure, deal with that point later on. A scheme has been available by which those risks which are abnormal risks, and which builders had to cover in their contracts, have been eliminated. We have to-day what is known as the agreed price. The bill of quantities is taken out and each item is priced, and a satisfactory price to all concerned is arranged 844 That has been done throughout the whole of Wales, and I am delighted to know that in large urban and industrial areas those contracts are being agreed on and the houses are beginning to be erected. I would like to remind hon. Members of the housing conditions of which we have heard and to compare them with the housing conditions which we desire. If you hurry this matter you will have streets of houses, such as we were accustomed to in the olden time, but if you wait until the land can be procured and properly laid out we shall have-eight or ten or twelve houses to the acre with a nice little allotment for each to the satisfaction of those who dwell in the houses. We know from experience, and hon. Members opposite who know the Monmouthshire and Glamorgan valleys, will agree, that very serious attempts have been made to build houses fit for heroes to live in. I am sure that could extend and be amplified and much more extended in the days to come, so that those men will have houses in which they can enjoy a clean and healthy life. There is another point. I would ask hon. Members to remember that those dull, monotonous houses which we hear so much about are homes. They contain a father and a mother and children, and it has been my privilege to visit those homes, and I found their home life in every respect satisfactory. It would be a calamity if we did anything to "bust" up, as they call it, this slum area by dynamite or some other force until the proper houses can be built. Much has been said about profiteering and the cost of these houses, but from careful statistics and careful inquiries I am satisfied that the whole of the money is being expended in wages and material. If some method can be found for dealing with the costing and the manufacture of the various materials that are required I shall welcome it very gladly, and I feel sure that the Ministry will undertake that matter at the very earliest opportunity. Much has been said also about the owners of property, and I would ask hon. Members, and particularly those opposite, to remember that the houses of the working classes, so termed, are not as a rule owned by people who profiteer. I have many cases in my own city where working men have thought it the very height of their ambition to own their own house. Having thrifty wives, 845 they have saved enough perhaps to buy the house next door and eventually another, thus making provision for their old age. These people are suffering very acutely from the Rent Restriction Act. I do not suggest that it should be repealed—that would be a calamity—but we want to be fair and to see that these people who have teen thrifty and have saved their money and put it into house property get a fair and legitimate return on that money for which they have worked hard.
I should like to say a word about the so-called failure of private enterprise.' I do not think that private enterprise has failed in the least. No trade has suffered more than the building trade during the War, but these men, many of them working men who started business as speculative builders and who were absolutely knocked out of existence by the War and had to take on another job, are coming back, and I suggest that the subsidy scheme is going to be a very great help in the provision of houses in the days to come. Round Cardiff dozens of builders are starting to build houses under the subsidy scheme, and in addition the local authorities are building very rapidly. I am glad to say that of 21 houses started some little time ago 12 are now ready and will be occupied in the course of a month or six weeks at a rent which is fair and which the people can afford to pay. The economic rent would have been about 24s. per week, but after very careful consideration the corporation decided that 12s. per week would be a fair rent to charge. A good deal has been said about the houses in the immediate neighbourhood, but I think everyone will agree that these better houses are worth a little more money than the houses which are already in existence. It is only fair that the occupiers should pay a small contribution in return for the extra amenities, advantages, and privileges which these new houses afford. If we pull together, trade unionists, builders, and all those who are interested in the housing problem, the difficulties of finance and all the other difficulties which may be apparent to-day will pass away, and we shall have houses fit for heroes to live in.
§ Dr. ADDISON
I believe the Members of this House, and indeed the country generally, will be grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for having so early in the 846 Session brought to the notice of Parliament the urgency of this problem, and I also venture to thank him for having made a speech which contains useful suggestions. I have heard a good many speeches during the past 12 months in various forms of depreciation, but the number which have contained practical and useful suggestions has been very small indeed. I am sure we all recognise that the speeches by the mover and seconder of this Resolution to-night have been full, from beginning to end, of practical considerations, and I personally thank them for that. I am glad that at long last this Government Department has had a good word said for it from these Benches, it is a refreshing experience.
We are more and more devolving the powers of the Ministry as far as they can be devolved, and I would like to tell the House, as clearly as I can, to what extent this process has gone. We have, during the last year, had to build up the organisation. When you build up an organisation it means you have to get personnel in the first place and to have it trained. That takes time. But more and more. I have adopted the policy of giving greater responsibility to the Housing Commissioners, and now they have within very wide limits complete authority with regard to sites, house plans and tenders, without any references to headquarters.
There is another general observation which was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton (Mr. Thorne). It took the form of saying that the nation looked to the Government to provide houses and to allay apprehension. I really do not know what that means. Does the hon. Member mean that this is not a question for the local authority, for the trade unions, or for employers, but that it is solely for the Government to deal with? Are we to dig holes and to put in concrete? If not, what in the world does it mean? We have to use agents and to organise the work. We have to get it organised, and it is no good throwing it in a lump on the Government. That has been the habit of some critics, but it is a usless and meaningless practice. Surely, we are not expected to build the houses. These things have to be done by men who are paid, by men who have time and money to get the material produced, and to supply good workmen. It presents 847 serious and almost superhuman difficulties to-day. Before the War there was plenty of material, plenty of men, and plenty of money. But what have you got now? A shortage of material, a shortage of transport, a shortage of men and a shortage of money, and it is no good blaming the unfortunate Government because these difficulties exist. The difficulties are there, and we must try to get over that, and we shall get over it. But do not let us pretend that it is some strange entity that dwells in Whitehall that is to blame. That is a useless form of criticism. It does not mean anything.
Let us come to the first inquiry raised by my hon. Friend. I am glad to say better progress is being made, especially arising out of the Act passed towards the close of the recent Session. That is correct. On more than one occasion last Session I prophesied that we should have to live through months of initial spade work in which people would not see the results and in which we were creating the organisation, but the time would come when all these earlier steps would be passing into the final stages. That time has now arrived, and that is why we are now making what appears to be much more rapid progress. We are only now beginning to reap the results of last year's Act, and there is no doubt about it, so far as we are concerned, that our part of the business, the approval of the tenders for 200,000 houses for this year's programme, will be made good. I am confident of that. But the practical questions as to paying for them and building the houses are matters with which I will deal. Let me give the results of our labours since we separated. At that time we had approved plans for 63,000 houses. The figure now is 107,000. During all the months of last year we had only got 16,900 houses into the accepted tender stage. In the last seven weeks we have passed into the accepted tender stage more than twice as many houses as we did in the previous eleven months. The reason is that the plans are now coming to the final stages. We have approved during the last fortnight tenders for more than 18,000 additional houses and the number is rapidly increasing, and will go on increasing. But we have ever before us the standing difficulties of cost and labour shortage.
848 My hon. and gallant Friend asked if we have made any further progress with regard to public utility schemes under the improved terms. Since the Amending Act was passed we have had thirty new public utility society proposals before us, with a project for building 4,000 additional houses, and it is only just now beginning to move.
With regard to the subsidy, on which further information was asked, the Bill became law on 23rd December and then Christmas week came along and we managed by great efforts to get out the conditions on 9th January after it had been discussed by the different branches of the building trade. The procedure is that a person submits a plan to the local authority and if it is sanctioned and receives the necessary certificate the house becomes thereafter eligible for the grant. We are arranging—and I hope the arrangement will soon be completed—with a number of banks that that certificate shall enable advances to be made to the builder for the purposes of housing, as a guarantee. I only asked the local authorities to give me returns once a month. There were not more than two weeks in January in which the Act had become operative, therefore the returns which I have only relate to the first fortnight of January. That return shows that at that time 707 houses had been sanctioned during that first fortnight for the subsidy, and a further 575 had been lodged. That only relates to half the authorities, but over 1,200 houses come in the first fortnight of the subsidy. That was quite an encouraging start. I may here say, not in reply to criticism, that we are getting information as to a certain amount of, shall I say stickiness, in respect of this matter in different parts of the country. I have heard of places where plans which have been submitted by a man for building under the subsidy scheme have been laid aside a month before being dealt with. That is exceedingly bad. It is very necessary that these things should be dealt with as promptly as possible.
§ Mr. A. PARKINSON
Is it the local authorities or the Ministry of Health that have laid the plans aside?
§ Dr. ADDISON
The point is that a man puts in a plan. I am not blaming anybody 849 —I am stating a fact. He sends the plan to the local authority.
§ Dr. ADDISON
It is not sent to the Ministry of Health. If a person is so foolish as not to read the instructions and to send the plan to me, all I could do would be to send it back to him. It is specifically and clearly stated that the plans must be sent to the local authority.
§ Dr. ADDISON
I would recommend my hon. Friend to read the instructions, and then he will see that that is so. The fact is, that a number of plans have been lodged and the case has not been determined inside four weeks. It is very necessary that the plans should be promptly dealt with, whether by the Ministry, the local authority or anybody else.
The next important question that was raised was the future of the Rent Restriction Act, and the general policy of the Ministry with regard to rents. I was asked to give some figures as to the actual rents we had asked authorities to charge. According to some of the deputations which have come to me, they do not seem to have got down to the realities of this matter. If it costs £800 to build a house and you could have built the same type of house for £250 previously, you cannot let it for as low a rent as the house which cost £250. That is the basic fact of the whole thing. Do not let us live in a world of dreams. I have set my face against it, and as long as I am the Minister I shall pursue this policy, however unpopular it may be. I am not going to subsidise wages and housing at the same time. The proper policy is, allowing for the excess of the cost due to the War, to secure as soon as you can on the remainder an economic rent. The proper policy—if I may say so, with great respect to the hon. Member for the Spen Valley Division (Mr. Myers), whose interesting first speech we all welcomed—for labour should be that the man's wages should be enough to enable him to pay a proper rent. I am not going to be a party to subsidising low rents. [HON. MEMBERS: "Or low wages?"] That is the same as wages. I make that statement very emphatically, because I 850 have to bear all the odium and unpopularity, and I do not mind a bit. The authority to which my hon. Friend alluded, and some others, have come to me and said, "What rent shall we charge?" I believe that I have in every case told them to charge more rent than they were proposing to charge. I have done so deliberately and it is right to do it.
§ Dr. ADDISON
I am dealing now with the rents of the houses. The idea is to take off one-third as the excess of war costs. What we aim at is that in 1927 there shall be an economic rent on the remainder. That means, in a number of cases, that the economic rent of the house should not be less at the end of that time than nearly £1 a week. That is an enormous increase in a working-class rent. It is a grave matter, but we have to face realities, and I am not going to be afraid to face them. Take the case of Birkenhead. They came to me and asked, "What shall we charge?" Having considered the type of the houses, and so on, I said, "For that type of house I want you to charge 10s." For another type I think it was 12s. 6d. In the case mentioned by the hon. Member opposite I asked them to charge 10s. at first. In the case of Birkenhead I said that in 1921 we should look to that rent to be increased by a given amount—I think it was 1s. 6d. a week. It means that in many areas that the rents for these houses are higher at the present time than for houses of a similar class in that district. I admit it is higher. It has got to be higher.
§ Dr. ADDISON
They are better houses. They have better gardens. They are not huddled in rows close together; they are set up 10 or 12 to the acre. They are better homes to live in and they are worth it. Putting that on one side, they cost two and a half times as much to build—three times as much in some cases—and we have to consider that. In Wolverhampton the beginning rents of houses containing a living room, parlour and two bedrooms are 10s. a week; Birmingham 15s., Derby 12s., Birkenhead 10s., Ruislip 12s. 6d., Bilston 15s., and so on. In nearly all these cases we have 851 fixed a higher rent than houses with the same amount of accommodation would have in the district. Almost without exception the authorities have gone away quite naturally promising themselves and sometimes saying to me, "Well, we shall put the blame on you." They do! I do not mind. Let us face up to it. Unless we recognise that we have to introduce sound economic principles into this business, no one is going to build a house in the future. You will destroy house-building.
I will now say a word about the present Act. It is clear that you cannot sweep it all away and leave nothing in its place next year. At the same time we have got to recognise that rents will have to go up. Not because we want anybody to profiteer on existing houses—I will undertake that any scheme for which I am responsible will secure that they do not profiteer on existing houses—but they have got to go up for all that. Unless rents are allowed to be raised the existing houses will go out of repair, and you must have the increased cost of repair in the rent which will enable the man to keep his houses in repair. For that reason alone rents will have to increase. The Lord Chancellor, the Law Officers and myself some time ago went into this question with all its ramifications very carefully, and a body of gentlemen are now busy framing proposals which will clearly have to be submitted to this House in time this year. At present I cannot go any further than that. I do not know what the proposals will be, but I take it anyhow we have got to recognise that rents must go up to allow people to feel that this class of property is an economic proposition, so as to remove what is now quite honestly felt, and what is really the fact, that this class of property in many districts can only be held at a loss. We have got to put an end to that state of things. Otherwise you will destroy housing for the future.
A great many Members have referred to the financial difficulty. AU I have got to say on that at the present time is that they did not exaggerate it in the least, but I do not agree with some of my hon. Friends that the remedy is a national housing loan. That is the panacea. I ask myself, "What does the nation consist of"? Each Member got up to say that they cannot raise the money in 852 the locality, and that they have not got the money in the locality. The nation is the aggregation of all the localities. They seemed to think that somehow or other there was an entity, which was called the Government, which existed apart from the locality, which would get the money. Where from? There is plenty of money in the locality. Look at the money they spend in the drapers' shops. There is plenty of money to be spent on all kinds of extravagance. There is plenty of money to be spent on pianos—I am not saying that they are not very nice things. There is plenty of money in many a locality which has come to us to say they cannot raise money for houses. I have said, "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You have made millions of money during the War, and it is your duty to spend money on houses." There is no such thing as the nation apart from the localities.
Let us take the case of a corporation which was able to raise money previously. The hon. and gallant Member who seconded the Motion said that a place he mentioned had been able to raise money at 5 per cent-, and that they could raise it better than the Government.
§ Dr. ADDISON
At all events, the money was there. I suggest that what we have to do is to see whether some of the money in the localities cannot be raised now in the localities. I think it could be raised under the schemes for housing bonds. After the conference we had with the municipalities the other day it was agreed, I think, that we were bound to begin by having a successful issue in many cases of local bonds. [HON. MEMBERS: "At what rate?"] The rate of interest, I take it, will be issued with the bond, and will be in the neighbourhood of 6 per cent.
§ Mr. A. M. SAMUEL
Will not that cause a great deal of money to be recalled from the hands of local municipalities which is now lent to them at a lower rate of interest, and so embarrass very much the local authorities?
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
Has the right hon. Gentleman considered whether it is possible 853 for money advanced in the form of bonds to be treated as part purchase money for the houses?
§ Dr. ADDISON
That is part of the bond issue and is an attractive feature of it. It is not due to any malignity of the Government that you have to raise money at 5¾ or 6 per cent., but the fact is you cannot get money at less than that rate of interest in the City or anywhere else.
§ Dr. ADDISON
The tendency is for the rate of interest to rise. The condition of the lenders to municipalities on short-term money is this: they see the rates of interest rising, and therefore the temptation is to call in short-term loans and relend the money at a higher rate of interest. That exists and is inseparable from the monetary situation.
Does the right hon. Gentleman anticipate that these authorities will go outside their areas, because, if not, how is he going to get over the difficulty that many of these districts which have the greatest need of housing have the smallest amount of capital available?
§ Dr. ADDISON
Take the case of Middlesex. I tried to arrange, and I hope successfully, that the County Council of Middlesex should issue stock. We shall get combination of areas. A scheme has been devised for combining areas for the purpose of local "bond issues. I suggest to hon. Members that the only way to make this thing permanently a success is to invoke local effort. I am sure the local bond issue, if it receives all the support it ought to receive, will be a great success. If the people are appealed to and the case put to them, I am quite certain that they will lend their money. It is a lamentable example that now that Birmingham has actually accepted schemes, that is to say, tenders have been accepted and approved for 3,000 houses, the matter is being held up in consequence of the contracts not being signed, this being due to financial difficulties, or the apprehension of financial difficulties. This would be a disaster to housing and it has to be overcome. The main difficulty arises from high cost, and that is the difficulty which meets us 854 everywhere. I am glad to say that the Builders' Federation have agreed to limit their profits, and the agreement with them is working very well. They have agreed to take in most districts a proportion of houses amongst their other work. That is something which I hope my Labour friends will appreciate—that, at all events, in many districts members of the Federation are taking this work amongst them at a profit of £30 or £40 per house, which is not more than 5 per cent. profit, when there is plenty of attractive work awaiting them which would give them 10 per cent. or 15 per cent. profit. That is being very generously worked.
With regard to material, I think the quantity required will be forthcoming. I have not a word to say of criticism as to what has been said about prices. I have and propose to issue to hon. Members a statement of the cost of different materials, showing their progressive rise, and it is indeed an appalling statement. I do not profess to understand why it is; but it does not represent any ingredient in the cost with which I am familiar. The Deputy Food Controller is at present going into this question for me. I assure hon. Members that there is no lack of will on this subject. We had to accumulate evidence as to the cost and the facts as to large production, and we had no criterion to work upon. One hon. Member accuses us of having taken no steps to secure material in advance; but if he had known the facts I am sure he would have been the last to make such an accusation. As a matter of fact we placed orders in advance last year for 2,000 million bricks so that we cannot be accused of remissness in that respect.
With regard to labour, I was very disappointed at some of the contributions made by some of my hon. Friends. Let us get down to the actual facts which govern the question. This matter has been the subject of negotiation between my own Department and the Ministry of Labour and with representatives of the building trade since July last. As a matter of fact we have been having nothing but inquiries for the last eight months, and some day I propose to publish the diary, if necessary, of events, and at all events I will undertake to say it will prove that it has not been through any lack of effort at the 855 Ministry of Health that we have not got a more comprehensively complete scheme. I have the details here but I will not give them now, and I will only say that it is a diary of effort of which I have no reason to be ashamed. The agreed figure is 1–5 operatives per house per year. There are at the present time about 51,000 bricklayers, and there are 66,000 men required on that low computation to build 200,000 houses. We shall certainly have all the tenders and everything ready quite early in the year. There is a shortage of bricklayers alone of at least 15,000 to build the houses that we require this year if there were not a single bricklayer on any other job. In the face of facts like this, what is the good of talking about the possibility of there being a shortage. There is a gigantic shortage staring us in the face, and therefore it is not any good asking if I should not inquire into it. There is no dispute about it. This is the figure which is agreed with the building trade after the most minute inquiry. On the lowest computation there is a shortage of 15,000 bricklayers if every bricklayer in the country were doing nothing else but building houses.
§ Dr. ADDISON
It is quite unthinkable that other building should be stopped. Other building must go on. All kinds of factories and works must go on. I say this to my hon. Friend opposite, that nobody can accuse me of saying a word to irritate anybody at any time since this scheme started. I have been infinitely patient, but there is no good pretending there is not a shortage. There is a ghastly shortage and every possible expedient must be brought in to try and help to meet it. It will not do, in my 856 opinion, to blame the Ministry of Health or the Government. I will adopt any practical suggestion which any man can bring along, but we want a great addition of members of this trade, and unless they are obtained you cannot get the houses. If they are short the houses will cost ever so much more to build than they would otherwise have cost, and that will be reflected in the rents. These are the solid facts so let us address our minds with goodwill and promptitude to the solution of these difficulties. I propose to place the whole case with the facts and figures before the Trades Union Congress, and I have asked to be allowed to go, and I hope the Leader of the Labour party will see that I am allowed to go. I have nothing to be ashamed of in this matter. We want the help of all, and it is not enough that my hon. Friend opposite should tell me of the dismal housing conditions. That is what we are spending all our time to try and remedy; that is what the scheme is for, and that is why we are spending all this public money. Nor is it enough for the hon. Member for Central Edinburgh (Mr. W. Graham) to refer to another side of this important problem, the importance of which I do not minimise in the least, but we must have at the same time from the party which he represents, useful and practical suggestions for overcoming our difficulties. I say that any man profiteering in materials, or a man who places difficulties in the way of labour, or who in any way increases the inherent difficulties of our task in housing is acting as the enemy of the Commonwealth, whoever he is.
§ It being Eleven of the Clock, the Debate stood adjourned.
§ Adjourned accordingly at One minute after Eleven o'clock.