HC Deb 06 March 1933 vol 275 cc833-59

4.11 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 1, line 19, after the word "December," to insert the words: or that substantial expenditure had been incurred in the acquisition of land for housing. In the Committee stage last week we asked the Minister to accept an Amendment for advancing the date from 7th December until 1st July, 1933. We thought then that there had not been adequate alternative arrangements made for house building, and I still feel personally very uneasy about the matter. We, therefore, begged the Minister to give himself greater freedom by accepting the date which we mentioned. The Minister, apparently, was not willing to be favourably impressed by our appeal to extend the period beyond 7th December, although at that time we stated very definitely that it was still within his prorogative and right to withhold his approval from schemes which he felt inclined to reject. I listened with interest to a reply which the Minister gave, to a Private Notice Question to-day regarding the setting up of a committee to assist him in this particular work, and I was interested to hear that arrangements were being made to advise upon the establishment of public utility societies, as to their wisdom or otherwise, in order to assist the Government to get on with the housing programme. I have no objection at all to such a course, and I shall be very interested to find what is the degree of public response, not only to the suggestion but perhaps even the recommendation.

The definite and specific reason of this Amendment is to give the Minister greater time and a bigger range of opportunity for sanctioning the subsidy on housing schemes. I am very apprehensive that there will be a very stiff gap between the period when this Bill becomes law and the resumption of housing activities in this country. It is for these reasons that I want to give the Minister this greater power. If the public utility societies come into existence, I am unable to understand, and perhaps the Minister will help me to understand, how those societies will be able to borrow the money from the building societies, and be able to build the houses. I am unable to see how the building societies can lend money at 4 or 4½ per cent. when they themselves are generally committed at the present time to paying 4 per cent. to people who have stock in the building societies. They are committed to pay 4 per cent. without tax, and it is generally understood that something like 1 per cent. is required for general administration expenses. A public utility society might be able to borrow this money outside the building societies, and there are people who, if they knew that the money was being raised specifically for housing, would have sympathy with the purpose, and possibly would lend the money at a lower rate. There must be many municipal authorities that in years past have purchased land for the specific purpose of house building. They have laid out the land, constructed roads and put in drainage in anticipation, of a general building programme for which they would be able to get financial support from the Government. The Borough of Woolwich, one-half of which I represent, sent to me a letter and begged me to bring this matter forward. They also wrote to the Minister as follows: As you are aware, the Woolwich Borough Council has purchased, with your approval, an estate known as the Middle Park Housing Estate, upon which approximately 2,200 houses are proposed to be erected, and of this number the Ministry has approved for subsidy purposes schemes of 400, 4, and 388, a total of 792, leaving approximately a further 1,408 houses to be erected on this Estate. They further say: The Estate was purchased by the borough council on the assumption that the houses to be erected would benefit by the subsidy provided for by the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act, 1924. I presume that Woolwich is not the only borough council which has purchased land on a similar assumption. The Woolwich Council say that they would have been prepared to have accepted the modifications of the 1924 Act which have taken place from time to time. They go on: It is a serious matter, for the borough to be left with this large area of land undeveloped, and in respect of which loan charges are payable for its acquisition, and with no prospect of receiving any Government grant towards the houses which will be constructed. I am very glad to see the right hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) in his place, and I am sure that he will be only too pleased to support me in this request by speech, if not later on in the Lobby. The position is a serious one for many councils. The sites have been laid out, plans prepared and everything made ready for building. I can only presume that, in many cases it has been the industrial depression which has prevented municipal authorities from pestering the. Minister with greater persistency, awl that if industry hard been running normally the requests for housing assistance would have come in to the Minister at a much greater rate. But industry and trade have been so uncertain and irregular that municipalities have held their hands. Yet as an indication of their intention to provide houses they have taken adequate steps at other places as well as at Woolwich. That the Minister should take to himself the power proposed seems to me a practical suggestion. If he found that the applications made to him were unfair, he has still the power to withhold his sanction. I beg him to believe us that we think the gap which will be created between the passing of this Bill and the development of housing activity in another way, is a very big gap. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to take these powers in order that he may have an opportunity of rendering assistance to those municipal authorities which have made substantial expenditure in the acquisition of land for housing. Failing such assistance, I am certain that the progress of house building will be very miserable indeed.

4.27 p.m.


I would add my word to that of the hon. Member who has moved this Amendment, and my plea to the Minister to give most serious consideration to this matter. I can assure him that Woolwich is not the only district where serious difficulties may arise in the local council in connection with land left on their hands as a consequence of the Government's change of policy. In my own area and that immediately surrounding it, we have land, some of which we purchased during the War period at the direct instigation of the Government of that time. The Government of that time said that they desired local authorities to purchase land for large housing schemes, to make up the wastage of war time and to try to overtake the need for housing. We purchased the land, a very considerable number of acres. The same policy was carried on by successive Governments. The land was bought under conditions entirely different from those of to-day. In many areas the price that was paid could not be secured to-day if that land had to be sold in the ordinary market, or in a forced market.

In the case of some local authorities a penny rate brings in very little, and a comparatively small loss on the sale of land might mean a considerable addition to the local rates. Apart from that, a forced sale is always a bad sale. If it became known that the policy of the Ministry of Health would compel local authorities to sell the land that they held for the purpose of building houses, it is obvious that those who would be willing to purchase would not pay as good a price as ordinarily they would pay. If there are losses on the sale, who is to bear those losses? I do not think the Government will come along and say, "A previous Government, our own predecessors, induced you by circulars that they sent to you to purchase land for housing. Government policy has changed, and now we are trying to compel you to sell that land. As a consequence of the change in public policy there will be a loss on the sale of the land, and the Government are quite willing to meet you in that loss and to make a grant from the Exchequer." I would like to believe that the Government would do that.

My own area is one of the areas affected. It is true that there are many other uses to which the land there may be put by the local authority, and I am wondering whether the Government would sanction those other uses if application were made to them. I have known of some of this housing land being wanted for other purposes by the local authority, but we had the greatest difficulty in getting the Minister to sanction the change of purpose in the utilisation of the land. If we are to be compelled to use the land for some purpose other than the purpose for which we bought it, will Government sanction be easy to obtain, or are we to be put to the trouble and expense of very protracted negotiations with the Ministry and other bodies in making the transfer? The Minister ought to give serious attention to the matters raised by the Amendment.

4.29 p.m.


This is a comparatively narrow but still an important point. It depends largely on the interpretation of the powers, the elasticity and the latitude given to the Minister in the withdrawal of the subsidy. I understand the Mover of the Amendment wants a broader interpretation. Estates have been bought, some of them many years ago, for the development of housing. I have in mind particularly two in London. I mention them not because I want to take London as standing alone, but merely as an example of what has happened all over the country. In London just after the War—early in 1919—at the instigation of the Government, the county council went in for a very big undertaking which became known as the Becontree Estate. This is an estate covering 3,000 acres and its development has been a very slow business. It is by no means completed even now. Very large sums of money have been spent in setting up a complicated organisation. Instead of developing the estate under an ordinary contract there has been a super-contractor, the firm of Messrs. Willis and Company acting as agents for the county council, and many thousands of pounds have been spent in plans, machinery and organisation. One of the difficulties in connection with that estate has been the sewerage, in relation to Barking and various drainage areas, and a large sum has been spent in sewering.

What I would like to know is, will the Minister allow to rank for subsidy schemes which have been outlined but which have not been submitted to him in detail, that is to say, with tenders, quantities and so forth? There is another estate on a smaller scale, the St. Helier Estate. A large part of it is practically untouched. In that case land was bought with the approval of the Minister for housing purposes and laid out and planned with roads, parks and gardens. Are we to allow the rest of that estate to remain high and dry without any sub- sidy? The Minister may say, with some reason, that the local authority can do the job itself out of the rates. If he says so he has a higher opinion of the local authorities in these matters than I have. Local authorities are inclined to say, "If we are to do a job of this kind there must be a partnership between the local authority and the State."

I would like the Minister to say either that he can accept the Amendment or, alternatively, that his powers are to be interpreted as including the power of helping in the case of uncompleted estates. That would be a great assistance to local authorities throughout the country. The right hon. Gentleman is an optimist about housing. He has put his trust in the building societies and the private builder. He may be right. Time alone will show. Some people believe that with the large amount of money which is lying idle it is possible that the building societies and the private builders will come into operation and that ultimately there will be a large output of suitable houses to let. But before that takes place there is likely to be an interregnum and that is the real danger. It would be a great stimulus to local authorities who have bought estates with the approval of the Department but have not developed those estates if they knew that such cases would be entitled to the same consideration as cases of actual contracts and schemes for the construction of houses, submitted to the Minister.

4.35 p.m.


I ask the Minister to accept this Amendment, but not solely for the reasons which have so far been put forward, although I am in agreement with the idea of the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) that there will be an interregnum between the present provision of houses and the provision of houses under this Measure. There, however, is a type of house which up to now has not been dealt with and that is the small house for aged persons. Under the 1930 Act power was given to build two-roomed houses. Up to that time all parties seemed to be against building any two-roomed houses. There is at present in mining constituencies an urgent demand for houses of that type. In Durham for many years there has been a remarkable organisation called the Aged Miners Homes. Houses were built by the joint efforts of owners and miners and were let to old people so that after their working days they might spend the evening of their lives in comfort. The crisis through which the mining industry is passing has prevented the extension of the work of providing those homes and has also made it necessary to reduce the pensions payable to these old people.

The Amendment is after all only permissive. Under it, the Minister might grant permission to build these houses and if the right hon. Gentleman accepts it an opportunity will be given to municipalities to provide two-roomed houses for aged persons where such houses are found to be necessary. I ask the Minister to consider the enormous impetus which would be given to the re-housing of the people by such a step. If those houses were provided many aged persons could go out of the three-roomed or four-roomed houses which they at present occupy. At present, in order to occupy three-roomed or four-roomed houses those aged people in many cases have to go to the public assistance committees for an augmentation of their pensions, as a pension of 25s. a week is not sufficient to enable them to pay the rents of such houses. It might be possible, however, for those old people to live on their pensions and pay smaller rents. I submit that on those grounds the Minister ought to consider the Amendment favourably.

4.37 p.m.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Sir Hilton Young)

I think I ought to clear the ground at the outset by explaining to the hon. and gallant Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Colonel Chapman) that this Amendment would have no effect whatever upon the powers of the Minister in connection with the building of small houses for aged persons. The Amendment only relates to the power of the Minister to accept plans proposed by local authorities in respect of land which they already have in band. I am unable to accept the Amendment which is very much too wide in its extent. I recognise the motives which have led the hon. Members opposite to propose it and the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) to support it. They are anxious to obtain a further extension of what we have been calling in these Debates the buffer or the means of tiding over the transition period. I have admitted freely the desirability of having a good buffer in this respect and I have taken measures to secure it by the Amendment which was accepted during the Committee stage. What I have to represent to the House to-day is that the course which we took then was the right course for securing such a buffer as is required and that this Amendment would be a wrong way.

Consider the case of the local authorities who are in possession of land intended for housing estates. A local authority requires that land either for its immediate needs or for its future needs. If it wants the land for its immediate needs there is ample provision in the Amendment accepted during the Committee stage for making sure that the land shall be used for that purpose. The reply to the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green is that I shall be competent to consider the schemes which he has under consideration, if they answer the test established the other day. That test is indicated in the words which were inserted in the Bill: Provided that if the 'Minister is satisfied that proposals for providing or promoting the provision of houses under those Acts had been prepared and were substantially ready to be submitted to him before the said seventh day of December, he may, subject to the approval of the Treasury, treat the proposals for the purposes of this Section, as if they had been submitted to him before that date. That is the reasonable test. That relates the proposal to the fact of whether or not it is required for the immediate housing needs of the neighbourhood. But the question of whether or not the housing authority has already purchased land in order to provide houses, has no relation to the immediate needs of the neighbourhood. It may be that a local authority has purchased for years ahead, and that it has no need and will have no need, for many years to come, for the houses. If the House agrees to that distinction I think they will see that the Amendment is an unpractical one which would give an unseasonably wide extension to the powers for still admitting certain schemes to subsidy provided in the Bill as it now stands.

The buffer to which reference has been made consists of three springs. First there is the large number of houses which have already been approved for subsidy. The House may not be aware that no fewer than 70,000 houses have been already approved for subsidy which should be complete during or shortly after the calendar year 1933.The second spring of the buffer is the power of the Minister still to approve for subsidy schemes which had been prepared and were substantially ready before 7th December. My submission is that in those two ways ample provision is made for the immediate needs of localities. All that remains are the future needs. The land which is already in the possession of local authorities for future needs is not going to be wasted. There will still be the power of the local authority to make use of that land for housing purposes without a subsidy.

The hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green appeared to pour scorn on the idea of housing schemes being carried out by a local authority without a subsidy. I established, I think, by the figures which I gave on the Second Reading that it is now possible for local authorities, without a subsidy, to produce houses which can be let at rents within a few pence of the standard normal rents at which houses could be let under a subsidy. In these circumstances there is no insurmountable economic obstacle between the local authorities and the construction of houses without subsidy, and in that way they can make use of the land which has been purchased for future housing needs. That is the substance of the matter. There is first, the provision enabling us to take in schemes which were prepared and substantially ready. That is, as regards present needs. Then as regards future needs the local authorities will still be able to use this land for housing schemes without subsidy.

Lastly, an essential reason against admitting the Amendment is that it would practically establish an indefinite extension of the period during which subsidised building would be still on the tapis, in competition with unsubsidised building, and thereby we should be getting the worst of both worlds; we should be damping down the local authorities, and we should still be keeping the obstacle in the way of the private builder.

4.46 p.m.


I regard with the deepest regret the speech which we have just heard from the Minister. I am not surprised, but I am sorry. The right hon. Gentleman has treated us to one of his usual, quite irrelevant, speeches. The point of this Amendment is simple. Ever since 1919 Minister of Health after Minister of Health—I believe the right hon. Gentleman is the sixth—has approved the purchase of land by local authorities for the building of working-class houses. For 13 years that Ministerial approval has been given to applications by local authorities on the assumption that, once the land was bought, local authorities would be enabled, because for 13 years they have had State assistance, to build the houses. The right hon. Gentleman says that if we accept this Amendment, it means an indefinite extension of the principle of the subsidy. Had this been a commercial venture, and had it been an implied term of the contract that when local authorities purchased land for the building of houses there were to be sums provided by the State, it would have been regarded as dishonourable if the contract were broken after land had been purchased.

The plain position to-day is this, that there are thousands of acres of land in England and Wales purchased, at different times since the end of the War, with the object of building working-class houses. That land was bought, not because local authorities wanted to make a great experiment in municipal enterprise, but in order to meet what they knew to be the housing needs of their own people; and under various Acts of Parliament they have been able to proceed with different kinds of public aid. I have not got the figures, so that I cannot speak in terms of actual figures, but any submission is that a very large proportion of that land was bought at a time during the period after the War, when land values were much higher than they are now. That land is now to be left with the local authorities. The right hon. Gentleman tells us that they can use it still for the building of houses, but if that land was bought at £150 an acre, and if now, because of the general slump, land is worth only £50 an acre, how are the local authorities to compete witch the private builder? It is utterly impossible. It is asking the local authorities to undertake a task which is quite beyond their power.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to a buffer and said that we had spoken about a buffer. Let me inform him that nobody in this House but himself has ever spoken about a buffer in this connection, and I was not sure in what sense he meant the term until he said that it had three springs in it. The first spring was that 70,000 houses had already been approved at the end of last year, or when the Bill was introduced, and will be built during the present calendar year. The Bill has nothing whatever to do with those houses. They were approved under existing legislation, and, if I may say so, I can take credit myself for those 70,000 houses. That is not the buffer, it is not even a spring of the buffer, it is not anything but a fact Which would have gone on and been realised, irrespective of this Bill.

The right hon. Gentleman falls back on the Amendment which he accepted in Committee, dealing with schemes substantially ready, and he says that that gives him elasticity. I say what I said in the Committee stage: I mistrust his use of this power to be elastic. Had he been prepared to make a firm definition and put it in the Bill, I should have understood that he meant to carry it out, but these vague words about schemes which are substantially ready leave him, with all the influence of an economy Government behind him, to interpret the word "substantially." Where land is already in the ownership of local authorities, there is surely a case, even if this National Government continues its inglorious career for a long time, for honouring past contracts, seeing that successive Ministers have approved the purchase of land for the building of working-class houses under the Housing Acts.

This is not a Housing Act; this is an abrogation of responsibility for Housing Acts, and local authorities are morally entitled to look forward to a fulfilment of the undertaking given by successive Ministers in the past that houses built for working-class occupants shall be used for that purpose. I would suggest that there must be many Members representing constituencies where local authorities have bought land in the expectation that they would be permitted to continue their building programmes, because they could not build all the houses at once. My hon. Friend the member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks) is here, and I am sorry the right hon. Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood) has fled at this point. Ah, there he is. I am only sorry he is not taking part in this Debate, because there is this great developing area of Woolwich. After infinite difficulty, during the time when I was in office, Woolwich succeeded in obtaining a very large estate for the building of about 2,500 houses. There was no indication then, and indeed the situation then gave no inkling of the possibility, that there would be a National Government, so-called, which would cut the cackle and get rid of its past responsibilities. That was perhaps an unfortunate term.

Woolwich has built about one-third of the houses which it intended to build on that estate. Is Woolwich to sell that land? Is it to incur very substantial expenditure on utilising that land for other purposes, without any kind of State assistance? Is it to be assumed that Woolwich did not require that land for housing needs? Woolwich is faced with the dilemma of either trying to build houses on the land without a subsidy, or possibly selling that land at existing prices below what they might have paid for it. The estate so far consists of houses built under proper organisation and under proper conditions, and Woolwich may have to allow that magnificent site to be handed over to the private builder, to build houses of any sort or kind, subject to the very vague restrictions which the Minister says he may perhaps exercise and utilise.

I submit that this is a very reasonable Amendment and one which the House might very well accept. I imagine that if hon. Members could for the moment get rid, I will not say of their party loyalty, because hon. Members opposite are such a mixed crew to-day, but of the fear of the Whip. If the Whips were not to be put on in this Division, and if hon. Members could vote according to their conscience, they would know that it was a matter of elementary justice that local authorities which have purchased land for housing purposes on the assumption, sustained for 13 years, that there would be public assistance, should be allowed to continue their work. I hope the House will accept the Amendment and reject the Minister's advice.

4.58 p.m.


The hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks), in putting his case for the Amendment very moderately, said that all housing enthusiasts would agree in asking for this Amendment. It naturally appeals to many on this side, who do not give to hon. Members opposite any priority as regards their keenness on housing for the working classes, but he is not right in saying that all of us would agree with the Amendment. I regret that the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) should have appealed to Members from the point of view of their heart to vote for this Amendment, and should have said that if the Whips were removed, we on this side would largely go over to the Amendment. That is just where enthusiasts, with all their striving, fail, that they let their heart get the better of their head.


When did I say that I appealed to your heart? I appealed to your reason.


No, that is just what the right hon. Gentleman did not do, and he will see in the OFFICIAL REPORT to-morrow that he wound up with an impassioned appeal, as usual, to our heart and enthusiasm, not to our reason.


To your conscience. Is that feeling?


Conscience it was. We have to look, however, at the business side of this matter.




The right hon. Gentleman seems to think that we ought not. to look at the business side, but that is just the difference between Members on that side and Members on this side. The right hon. Gentleman is quite consistent in taking the line that this country can afford anything that it wants, which he said on a famous occasion. That is why he and his Government brought the country to the brink of ruin, and that is why the Government turned them out. We say that money is simply a means of barter, and every individual who really knows what the responsibilities of money are, knows that we must deal with this matter from a business point of view. We have to look at this Amendment from the business point of view. I think the right hon. Member for Wakefield recognises that his argument about land bought by local 'authorities, which he thinks should have been allowed to develop under the existing conditions and with existing subsidies, fails: The hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) referred tip the two estates of the London County Council, which will serve as an illustration. I was responsible for buying the Becontree Estate on behalf of the London County Council and devising a scheme for 24,000 houses.


A very good work.


It was a very good piece of work on the part of the London County Council. Had the county council a right to say that, because the Government had passed the purchase of that land under the Addison subsidies, those subsidies should be continued for all time until the 24,000 houses had been erected? Of course not. Sir Alfred Mond came into office, and he had to use the knife and cut down the subsidies. Then the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced his housing scheme in. 1923 with a fresh scheme of subsidies at a much lower rate. Was there an outcry that the London County Council were being unjustly treated or that housing was being put back? When the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield was Minister, he on his own showing ought to have restored the subsidies to the rate of the Addison subsidies. As he did not do so, he showed that there was a case for lowering them, and that does away with his argument that if land were purchased when the subsidies were being paid they should be continued until the land was developed. There is a point on which we must all agree as housing enthusiasts. The policy has now been changed from a policy of subsidies to a policy of no subsidies. It may be right or wrong, but we all ought to be able to join together in saying that we will make the best use we can of the new policy. We must have a cut and dried line where we change from one policy to the other and where the new organisation for private enterprise will come into force.

If the London County Council, the Metropolitan borough councils and the other councils round London were still allowed to think that for the next three years they can go on developing with: the existing subsidy on the estates that they have purchased, private enterprise would say that they could not yet compete with the local authorities, and it would defer the day when private enterprise could come into the market and do their work. Having once decided rightly or wrongly to change our policy we must bring it into force as soon as possible for the sake of housing development. I hope that private enterprise will be able to rise to the requirements with the lower cost of money and possibly the lower cost of building, and that we shall be able to get the lower rented houses which we all desire. There is a case for saying that the cut should not be a straight line, because we must meet the needs of the organisation and the plans that have already been prepared. The Bill meets that point, and the Minister has to be trusted to interpret his powers wisely so as to get the result that we want and to encourage private enterprise to come back. Under the Clause as it stands we can get what is required by the Amendment, and no further extension is required. Therefore, I as a housing enthusiast shall vote against it.

5.6 p.m.


The hon. and gallant Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle) said that we have endeavoured to get support for the Amendment by appealing to the hearts of Members on the other side. I shall not trouble to do that because I have been convinced since I have been here that they have no hearts. I do not think, either, that it is any use appealing to their reason, for I doubt whether they understand reason. I will endeavour, therefore, to put the case for the Amendment from the point of view of business. The Amendment endeavours to draw a line of demarcation on which the subsidy should be paid. In the development of housing by local authorities, it would be fair to suggest that in nearly every case the councils, whether made up of Conservatives or not, had the idea that they were going to make provision for the needs of their districts. It would be interesting to know whether the Minister would be prepared to accept his own qualification and fix that as the line of demarcation. He says that councils may have bought land far in excess of the housing needs of the district. If he will take the needs of the districts as the standard, we shall be satisfied. In many cases streets have been laid out at tremendous expenses by local authorities in the firm belief that they would be allowed to continue to meet the needs of their districts, even on a subsidy lower than when the land was bought. We say that the housing needs of the people cannot yet he met by private enterprise at a rent which will fit the income and the wage of the poor men who need houses. We ask, therefore, that a reasonable line of demarcation shall be laid down so that the local authorities will be safeguarded against any loss in the layout of the land which was undertaken with the full encouragement of the Minister, and that houses should be allowed to be built under the existing subsidy until the estates are completed. In reply to a question put by an hon. Friend with regard to small houses for old age pensioners, the Minister said, I understood, that that type of house could still go on.


What I said was that it had no relation to this Amendment.


It has this relation to the Amendment, that houses of the type which are provided for old age pensioners receive subsidy assistance. Will they receive it now? I belong to an authority which has had an application turned down for the building of small houses for old age pensioners, and we are anxious to know whether the reply of the Minister still obtains and that we shall be able to continue this type of house with subsidy assistance. If not, local authorities will not be in a position to build such houses at a suitable rent. We are not satisfied with the reply of the Minister to this Amendment. We should be prepared to accept the needs of a district as the criterion for we should be able to prove to the satisfaction of the Minister that there is still any amount of need in every part of the country for working-class houses at reasonable rents. The attitude of the Minister is not to develop houses for the poor underpaid and low wage worker, but to retard the building of the type of house that is most needed and that will certainly not be built under private enterprise and the building societies.

5.11 p.m.


I have listened with amusement as well as interest to the plea of those who desire to protect the landowners, and I am carefully taking note of it ready for the time when the exploitation and the spoliation of the legitimate development of land comes before the House, when I hope we shall have substantial support from the Opposition benches. I desire particularly to claim that common sense and sympathy can go together, and I want to say in support of the Minister that what is being done under this Bill will result in a saving to the pockets of the ratepayers and the taxpayers, and will produce the goods at a price which the man in the street and the poor working man can afford to pay. I have some knowledge, as an unimportant town councillor and as one with some experience of the county council, of the devious ways of local government in a county and a town which have some sort of standing. I have no recollection of any case where the county council. or the town council, which has the most public spirited men upon it, can compete with private enterprise and deliver the goods. Local authorities if they have made unwise land purchases must cut their losses and in the long run it will pay them as trustees of the ratepayers. They may sometimes have purchased land which is not always of the value which a private individual would have paid for it, and they would do better to cut their losses. I repeat I hope the House will remember that sympathy and common sense go together and that the Government stands for both.

5.14 p.m.


We have listened to an interesting and amusing speech. The hon. Member for West Leyton (Sir W. Sugden) said how pleased he was that the Opposition benches are supporting the landowners. I want to draw the hon. Member's attention to the fact that the landowners in the present instance are the local authorities. We shall always have the greatest possible pleasure in supporting landowners who are local authorities, and in view of the hon. Member's speech, we hope to get his sympathy and support on the appropriate occasion. It has been said that by this Amendment we are appealing simply to the heart of the House and not to its reason. The hon. Member for West Leyton spoke about sympathy. This House has always expressed sympathy with housing. It is the best place in the world in which to get sympathy; you can get buckets of it for nothing. The argument that private enterprise could provide better and cheaper houses than the subsidised houses of the local authorities is absolutely amazing. Why has the subsidy been necessary all these years? Simply because private enterprise refused to touch the working-class house, seeing there was no profit in it. From what has been said, it might be, thought there was something explosive about this Amendment, something in it akin to Bolshevism. But this is all the Amendment says: that substantial expenditure had been incurred in the acquisition of land for houses. That is not unreasonable to insert in the Bill. The Minister takes his stand on the wording of the Clause, where-it says that he may admit housing proposals if he is satisfied: that proposals for providing or promoting the provision of houses under those Acts had been prepared and were substantially ready to be submitted to him. Under the Clause however, the Minister will be the sole judge of what is meant by "substantially ready." Local authorities who took a long-range view of housing, felt they were encouraged to embark on big housing schemes, and incurred considerable expenditure on the purchase of land, will feel that they have been let down and left with land which, perhaps, they can realise only at a loss. Contrary to the view of the Minister, I am certain that the effect of this Bill will be to discourage local authorities from embarking on further housing schemes. They will say, "We have no security for the money we are going to spends and we may be left to bear substantial losses." If this Amendment were accepted, and it were possible for an authority which had already purchased land to go oh with its housing plans, we might; I think set up a new standard of rents. While it is true that thousands of houses have been erected by local authorities, the fact remains that year by year, and even month by month, it becomes increasingly difficult for people to pay the rents which local authorities demand for those houses. In view of the ever-increasing reductions in the wages of people, has not the time come when the subsidy might be made to achieve some real purpose by, being used in such a, way as to enable the local authorities to let the houses at considerable lower rents than hitherto?

I am certain that the Minister is too optimistic in believing that either private enterprise or the schemes of the building societies will provide the necessary houses. I am a member of a building society. A building society has, first of all, to consider its liabilities towards its members, its promises made to them that their claims for houses shall come first, and I very much doubt whether it will be found that building societies are going to provide all this money about which we hear so much. I know that the Minister has declared against the Amendment, and I presume that the House will proceed, as usual, to put the rubber stamp on whatever the Minister says is the policy of the Government': but I want to make it clear that we stand by this Amendment. We believe the Amendment would be a considerable help, we believe that by its means we could keep faith in local authorities, and we believe, further, that if faith is not kept with them the electors in many industrial constituences where the local authorities have incurred considerable expense for land will be asking seriously why the interests of the ratepayers have not been better safeguarded.

5.22 p.m.


The right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) let the political cat out of the bag in the course of his speech. The strongest point he made in connection with this Amendment turned out eventually to be the weakest point. He asked whether it was right and proper to expect a local authority which had purchased land at, say, £150 an acre in the days of dear prices, to have to part with that land at a loss when values had fallen to, say, £50 an acre. The fall in the market value of land was the main reason in his submission why local authorities should be covered by this Amendment. In view of the financial position of the country, it is rather premature of the party opposite to ask the Government to hold themselves responsible for financial failures in local administration during the past 10, 15 or 20 years. Further, I think it is very unjust that we should be asked to do something by which local authorities, irrespective of the conditions that may arise in the future, would be guaranteed against loss on any of their undertakings, whether in the immediate past or the immediate future. I could not help wondering whether this Amendment would have been moved if the market values of land had risen. In that case I think it would not have been thought to be necessary to bring it forward. I do not think a local authority should ask this House to become responsible for any mistakes made in the past over the price paid for land, whether for housing or for other purposes.

It is only an assumption on the part of hon. Members opposite that all the land purchased by local authorities in the days of high prices was intended for houses, though that provides a very good reason for putting forward this Amendment. In my humble opinion any land purchased in the days of high prices for the housing of the poor would by now be covered with houses and not be a site for future houses. The hon. Member for Hems-worth (Mr. Price) said private enterprise could not possibly be expected to provide houses at rents which, with the rates, would suit the pockets of the poor. At any rate private enterprise has done it before, and I am convinced that if it were freed from the harness and strappings of Government interference it would do it again. If we continue to harness down the activities of private enterprise we cannot at the same time expect it to produce that solution of the housing problem which we want. I am satisfied that the Minister's reply adequately covered the situation, and fully justifies the House in voting against the Amendment if the Opposition force hon. Members to go into the Lobby.

5.26 p.m.


We shall most certainly force hon. Members into the Lobbies. The hon. Member for the Attercliffe Division (Mr. Pike) was occupied for a few weeks in telling the electors in the Rotherham Division all about the glories of private enterprise—


The Rotherham electors would not allow us to tell them anything.


In any case, the hon. Member was in that division for two or three weeks, and I happen to know that he is quite capable of making himself heard in spite of any noise from the put-skirts of the meeting. I can pay him the compliment that he knows how to deal with a crowd. He told the Rotherham electors all about the glories of the National Government and the achievements of private enterprise, but, all the same, they did not feel disposed to accept the hon. Member's logic, and returned the hon. Member who now represents that division. There is one thing I would like to say about the hon. Member for the Attercliffe Division and the wonderful achievements of private enterprise. The electors of the Attercliffe Division know what private enterprise has done for them in housing, and if a volcano were to destroy a good part of the houses in that division I think there would be few to shed a tear. If the electors of the Attercliffe Division, looking round upon the achievements of private enterprise in that division, accept the hon. Member's view about the efficiency of private enterprise, they will accept almost anything on earth. However, that is not the point.

The real point is that the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) clearly showed that Government after Government have encouraged local authorities to purchase land and erect houses for the working class, and it is perfectly true to say that for a long period after the War private enterprise made no effort at all to meet the needs of the working-class population. Despite the apparent failure of the first Government housing scheme, we had another scheme, passed by a Conservative Government, in 1923, and yet a further scheme in 1924; and even in 1928, after three or four years of Conservative Government, the State still continued to pay approximately £9 per house for houses erected for the working class—a clear acknowledgement that private enterprise was either unwilling or unable to meet the needs of working people. If the hon. Member disagrees with the Chancellor of the Exchequer perhaps he will talk to him in private, and the Chaneellor will tell him all about it. The fact of the matter is that even with the reduction of the subsidy by £1 10s. per annum, there is still the acknowledgment of the fact that private enterprise, over a certain part of the country, will not meet the known and urgent need for housing in those areas.

I reside, as does the hon. Gentleman, in a working-class area, perhaps not so thickly populated, with houses that are like rows of Grenadier Guards on parade, one after another. It is one of those districts that workmen live in because they have to work there. They certainly would not live there were they not obliged to do so because they work in those neighbourhoods. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health will remember that I referred to the case of Mexborough Urban District Council. Quite recently that authority purchased land on which to build approximately 200 houses. They erected some of them, but they did not build them all in two or three months. They were building their houses in blocks over two or three years, and they were developing the site at a rate with which they thought the district could cope conveniently. The applicants were there, and the authority knew that the need existed. Even in that small area there is at the present time a demand for new houses from approximately 700 applicants. The authority were about to erect 134 more houses, on land purchased, with the consent and the approval of the Ministry, exclusively for houses. Unless the right hon. Gentleman stretches the application of the words embodied in Clause 1, it may conceivably be that this local authority will be denied the right to erect houses on land which was bought exclusively for that purpose quite recently.

The hon. Member for Attercliffe, or any hon. Member, may say that in the London area, where houses are erected in blocks of 1,000 or 5,000, private enterprise may intervene and fulfil the function of house building, but in purely working-class areas, where labour conditions are not equal, private enterprise simply will not meet the need. In the area of the local authority to which I have referred, a. penny rate collects about £180. The authority cannot afford to have land standing idle. If they were to sell it—I am not concerned about any loss of money that might result from their selling it, if they could—private enterprise would not build on it. Private enterprise will not build hundreds of thousands of houses to let to working-class people. Consequently, unless something is done to make as elastic as possible the words embodied in Clause 1, such areas as the one I represent—I have mentioned Mexborough, but I believe that Greasborough is another case—will be denied the right to develop finally the plots of land which they purchased exclusively for the purpose of building working-class dwellings.

The right hon. Gentleman ought to tell us, before we proceed to a Division, whether in a case such as I have mentioned—where a local authority purchased land a couple of years ago and decided to build some 200 or 230 houses, and built 70 first and further batches of 70 later on, and is employing its building operatives continuously—under the terms of the Bill the proposals for the last batch of houses were not substantially ready when this Bill was introduced on 7th December? There is a very definite fear on the part of certain local authorities, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be good enough to tell us, where land has been purchased so recently and where the Ministry has had a definite intimation that houses were to be erected, that in no such case the

local authority will be denied the right and privilege of building on such land, in order to meet the needs of the working-class population.

5.38 p.m.


I am rather at a loss to know why the Minister should be so definite in refusing this Amendment. As I read it, the Amendment is purely permissive in character, and does not say that the Minister shall continue these schemes, but that he may continue them. When the Minister was replying he made the point that if he accepted this Amendment it would mean an indefinite prolongation of the subsidy. I do not see that that can be, and I would ask him to reconsider his decision on that point. There is much to be said for the completion of schemes which are at the present time only partly developed; from many points of view it would be desirable that local authorities should complete their schemes. I cannot see that the acceptance of this Amendment would make any vital difference to the Amendment which the Minister conceded on the Committee stage. I cannot accept the contention of the Minister that this Amendment would indefinitely prolong the subsidy. If he thought that undue advantages were being taken, he would have the right within the Bill to refuse. Question put, "That those words be there inserted in the Bill."

The House divided: Ayes, 52; Noes, 254.