§ Mr. BRIANT
I beg to move,That this House urges the Government to use its influence with local authorities, and employ any other practicable means, to speed up the building of dwelling-houses, particularly for persons on low wages, and the clearance of slums; and it further records its opinion that such an effort would be the most useful and practical means of reducing the present excessive unemployment in the building and ancillary industries.3.27 p.m.
I regard it as somewhat unfortunate that I have to speak this afternoon between two Bills—a Bill for rent restriction which is already in the hands of hon. Members, and a Bill which was presented to the House a minute ago and which, of course, is not in our hands. It is not my fault that this discussion has come upon this clay, for obviously I did not know when either Bill was to be presented. I am sure that the House will not begrudge the time given to a discussion of such prime importance as housing conditions. I regret—and I hope that the Government may notice this—that at no time has the House ever had in its possession any figures or anything definite to show the actual housing shortage. The House is always in the unfortunate position of having no figures to guide it, and, therefore, has little or no knowledge of the kind of policy necessary to meet the difficulties of the situation. I suggest to the Government that for the purpose of future discussions they should endeavour to obtain some figures upon which reliance can be placed. However, we have certain facts which may guide us.
It was estimated before the War that 3,000,000 people were living in insanitary conditions. The War came with more than four years' arrest of all housing. Then we had the annual requirement of roughly 100,000 houses to supply the needs of the increased population and also to take the place of houses no longer fit for habitation. Estimates have varied very much, but I think that I shall not be far wrong in saying that on a low estimate at least 800,000 more houses are required to replace those which are worn out and to remove from houses already overcrowded some of the families and give them adequate and decent accommodation. I have always believed that, next to the provision of food, housing is the main essential for health, comfort and 1626 happiness, and there is no subject which we ought to consider in all its aspects more important than housing.
I will give the House a number of facts which certainly bear on the subject. Though they do not all seem to correlate, they are facts upon different aspects of the question which should be borne in mind when we are considering the whole subject of housing. The rent restrictions committee stated that it is disappointed with the number of houses built for the poorer people. That is obviously the greatest difficulty with which we are faced. For those who are able to purchase houses, thanks to the good offices of the building societies, who have done splendid work, there has been a large supply of houses. Many local authorities also have built excellent houses and apartments, but they have been in the main for those people who are not in receipt of very low wages. That is our great problem, and the figures are rather disconcerting.
In answer to a question in this House, it was stated that in eight months 21,000 houses to be let at. 10s. a week or less had been built. This is equivalent to 31,000 for the full year. If that is to be the rate of progress I do not know when the people will be housed. I am afraid we shall have to look forward 20 or 30 years before they get the accommodation which they ought to possess. We know that in London there are at least 100,000 people living in basements. They would not have been allowed to remain in basements by the medical officer of health were it not for the fact that the authorities dare not turn them out, because there are no houses where they can go. The debt we owe to the medical officers in England can never be repaid. They have given very good advice and wise discretion in regard to housing.
The London County Council in 1930 drew up a five-year scheme. The programme provided for the building of 34,000 houses in the next five years, costing £21,000,000. In 1931 the actual expenditure was £3,000,000 and in 1932 the estimated expenditure is £1,650,000. At that rate of progress at the end of the five years only about £8,600,000 will have been expended of the £21,000,000 set down in the programme. That seems very much to forecast a dangerous arrest 1627 of housing in London. I fear that many local authorities all over the country have interpreted the Government's advice with regard to economy in a similar way, with the result that there has been a great decrease in the number of houses built.
I should like to pay a tribute to the London County Council and I do not wish by any means to minimise the importance of their housing programme, but some of the conditions which they lay down are worthy of special notice. For instance, if they pull down a house which is unfit for habitation and which may have been let at 8s. or Os. a week, they offer in its place excellent accommodation, with perhaps twice the number of rooms, at an additional rent of 5s. or 6s. What has happened and is happening is that very often the classes of people who need housing most are refused by the county council. I do not blame the county council for laying down certain requirements. They say, quite rightly, to a man who has six children: "You should have so many rooms." They further say that they must have a complete account of the man's income. It is no use letting people have a house unless they have the money to pay for it; otherwise, they will fall into arrears and be evicted later.
I will quote one case of many. A man with a wife and six children, that is, eight people living in one room, applied to the county council for accommodation. They had a house which he could have, but they wrote an official letter, which I have in my possession, in which they said: "When you have paid your fares to and from your work and have paid for the maintenance of your family, you will not have enough to pay the rent." That is to say, the greatest municipality in the world say to a family of eight living in one room: "We are very sorry for you. You ought to have four rooms, but as you cannot pay for four rooms you must live and die in one room." That is an awful statement to be made by a municipal authority like the London County Council. I fear that conditions in regard to large families living in one room are not infrequent in London and other parts of the country. We ought to take these matters into serious consideration when we touch the problem of housing.
1628 Another fact that is extremely disconcerting is that in London the number of people living more than three in one room has increased in the last 10 years. That shows that our housing, whatever it may have been, has not touched the very class which most requires accommodation. One cannot look upon these things with a sanguine eye at the present time. One cannot believe that we are grappling with the question. There are houses in existence which are not considered uninhabitable though they are not really fit for habitation, but I fear that at the present rate of progress we shall not overtake our arrears and that we shall not make proper progress in supplying the housing accommodation required by our fellow countrymen.
I am sorry that the House has not in its possession the Bill which has been presented to-day. It is a little difficult to discuss this subject without that Bill. I would say that I am not satisfied that the houses with which I am particularly concerned will be built without subsidy. How have the Government satisfied themselves that without the subsidy the houses which apparently are the least remunerative for builders to erect, will be built? Before the War there was no subsidy and no Rent Restrictions Act—which we are told has interfered with building—and yet we were so short of houses then that there was gross over-crowding and 3,000,000 people were living in congested areas. Therefore, it cannot be altogether the subsidy and the Rents Act which have been responsible for the present state of affairs. I am not content to run any risk of arresting the building of those houses or rooms which are so badly needed, because some people may have the idea that the subsidy interferes with the energy of private builders or, it may be, with local authorities.
There is one more figure that I want to quote. I know that the figures are somewhat disjointed. The medical officer of health for Glasgow produced a few years ago some startling figures showing that in the one-room tenements the death-rate of children was exactly three times that of children who lived in three-room tenements, while the death-rate of those living in two rooms was exactly twice that of those who lived in three rooms. I do not doubt the accuracy of these figures, and they are certainly striking 1629 and alarming in the extreme. It means that our death-rate almost depends on the number of rooms in which the people live. I would ask the House to consider this matter from the point of view of finance. Until a child reaches the age of 14, it is not a producer. No child produces for the benefit of the community until it reaches the age of 14. Therefore, we are spending millions of pounds on the education, care and nurture of children who never reach the producing age. I do not know how many millions of pounds are lost every year through that cause alone.
I cannot agree with the Government with regard to the Rent Restrictions Act. I hope they will think twice of the effect of removing the restriction on some of the houses. In my own area there are hundreds of houses which are assessed at over £40 a year, some up to £60, and in some of these houses six, seven or eight families are living. If you decontrol houses it will mean that rents will go up and these people will have to leave, because they have not the money to pay an increased rent. It will also mean that the already overcrowded areas will be still further overcrowded and things will be in a far worse state than they are at present. It may be said that people should pay an economic rent, but, whatever may have been the position a few years ago, and whatever may be the position in a few years to come, the present moment, with the large number of unemployed, the reductions in wages and the small incomes of vast numbers of people, is a time when people really cannot afford to pay an increased rent, and I shudder at the thought of some of these overcrowded dwellings being still further overcrowded. I hope the Government will bear these considerations in mind.
Let me turn to the financial side of this problem. When one proposes any great building scheme or social reform one is almost always met with the objection that we cannot afford it. In my opinion if we cannot afford it new we never shall. The position now is more propitious for building houses than it has ever been since the War. We have a low rate of interest. I believe that a reduction of 1 per cent. in the rate of interest means a reduction of is. 6d. per week in rent. Building costs are also lower than they have ever been, and we have a large 1630 army of men fit for the work who are now dependent on unemployment pay or transitional payments. These three factors make the present a specially favourable time when the building of houses should be pressed forward with the greatest speed. I am confident that the country would not lose. Some remarkable figures emerge when one considers the financial side of the problem. It is estimated that in the building of a house two-fifths of the cost are labour costs, direct labour costs. On a £400 house it means that £160 is paid in labour. If you take the total we shall pay this year in unemployment benefit, transitional payments and relief for meeting the needs of those who are out of work in the building industry alone, we shall spend as much as would pay for the whole labour costs in the erection of 100,000 houses, that is in one year alone. It is most alarming.
It is preposterous, to the ordinary man, who does not profess to be a statesman or an economist or an industrialist, that we should spend in this way an amount of money which would pay all the labour costs of the erection of 100,000 houses without having a single yard dug or a single brick laid. If I was in the position of the State, bound to maintain the destitute and having on my hands a large number of men and had work to give them, work which I wanted done, I should not hesitate to put them on that work. The State has to keep these men, we are not allowed by law to leave them destitute, they can claim their rights; and the position to me seems farcical, if it was not so tragic. I cannot believe that the ingenuity of statesmen, of which I am not one, or of economists, of which I am not one, is insufficient to provide some solution of the problem. Every living economist has urged that an expenditure of public money in this way will be available for national income in the long run. I hope the House will take that view, because I think it is the right view.
So far I have said nothing about the human side of the question. I am always slow to say much about it. I do not want to approach this as a matter of sentiment, but as one who knows the human side of this problem as well as most people. I say that we cannot leave it out of the question altogether. I want hon. Members who may not be personally acquainted with the condition of hous 1631 ing to visualise what it really means. We hear so many statistics in connection with the housing problem that we are apt to ignore them, but, if we can visualise what the problem really is, then it becomes, as it should become, a pressing one on every man and woman's heart. This week a woman with eight children came to see me. There were 10 people living in one room, and I did not know where to send them. Let hon. Members consider what that means. It means the most sacred intimacies of life and death and even birth in the presence of the whole family. I do not want to exaggerate these things or to overemphasise them, but I should not be doing right if I did not state things which I have seen, which are not an exception but which hundreds and thousands of people are still enduring.
We spend millions of pounds on our health services. In our hospitals children and adults receive the finest medical and nursing service there is, but there is not a doctor in a hospital who does not know that when he has patched up a child or an adult he is sending them back to conditions which produce the sickness or the disease which they have attempted to cure. That is a waste of money in our health services, because the work of the medical profession and the nursing profession goes for nil, or next to nil, because the people have to go back to conditions which one may describe as deadly.
Take, again, the expenditure on our educational service. If it was not so tragic it would be grotesque, but take the provision of scholarships for some of our children. Every teacher will tell you that the housing conditions are always reflected in a child's capacity for learning, that a child has a lower mental capacity the more it is subject to overcrowded conditions. A child with brilliant brains is a distinct asset to the State, an asset which should not be lost, but when a child wins a scholarship and goes to a secondary or central school, if it is to succeed, it must do home lessons. In our Library we have solemn notices that hon. Members must not talk too loudly lest they interfere with the studies of hon. Members who are preparing their speeches. But here is a child with home lessons to do in a single room with eight people eating and sleeping and washing. It is a farce to expect any child to suc 1632 ceed in those conditions. If we give these scholarships, we should give them opportunities for exercising their faculties.
I am anxious to be as brief as I can and, therefore, I will not deal with many other factors which should be considered. I am extremely anxious to-day to hear from the back benchers, many of them new Members, who I am sure feel equally strongly with me and possibly are acquainted with the facts themselves. From personal experience, I say that many of us who have been social reformers, more social reformers than party politicians, feel very strongly that we can never get rid of some of our social evils until we tackle this housing problem. It may be weakness, or I may be called a faddist, but I happen to be a total abstainer. To many a woman the mainstay of her life is pride in her home. If she loses that she loses all, loses the thing that keeps her straight more than anything else in the world. I defy any woman in the world to feel pride in a home that is crowded, a home that is not much more than a big cupboard, with three or four children around her. She gets sick and tired of her drab existence, and she goes to the public-house. I am sorry she goes, but I am not going to throw any stones at her.
I ask hon. Members to remember the effects of this overcrowding upon morals. Can we expect any refined delicacy of feeling when grown-up men, young men and girls are all sleeping in the same room? To me the miracle is that so many escape the evil effects and grow up with clean and wholesome minds. I am not at all sure that if I had been born and bred in such surroundings I should have outlived my environment as many of these people have so splendidly done. I think the House will realise that here is a problem that we cannot afford to evade. I am not putting forward my Motion in any party spirit. I do not want to indulge in propaganda. Personally, I think that in the minds of many millions outside this House the very word "propaganda" has come to be objectionable. I merely want Members of the House to consider the question from the point of view of common humanity. There is no question that bad housing is a running sore, which is devitalising millions of our people. There is no doubt that it is disseminating germs of evil, physical, moral and mental.
1633 To this task and to these conditions, I think the House is called to put its judgement and its experience, and I would add, its conscience. I therefore urge the Government to give sympathetic consideration to the matter, not the kind of sympathy that begins and ends in words, but sympathy that means that we shall see an improved housing scheme, that no longer will the Government even suggest to local authorities by inference that they should modify their schemes, but, on the contrary, that they should urge them for- ward to greater activity than ever before, to increase housing, and so remove what I believe to be the greatest blot on our country.
§ 3.54 p.m.
Sir PERCY HARRISM
I beg to second the Motion. We have had a moving and eloquent speech from my hon. Friend. No one is more qualified than he to speak on this problem. He has had long personal experience and has given devoted work to local government. He has been 30 years and more giving his time to work among the people whom he represents, only a stone's throw from this House on the other side of the river in Lambeth. I feel very honoured by his having allowed me to associate myself with this excellent, broad Resolution, which I believe will be carried by the House. No one can say it is a partisan Resolution, and I can add that it is not embarrassing to the Government. It is worded on the broadest principles. It comes at an opportune moment because just above it is the anticipation of a Bill.
I have been for a quarter of a century associated with local government on the Housing Committee of the London County Council. There have been many ups and downs in that work there. I think many of our failures have been due to constant changes of policy. The other day I was talking to one of the most experienced housing officials in the country, and he impressed upon me the necessity of persuading the Government to take long views, to adopt a consistent policy, and not to chop and change. When I entered public life 25 years ago, we were at the threshold of a reaction. Housing comes in waves of enthusiasm. We had just had a forward policy. The London County Council of that day had been extravagant according to some people's standard, and had bought four large 1634 estates. It became an issue at the election, and, as a result, it was decided to slow down, if not close down. That was in 1907.
During the next few years very little progress was made. But the facts were too strong. Just before the War the then majority at the County Hall was persuaded to go in for a forward policy. Then the War came, with four years of stagnation, four years of no action. In 1918 there was another great wave of enthusiasm. The national conscience was aroused. It was a time of big ideas and large policies. A lead was given by the Government and great schemes were worked out all over the country. Nothing was too large. A Conservative county council put forward schemes for building 29,000 houses in five years. The pre-War policy was considered too small for the new era, and we went in for wholesale buying of land, 3,000 acres in one particular site. There was the inevitable reaction and slowing down. The Geddes axe fell, and the Mond policy was framed, and there was another year or two of inaction.
Then, I remember, there came a particular by-election. I do not want to remind the Government of unfortunate political incidents, but a Minister of Health had to appeal on appointment under the electoral law to his constituents for election. He lost his post and lost his seat entirely on the housing issue. We had a new Minister of Health, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer. I want to pay a tribute to him. Whatever we may think of his fiscal policy, we owe him a great debt of gratitude for his housing policy. His name, his family name, both his and his father's, will always be associated with great municipal work. Birmingham has always been in the forefront in housing policy. What has come to be called the Chamberlain Act was on the right lines. It led to a great number of houses being built and to great progress. The Wheatley Act, which followed shortly after, was based on the same principle, but it had one great advance. It took a long view, and arranged for a 15-year programme, under which houses were to be produced like sausages out of a machine.
If this problem is to be tackled, you must take a long view. It takes time to buy land, and all sorts of problems arise in London. My hon. Friend, the present 1635 chairman of the Housing Committee, who is present, I am glad to see, is heart and soul in the work, and I hope that he will back me up in what I say. He knows the difficulties of drainage, planning, materials and so on. If you are really to get results, you must, therefore, take a long view. The Wheatley Act was a bold attempt to lay plans ahead. I want to emphasise one of the particular things with which that Act dealt. My hon. Friend who has just spoken referred to it. Hon. Members who were then in Parliament will remember the difficulties. We were told then that the real cause of the housing shortage was due to difficulties of labour and difficulties of material. At the time we were in desperate straits. We could not get bricks, timber, iron castings and so on. There were not sufficient bricklayers. There was a real shortage, and so arrangements were made with the building industry as a whole, both employers and employés, that men were to be trained, and that there was to be an ample supply both of men and materials.
We must give credit where credit is due. The result of that Act was that now there is ample labour available, and there is ample material, but, unfortunately, there is another side to the question. The men feel that they have been let down. Where there was no unemployment, and where the bricklayer and the plasterer had the upper hand, to-day they swell the ranks of the unemployed and stand outside the Employment Exchanges. In the Metropolitan area alone, I think, there are 50,000 men in the building trade, in one section or another, and, unfortunately, the local authorities, owing to the new policy of economy and the Ministry of Health, are limiting their operations. In 1931, just before the economy circular, the London County Council was employing on two big estates, 5,700 men, and now they are employing only 1,900. My hon. Friend the Member for North Lambeth (Mr. Briant) gave some very interesting and informing particulars. I would like to dot the i's and cross the t' s. Has it ever occurred to Members that one man can build a complete house in a year? The cost of an ordinary three-roomed, non-parlour house in building alone is £160 for labour, while the average wage of a labourer, taking a 1636 rather low average, in the building trade is something like £3 a week, or a little over. So that if that man who is now out of work was employed for the whole year, you would have a complete house instead of an unemployed man. That is an interesting calculation which I would suggest that the Minister of Health might well hand on to the Minister of Labour.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Richmond (Sir W. Ray) is not here. We have had a remarkable document from the hon. Member, who is still on the London County Council. It is an interesting report, and I would recommend its study to those who have not read it. One little paragraph is very remarkable. It is in paragraph 64, and opens the chapter dealing with housing. He points out:The industrialists, by whom in many cases the houses were provided, usually required their capital for developing their growing industries, and the accommodation which they erected for the workers whom they needed in ever-increasing numbers, was often deficient both in quality and in quantity. Moreover, the law did little or nothing to control and regulate the construction of new streets and buildings by private persons and companies.In other words, it is a case of the sins of the fathers being visited on the present generation, but that does not make this generation escape the responsibility of making up for the failures of the industrialists of the middle of the 19th century. What is the germ of the report? It. amounts to this—to put a stop to State assistance. I ant afraid that the Bill before the House wilt take it out of the power of the Ministry to grant subsidies under the two Acts. There are modifications, but it rather suggests that the hon. Member for Richmond has got home, and I want to persuade the Minister not to listen to the hon. Member.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I shall have to point out to the hon. Member that, having regard to the Bill of which notice of presentation was given to-day, it would hardly be in order to deal with the question of subsidies.
§ Sir P. HARRIS
I am going to refer—I do not know whether I shall be in order —to the Rent Restrictions Acts. Take paragraph 35:In present circumstances it appears "—
§ Sir P. HARRIS
I can see the difficulty. Of course, I would not question your Ruling, and I see the advantage of it because shortly we are to have an opportunity on both those Bills, when presented, to discuss these particular questions. I must, therefore, confine myself to the urgency of going on with houses, and I do want to persuade the House, if it is necessary to persuade it—I do not believe it is—that the need still exists. Whether provided by subsidies, or by private or public enterprise, the need for houses is as great as ever. May I refer to the very remarkable document which has just been printed by the London County Council? They have now no fewer than 50,000 houses and something like 250,000 tenants, and they are in a very strong position to test the needs and necessities. In that report they point out that 98,000 inquiries reached their central office in one year alone, and over 104,000 inquiries by letter. Incidentally it transpires that in many cases applicants had to be turned down because of inability to pay rent.
Those facts show that the need for houses is as great as ever, and, even if no other figures were available, they would make out a case. But, fortunately, we now have the Census returns for 1931 which have just been made public. They show that, in spite of the efforts of the last 10 years by various agencies, on the whole for the poorer section of the community the housing is far worse than before. In 1921, only 38 per cent. of the people in London were living in separate structural dwellings—an alarming figure. Ten years after, in 1931, instead of the condition of affairs having become better, it was really worse, the figure being 36.7. It goes on to point out:Two-thirds of the families in London"—that is, two-thirds of the whole population of the capital city,fail to secure the exclusive occupation of a separate dwelling, hut share in a majority of instances common water supply and common sanitary arrangements.It adds that in many boroughs half the children under 14 are living in overcrowded conditions. That is certainly discouraging after 10 years' effort. It does not suggest that this is the time to 1638 slow down in our efforts. It suggests that the need of a forward movement is as great as ever. My hon. Friend referred to the great programme put forward in 1930. A London County Council committee, I think under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for South Battersea (Mr. Selley), made very cautious estimates of the needs and necessities of London, and they put forward a proposal to spend some £21,000,000. I am revealing no secret when I inform the House that I attended, under the chairmanship of my lion. Friend, the Housing Committee of the same body this morning. If we are to carry out the policy outlined in 1930, we should have been putting forward an estimate of something like £4,500,000 but, unfortunately, the committee are limited to an estimate of £1,600,000, which is quite inadequate to meet the needs, if we are really to tackle the arrears of the housing problem.
My own view is, and always has been, that the best way to tackle slums is to build houses—not houses crowded round the slums—and the slums will cure themselves. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] I know there is a difference of opinion, but the most urgent problem of the day is the building of enough houses to meet the demand. Of course, when you have these black spots in the centre, the result of years of neglect of overcrowding, you cannot afford to let them stand, but it is no use pulling down houses if, at the same time, you are not building more. It only causes a shifting of population and crowding somewhere else, instead of where they are at present. The two problems must be tackled by parallel methods. On the one hand, you want to develop on the outskirts of great towns, garden cities, to draw out people from the centre to relieve congestion. While you are doing that, by all means clear the slums, but do not allow yourselves to be diverted entirely to the concentration on slums from the real necessity of building sufficient houses for each family to have a separate home.
I would impress on the Minister that the real need is not houses for sale but houses to let. Private enterprise in the last two years has been in a position to meet the demands of persons who can afford to buy houses through building societies or other organisations of that kind, or through private builders. But the need of the ordinary weekly wage-earner in this respect is as treat as ever, 1639 and I respectfully suggest that the time is not yet ripe, and will not be for many years, for the State or the local authorities to stand aside and leave the whole responsibility for housing to private enterprise. I ask the Government, if they are putting forward a new housing policy, not to break completely with the past, but, on the other hand, to see that it is a policy planned for the future. This problem will never be solved except by a long-term policy well thought out, planned well ahead, and carried out with the intimate co-operation of the State and the local authorities.
§ 4.17 p.m.
§ Miss PICKFORD
Hon. Members on whatever side of the House they sit agree upon the urgency and importance of the housing question although we may not all agree upon the means of solving that problem. Each Government since the War has tackled this problem to some extent. The sums of money spent out of the national Exchequer in the last 12 years under this head amount to over£100,000,000. The annual burden on the Exchequer is over £13,500,000 and the annual burden on the rates is something like £2,750,000. Yet in spite of that great expenditure it must be admitted that the housing problem, at any rate as regards the people who can pay only low rents, is not anywhere near solution. Houses like any other article are subject to the law of demand and supply, and therefore, while the supply of houses, and particularly of houses at cheap rents, remains restricted, the price is bound to remain high. It is to this question of high rents that I wish to direct the attention of the House this afternoon.
The problem of high rents is probably worse in London than in any other part of the country. London has always been a district of high rents. I represent the northern and poorer half of the London borough of Hammersmith which is a dormitory area for people of modest means, a good many of whom are occupied in trade and commerce and very many of whom are occupied in industry and belong to the class of poorly paid wage-earners. That district has its advantages because it is reasonably near to the City and to places which are centres of industry. It has good road and rail services, and that is a 1640 matter to be taken into account when persons are considering what rents they can pay. It may be better to live in a fairly central district with a high rent than to live farther out at a lower rent but with a large weekly sum payable in fares. It used to be considered before the War that in a working-class family budget, a fair proportion to be allotted as rent was one-sixth or, at the outside, one-fifth of the weekly income. I assure the House that it is not exceptional but usual in my constituency to find working people who pay more than half their weekly income in rent.
I wish to give some precise figures about these matters which were recently published in the annual report of the medical officer of health for that borough. These figures are not exceptional, but are perfectly fair samples of the state of affairs existing in neighbourhoods of that kind. Let us first consider the cases of 10 specimen families where unfortunately the breadwinners are out of work. These are all families in which the fathers are the only earners. There are no supplementary wages from the children who are all of school age or under school age. Of those 10 representative families dependent solely upon unemployment benefit, the largest family is receiving 31s. 3d. per week and the smallest 25s. 3d. per week. Yet out of incomes of that size rents varying from 17s. 6d. to 25s. are being paid. The obvious result is that the amount left for the necessities of life including food is in many cases as low as 1s. 7d. per head. In the case of the more fortunate the amount left when rent has been paid is only 2s. 8c1. per head for cleaning materials, food and clothing.
I admit that these are families in which, unfortunately, unemployment is rift at present, but let us turn to another class of families, those in which the fathers are employed, and we find that the state of affairs is very little better. Taking five representative families in this class varying from three to five children in family, we find that the weekly incomes range from 31s. to 60s. and the rents vary from 20s. to 30s. So that even in those families where the fathers are in work, the rent in every case is more than 50 per cent. of the weekly income and in those families the amount left for cleaning materials, fuel, food and other necessities of life varies from the tiny 1641 sum of 2s. 9d. per head up to 5s. 4d. per head in the case of the most fortunately circumstanced.
The same report refers to an article which appeared not long ago in the "Lancet" on the minimum cost of a physiologically adequate diet for working-class families. It was calculated that at that time, which, as I say, is not long ago, the minimum expenditure on food under the best possible conditions of household management and economic purchasing by the mother should be 7s. per week. Yet as I have shown there are cases, and they are not exceptional cases, in which the sums left after paying rent vary from 1s. 7d. per head up to 5s. 4d. per head. I suggest to the House that the result of this high level of rents is to produce in those families, not perhaps starvation, but conditions under which malnutrition is inevitable.
A resolution was recently sent to me from one of the school care committees in which they expressed the opinion that the present high level of rents was doing away with the good of the social services. I do not think that is an overstatement. As the Mover of the Motion pointed out, these conditions are vitiating and taking away the value of the social services and all the efforts that are being made in the schools and elsewhere to produce a healthy and sound community. The hon. Gentleman says that he does not often appeal to sentiment, but the common sense of the country is agreed that it is bad economy to bring up families in the circumstances which I have described, and it is in the interest of the country to see that those conditions are not continued any longer than is absolutely necessary. Take, as an example, the efforts that are being made in connection with maternity and child welfare work. In the borough of Hammersmith large sums have to be spent on the provision of milk for nursing and expectant mothers and small children. That does a little to mitigate the conditions of malnutrition in these families. Of course, in cases such as I have indicated it is naturally the mother of the family who suffers most. She does what she can to provide for the breadwinner and for the children, but she herself is the person who suffers most and suffers longest with, of course, inevitable reactions upon the children.
1642 Suppose that those typical families to which I have drawn attention, instead of paying rents representing 50 per cent. of their weekly income, were paying what used to be considered a reasonable proportion namely, one-sixth or one-fifth of their income, they would be paying from 5s. to 10s. per week. This would be well within their means, and they would then have the surplus which is necessary to provide themselves—and surely it is better that they should provide it themselves—with the nourishment adequate for bringing up a healthy family. In many of these cases the men's wages have fallen during the last couple of years. It is true that the cost of living has fallen in that period, but if the cost of living is calculated on the basis of rent being in the proportion of one-fifth or one-sixth of the weekly income, and if the rent actually paid is more than half of the weekly income, it makes comparatively little difference to the families concerned that the cost of living has fallen in respect of those articles on which they have to spend the other half of their income. So long as rent remains constant at this high figure, the fall in the cost of living makes very little difference to those families.
Furthermore, there is a feeling of grave apprehension among such families that rents, so far from falling, will remain stationary, if they do not rise. They fear that with the decontrol of some classes of houses they may be subjected to rents even higher than those which they are paying now. In those Metropolitan areas where the rateable value on the whole is low, it is not easy for a borough council to do a great deal towards the provision of houses. The amount that a ld. rate will produce is not very great, and any great addition to the rates would add still more to that high figure, which, of course, represents rates and rents, and would, therefore, increase the burden of just these people whom I am certain, everyone would be most anxious to relieve. But even supposing it were within the power of one Metropolitan borough so to increase the number of houses that rents fell to a level more within the capacity of the inhabitants of that borough to pay, you cannot isolate a Metropolitan borough. It is affected by everything that happens in the surrounding districts, and if once the rents should fall in one part of London, there would 1643 be a movement from other parts to that more favourably situated area, and soon the congestion would be just as bad in that part again, rents would rise, and nothing would have been done towards the solution of the problem.
It is, therefore, of the greatest urgency chat this question of the supply of more houses at low rents should be tackled as a national problem, and tackled, not in one district after another, but more or less simultaneously, so that the level of the rents would fall throughout the district. Anything that can be done, on however small a scale, to bring a few tenants into better circumstances, where they are more comfortable, where they can live in health and decency, is all to the good, hut it is nothing but a national effort on a large scale which will produce a supply of houses sufficiently large to bring the level of rents down within the capacity of poor people to pay.
No doubt hon. Members have noticed comparatively recently the suggestion in the Press of a scheme by which the building societies, which up to now have lent money for the erection of houses for sale, are now prepared to lend money from their very large resources for the erection of houses to rent, for people who can only afford a modest rent. In the memorandum which they issue it is suggested that the rents should be from 10s. to 12s. Undoubtedly that would have a very good effect in helping people who can pay that rent, but it must be remembered that there are many millions throughout the country who cannot afford a rent as high as that, and I hope very much that the Minister of Health or the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell the House something of what they 'have in view.
It seems to me that this problem must be tackled in three ways—by the provision of a very large number of houses at a modest rent, by continuing at the same time every effort for the clearance of slums, and also, if it is possible, by aiding the reconditioning of houses, which in many parts of London are of sound structure, that used to be better class houses and have now become or are becoming tenement houses. By a good scheme of reconditioning, many of these houses could be made into good self-contained tenements, instead of being 1644 let, as they are now, one or two rooms at a time, with no proper facilities and no properly self-contained quarters for each family. If the problem could be tackled from these three points of view, I cannot think it is beyond the resources and ingenuity of this country to provide houses for their population at a reasonable rent, which would leave to these people the resources to provide themselves with the food which is necessary to bring up a healthy family, and all the other conveniences which the population in a civilised country should be in a position to provide.
We hear a good deal about the cost of erecting houses. Let me, in conclusion, say a word on this point. Much has been written about the restrictions of the building unions as affecting the cost of houses. I think it is common knowledge that those restrictions in output have come about because of the fear of the cutting of rates by employers. Would it not be possible to have a gentlemen's agreement between building employers and the unions within the building trade that for one year at least there should be no restrictions in output and no cutting of the rate within that year? I cannot help thinking that if some arrangement of that kind could be come to, the output of houses would increase and the cost would be lowered.
§ 4.37 p.m.
§ Mr. HICKS
I rise to support the Motion in the name of the hon. Member for North Lambeth (Mr. Briant), and I think all of us must congratulate him upon giving the House an opportunity to discuss this very important and grave problem of housing. I listened with very great attention to his speech, as I did to the subsequent speeches, and particularly to that of the hon. Lady the Member for North Hammersmith (Miss Pickford), and I feel it somewhat difficult to understand to which party the speakers on this housing question belong. It is very difficult to believe that those hon. Members who have already spoken in this Debate will be supporting the National Government in their inactivity on housing generally. The speeches have been very good, and I certainly rise to reinforce them, in so far as I am able to use any arguments in that direction. I would be very happy if the House would not only give general agreement to the Motion, but at the same time would urge the 1645 Government to take much greater steps than they are taking to deal with this fundamental problem.
The hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) referred to the building trade unions and the supply of labour available for house building, and the hon. Lady the Member for North Hammersmith referred to the restriction of output by trade unions. I thought both of thosecanards had long been exploded, and that the facts which had been revealed from time to time by responsible speakers on both sides, both employers and operatives, had shown that there was little truth in those statements which went to make up a public agitation on this subject. This is not the occasion for me, in the very short time at my disposal—because I would like to hear as many speeches on this subject as possible—to deal with the shortage of labour or material or with the statements about restrictions upon output., but I am sure--speaking as I am in the presence of hon. Members such as the hon. Member for South Battersea (Mr. Selley), who is the chairman of the housing committee of the London County Council, and a master builder, and, immediately behind me, the hon. Member who is the secretary of the National Master Builders Federation of Great Britain, both of whom know that side of the story—that if we were to devote our speeches to-day to those questions, we should be able to convince, or at least I hope we should, those who still believe that such things exist, that they exist more in the imagination of those who want to make a public agitation than they do in reality. I say that very definitely, and I hope the House will accept it.
On this grave problem of housing we of the Labour party are, of course, specifically interested. I do not say that we can urge it with any greater force than hon. Members opposite, but we regard housing as a great and fundamental problem, and we know that humanity is very largely moulded by the type and character of the houses in which they live. Here in England, at any rate, the home is the social unit, and the type and character of the home, its influences, and its conditions will very largely mould the expression and behaviour of those who live in it. It is one thing to build houses, and it is another thing to enable people to occupy them. The question of 1646 being able to occupy a house is not conditioned from the standpoint of desire, because the pitiable appeals for housing accommodation with which every municipal authority is only too well acquainted to-day, from hundreds and thousands of people, show that the demand is there all right, but that the capacity to meet the rent and so on is quite a different matter. Wages are low, doles or unemployment benefit and transitional payment are at starvation level, and the people simply cannot pay. If you take the 3,000,000 people who are unemployed, they have to have some housing accommodation, and how are they able, from their income either from unemployment benefit or transitional payment, to pay decent rents? It is simply begging the question to expect them to be able to do so.
The vast majority of our people have never been properly housed. Ever since the time of the industrial revolution, when people were brought from the land into the great towns, such as Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, and so on, they have simply had forms of shelter but have never been properly housed. Over 50 per cent. of the working class houses in Great Britain to-day have only two bedrooms, and with boys and girls in the same family, it is impossible, when they start to grow up, adequately and properly to segregate the sexes. Nobody can argue that mothers with growing families of boys and girls, and with only two bedrooms, have adequate housing accommodation. Over 75 per cent. of the houses in Great Britain have not got a bathroom or a bath, and it is absurd, therefore, to talk about the people being adequately or properly housed. There never has been proper housing. Mothers of families are undergoing countless worries as to how to provide accommodation for their children. They are fighting a battle the whole of the time. The hon. Member for North Lambeth referred very poignantly to some cases, which came under his review, of mothers giving way to drink because of the pressure and anxiety of the home and their incapacity to provide ordinary accommodation to house their families properly. They are fighting a losing battle the whole time.
The Labour party and the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) 1647 have tried by both Bills and agitation to rouse the country into a housing fever so that their fellow-countrymen may have the opportunity of decent housing accommodation. Over 9,000,000 people are living in overcrowded conditions, and over 2,000,000 children are cheated of fresh air, sunshine and decent surroundings which could be made available. Owing to unemployment in the building industry, architects, technicians, supervisors, employers, factories and plants are available in great abundance. What greater opportunity could be given to such agencies than to allow them to pull down slums and build better homes, and to provide decent housing accommodation for those 9,000,000 of our fellow-countrymen who are herded together indecently and improperly? It is a big problem which we cannot hand over to private enterprise. If private enterprise were able to meet it, there has been nothing to stop it during the past 20 or 25 years, but it has its limits. No one will deny that they have made a big contribution, and we congratulate them on it. No one will deny that the building societies have rendered good service, and we congratulate them on that. We shall appreciate any other service that they can give to the housing of the people.
The problem is to enable people to occupy the houses that are built. There has been a reduction in wages of £5,000,000,000 in the last few years. Where is then the capacity to pay rent? Since the National Government have been in office, there has been a reduction of £10,000,000 a week in wages.
There has not been a drop in rent. It exists in imagination but not in fact. Practically one-third to one-half of a worker's wages goes in rent. The Government cannot escape responsibility, and we should not allow them to escape it. We should press them more strongly and in every way in order to get them to take bolder action. There is not a town in the country that has not its slums. There is not a borough in London that has not its slums. Westminster, where we are sitting, has them; the Royal borough of Kensington and Battersea have them. The East End of London is practically all slums. My own con 1648 stituency of Woolwich has them. We do not like them; they are plague spots and ought to be removed. I will read a quotation from the "Economist" of the 3rd December referring to an examination of poverty in the East End of London. Speaking of housing, they say:There is a chapter on overcrowding, illustrated by an admirable separate map, which would make it impossible to look the social reformers of 40 years ago unblushingly in the eye. From this chapter it appears that although the average number of persons in a room in the Survey Area as a whole declined from 1.04 in 1921 to 0.95 in 1931, there was actually an increase in the acutest overcrowding—the percentage living more than three to a room rose from 3.1 to 3.3. Over the whole area 9 per cent. of the tenements contain more than two persons to a room, but this proportion varies from 1 per cent. in Lewisham to 23 per cent. in Shoreditch. Most disquieting of all is the revelation that in many boroughs something like half of the children under 14 are living in a state of overcrowding. In short, for all the attempts at improvement in housing during the last 10 years the success which has been achieved has not been sufficient, to remove the widespread prevalence of disgraceful conditions, and the housing question still remains London's acutest social problem.That is a fair statement and is not exaggerated. In looking at the size of the problem, we have to ask what efforts we are taking to grapple with it and how we are encouraging municipal authorities to get on with the job. We know what municipal authorities are, except when they have a Labour majority. They wait for someone to get a move on, but, when they have a Labour majority, they get a move on themselves. Municipal authorities are not progressive in the main and are not tackling this problem. The supply of houses is not proceeding at a rate which is comparable with the increase in the population, with the marriage rate, and with the necessary replacement of houses which were built 100 years ago. On that comparison, we are hundreds of thousands of houses behind the requirements. We require anything between 80,000 and 100,000 houses a year to replace those built 100 years ago. There were 80,000 houses a year being built in 1831–32. Those houses were never built to the same standard that is demanded now in the sense of having good foundations, good damp-proof courses, good sanitary arrangements, good flues and so on. We all know the type of house that was built to suit the period 1649 from the Industrial Revolution. They were not the highest type of expression of the building craft, but were only sufficient to form a satisfactory kind of shelter. Those houses, even if they were ever fit for habitation, want replacing now. If we supplied one house for every three couples who got married each year in Great Britain, we should want another 100,000 houses. The actual number we are building varies from 20,000 to 40,000. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield planned the building of 40,000 houses for agricultural workers under the Act which he introduced, but the actual number built was something less than 1,000. How can any Minister feel comfortable in his seat when he knows that this problem is mounting up in this way?
I would like the Minister to agree as a practical stop to call together a conference of the municipal authorities with reference to the Circular on housing economies which has been sent out to them. The Government should say to the authorities: "You responded to our Circular in a greater measure than we intended you to. We asked you not to spend on housing anything that was not essential. You have gone to the other extreme. You have not done what you should. Let us meet together and discuss the problem and see if we can agree to a reversal of that policy." The Government should ask them to agree to revive housing progress and should do everything to encourage them instead of telling them, for instance, that they must not have paper on the walls or picture rails or fireplaces in the bedrooms. In the year 1932, with all the knowledge and capacity that we have in the building trade industry, such a mean standard is not worthy of this country or anyone who gives support to it. To ask the people, because they are unfortunate, to live in such a scanty, miserable and objectionable form of shelter does not do us credit. We ought to search our own minds and hearts before we sanction such houses.
The right hon. Gentleman who moved the Motion has done good service by calling attention to this problem, and I feel certain that everyone would like to see the Government encouraged to more activity. There would be a general rejoicing if it was known that the Government were doing something to tackle this great problem, and anything that is done 1650 will meet with the approval of our party. I would like to emphasise the importance of this question and the tragedy of millions of our fellow countrymen who through unemployment and low wages cannot pay rents. Private enterprise cannot supply the need, because they cannot invest the money unless they get a return. Therefore, it becomes a problem beyond private enterprise and one for the Government to deal with. I hope that the Minister who will reply will give us some encouragement to believe that the present dead hand on building progress will be lifted and that the Government will encourage municipal authorities or some form of enterprise to build houses to relieve the distress of millions of our people.
§ 4.58 p.m.
§ Mr. SELLEY
I am glad to have the opportunity of joining in this discussion. The Motion is drawn so wide that one can almost give it support. I should like to join with the hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks), who made some reference to myself, by saying that, although I am a retired builder, I have had my finger directly on the operative side of the great building trade by virtue of being chairman of the housing committee of the London County Council. I should like to state publicly that there is no need for the public to fear that there is any trade union ramp for keeping back output or for hampering the improvement of housing conditions in any way. If that were so, unemployment is so rife and there are so many men to choose from, that a slacker would very quickly be changed for a worker. I was rather impressed by the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris), who always tries to get it both ways. He pointed out the great forward urge that took place in London 25 years ago and then referred to changes in policy. May I remind the House that 25 years ago the London County Council built two of its large estates. They are excellent estates even to-clay, and they were built on the basis of something like 25 to 30 houses to the acre. Under the policy to which he referred, which was adopted immediately after the War, 12 houses were built to the acre, and the cost to the taxpayers and ratepayers was, on an average, £1,050 per house. Had we gone on long enough on those lines we should have piled up a 1651 debt almost equal to the War debt. A change of policy was absolutely necessary.
Although I have not been a Member of this House for more than a year I have been a member of every housing committee set up by every Minister of Health since there has been a Ministry. On the first occasion when I was called in as a practical man to discuss this great problem, one of the first things I tried to bring before the Minister was that if it was necessary to have a subsidy—and we found it was necessary—we must have the largest subsidy for the smallest house. It seems strange to me, having been engaged with this problem since 1919, that it is only now, in 1932, that we arc really awake to the fact that the real problem with which the nation sought to deal has not been tackled, in spite of the fact that we have been housing people. One may have a bricklayer or a mechanic, with a wife and one child, who is earning good wages, and working with him as his labourer may be a man with a large family all of school age. The former man is getting about one-third more in wages than the other, and he, with his small family, can take a small house with three or four rooms. The man with the larger family, earning the lesser wage, is compelled, if he can get a municipal house at all, to have a house with five rooms at a higher rent. Therefore, the labourer often stays in bad housing quarters while at the same time indirectly paying a subsidy to his more fortunate brother who is in a municipal house.
We have been dealing largely with the London issue, and I would tell hon. Members that London has a problem of its own. It costs the London County Council or any borough council which attempts to provide accommodation for the working-classes in central London £200 per habitable room. That means that a five-room house for a labourer and his family needs a capital expenditure of £1,000. On cottage estates, however, we can build at a cost of only £100 per habitable room, just half the amount. People who live in the central parts of London are called upon to pay a rent out of all proportion to their ability to pay, but they cannot afford to go to the outlying estates on account of the expense of travelling. Therefore, we have the anomaly that we are trying to house the 1652 poorest workers in the most expensive form of buildings. I have been actively engaged in the last year in trying to get our architects and our people together to see if we cannot produce a type of accommodation which will break down some of these very heavy costs. The hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green made an allusion to what we ought to do. The difficulty in London is sites. The whole of the Metropolitan area is practically built-up, and if we wish to establish cottage estates we must go outside the Metropolitan area.
With the building societies coming forward with their huge funds and ready to play their part in this problem, the Government would now be well advised to see whether they cannot produce a scheme for laying out whole areas outside London for the accommodation of the poorer-paid working-classes. In spite of all that has been said, I believe it is possible to produce a house to let at between 10s. and 12s. a week in London. If we do that, and send a lot of people outside, we shall relieve overcrowded conditions in London. There is another problem in London. London has not been a depressed area during the last four or five years, and thousands of people have flocked to London, to crowd our already overcrowded centres. Time after time when examining conditions in an overcrowded area we have found it occupied largely by families who have been imported into London.
Then there is this other side to the problem, that London people have the greatest objection to living away from those centres in which they have been brought up. Although we deplore overcrowding, I am bound to say that many people are living in overcrowded areas from their own choice. They could well afford to go outside them but have the greatest aversion to doing so. As one who has been engaged in the industry and has taken a great part in this problem, I am prepared to say that whatever we do as local authorities we shall never solve this problem until we link up private enterprise with it. I know that many hon. Members of the Labour party do not believe that any housing has been provided unless it has come through a municipality. The solution of the housing problem is to provide houses and more houses. Many of the poorer-paid working-classes have been housed in 1653 exactly the same way as they were clothed in the old days, that is to say they took the "hand-me-downs" of their more fortunate brothers. That is what has happened with a lot of property in London.
If we are to tackle this problem, do not let us be obsessed with the idea that it is a case purely for municipal effort. If we are to proceed with municipal undertakings subsidised, at no matter what cost, out of the rates or the Exchequer, then we must recognise that we must cater for all the working-classes, and not for the fortunate section whom the municipalities have been housing so far. Every time we take rates from a workingman a portion of the money goes to pay the housing subsidy of those who are being housed by the municipality. The more that is done in that way towards housing one section of the community the more difficult we make it for the other sections who can never hope to be housed properly in their lifetime.
With good will all round, let us bend our efforts together and work upwards from the bottom, not, as we have been doing during the last 10 years, starting with a high ideal at the top. We must recognise that we have to dig down. The Mond houses, with which we started, had an area of 950 superficial feet. They were not homes for labourers, but villas for middle-class persons. That was one of the great faults of our early enthusiasm. Let us come down to the practical side of the problem. There are the brains and good will in the country to solve it and I am one who will play his part in doing so if the opportunity is afforded.
§ 5.11 p.m.
I do not wish to take up time by stressing the urgency of the need for rehousing the people, but to address myself to the possibility of getting over the difficulties of the housing problem without any additional burden to the State or the municipalities. Since 1919 more than 1,000,000 houses have been built by means of the subsidy, and 800,000 houses without any subsidy at all, so we see that private enterprise has done a great part in producing houses. The census figures, which have only recently been issued, show that the family unit is getting smaller. In Durham the family unit is now four, which is 12.4 per cent. 1654 lower than it was in 1921. In South Shields, the town to which I belong, there are 29,000 inhabited houses, and 50 per cent. of them are occupied by families of three or under. It is apparent, therefore, that the need of the day is for smaller houses for the working-classes, for houses of not more than four rooms; and there is a great demand for houses with three rooms. No good purpose can be served by building houses of a standard of accommodation beyond the actual requirements of the people or at a rent which they are unable to pay.
The side of the housing problem which still requires the assistance of the municipality and the State is slum clearance, and I am glad to say that it has been tackled in many districts in the past year. In the town from which I come we have built houses of three and of four rooms which are let at a rent, inclusive of rates, of from 4s. 5d. to 5s. 7d. per week. Those are rents which people who have to live in distressed areas can afford to pay. We must not forget that large numbers of them are living only on the dole, and, unfortunately, many have little prospect of getting back to work. Apart from that the miners of Durham—the datal men—even if working, are not getting more than 35s. a week. It is no good putting up houses for them to he let at 10s. to 12s. per week.
The question is: How can the problem be solved? To my mind, it is a question simply and solely of rates of interest. On the outskirts of Newcastle houses with four rooms have been built which are being sold for £280. They are subject to a ground rent of £2 10s. a year. Newcastle building societies are making advances of £250 on them at 5 per cent., but with a rate of interest so high that the weekly charges, including the payments to the building society, amount to 12s. 6d. That is a. lower sum than has been discussed in this House, but to my mind it is not low enough. If the Government would tackle this question as they have it in their power to do, and if they would raise a housing loan of 3i per cent., it is perfectly possible to do so. The interest on that loan would be £3 10s. for every £100, but from that there would have to be deducted 5s. in the £ Income Tax, so that the net amount that the Government would have to pay to each bondholder of £100 would be £2 12s. 6d. If the Government would lend that money 1655 to the building societies, in order that they in turn could lend it out to the people who want to buy their own small houses, they would be able to put up houses at a price that people could pay. If the Government would lend that money at £2 12s. 6d. per cent.—the House is aware that building societies pay a special rate of Income Tax of two-fifths the normal rate—the Income Tax on the £2 12s. 6d. would be 5s. 3d., so that the total cost to the building societies for each £100 would be £2 17s. 9d. If they in turn lent that money to the borrower at £3 10s., which would leave them a margin of 12s. 3d. for their working expenses, a margin which is quite enough, although it may not be quite as much as they are accustomed to, I can say, from personal experience in running a building society for many years, that it can be well done.
Houses of four rooms can now be built for £350. If the whole of that money were lent—I do not suggest to the House that it should be—at 3½ per cent. to a man who was wishing to buy his own house, to be paid back over 30 years, the weekly payment to a building society would be 7s. 4d. The municipalities would be justified in putting a low rateable value on those small houses, say, a rateable value of £10, with a rate of 10s. 6d., to which sum, in some towns in The North of England, the rate has fortunately now been reduced. That would mean five guineas per year for rates, which is the equivalent of another 2s. per week. If you allow another 1s. for repairs and for insurance, you find that the total payment that a borrower would have to make in respect of a loan of £350, would be 10s. per week.
What would be the effect of this upon unemployment? The two problems are surely linked together. If we take a unit of £100,000,000 at £350 per house, you would build 300,000 houses. If we increase the number of houses per acre to 15, that would mean 20,000 acres of land upon which to build those houses. The land should be obtained, at any rate in the smaller towns and the large industrial towns, at not more than £400 an acre. My views are sufficiently Socialistic to support the Government taking powers to acquire land at that figure, or at a district valuer's figure if landowners are un 1656 willing to sell. In addition, there are the costs of transfer. They, unfortunately, are too high. For 300,000 houses, £2,000,000 would be sufficient for the transfer, so that with land and transfer we would have absorbed £10,000,000, leaving £90,000,000 with which to build our 300,000 houses and to pay for labour and materials.
From the start to the finish of house-building, from when the bricks are made to when the houses are completed, 80 per cent. of the cost of the houses goes in labour. If we take 80 per cent. of that £90,000,000, we get £72,000,000 for wages. The building operatives' wages are, on an average, £3 per week. That would give us 24,000,000 man-weeks, or a full year's work for 480,000 men. There are at the present about 300,000 men unemployed in the building trade. The scheme I am outlining would provide work for 480,000; it would provide work for the whole of the unemployed members of the building trade for two years. There may be difficulties in the scheme, but there are none that cannot be got over. I might point out that the cost of road making is far too high. Local authorities should be less exacting in the cost of road making, because that all goes on to the unfortunate worker's rent and adds to the cost of the house.
This scheme may mean that the landowner would have to sell his land somewhat cheaper than he hoped, that the lawyer might have to do with rather lower costs, and that the building societies would have to work with a lower margin for expenses. Let me say to each, if he hesitates to fall into line, what his Grace the Archbishop of York said recently when addressing a great meeting at Newcastle-on-Tyne upon social service: "It is the duty of each of us to ask ourselves when considering unemployment, 'What can I do?' "It is not what the State alone can do, but what each is willing to do individually that will help us through our difficulties. The working-man of the North needs a house, inclusive of rates, at not more than 10s. a week. I submit with every confidence that I have made a proposal to the House that will make this possible, one which, if carried out with good will, will solve the difficulties of unemployment in the building trade.
§ 5.22 p.m.
§ Mr. DICKIE
Like the hon. and gallant Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Colonel Chapman) I am glad of the opportunity to make a few observations on this question of housing, which is of paramount importance to those of us who represent industrial constituencies in the depressed areas. Our figures of unemployment in those areas range from 25 per cent. to 70 per cent., and the problem, extremely grave as it is, is complicated by the fact that very large numbers of our population are living under conditions which are a, disgrace to a civilized community in the 20th century. They are, moreover, paying for wretched accommodation high rents that would entitle them to decent accommodation in habitable houses that could be supplied on a purely economic basis.
It is not right that a Member of Parliament, when he visits his constituency, should find a succession of callers at his house to ask him to use his influence to enable them to get a house to live in; that he should be stopped in the streets of his constituency by constituents asking him to use his influence with the local housing officers to enable them to get a roof to cover their heads, or that he should be continually receiving letters from his constituents asking for houses of any kind in order that they may live in decent conditions. The people of whom we are speaking are not those of the type referred to by the Minister of Health in a recent Debate. They are not "wasters"; they are decent, respectable, hard-working citizens, who are prepared to pay an economic rent for a decent house. They are the sort of people who have been brought up to believe that an Englishman's home is his castle, and they have never had an opportunity, even in a two-roomed cottage, of being able to shut the door behind them and to say: This is home."
In the county of Durham there are thousands of young people who have never known what it is, although married perhaps five years and, some of them, with four or five children, to have a house of their own. Many of them live with their relatives in single rooms, or in two rooms for which they pay exorbitant rents. Many of them live in lodgings. There are others whose families are grown up, and who are ready to vacate the larger type of house and make room for others 1658 by going into a smaller house, if such a house were available. There are young people waiting to be married, and who cannot be married for the simple reason that no houses are available, unless they are prepared to live with their parents, to go into lodgings or to start married life under conditions that are not in any way conducive to a happy wedded life. We need something like half-a-million houses to meet the present shortage. We have about a quarter-of-a-million, and probably 300,000, building operatives out of work. If a Dutchman or an Italian were to say to us: "Why do you not pay your quarter-of-a-million building operatives to build your half-million houses?" there are only two replies that we could give to them. The first is that we have not enough organizing ability to do it, and the second is that we prefer to keep those building operatives in idleness. We have been in that position for 10 years. Either reply is a pitiful one. It makes us wonder whether Rudyard Kipling was not eight when he said that Englishmen were the maddest people on earth. This is a mad policy. Out of those quarter-of-a-million building operatives, 300 are in my constituency. I want the House to look at my constituency as a. typical example, and to note what is happening there, because the same is happening in every other constituency throughout the length and breadth of the country. Those 300 have to be maintained, and are being maintained, at the expense of the State, and the State is getting in return absolutely nothing. Perhaps I am wrong in saying that the State is getting absolutely nothing, because it is getting something which is not very desirable—the demoralization of those who are wasting their days, months and years in idleness. Every week an official whose duty it is to administer the Acts of Parliament which we pass in this House draws a cheque for £400 for the maintenance of those 300 people and their families in my constituency. The cheque having been written, must be signed. The official to whom I have referred takes it to one, John Citizen, shall we call him, who lives in a cul-de-sac called Overdraft Alley, and in a crazy house the foundations of which are tottering. He says to him: "Another cheque for signature, sir." The poor, overburdened old gentleman says: "How much is it for this time" "£400 sir." "Who is it for?" "Those 1659 builder fellows in Consett." "Another £400? It does not grow any less." He signs it, and he says: "Will you tell the House of Commons what I said the week before and what I said last year about this same thing, that I was tired of signing this cheque, disbursing money and getting absolutely nothing in return." The reply is: "Yes, I gave your message, sir, and the reply from the House of Commons and the Government is that they will give their most earnest consideration to your representations on this most important subject."
What happens then? John Citizen explodes, and he has a perfect right to do so. He says that he has been told this for the last 10 years, and he "goes off the deep end," as we say in the North, and gives his views on the House of Commons, and the Government generally, in language which is not only un-parliamentary but unprintable. This is what is happening throughout the length and breadth of the country. In tram, train, tube, omnibus, club, "pub.," by the village green, wherever men and women gather together, you will hear the same fierce condemnation of the pouring out of public money for which absolutely nothing is received in return. It has gone on for far too long, and there are some of us in this House who hold that a continuation of it is bound to lead to graver disasters.
Some of us are beginning to feel uneasy as to the Government's plans for dealing with unemployment, on which this question of housing has a very important bearing. I have said that we have 300 or 400 building operatives out of work in my one constituency. I have gone to the trouble of approaching the local councils in the constituency, and I find that to meet the immediate shortage they need no fewer than 1,000 houses. I have consulted them all, and they are all suffering from The same thing—a shortage of housing accommodation for working-class people. Of the 1,000 houses needed, 60 or 70 are required for caravan dwellers who are living on the fells on the Consett Hills under such conditions that the local council are threatening to evict them because their conditions are so intolerable, and, in their dire plight, they have been to ask a Royal personage to save them from eviction and to endeavour 1660 to do something to help them in the condition in which they are.
I want to ask a question which I have asked many times before. Where is the sense in sending a cheque for £300 or £400 to my constituency to maintain in idleness people who can build houses, when 1,000 houses are needed in the constituency? I must confess that I fail to understand the policy, because we not only need the houses, but we want to stop the demoralization that is going on. If these men could earn good wages, they would have increased purchasing power, and would be able to maintain their families and themselves at a higher standard of life; but bricklayers, joiners, masons, slaters, tilers, plumbers, carpenters—every one of them a skilled craftsman—are wasting their time doing nothing, and are losing heart, losing patience, and losing something more, namely, that pride in the skill and craftsmanship which they have acquired and which they have been proud in days gone by to exercise. All that is needed is the organizing ability to put in hand the work which is at their doors ready and waiting to be done.
I desire to make a bold suggestion to the Government. I suggest that, if they themselves are unable to use this £300 or £400 a week to any better purpose than subsidizing and encouraging idleness, they should give it to the local authorities in my constituency to use in providing employment for men who need it. This is not an unreasonable suggestion. I should like to see the Government make a simple experiment. I should like to ask them if it is not possible, under the aegis of the Ministry of Health, to get these councils to act together and form a regional committee, composed of one or two members from each council, which would be asked to formulate a scheme to cover the whole of the area. For building purposes only, all the building operatives could be transferred from the Employment Exchange to that committee, and, in view of the urgent need for houses in my constituency, I have not the slightest doubt that before the scheme had been in operation for more than a week not one of them would be on the books of the Employment Exchange, but every one of them would have been re-absorbed into the industry and would be doing useful work.
1661 I estimate that 300 men can build 300 houses in six or seven months, and I would ask the Government to sanction such an experiment for, say, 12 months. They could give notice to the local authorities that they would consider such a scheme, and could give them, not three, or six, or 12 months in which to formulate a scheme, but a month, and I have no doubt that at the end of a month the scheme would be forthcoming. I confess quite frankly that I am shedding many of my preconceived notions. I do not believe in direct labour, but, if it were a question of employing direct labour under a Socialist town council, the problem is so grave that I would waive my objection to it immediately, in order that we might get on towards finding at all events a partial solution for this problem.
I should like to emphasise the fact that, if such a scheme were adopted, it would cost the Government nothing. My hon. Friend appears to be surprised. The present situation is costing them £300 or £400 a week in my constituency, and they are getting nothing for it. Why should they not use this £300 or £400 as I have suggested? They might even save by doing so. If they are not prepared to give the whole amount, let them give 75 per cent. That would be so much to the good, and those men who were got back to work would be saved from the utter and absolute demoralization of continued years of unemployment and all that it brings in its train. Housing is not a non-productive investment; it is one of the best investments that any nation could go in for, not merely in the financial sense, but in the physical and moral sense as well. A scheme such as I have suggested could be made self-supporting for, with money so cheap as it is to-day, and with co-operation between the Government and the local authorities, decent houses could be built at a figure which would enable them to be let at an economic rent, as they are now in my constituency, even to miners, with their present low wages. When I speak of an economic rent in the North of England, I mean an inclusive rent of not more than Ss. 6d. or 9s. a week, which is high enough in distressed areas like ours.
I am well aware that there is nothing new in this proposal, that it has been brought forward before, that the idea of using what is called the "dole" to give employment has been considered and dis- 1662 cussed on many occasions; but I make no apology for bringing it forward again, because the conditions are such to-day that, unless we do something of the kind, the situation will grow even more grave and disaster will assuredly overtake us. I have been told that this would be subsidizing wages, but, as I have said, I am casting aside many of my preconceived notions, and am willing to cast aside that one for the good and sufficient reason that I would rather subsidise wages than subsidise idleness, as we are doing at this moment. I cannot see why we should not bring these two things together. We want the houses, we have the men who can build the houses, and we are wasting millions of money in maintaining these men who could build the houses. Toleration of a continuance of the state of things that prevails to-day is nothing short of a national reproach. The same thing is going on in every part of the country.
Such a scheme as I have suggested, wisely applied, would not merely make two blades of grass grow where only one is growing at present, but would make many blades of grass grow where none is growing at present. Nay, more, it would make grass grow where weeds are growing at present. Anybody who knows anything about horticulture knows that you cannot grow grass where weeds are, and that, if you do not cut out the weeds, they will spread. That is the danger for this little country of ours at the present moment. I sincerely trust that the Government will give this suggestion, and every other suggestion, their most earnest consideration, because it is vital, not only in my district but in others where this problem is causing such grave concern, that we should find some solution in order to overcome the difficulty of housing conditions in the north-eastern corner of England and in the other distressed areas of the country.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ Mr. MICHAEL BEAUMONT
We have listened to a number of speeches all of which have advocated, as I think every Member of the House will join in advocating, the general principle of more and better houses; but most of the speeches, and particularly those of the hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks) and of the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. Dickie), have been directed to demanding a drive 1663 forward in housing policy by the Government, that is to say, the provision of an increased number of State-built and State-paid-for houses. None of the speeches that I have heard in the Debate, however, has put forward a constructive proposal as to where the money is to come from. The hon. Member for Consett suggested that the unemployment benefit should be used towards the building of houses. He gave us a figure of £300 or £400 a week in the case of his constituency, and suggested that that money might be used for the purpose of setting the men in question to work at building houses. The trouble is, however, that the £300 or £400 a week which is now keeping those people in unemployment would only keep a small portion of them in work, because of the greater wages that would have to be paid to them when they were actually in employment. Would the hon. Member for East Woolwich, who is connected with the trade union in question, advocate the building of houses at wages equal to the present unemployment benefit? Of course he would not, and I think he would be perfectly right. In that case, this amount of money would not find employment for the people whom it now has to keep in unemployment.
§ Mr. DICKIE
May I interrupt the hon. Member for a moment, to say that I had no intention of suggesting that the rate of wages paid should be the same as the rate of unemployment benefit? It would work out, in all probability, at somewhere about half, and to that extent the money would be saved.
§ Mr. BEAUMONT
Supposing that half the unemployed building operatives in the hon. Member's constituency could be found Employment with that money—I think that that. is an optimistic estimate, but let us accept it—there would still remain the other half, far whom money would have to be provided. If that were so, you would have over half the number on your hands for whom you would have to provide more money. The plain fact is that at present the State cannot provide any more money. It is the fact that it has been providing more and more money from rates and taxes which has got us into this mess. It is owing to that that we have all these people unemployed, and, unless we 1664 are prepared to reduce our public expenditure in every direction, however unpleasant it may be, we shall not get those people back into employment.
The bon. Member for East Woolwich said this was a problem that private enterprise could not solve. If it could, why had it not done so in the past 20 years Private enterprise has not had a chance of solving it because of the restrictions, and because of the taxation, and the unfair incidence of the taxation that has been put on all foams of property for the last 20 years. That has deliberately prevented the building of houses. The great case in point was the famous Land Tax Act of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), which had the most appalling effect on the building of houses in the five years immediately before the War. There are many of us who are just as alive as hon. Members opposite and below the Gangway to the need for more and better houses and to the horrors of bad housing and of the unemployment situation, but we believe sincerely that you cannot get the thing right until you stop the subsidizing which sends up the price of houses and takes the money out of the pockets of the people whom we want to spend it on those houses.
The hon. Member himself said it was one thing to build houses and a totally different thing to get people to live in them, because of the rent. The reduction of wages and the shortage of money to pay the rent is due to high taxation, and the more you increase your housing subsidy, and the more you have public expenditure on that or anything else, the worse your situation will be and the more difficult it will be to get decent conditions for those who are employed. We have been going forward since the War on a policy of more Government works, more taxation, and more public expenditure, and the situation has got worse and worse, and, unless we realise that that produces a deterioration and not an improvement in conditions, we shall never cure the housing problem. It can only be cured, not by artificial State action but by the ordinary common sense laws of supply and demand and by getting the money to pay for the houses back into the pockets of the people who have to pay for them.
1665 I apologize for having embarked on that side of the question. It is not what I really rose to say, but I felt it important that the House should realise the economic side of this problem and should not be led away with the idea that you are going to solve it by building more and more houses irrespective of how they are going to be paid for. It is no use having a lot of houses if you cannot get people to live in them, because they cannot pay the rent and cannot at the same time pay for food to eat. I want to draw attention to an aspect that has not come up much so far in the speeches that I have heard. I have very little experience with regard to urban property, but I have had something to do, as a private landlord and as a member of a local authority, with the question of providing houses for the workers in the country. I want to impress on the Government, in any new legislation that they are introducing, to recognise, what has not been recognised in the past, that the problem in rural areas is entirely different from the urban problem. There is no great shortage of houses in the rural area, but there is a shortage of decent house at reasonable rents, and the legislation and the council activities of the last 10 or 14 years have done very little to help that problem. It has only been materially assisted by the fact. which we all deplore, that the drift of the population of the country to the towns has left vacant houses into which people have gone, and if, as we hope, that drift is going to be turned the other way, there will be a serious housing shortage in the country.
The housing of the agricultural labourers has never been an economic problem. From time immemorial the cottages in which they have been housed have never been at an economic rent. There has been no attempt to make them so. It is part of the rural system, which you may like or dislike but which exists and which, even under a Socialist Government, would take a great deal of changing. The workman on the land, as part of his most inadequate wage, is provided with a house let at an uneconomic rent, near his work, and that is regarded, both by landowners and farmers and the workers themselves, as part of the system on which the working of the land is based. They realise that you cannot get proper results if the workers are not 1666 properly housed on the spot, and the aim of those connected with the land has been to provide these houses at low rents which the rural workers can afford to pay and treat them, in effect, as part of the wages. I am not now talking about the tied cottage, but about the average cottage in an ordinary country village, which may belong to the farmer for whom the man works, to the local landowner, or to a small property owner in the district. The whole system is the same. We get cottages which have been built for £200, £300 or £400 let at rents which may vary from a shilling to 3s. 6d. a week.
Legislation in the past has treated the country problem and the town problem in very much the same way, and the local councils in the country have had practically the same subsidies as have the councils in the towns. The result is that you have had put up all over the rural areas most unsightly houses, erected by the local councils, to whom has just been given the power to look after the beautifying of the countryside, at rents twice or three times those of the old cottages, with rates on top. Those houses are not, in fact, occupied by the rural workers. They are occupied by people from the towns, who go there because the rates are less, or for one reason or another. Local Housing Acts have made very little contribution towards the rehousing or the improvement of the housing of the agricultural labourer, for the reason that the rents charged are far greater than the rural worker can afford to pay with his present most inadequate wage. When the Government come to tackle this problem, I hope they will bear that fact in mind and realise that you cannot house, or rehouse, the rural worker at anything like an economic rent, and that, if you are going to tackle the reconditioning of the countryside, you have to call to your help the owners of the existing houses. There are many houses that could be reconditioned—some of them are reconditioned—under the Rural Housing Acts and made perfectly good and useful without their rents being increased. I know one such house that was let at 7d. a week. It was reconditioned under the Rural Housing Act. The rent was increased to a shilling, and it is now a perfectly good house. The trouble about that Act is that in so many cases the small surveyor of a rural district council 1667 is put in charge of its working and, without seeing into the merits of the thing, he has not, in effect, used his powers so as to get the best benefits out of the Act.
I would urge the Government to realise that in the matter of rural housing there are three factors that have to be taken into consideration. The first is the effect of taxation on the man who wants to build houses for the habitation of rural workers to work on his land. Secondly, the effect of the rates is very important. Under the present rating system, the more a landowner improves the housing of his estate the higher his assessment and the more he has to pay in rates. It is no encouragement, where the landlord pays the rates, as is often the case, that, if he reconditions a cottage let at some such figure as £10 a year, the rates are immediately put up to £15 without his having increased the rent. In dealing with this problem, the first matter to be taken in hand is the reconditioning of existing houses, and, if they can do anything in their new Bill to assist local landowners or farmers or small property owners to recondition their houses and put them in a proper state of repair without raising the rents, or only raising them by a negligible amount, they will be doing far more to assist the rural housing problem than by continuing or increasing the subsidy, which in rural areas has only had the effect of putting up the prices to the local authorities and to the private builder and, consequently, injuring rather than helping the solution of the rural housing problem.
§ 5.58 p.m.
§ Mr. KIRKWOOD
The hon. Member in an essentially Tory speech—it was anything but a working-class speech—advocated the reconditioning of workers' cottages in rural districts. Everyone who is not a Tory and who has the welfare of the working-class in his mind knows that the only thing that can be done with those cottages is to pull them down and build modern houses in their place. It is impossible to recondition old, unhealthy houses which were built for slaves and not for men and women who have the minds of free men and women, as the working-class have to-day. The hon. Member said he had listened to one or 1668 two speeches. He was not long in the House before he was called.
§ Mr. KIRKWOOD
I know. He said that the speeches were very good, but it all meant money and the Government could not get money. If war was declared to-morrow, they would find millions, and we have declared war on poverty. This is as serious a war as a bloody war, and there are as many killed in this war as there are in a bloody war, only people do not see it in the same way, but it is as effective and more damaging to the welfare of the people with unhealthy homes. Those in the Labour movement have made up their mind that at the first opportunity they will do all they can to abolish the problem of poverty. That is what we are here for, and nothing else. We are here to fight against it. We are not sent here to make friends with our opponents. I have been sent here to fight them, and fight them I will. I have been sent here to represent the working class and not the ruling class of this country.
My colleagues and I are indebted to the hon. Member for North Lambeth (Mr. Briant) for introducing this Debate today. In his introductory remarks he mentioned my native city of Glasgow. It was our education authority who put an investigation on foot in order to find out the reason for the high death rate among children in working class houses. They found that in the East End wards of the city of Glasgow the death rate of children in their first year was nearly 200 per 1,000, and that in the West End of the city, which is represented by the present Home Secretary, the death rate is only 45 per 1,000. They found also that the height of boys and girls brought up in one-apartment houses was deficient. England knows nothing about one-apartment houses. It is a distinct poverty problem which particularly applies to Scotland. The back-to-back houses in Leeds cannot be compared with them, though they are bad enough, I admit. Of course, we will assist to abolish back-to-back houses in Leeds. But we have one-apartment houses. The best Minister of Health this country ever produced, John Wheatley, was reared in a one-apartment house, and, therefore, he had in the marrow of his bones hatred of the ruling 1669 class of this country who imposed those conditions upon our class. I was about to say that the Education Authority also found, in regard to the one-apartment, two-apartment, three-apartment and four-apartment houses in Glasgow, that the children attending school from the higher types of houses were bigger and better in every way. I have said in the House of Commons before that it is not because the mothers in the better homes of the country or cities are better mothers than the mothers in the poorer areas that the children in those areas die at the rate of 200 per 1,000. It is because of the hellish conditions. I can use no other term. I know the conditions. I have lived in them, and I am a product of them. I can never forget the conditions in which we were reared in the tenements of Glasgow.
We are very fortunate in having the Minister of Health present. I have seen in the Press that he is to bring in a Bill to do away with the Wheatley Act. I hope that he will never be a party to any suclh act of treachery to the working class of this country. If ever there was a piece of beneficial legislation carried in this House, it was the Wheatley Act. It is the best bit of Socialist legislation which this House has carried out up-to-date. The conditions at the moment are of such a character that they do not warrant any discouragement of the building of houses. Take Glasgow. I have here information which has been got out for me by the City Assessor of Glasgow, Mr. Alexander Walker, the best authority we have in Scotland upon this question. He informs me that up to the year of the War we had nearly 19,000 empty working-class houses in Glasgow. Of these, nearly 10,000 were the most common type of house; occupied by the working-class, that is, the two-apartment house. I am a product of the two-apartment house. That is the common house in Glasgow. In the first year of the War there were 9,762 empty two-apartment houses in Glasgow. What is the situation up-to-date? The figures for 1931–32 show that 155 only are empty. Surely it is evidence that there is a shortage of houses in Glasgow when it is remembered that the number of working-class houses in Glasgow is 250,000 and that there are only 155 two-apartment houses—room and kitchen—empty at the moment. I hope, therefore, that the 1670 Minister of Health will not nullify John Wheatley's great gift to Britain.
I was John Wheatley's close associate when he was putting through his Bill, and I remember well how he was harrassed on all sides of the House, how he brought together all the building operatives, employers and employés, and how he drafted a scheme to be carried on for 15 years, and well do I remember that he told me that the greatest opponent of his scheme was the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, who, he said, was the greatest Tory in the House. Hon. Members who were in the House at the time will remember how the Minister of Health was worried by people to take in improvers. They said, "There is a shortage of bricklayers, and it is because of the strict rules which hold with the trade unions that we are not getting on with the building of houses. Those bad trade unions; those villains of the piece who always have the last ounce! They will never give up anything!" The fact of the matter is that, during the War, the trade unionists sacrificed every right, believing that they were doing the proper thing for their country. I, as an individual, opposed the part which was being played because I held that those rights were not ours to give away but to defend. Our forefathers had sacrificed their all to secure those rights in order to safeguard their interests. What was the result, after giving away every protection we had in the building trade and everywhere else? Lord Weir wanted to get into the building industry in order that he might reduce that industry to the level of the engineering industry. One way or another, by economic pressure, they reduced the whole of the working-class to the same level.
When the Lord President of the Council was Prime Minister he visited Glasgow and saw the slums there. He was taken round by a friend of his whom I know also. The Lord President of the Council was so shocked that when he came back he called a Cabinet meeting and got the Government to give Scotland an extra on each house in order that they might get on with the building of houses. I could go on and on dealing with the question of houses, because I have spent nearly 40 years of my life trying to inculcate into my race the idea of a higher standard of housing in Scotland. What 1671 struck me when I came to England nearly 50 years ago was that the housing conditions of the working class on the average were much better than the housing conditions in Scotland, and I wished to introduce into Scotland the cottage homes of England. But our folk had it in their minds then—it is largely done away with now—that "What was good enough for my father is good enough for me, and will have to be good enough for my children." All that has gone by the board.
Hon. Members talk about private enterprise. The hon. Member for South Battersea (Mr. Selley), as an old master builder, advocated the provision of houses by private enterprise. Who are responsible for the shortage of houses in Scotland? Who are responsible for the one-apartment houses in our great industrial centres and in the country townships? The housing conditions of our people are a standing disgrace. If I were a member of the ruling class of the country, I should be ashamed of myself. One wonders how the British race have been able to attain to such heights under the awful conditions in which they have had to live, move and have their being. We have no idea to what heights that same race might have attained if we had had proper housing conditions. The hon. Member for South Battersea said that you had the tradesman going into a bigger house than the labourer. The labourer really needed a bigger house than the tradesman, and because the labourer had not sufficient wages to enable him to pay for the same kind of house as the tradesman, the labourer was being superseded by the tradesman in that respect. I never heard such a shilly-shally argument in my life. It never seemed to dawn upon the Tory reactionary mind that it is the rich who lend the money for building the houses. That is the problem. They are the thieves who are running away with the business. They have tried to start the hare that the hon. Member started—dividing, or trying to divide, the working classes, putting the tradesmen against the labourer and the labourer against the tradesman. They try to make out that the tradesman is getting an advantage over the poor fellow at the bottom, the man who has to carry him. He has to carry the hon. Member for South Battersea. The hon. Member has managed to retire as a result not of 1672 his own labour, because he could not do that, but because the workers, the heirs of a glorious inheritance, enable individuals to retire so that in their old age, with grey hairs and diminished strength, they may come to this House as Tory Members of Parliament.
This is a place for mm who are prepared to fight for what they believe to be true. What we on these benches believe to be true—and it is the root of the problem—is that because of the moneylender we are in our present difficulties. Ten shillings in every pound which is paid for rent goes to the moneylender in interest. If the bricklayer built the houses for nothing, it would not take two shillings a week off the rent. If we got the land free, dear as the land is in the West of Scotland, it would not take one shilling a week off the rent of the house, hut if we got the money free of interest it would have the rent of every house. There is a new spirit abroad in the land. The working classes have no money to lend. They lend their all, their labour, their bodies to those who employ them, in order that they may live. They are asking themselves this question, which is a murmur just now, but it is deep down: "What is this idea of the working class paying interest to men while we take care of their money?" Those who have money to invest do not want to keep it in great quantities in their houses. It would not be safe; the robber is abroad in the land. Therefore they say to themselves: "It will be safe if we invest it. It will be taken care of, and we shall get interest on it." The workers are beginning to view this question very seriously. They are asking themselves: "What is this fly game that is being played upon the workers, that men lend money, we are to take care of it, and then we have to pay interest on it. If it was not for such interest the rent of our houses would be halved." The workers are going to demand that if they are to take care of money that is invested they are going to be paid for taking care of it.
We are living in a peculiar age. The working classes, with all their drawbacks, were never so intelligent. They never took such an interest in politics as they are doing to-day. We of the Labour party have gone all over the country telling them that politics is a bread and butter 1673 question. [Horn. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] Yes.They toil not, neither do they spin. And yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.They will have to give an account of themselves. The working classes are saying that when they have to raise the wind they have to go to the pawnshop.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The hon. Member is getting rather wide of the Motion before the House, which relates to housing conditions.
§ Mr. KIRKWOOD
I am very sorry, but I. can assure you, Mr. Speaker, that if you bad been here the whole of the time, as I have been, you would have found that hon. Members were covering as wide a field as I am. The hon. Member for Consett (Mr. Dickie) covered the whole field. so much so that the hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks) drew my attention to it. If there is anything that has proved that private enterprise has utterly failed it is housing. After the War people were up against it. The right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) had a Commission appointed to inquire into the housing question, and discovered that we required 2,500,000 houses. We supported the right hon. Gentleman at that time because, just as John Wheatley advocated and tried to put it into force, we saw that it was not a question of reconditioning the rural cottages or reconditioning the slums in the great industrial centres but of building new towns, new cities, taking the people away from the slums, leaving the landlords and factors there with their old houses; building new cities, towns and villages arid making a Britain that everyone would he proud of. There is not one hon. Member who would dare to take his friends into the great industrial centres to view the housing conditions; they would be ashamed to do so. You give better quarters to your racing horses. Your beagles, your dogs live under better conditions than the workers who have made Britain the mightiest Empire on which the sun ever shone.
§ 6.24 p.m.
§ Sir J. WALKER SMITH
It is not my intention to pursue the hon. Member into the slums of Glasgow, but I am fully conscious of the deep sincerity with which he speaks on this matter of housing. It was my privilege to work very intensively for 1674 some years for the purpose of improving the housing conditions of Scotland, and it may be some small satisfaction to the hon. Member to know that I did much to introduce into Scotland that which he so devoutly desires—the cottage home of England. I know better than any man in this House the slum conditions of Glasgow and the housing conditions throughout Scotland which, I regret to say, are regrettable in the extreme.
There can be none in this House, and I should think very few outside, who would not subscribe to the general proposal of the Motion that there should be a speeding-up of the building of working-class houses, but I am not quite so sure about another part of the Motion which suggests that the Government should use their influence with local authorities for this benevolent purpose. I ant not at all sure that it would be possible for the Government, at least with the Ministry of Health being administered as it is at the present time, to pursue that benevolent purpose with the local authorities of this country, but inasmuch as the Motion does provide for the utilization of, "any other practicable means," I see something of considerable virtue in its terms. I think the Minister of Health, too, must have seen in that short phrase, "any other practicable means" there is a possibility of his doing something to meet the present housing administration in this country. He must have had something of that kind in mind when he gave notice to-day of the presentation of a Bill to withdraw housing subsidies. That, on the one hand, offers encouragement to private enterprise and, on the other hand, it reveals the hopes and the possibilities of doing something very much better for the speeding-up of housing in this country than is possible at the present time.
I should like to explain briefly the reasons for the diffidence I feel with regard to the Government bringing any influence to bear upon local authorities, even for a benevolent purpose. It is quite contrary to the present policy of the Minister of Health to do anything with local authorities or with anyone else for the purpose of speeding up the production of dwelling houses. Indeed, his policy is quite -ate reverse. His policy tends, and perhaps it is so intended, to retard that progress instead of speeding it up. It is common knowledge that he 1675 is pursuing a very vigorous campaign, which he terms a campaign for economy of capital expenditure amongst local authorities. He issued Circular 1222. The terms of that Circular are irreproachable, but the manner in which he is administering the affairs that are dealt with in the Circular are very far from being irreproachable. He is, I greatly fear, doing his best to deter local authorities from submitting to him proposals for capital expenditure involved in the building of workmen's houses. In those cases where local authorities, emboldened to consider the matter for themselves, and to take a proper perspective of the position, submit proposals for increased capital expenditure for the building of new houses, it is at that stage that he exercises a further deterrent by placing obstructions in the way and retarding progress. The influence of the Government with local authorities is the influence of the Minister of Health, and the influence of the Minister of Health is very great, and the prestige of his office is very high. His influence is derived from two main sources, (1) he is the central loaning authority in regard to housing, and (2) he is the central authority for the administration of the Housing Acts. In those two capacities he is able to exercise a profound influence upon local authorities, and that profound influence is exercised in the direction of retarding their housing activities.
I will give one instance, which was brought to my mind by a question on Thursday last by the hon. Member for East Willesden (Mr. D. G. Somerville) with regard to certain proposals which have been submitted to the Minister of Health for the building of 100small houses by the local authority of Willesden. The scheme involved not only the building of these small houses but the construction of a few simple roads. The local authority of Willesden is a large and important semi-Metropolitan district. They have built thousands of houses, they have a very highly qualified technical staff, their experience has been very considerable and they know the requirements of the Ministry of Health. Notwithstanding, in respect of this small scheme they did, rightly and properly, before they made their formal submission, confer with the technical officers 1676 of the Ministry of Health to see whether or not their simple proposals would meet the requirements of the Minister of Health. Having taken these precautions they submitted their proposals to the Minister. One would have anticipated that they would have received an official reply certainly within a month at the outside, but they did not get any official sanction until six months had transpired. And then observe the reply of the Minister. He said that certain difficulties had been found. I agree. The difficulties had been found by the Minister by the aid of a microscope. He must have looked at the scheme with the intention of finding difficulties. He must have gone through that simple scheme with a toothcomb for the purpose of finding difficulties. I know that difficulties were found, but however trivial they may have been they could have been most easily overcome if it had been the purpose of the Minister to encourage, not discourage, the building of houses. The difficulties could have been overcome perfectly easily but they were taken as the excuse for a delay of over six months in granting the official approval.
I have seen schemes of many local authorities not so well prepared and with nothing like the same technical skill submitted to the Minister of Health and pasesd through all their stages within a week, but that was when the policy of the Minister was to encourage the building of houses. If the policy is the reverse, if the policy is one to discourage the building of houses, one can well understand long and serious delay. I fear that this House has been misled with regard to the Ministerial policy on housing. Quite recently in closing a Debate the Attorney-General made some observations with regard to the Ministerial policy, and his pronouncement was such as to seriously mislead the House. I will read what the learned Attorney-General said:So far as housing is concerned, the right hon. Gentleman appears not to have been aware that subsidised houses completed are practically as many as during the same period last year. So far as non-subsidised houses for March, 1932, are concerned, there were only 2,000 less than for March, 1931. If you take both subsidised and non-subsidised houses together, the total for the six months for Marcia, 1932, exceeded the corresponding period, when the right hon. Gentleman was Minister of Health, by no less than 6,000 houses.1677The fact is that the Government have made no attack upon the Social Services." —[OFFICIAL, REPORT, 25th October, 1932; eels. 948–9, Vol. 269.]That is entirely wrong. The Government have made an attack upon the social services, and a very effective attack. I do not object to the figures with which the Attorney-General was briefed, and I cannot expect him to know precisely what the figures would leave the House to infer, but it is perfectly clear that the Attorney-General intended the House to gather that there had been no slowing down in the provision of houses; and figures were given to him to support that view. Those figures had the effect of throwing dust in the eyes of this House. Those were not the figures that should have been given. Though they were correct, they represented only half the truth and they did not reflect in any way whatever the policy of the present Minister of Health. Those particular houses, completed in that six monthly period, were built under approval given long before the Minister of Health commenced his active economy campaign; they were included in contracts made long before he commenced that campaign, and they were in course of erection long before. Nothing the Minister of Health could do, with the best or the worst intentions could have prevented those houses from being completed.
The figures do not reflect in any way the Ministerial policy on housing. If you want the figures which do reflect Ministerial policy you must get the figures which relate to the approvals which the Minister of Health has given during that six-monthly period; and if you take those figures and compare them with the number of houses which were provided in the corresponding period of the previous year you find that the policy of the Minister has been to reduce the rate of progress on housing by one-half. Those are the figures which should have been given; the other figures were singularly misleading.
I fear, too, that the Minister has never fully appreciated the great effect which his housing policy has upon unemployment in this country. I have heard him say that the provision of workmen's houses has a comparatively small effect on employment or unemployment in the building industry. There he is seriously 1678 misinformed. If he will refer to his statistical records he will find that in the year 1927 there were produced in this country small houses to the number of 273,000, and that for the purpose of building these 273,000 houses there were directly employed 300,000 people, direct labour. There were further employed, in ancillary works, an additional number of at least 300,000. In one year, therefore, it is possible to absorb in the building of these small houses 600,000 workmen. That is not a very negligible figure; indeed, it is a considerable number. The effect of the Minister's policy has been to create an enormous amount of unemployment in the building industry. The administration of housing during the last 12 or 14 years has been, on the whole, regrettable. It should be remembered that, prior to the War, all the houses in this country were provided by ordinary private enterprise without incurring one penny expenditure in rates or taxes.
A serious blow was struck at ordinary enterprise by the Finance Act, 1910, but I pass that by. Then housing conditions got into a very serious position during the prolonged period of the War, and after the War it became absolutely necessary, for political as well as for social purposes, that something should be done to resuscitate the building industry and provide houses fit for those demobilised soldiers who were returning to this country, houses fit for the heroes they were. The Housing Act, 1919, was based upon a very unsatisfactory financial policy, but, nevertheless, whatever the policy may have been, it provided for jettisoning entirely ordinary private enterprise upon which we had relied so very satisfactorily for many years in the past for the provision of houses. However, let that pass. It was thrown into the dustbin and full reliance was placed on local authorities. Added to the unsatisfactory financial policy, there was the further unsatisfactory administration of the Act by the Government in urging local authorities to flood the country with contracts for an enormous number of houses, vastly in excess of the possibilities of production. This had the immediate and inevitable effect of raising the cost of houses to such an enormous extent that every house built averaged over £1,000, and the mill- 1679 stone of an enormous debt will be hanging round our necks for the next 40 years.
Then within about seven years there have been eight or nine different Ministers of Health, and each of them has had a different kind of policy. There has never been any continuity of policy, but almost invariably the dice have been loaded against private enterprise and in favour of local authorities and municipal ownership, altering the system which had been so successful in providing houses before 1914. Notwithstanding all this, there is one fact to which I must call special attention. Notwithstanding the fact that the scales have been loaded against private enterprise all the way through the Housing Acts, this fact is outstanding, that without any subsidy whatever, without putting one penny on the rates or taxes, there have been built by private enterprise within the last 12 or 13 years about 800,000 houses. Does not that indicate that it is a virile and effective instrument of British enterprise if it has only half a chance to get down to its work That fact, coupled with the fact that private enterprise provided all the houses which were required—perhaps not of the best kind or design, but that was not the fault of private enterprise but of the regulations made by the Government which, by their extreme rigidity, prevented the ordinary speculator from doing anything else—shows that private enterprise is an effective instrument.
With these facts before us, it is evident that if one can restore private enterprise and prevent the scales from being loaded unfairly against it, it will solve this problem for us. In so doing it will take an enormous step towards the solution of the unemployment problem. I urge this upon the Minister. If he will take this course I am sure that he will do an enormously good service to the operators in the building industry; a service to those who desire houses and to those who have the housing of the people of this country near and dear to their hearts. He will also do a great service to the finances of the nation, and to industry generally.
§ 6.44 p.m.
§ Mr. HARCOURT JOHNSTONE
The Debate has been rather fruitful in practical suggestions. The hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood) was 1680 perhaps more eloquent than suggestive, but with that possible exception every hon. Member has contributed something practical or what he thought was a practical contribution, towards the solution of this great problem. I should like to refer in particular to the proposal made by the hon. and gallant Member for Houghtonle-Spring (Colonel Chapman), who really did produce a practical plan —I do not know whether it will work—deserving the close attention of the Government, which would enable private enterprise, through a loan, to build and let houses, not of the smallest and cheapest sort, at 10s. a week. Houses at smaller rents than this present, perhaps, a more urgent problem, and a subsidy must inevitably continue.
I cannot help feeling some slight apprehension when we are faced with the production of a Rent Restriction Bill and the promise of a Housing Bill in the near future, both measures on the face of them designed, I fear, to raise rather than decrease rents. That may or may not be so, but that is the first impression made on many of our minds. The real problem of housing is the question of rent. It is no good producing houses in large quantities at prices which the working-classes cannot and will not pay. The problem to which the Government must, and I hope will, direct their attention, is the rapid provision of houses at the lowest possible rents. Many Members have stated already that never since the War has the time been so favorable as now. The rate of interest is low, the cost of building has fallen, we have had 14 or 15 years' experience of the various schemes, the design is probably better than ever it was, and the lay-out has improved in every respect. There never was so favorable a time as this for the initiation of a housing scheme, which ought to be designed finally to put an end to the shortage of houses from which we have been suffering for 20 years.
It may interest the House if I give one or two examples, not London examples but examples from the Provinces, of actual building schemes of three different characters which are in operation to-day. The first is a scheme designed to meet the needs, not of agricultural labourers exactly but of men who are engaged in work in an agricultural district, that is to say, rural industries, small pits, brick-making, quarry 1681 ing, and that kind of thing. The case which I have here is the case of a—it is rather a contradiction in terms—private public utility society operating under the subsidy and building houses, and very good houses, of different sizes. They are enabled to let two-bedroom, non-parlour-type houses at 6s. a week, and to pay 5 per cent. interest on their very small capital as well. It is a working concern. It costs the rates nothing. It provides an admirable house, and at a rent which can be paid by the type of man engaged in the industries of the locality. The second type is a house designed purely for the agricultural labourer. It is a municipal enterprise at Malton. The house is a three-bedloom, non-parlour house with a bath; it is wired for electric light, and is being produced to let at an inclusive rent 3s. 7d, a week, 2s. 7d, for rent and 1s. for the rates. I believe it will be let at 4s., and the 5d. will probably provide a profit to the municipality concerned.
The third is a case of which my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring knows much more than I do, although it is a scheme in operation in my constituency. My hon. Friend has for many years been a member of the corned of that town and was last year its Mayor, and much of the energy that has, been put into the scheme is due to him. There, houses built in blocks of two flats are being let. They are the two-bedroomed sort, very charming places fitted up with extremely good gadgets, electric coppers for washing, very nice bathrooms, an inside coal-cupboard, a cooking scullery and a living-room which is one of the best I have seen in any of these council houses, with a very large window, so that even on dark winter days there is always ample light. These flats are being let, according to the number of rooms, at rents varying from 4s. 7d. to 7s. 9d. a week.
Those are examples of the kind of building that is being carried out now, and. I cannot help thinking that if the Government will take this matter thoroughly in hand, with a scheme partly designed to stimulate private enterprise and partly designed to preserve the best features of the schemes now in operation, we should really get some very big practical results. There are one or two points about cost. I think it would be well to remember—here I defer to ex- 1682 perts, who know much more about it than I do—the wastage that occurs from redundance of road space. In many of the lay-outs of new housing estates there are too many roads that are main roads. In many cases the estates could be so designed as to give a main road with narrower cul-de-sac roads running off them, and not through roads, thus enormously reducing the cost of the housing. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health bears all these things in mind, but they bear repetition.
Another point is perhaps more speculative, and many Members will hold varying views about it. To my mind what the working classes who are bady housed now want is not a luxurious dwelling, which they naturally cannot get, but something that is warm and cheap and decent and which does not necessarily conform to the very elaborate building regulations which are the product of the last quarter of a century. I quite agree that in normal times, with plenty of money and with the country in a state of prosperity, it is a good thing to tighten up the building regulations so as to secure progressively a higher standard of accommodation. But those times are not now. What is wanted now is cheap rents and accommodation that is warm and dry. I think that on the whole the person who is now slum lodged would be happier to find something new which is not altogether in accordance with the present regulations and which is cheap, rather than remain in the slum or he faced with the necessity of paying a much higher rent. For example, I am sure that in some of the big towns, where land is very expensive but where it is necessary that the workers should be housed near their work, some of the regulations that apply to big tenement houses could be relaxed with advantage. I cannot help feeling that the very unfortunate people on whose behalf Members of all parties are pleading to-day, the people who cannot get decent accommodation at any price and who are paying a most exorbitant price for vile accommodation, would prefer to have something new and something reasonable rather than have a lodging which is in full accord with the building regulations.
I would end on a note which is much more unpopular in this House. I would draw the attention of the Minister to 1683 the question of the cost of materials. If, as I hope, the Ministry of Health is going to initiate a big and imaginative programme of house building, it will have to keep a very careful eye on the cost of materials. Even now, when there is a slump in housing and when the vendors of housing materials, I imagine, are extremely anxious to get rid of their wares, even now—the hon. Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. Griffith) gave a very bad instance the other day—when a housing scheme is undertaken and contracts are sent in, it is not unusual for the contractor to be suddenly faced with a rise, which in some cases may be even 40 per cent., in the price of certain building materials which are wholly within the control of a rent. In my opinion that is an indecency against which the Ministry should guard.
The need for cheap and decent houses is, perhaps, the prime need of this country—cheapness above all. If we are to be blackmailed by the rings which in many cases absolutely control the production of certain building material—the Light Castings Association is an instance —the cost of housing is going to rise, rents will be higher, and the whole object which the House has at heart, the provision of cheap and good and numerically adequate accommodation for the working classes, will be spoiled. I am certain that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, on the first serious occasion when he addresses the House in his new capacity, will give sympathetic consideration to the numerous pleas addressed to him from all sides. If in future the Measures which his Department proposes do not meet with our approval, we shall of course fight him, in the sense that we shall suggest Amendments and press him as hard as we can. But we hope very much that that will not be necessary. The task of the National Government, so far fulfilled in many respects satisfactorily, it will carry on, not only in saving this country in a crisis, but in rebuilding the whole structure of our national life, of which housing is so very great a part.
§ 6.59 p.m.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of HEALTH (Mr. Shakespeare)
I am very grateful for the sympathy expressed by the hon. Member 1684 for South Shields (Mr. Johnstone) for one who has to make a speech on a subject like this without being able to declare what is the intention of the Government. I have got to make houses without bricks, and bricks without straw—and not drop any either. Owing to the fact that the Bill is not yet in the hands of hon. Members, we are all precluded from discussing what really matters. It is just as onerous to hon. Members as it is to me. It looks as though the Mover of the Motion was getting a little restive and apprehensive as to what the Minister of Health was doing. The Minister of Health, not knowing what he was doing, has been working all the time on a separate programme and, unfortunately, he just won. Nevertheless, I think this Debate has not been wasted. We are very grateful for the contribution made by the hon. Member. It is not the first time that he has charmed the House with the breadth of his views and his humanity. I can say, quite frankly, that the Government gladly accept the Motion submitted by him, but I presume he does not pledge us to any particular course or to continue any existing policy, but of that he will give us latitude to explore any and every avenue. If our object is the same—to secure the provision of an adequate supply of houses —with this explanation and reservation we can accept his Motion.
It will be for the convenience of the House if I deal in order with the points raised by every hon. Member. Every Member has made a contribution from his own particular point of view. The hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) ended his speech by asking whether the Government were pressing on with a policy to provide houses to let. One of the most essential parts of the whole programme of any Government, and particularly the National Government, will be to do nothing to prevent an adequate supply of houses to let at economic rents. The hon. Member for North Hammersmith (Miss Pick-ford) made a very interesting speech and referred to the relation of rent to income. She pointed out that in her constituency it was sometimes as high as 50 per cent. That is a tragic fact that no one can deny; it is a dividend we have to pay for the great industrial revolution—a revolution which was without plan—and we are still paying for it every year in 1685 the shortage of houses and high rents. There is no answer to her except to say that there is no solution other than an adequate supply of cheap houses.
The hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks) made his contribution. He painted a picture of housing conditions in this country with not one word of which I disagree. This is a problem which all parties have been trying to face in a non-party spirit, and the more we can rescue housing policy from party politics the better. But there is one sword I want to break with him. He referred to the inactivity of the National Government. He said the Government could not escape its responsibility. It does not wish to escape its responsibility. Perhaps the House will allow me to snake a short survey of the housing conditions fur last year for which the National Government have been responsible. Since the War this country has witnessed the most unparalleled provision of houses that any country has witnessed in history. We are entitled to take credit for what successive Governments have done. There have been built in post-War years 1,901,000 houses, of which 1,101,000 have been assisted by subsidy, and 860,000 houses by private enterprise, unassisted. That is a record of which any country can be proud. One can assume that the bulk of the 1,101,000 houses, consisting mainly of building by local authorities, are the working-class house variety. In fact, the recent white paper, which deals with that statistics of rent restriction, pointed out that new houses to the extent of 700,000 had been built which came within the compounding limits of £13 ratcable value in the provinces and £20 here. That is 700,000 houses which are, broadly speaking, houses built for the working classes.
Now as to the inactivity of the present Government. This last year, taking the period down to September, 1932, 69,000 subsidised houses have been built; that compares with 62,000 in the previous year when the Labour Government were in office. I am not going to apologise for that. Taking the effort of private enterprise unassisted, I find that 133,000 houses have been built in each year and, therefore, taking the total, whereas during the year ended September, 1931, 195,000 houses were built both with subsidy and without, during the year the National Government have been in charge 202,000 houses have been built. We can take 1686 credit for that. Of course, as the hon. Member says, authorisations do enter into the matter, but what I am concerned with is actual achievement, and in this year of the National Government 202,000 houses have actually been built. That compares very favorably with any other year; in fact, it has been exceeded only twice since the War.
The hon. Member for South Battersea (Mr. Selley) made a very interesting contribution on the London problem. Speaking as he did with knowledge as the Chairman of the London County Council Housing Committee—and I was very encouraged to hear him say it—he said that it is now possible to build houses, and let houses outside London at between 10s. and 12s. per week. Coming from an hon. Member with such experience of building, that is a very encouraging statement. He said that we could not solve the problem unless we linked up with private enterprise. I will not quarrel with him on that, if he is not dealing with the slum problem. The hon. and gallant Member for Houghtonle-Spring (Colonel Chapman) put forward a very interesting suggestion that the Government should lend to the building societies at 3½ per cent., and that the building societies should lend to the builders, and so forth. I am precluded from making any statement as to the negotiations going on with the building societies, and I cannot go into the merits of that, but when he sees our proposals —perhaps to-morrow if the Bill is ready by that time—he will see that what he is aiming at has been substantially effected.
The hon. Member for Consett (Mr. Dickie) struck a new note, and I hate to pass remarks on a member of my own group. He suggested that the dole might be used for subsidising employment. That is rather a matter for the Ministry of Labour, but, so far as I am concerned, I am dead against it, and I tremble to think what would be the state of the employed if the employer were subjected to the temptation of getting labour at half price. I shall talk on the matter with the hon. Member outside. If you make an exception with regard to houses you will have to consider it for every other industry in the land, and I do not like to contemplate the temptation to some farmer who is suddenly faced with a chance of getting agricultural labour at 1687 halt price. On the whole, I think that the problem would be aggravated. Still, we welcome any suggestion which shows the hon. Member is thinking out the problem.
Now as to rural housing, we had a contribution from the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. M. Beaumont). I agree with him that more could be made of the 1926 Reconditioning Act. He has probably studied this problem for longer years than I have. I know the town problem more than the rural problem, and I should be most interested to discuss the whole question with him. If he can make any suggestion by which the machinery of that Act could be improved, the Government would be only too pleased to consider what could be done. Then we come to the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood). I say "Thank God I am not responsible for Scotland." The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will answer the points made by him next week. Then we have the point raised by the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Sir J. Walker Smith). He drew a gloomy picture of the policy of the Government and compared authorisations with actual building. I do not accept his interpretation of what my Department is doing. We have directed our efforts upon the provision of a particular type of house of 760 square feet. There has not been a policy of retardation, but a policy of concentration, and I am prepared to argue that with him inside or outside the House.
The final contribution was that of the hon. Member for South Shields. It was a very helpful contribution and he made two points. One is that you must watch very carefully the effect of housing policy on prices and materials—I agree. The other point he made was that this was the most favorable time for house building. Now having answered the major points raised by every hon. Member, perhaps the House will allow me to develop the point made by the hon. Member for South Shields. It is perfectly true that this is a most favorable time for a great step forward, whether you consider the question of the provision of working-class houses, or whether you consider the problem of the attack on the slums. There are four new factors which have completely altered the whole housing outlook. They have been referred to by 1688 many Members this evening. The first is the provision of cheap money, owing to the sacrifices which this country endured last year. "A good deed shines in a naughty world," and the results of that sacrifice are reflected in every Department of His Majesty's Government. We in the Ministry of Health feel the blessing of the economies which were entered upon last autumn. Since October, money has been provided through the Public Works Loans Board at 4 per cent. and every 1 per cent. fall means a difference of 1s. 2d. a week on the rent of a £380 house.
The second new factor is the fall in the cost of building, and these two factors have meant the appearance of a third factor, namely, an economic rent, which we have not had in the post-War years up to now. Hon. Members will have read with interest the report of the Ray Committee in which it is pointed out that in June last the price of houses had fallen to £380 and that every fall of £60 in the cost meant one shilling off the rent. I have here the most recent figures which have come to the Ministry from 23 local authorities, including county boroughs, non-county boroughs and urban and rural district councils. In 23 cases the prices of the houses are under £300, exclusive of land, roads and sewers. If one allows about £60 under those heads, we get the following result. First, the prices of houses in respect of which applications have been made without land are £267, £293, £259, £270, £263 and so forth. If we take the price of the house at £260 and add £60 in respect of land, roads and sewers, we find that we have come down to £320: in other words, we have saved a shilling on the rent, even as compared with the position last July. That shows how the economies which we entered upon last year have operated and fructified.
The fourth factor which, I think, is the most important and which we shall have an opportunity of considering more fully before Christmas, when we hope to get the Second Reading of the Housing Bill, is the appearance of the investor in the small working-class house market. A housing expert told me only yesterday that as soon as you see the petal of the small investor coming up through the hard ground you can be sure that there is going to be a good supply of blossom. All the evidence that we have at the 1689 Ministry and all the evidence given by builders and by those who know is to the effect that there is going to be an unrivalled demand for investment in property of the working-class type—in what are called "weeklies." There is going to be a demand for "weeklies" even at a rate of interest of 4½ per cent. The housing problem was aggravated in the post-War years because there was no one, except the State or the building societies, to come in and provide what had been provided in pre-War days. In pre-War days the builder built his house with an overdraft from the bank, and he knew that within a month or two he could sell the house. The small investor came in, and he liked that type of security, but you only get that state of affairs when you have an economic rent.
In the last month or two, as I say, we see signs of the return of the small investor which is a proof that we have reached an economic rent and once that has happened then we are bound to review the whole question of subsidy. I tem not entitled to say what are the intentions of the Government—though everyone knows them—but I will propound this conundrum. If we continue the subsidy after an economic rent has been reached, we must justify ourselves to the taxpayers, and if we take off the subsidy we must justify ourselves to the housing experts. That is our conundrum. What we have decided to do, the House will know officially to-morrow. But I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Minister and the Government would not dream of reducing or withdrawing the subsidy, unless we were convinced that such a course is justified and that the reduction or withdrawal of the subsidy would in no way affect the provision of those working-class houses at economic rents which the whole House demands.
As to the relation of house building to employment, I, of course, accept the general statement that if you build a house you give employment and if you build more houses you give more employ-meat. But there is a limitation to that argument. If we study employment in the building industry we find that only about one-tenth is provided by the erection of small working-class houses. Only one-tenth of the employment in the industry is due to the building of small 1690 houses and nine-tenths is due to repairs, painting, commercial and industrial activities and larger houses. Therefore, even if one doubled the rate of house-building, as many hon. Members desire, it cannot be assumed that one would make a very great impression on the figures of unemployment. If any hon. Member studies the figures carefully, as I have done every day of the last month, I think he will, however reluctantly, come to that conclusion. In 1925 the number of houses built, subsidised and unsubsidised, was 159,000. In the present year, down to September, 202,000 houses have been built, as I have already explained. Yet in spite of the fact that we are building more houses than were built in 1925, we have about three and a-half times the amount of unemployment in the building industry. That fact alone proves to anybody who is open to conviction that you cannot solve the problem of unemployment in the building industry simply by building houses for the working classes. I wish you could, but the fact remains that the problem of unemployment in the building industry depends on the larger question of a revival of trade and commerce.
My right hon. Friend the Minister looks upon the slum problem as a separate problem. It is not to be considered solely as a housing problem. It is really a question of health, and no one can estimate what we are paying on that side of the ledger. It is an incalculable amount, in misery, ill-health and disease, and, therefore, whatever view we may take about the need of a subsidy for working-class houses, I think if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that private enterprise cannot tackle the slum problem, and that whether you believe in economy or not you must make special provision for dealing with that problem. What the provisions are which the Government have in mind I am not at liberty to state now, but I assure the House that my right hon. Friend has lived with the housing and slum clearance problems every hour for the last month, and has been engaged in negotiations with builders' federations and building societies and everybody who knows anything about it. He has decided on a policy and has get the endorsement of the Government for that policy. It is a policy which, in our view, will not make the problem of slum clearance more difficult 1691 but, on the contrary, will enable this country and this Government to press forward with the task of slum clearance as no other Government has been able to do.
We are confirmed in this belief because two factors are favorable to slum clearance—first the great fall in the cost of building and in the price of money, and, second, the fact that we have by the provision of nearly 2,000,000 houses since the War dealt with the shortage. Everybody who knows the slum problem knows that until you got through the thicket of the shortage you could not tackle the citadel itself. We have tackled the shortage by the provision of nearly 2,000,000 houses, and we are in a position now to tackle the slum problem itself. There is a third factor and in regard to this I must pay a tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) because he has provided us in the 1930 Act with a simplified procedure on slum clearance and we shall use all our influence to get local authorities to tackle this problem.
Speaking, not as a Minister but as a private individual, I have always looked forward to the time when private enterprise could perform its true job of providing houses for the working classes, while the local authorities were left free to tackle this problem which private enterprise cannot tackle. I am extremely sanguine that the day will come, even if it does not come to-morrow, when my view will be realized. Without having referred to the intentions of the Government which, I repeat, are strictly honourable, I hope I have said enough to show that we are seized of the gravity of the problem. We are encouraged by this Debate to-day and by the great interest shown by all parties in this problem to think that when the Bill is presented and we are able to discuss these matters further, we shall have the good will and co-operation of the House in attempting during the next few years to solve these two major problems of our social life.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
That this House urges the Government to use its influence with local authorities, and employ any other practicable means, to speed up the building of dwelling-houses, particularly for persons on low wages, and the clearance of slums; and it further
records its opinion that such an effort would be the most useful and practical means of reducing the present excessive unemployment in the building and ancillary industries.