HC Deb 09 April 1934 vol 288 cc87-131

7.25 p.m.


I wish to call attention to the administration of the Ministry of Health in relation to the housing conditions of the people. In spite of all that has been said and done, despite the effort of the Minister of Health in pressing for planning figures, etc., from local authorities, and despite the promises that the right hon. Gentleman has made, it is evident that the policy of the Ministry is not meeting the wishes of the people. That widespread discontent with the present conditions exists is apparent to all who familiarise themselves with the public opinion of the country in regard to housing and slum clearance. The common opinion is that there is "much cry and little wool," and that the big programmes which are being promised to-day are destined to remain as promises, a sort of verbal mirage to distract the attention of the people. No one appears to be satisfied, except perhaps the Minister himself, though I cannot imagine that even he feels satisfied.

Outside the Ministry of Health everyone is unhappy about the housing conditions, and from all sides comes the demand for more practical effort to give effect to the wealth of housing legislation already passed. The bulk of that legislation is enormous, and if practical effect was given to it the demand for fresh housing legislation would not be so urgent. In general administration the Ministry of Health have apparently been very lax in this regard. Unless there is more energy, unless there is more, not of promises, but of programmes of actual slum clearance, discontent regarding housing and slum clearance will be substantially aggravated. All over the country the cry goes up, "We want houses." It matters not whether it is in the big industrial towns, the semi-industrial towns, the residential towns or the villages. The people are not able to give voluble expression to their feelings on the matter. The Press and the cinema are not under their control, and their opinions are largely stifled in regard to housing because they have not the means of giving expression to their views.

Public opinion found some articulation in the recent municipal elections and in the London County Council election. There people expressed in no mean way their dissatisfaction with the administration of the Ministry. The results of the London County Council election were largely indicative of that dissatisfaction. The dissatisfaction is not so much with housing programmes as with the execution of those programmes. The people have been promised for years that housing would be dealt with more efficiently. I regard the elections as a vote of condemnation of the present Ministry of Health, for it is the Ministry that is at the head and front of offending in this country.

The people know that there are Housing Acts on the Statute Book. They know that the Ministry of Health is charged with the grave responsibility of administering those Acts. They see in the Ministry the instrument by which vast reforms in housing could be accomplished if the legislation already in existence were utilised. But hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of people have looked in vain to the Ministry to do something. The Ministry can check, can delay, can put on hampering restrictions and any municipal authority in the country will be compelled to admit that much of our housing law to-day remains a dead letter. There are laws which Parliament has debated in great detail and in regard to which all the argument and advice and experience of housing experts have been marshalled. Yet when, after long consideration and elaborate discussion, these laws have been placed on the Statute Book, we find to-day a state of things in which many of them might as well not have been passed at all.

Take for instance the laws which prescribe the fitness of dwellings for human habitation and lay down regulations as to minimum cubic space and the decent separation of the sexes during sleeping hours and matters of that kind. I say that these laws have not been enforced. Why? Because the Ministry's administration has been of such a character as to allow the regulations to remain in abeyance. The Ministry has not been active in pursuing local authorities and insisting upon the observance of regulations which Parliament has registered in a Statute. Then take the law in regard to rent restriction and especially in regard to percentage increases for repairs and maintenance. That law has never been thoroughly applied. The law regarding the increase of rent, protecting the legal rights and opportunities of the landlord has been religiously observed but the corresponding responsibility on the landlord to keep the houses in decent repair has not always been enforced. The landlords have taken their increases but in a large number of cases the repairs have not been done.

Further, the laws in regard to sanitation are by no means administered as they ought to be. Then there is the question of reconditioning about which we hear so much. Any Debate on housing brings forth in this House speeches urging the importance of reconditioning existing property. If the Ministry used their powers and compelled local authorities to use their powers, much of the reconditioning which is practicable would have been done long ago. The Ministry ought to have insisted that while the landlord had the right to collect an increase in rent he had also the corresponding responsibility to put the houses into proper repair—an obligation which as I say has been substantially and sadly neglected. The housing shortage has enabled landlords and property owners to scoff at requests for repairs. The tenants have been intimidated. While paying the additional rent they have been afraid to demand the repairs which that payment justified them in demanding. They have been placed in dread of the landlord by the very existence of the shortage. I think it was Daniel O'Connell who said that there was no Act of Parliament through which one could not drive a coach-and-four. That remark would I believe apply to the Housing Acts, more than to any other Acts on the Statute Book—there are so many ways and means of escape and so many evasions can take place in the absence of a live, alert, vigorous and determined administration.

What the people and the House of Commons will expect from the Ministry is that they should see to it that the existing legislation is applied, in all the spheres in which they have influence and power, with proper vigour and determination. The law ought to provide security against the purveyors of bad houses just as against the purveyors of bad food. Contagious houses ought to be condemned and destroyed just as contagious meat. Rotten houses should be treated as rotten food is treated but we have such houses at the present time, not by the thousand but by the hundred thousand. In my opinion, a new spirit is required in the Ministry's administration, to quicken the provision of houses, to stimulate sanitary inspection and particularly to enforce the regulations regarding the care and repair of dwellings. Their object should be to give life and purpose to the national laws and the local by-laws relating to the fitness of houses for human habitation.

I would counsel them also to brush aside many of the restrictions and formulas, which they have at the present time, to do away with much of the existing red-tape, to encourage local authorities to be more virile and progressive instead of merely telling them "you must not do this or that." Local authorities are not as a rule very progressive. They usually wait until the electors spur them on to do something. If they can find a convenient excuse for doing little they will make use of it to the fullest extent and the Ministry usually help them in that respect. I am confident that the slum problem which has reached such appalling dimensions, would never have been what it is to-day had the administration been all that it ought to be. Parliament can only say what ought to be done. The doing of it rests with the administration. Once Parliament decides upon what can be done Parliament's job is finished. The administration is then the most important thing and it is the administration both national and local to which I am calling attention.

All along there has been a too tender regard for owners of slum property. That tender regard still prevails despite occasional threats and bitter gibes hurled at them by the Minister. Incidentally I would encourage the right hon. Gentleman to do some more of that. I am not asking him to diminish his castigation of slum owners. But we know that to-day there may be slums which are foul beyond description, houses which are decayed, rotten, insanitary, and breeding-grounds of disease and yet the slum-owners can wring from the people who are unfortunately compelled to live in those houses, the last farthing of rent. We know how those owners of slum-property can gather round and defend their interests to the last gasp. Though the slums may be proved to be ruining the health and the morality, the physical and moral well-being of the people who live in them; though medical officers of health may have condemned them in volume after volume of reports, yet let us but talk of pulling them down and the slum-owners gather like vultures on a heap of offal and utilise every artifice, every conceivable legal restriction to frustrate and prevent the removal of these rotten houses. They will fight to the very last for their interests.

I have often remarked that to clear away a slum requires more energy than to clear away a mountain because of the vested interests which are gathered around the slum and the energy with which those concerned defend themselves. Yet in my opinion the present position might be vastly better if the tone and temper of the Ministry's administration had been more responsive to what medical officers of health have from time to time reported, and if the Ministry had done what those medical officers often begged them to do, namely, to administer the laws which we have and compel the local authorities to exercise existing powers to deal with these foul, vice-breeding, filthy and verminous places. Recently in a White Paper published by the Minister it is stated that provision is being made for the demolition of 254,753 houses and for rehousing 1,187,173 people. That is the biggest that has been done yet, and we are glad that some effort is being made, but I would say to the Minister that if he wishes to see that programme realised he will have to be more vigorous and belligerent than he is at the present time. We have had programmes before but realisation is another matter. At a housing conference on 16th March, Dr. Veitch Clark of Manchester dealt with the problem of the time occupied by procedure in local inquiries in connection with this subject and among other things he said: The consumption of time by this very cumbersome procedure imposes a dead weight upon the whole administration of the Housing Acts. This is so serious a hindrance to the operation of the Acts as to make it certain in our opinion that the slum clearance work provided for in the five-years plan will be so held up that it will not be accomplished unless these inquiries are abolished. I hope the Minister is alive to the importance of speeding up matters in that respect. Figures which the same doctor gave in the very excellent paper which he submitted to the conference show the number of weeks and months occupied in making these inquiries in cases where the property concerned is well known to be beyond repair and has been described by medical officers as unfit for human habitation. There is need I think for a radical change of outlook on the part of the Ministry and for a vigorous and if necessary a fighting spirit in regard to this problem. There are dwellings to-day where the living and the dying are sleeping in the same bed. There are dwellings where the living and the dead are in the one room, because there is only one room. We ought not to view with complacency such a situation, and we ought not to allow any interest to oppose the provision of better homes for people who suffer under such conditions. We have in our midst to-day dwellings as foul as sewers, as infectious as the plague, filthy and squalid, and we as public representatives are entitled to spur on the Minister and to spur on the Department if we think they are not vigorous enough in dealing with that problem. We have a right to demand that they shall make some more effective efforts to deal with the wretchedness and misery from which millions of our fellow countrymen are suffering. Only a few months ago the Minister said that 12,000 houses per year would be all that people would expect.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Sir Hilton Young)

Will the hon. Gentleman quote my remark?


I have not the exact words here. I am sorry if I have misrepresented the right hon. Gentleman, but the occasion was the introduction of the Bill here, when he was dealing with slum clearance and stated that we should be having something like 12,000 houses a year to tackle the problem.


In the first year.


It was 12,000 houses per year in the first year. I had not thought the matter would be challenged, or I would have provided myself with the actual quotation from the OFFICIAL REPORT. I was going to say that the figure then mentioned was so small in relation to the size of the problem that public discontent was growing in this country, and I am very pleased to know that the figure has been very substantially increased. In one Debate we had the figure quoted from the Government of round about 44,000 houses a year. That was all to the good and was a very substantial increase from 12,000. Now it is 254,753 in five years, which implies over 50,000 houses per year, so we are getting on, and I am very glad to know the progress which has been made by municipal authorities, in response to the Minister's invitation, in regard to the number of slums that they would clear and of people whom they would rehouse. This country will never be satisfied, I hope, until every British family has a separate dwelling with its own front door, its own water closet, its own bathroom, its own water supply, with living rooms and adequate opportunities for cooking and the preparation of food and adequate bedroom accommodation. There is a growing body of opinion that will give the Government and the local authorities no peace or rest until that is achieved, and if the Government fail to meet that opinion, so much the worse for the Government.

For years past we have witnessed a great deal of frittering away of practical means of dealing with this great programme which is now before the country for housing and slum clearance. I have called attention in debate after debate in this House to the great housing organisations and means of building houses that we have in this country, and I have been very sorry when anything has been done to break their effectiveness in any way and to minimise their possibility of rendering service to the country. We have seen the vast and costly unemployment during the past year or two among building trade operatives, and the lack of use of building materials and so on, and we have seen building resources generally diminished. The public are convinced that there has been muddle and reckless handling of this housing problem, and the public will not soon forget the calamitous consequences of the so-called economy campaign. The practical provision of houses in this country has suffered more from political causes than from any other. The changes of Government and of county councils at elections usually have their action and reaction upon housing activities in this country. We had in 1921, for instance, at one period 80,000 skilled operatives on housing and 60,000 labourers and so-called unskilled operatives—though I only use that term in order to discriminate between the craftsmen and the general labourers—and in less than 12 months there were 60,000 of those craftsmen and 40,000 labourers taken from housing because of the change of political policy.

In January of last year we had 323,212 building trade operatives unemployed, or over 37 out of every 100 either receiving unemployment benefit or transitional payment when they were unemployed. The Minister will no doubt give figures to-day showing the substantial reduction in unemployment that has taken place. We welcome those figures, of course, but I would ask the right hon. Gentleman what guarantee he can give the House that this improvement will continue. In my opinion, there is still the same lack of effectiveness in administration—I do not want to call it muddle, because that is too easy a term to employ—and in organisation in the Ministry of Health as there has been for a long time past. There is lack of co-ordination of the resources of the building industry to meet the demand for its services that will be forthcoming. There may be a five years programme for local authorities, but what has the Ministry of Health done to see that it is carried into effect? Apart from the programme, apart from pronouncements here and statements at conferences and so on, what are the practical steps that have been taken to see that these plans are put into effect? Can the Minister tell us what assurance he has that building labour will be available for him to carry out his five years programme? What assurance has he that building materials will be available for the next five years? I would like to know what has been done to see, not only that we have the programme, but that there will be the execution of the plans.

I am very disturbed as to the lack of effective consultation and organisation to deal with this problem. Are we going to proceed, as we have before, by spurts? Will a few municipal authorities become active and put out their contracts or do the work by direct labour, and will there then be a big demand for labour and someone say they have not the labour or the materials to be able to meet the demand, so that there will be an occasion for something to be dropped? Shall we start off with a spurt, then collapse, and then spurt again? Is there any ordered planning with regard to the execution of the five years programme of 50,000 houses a year? There should be, in order to ensure its smooth working. I shall be interested to learn, and I am sure the public will be too, what the Minister has done in this respect. The Minister has often used the military expression "effectives," and I would suggest that if he wants to carry out his programme with credit both to himself and to his Department, he cannot allow the position just to wait until he passes the plans and some municipal authorities put them out to contract, and then trust to luck with regard to the date at which the materials will arrive on the job. Where is the organisation to carry out the campaign?

My final word would be that any delay in effectively carrying out this programme would be a severe blow to public opinion and to the hopes that have been raised in many persons' minds that something is to be done to deal with slum clearance and housing. Every day's neglect means added discomfort and misery to the people, and I am of the definite opinion that unless there is some co-ordination by the Ministry of Health of the material resources of the industry to meet the express desires of the people, the Minister will come up against difficulties that he might very well have avoided if his Department had taken the necessary steps for effective consultation. Side by side with them, there are all the other Acts of Parliament that have been passed dealing with housing, overcrowding, sanitation, reconstruction, reconditioning, and so on, and I would beg of the right hon. Gentleman to use his Department with more directness, with more temper, with more militancy, to see that some of the things which are now very wrong, but which could be remedied under the existing law, are remedied. The nation calls for speedy and drastic action to deal with slum clearance and housing, and it calls for that action from the Minister of Health; and it is to the Minister of Health and his Department that it will look very largely to see that it is taken.

7.57 p.m.


The hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks), who has just sat down, will not, I hope, regard me as ungenerous if I say that it is not difficult to make such a speech as that which he has just delivered. First of all, it consisted of criticism of the Minister of Health, and on that aspect of his speech I will not take up any time, because I am certain that the right hon. Gentleman himself will be well able to deal with it. The hon. Member started with the assertion that the results of the recent London County Council election were a condemnation of the Ministry of Health, but I think we shall hear many other such assertions before we hear the last of that election. Then he went on to say that nothing had been done by way of administration, but he qualified that by asking what had been done. With the more serious parts of the hon. Gentleman's speech I am sure he will find agreement on all sides, particularly with his remarks on the subject of slum clearance. One thing he said was that it was more difficult to remove a slum than to remove a mountain, and I would ask him to bear that in mind, because I think it will be generally agreed that, with all the Housing Acts which have been passed by this House and the various schemes which have arisen from those Acts, we have never in fact found that the houses which have been erected have been occupied by the people whom we have most desired to help. One important factor in connection with all previous housing schemes has been that we have not assisted the people whom we most desired to assist. We have found that houses which have been intended for people of the lower wage-earning class have been occupied by people who could afford to pay a higher rent.

The hon. Gentleman may ask the Minister to be more vigorous, but I hope he will be fair enough to pay him this compliment. The right hon. Gentleman was the first man in this House to bring forward a vast and comprehensive scheme which tackled the housing problem in a new way and which coupled Government assistance for new houses with the abolition of the slums. It is very difficult to abolish slums, but that is no reason why we should embark upon a campaign of abuse of the man and the Department who are trying to abolish them. On the contrary, we should perform a greater national service by a campaign of ardent assistance and earnest enthusiasm to back up any Minister who brings forward a scheme for the clearance of slum dwellings and the rehousing of the people under humane conditions.

The hon. Member for East Woolwich asked what the Minister has effectively done in regard to the new housing schemes. He is a man of great experience in building, and he would not build his house before he had prepared his plans. The Minister of Health on his part has prepared his plans for a great attack upon slum dwellings. Those preparations and those efforts are reflected in the White Paper—Command Paper 4535—to which the hon. Gentleman might have given more attention. It is the first comprehensive survey that has ever been made on the subject of slum dwellings. These schemes have been prepared with the co-operation of the local authorities, on whom the hon. Gentleman undeservedly passed a stricture. The fact is that in recent years the country has been prevented by reason of the financial stringency from embarking on huge schemes of social reform. It is easy enough now, over two years after the crisis of 1931, to say that the economy campaign was a disadvantage to the country. It is easy enough for the hon. Member to say that when he sees a Budget surplus facing us. The scheme, which provides for the re-housing of 1,200,000 people within five years, is the best possible tribute to the Department over which my right hon. Friend presides, and rather than condemn the right hon. Gentleman and his Department for being inactive, I would like to pay them my personal mead of praise for the work on which they are engaged.

Members on all sides of the House are profoundly interested in housing, for it is no party question, and I refuse to allow my friends on the Socialist Benches to assume that they only are interested in the subject. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] I am glad that that is denied, because I believe that in every part of the House there is a real desire to see progress in the scheme which the Minister of Health, in co-operation with the local authorities, is trying to carry out. I beg hon. Members not to abuse the Ministry, but to join it in its attack upon the slums. The schemes which have been proposed have been subjected to unfair criticism in certain sections of our national Press. It may be that certain vested interests are opposed to the schemes which are being submitted. That is all the more reason why Members of the House should take their stand alongside those who are responsible for the initiation of the schemes. For my part, rather than detract from what has been done, I respectfully pay my tribute to the Minister and assure him that, so far as Members generally are concerned, if he will carry on resolutely with the schemes he has in hand, he will have assistance from every quarter of the House.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being present—

8.6 p.m.


It is rather unfortunate that this discussion takes place at an hour when the House is not generally most crowded. I am glad the hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks) has taken the opportunity again to raise a discussion which, I think the Minister will agree, will strengthen rather than weaken his hand in the campaign in which he is engaged. He has progressed since he has been Minister of Health. He made an unfortunate impression—it may be a wrong impression—when he introduced the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act, because it was associated with the economy campaign and local authorities had an idea that the policy of the Ministry of Health was to reverse engines, to slow down, to save the Exchequer from calls for subsidies, and to leave the general provision of housing to private enterprise. It is true that he made clear that he intended to concentrate on slum clearance. I do not think I am doing him any injustice when I say that in the light of experience his interest in this problem month by month has increased and his outlook has been enlarged.

A reference was made to a speech of his which certainly gave the impression, not only to the public outside but to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Birmingham (Sir A. Chamberlain), that his ambitions were personally modest in his attack on the slum problem. I want to give him credit, however, for I believe in giving credit where credit is due. He has made it his business to become conversant with this problem throughout the country, and with every town he has visited his interest has increased and his ambitions as to the size and character of the remedies have been enlarged. He is fortunately strengthened in his work by the fact that the public conscience has been roused in a way in which it has never been stirred before. I do not refer merely to the Bishops and the Press, but to the general body of public opinion. Every party realises that this is a big problem that wants big measures, and is prepared to support the finding of big money to finance energetic measures by the Government and local authorities to remove this evil from the land. But the Minister knows and the House knows, and anybody who has had practical experience of this problem knows, that it is not enough to have good intentions or to have large programmes; you have to put those programmes into operation.

The slum problem in itself is peculiar and complex. It is not simple. The hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Maitland) is correct when he says that the present machinery is slow and cumbersome. I see the chairman of the Housing Committee of the London County Council opposite me; he knows how slow that machine works. It badly wants oiling. I will go further and say it wants improving. Before you can clear a slum there has to be a representation by a medical officer of health who has to satisfy himself that a particular area comes within the definition of a slum. There are many bad streets in London full of overcrowding, the people of whom want rehousing, but they do not come within the four corners of the definition of the Act of 1931. I remember the progress of that Act through Committee, when all sorts of safeguards to protect interests were inserted.

When the medical officer considers that a particular area comes within the definition and is ripe for clearance, and that it is not only a slum in fact but a slum according to the Act of Parliament, then the difficulties commence. The owners of the property are not prepared to admit that their properties are slums, because when they are defined as slums they are technically coloured red on the map and are quite rightly bought out on the slum value with no compensation for the houses that are condemned. Then the owners get busy with lawyers, valuers, architects and all the paraphernalia of opposition. There is then a public inquiry. The Minister has had some experience of those public inquiries, and I want to congratulate him on his wisdom in one particular case in insisting that a public inquiry should be held. He knows what delays take place. A public inquiry may go on for a considerable period. Some land may be admitted and some may be excluded. Finally, the Minister, as a result of the report of his officials, orders that the area shall be dealt with by the local authorities concerned and cleared under his powers. But the difficulty is not ended there; it has really only commenced. Before these houses can be pulled down the people in them have to be accommodated.

I want to make a practical contribution to the Debate because one really wants to get on with this job. If we each make our contribution we shall really get progress at last. I am going to suggest to the Minister that if he wants to get his 1,250,000 people dealt with in five years, there must he less red tape and a little stretching of the Minister's powers. The real delay after the area has been condemned is in finding accommodation for the people who are to be turned out. In order to be allowed to get the subsidy, which is naturally very precious in the eyes of local authorities, a scheme must be linked up more or less with slum clearance. I suggest to the Minister that he should encourage local authorities to anticipate—to buy land ahead, to build ahead and to develop schemes: I will not go as far as saying planning long before, but well before the time when a particular area would have passed through the process of being condemned as a slum. If that is not done, there will be long and inevitable delays.

Since the passing of the Act of 1931 local authorities are not getting subsidies for building houses apart from slum clearance schemes. Before the Act of 1931 there were two parallel processes of dealing with houses; on the one hand slum clearance and on the other hand building houses for the rehousing of people where they were living in merely overcrowded homes. It was quite practicable and easy to link up one process with the other, and there was a lot of interchange. Now, owing to the dropping of the subsidy for ordinary houses, local authorities are reluctant about building dwellings until they can link up with a slum clearance scheme. If the Government wish to be able to deliver the goods—not only to outline a programme but to show actual results in bricks and mortar and in people taken out of the slums and put into new homes—they must send a message telling the local authorities that they will be safe in going full speed ahead, that they can buy land and build houses irrespective of whether an area has been condemned as a slum. If that is not made clear there will inevitably be delays.

In conclusion I beg the Government not to be satisfied with that side of the programme alone. I believe they had great hopes from the activities of building societies, thinking that with the low price of money and cheaper materials they will be making a special contribution towards rehousing people who are not living in slums but are overcrowded. Unfortunately, experience has not justified those hopes. As the Minister pointed out in his speech at Birmingham, however, local authorities still have the obligation, an obligation going back as far as the Housing Act of 1890, to provide houses for the working-classes quite independent of the State, and to do it, if necessary, at the expense of the rates. It would be a great help if the Minister made it clear to the local authorities that that obligation still remains. He has hinted at it in various speeches, but if it were made clear it would be a stimulus to local authorities to fulfil their obligation. After all, local authorities built houses irrespective of assistance from the State before the War. If at the same time the Minister says that if, in the light of experience, it were shown that this could not be done without a charge on the rates, and that in due course he is prepared to reconsider his attitude and come to their aid if they will plan ahead and work out a policy, it will be of very considerable assistance to that larger and, I think, equally important problem of dealing with overcrowding outside areas defined as slums. I say advisedly that it would be a great stimulus.

I am glad the hon. Member for East Woolwich insisted on the weakness of a spasmodic policy. We shall never deal with housing by a short-term policy. Houses cannot be turned out like sausages from a machine. People have to plan ahead: have to get the land, plan the drainage, arrange for the water supply and settle a hundred and one problems. That is particularly the case in London. During the last 10 years we have seen a remarkable phenomenon. Owing to the depression in the mining industry, in the shipyards and in the iron and steel industry there has been a drift southward from Wales and from the north of England. As shown by the Census of 1931, there has been an increase of 1,000,000 in the population within the traffic area of the Metropolis and an increase of 750,000 in the Metropolitan Police area. The population actually inside the county of London has decreased. The housing of this vast new army of workers is being left to chance, and there is every danger of new slums being created, with many of the worst species of the old slubs. We see that spasmodic development which is sometimes called ribbon development; we see houses badly planned and badly designed and with a shortage of accommodation, and it is inevitable that sooner or later there will be overcrowding. I am not blaming anybody. I will not say that this new question has arisen like a thief in the night, but it has come upon us suddenly and unexpectedly. There has been an immense growth in London, while there has been a slow development in other parts of the country. In London, new factories, new industries and almost new towns have arisen.

There are something like 154 authorities ill the greater Metropolitan area. That includes all kinds of authorities—urban district, rural district and county council, and various authorities with varying powers and various differences in financial circumstances. Just as it is outside London rich districts and poor districts have been indifferently scattered over London's great area. I am suggesting to the Minister, he being the only person who can deal with the problem, that he should put on his thinking cap and realise his responsibility. He should see how the problem has been growing up under our very eyes, and how it can be dealt with by his Ministry in Greater London. The Town Planning Committee, whose duties are purely advisory, have written a very remarkable report, with which no doubt the Minister is conversant, in regard to town planning powers. Town planning powers are not enough. There ought to be a housing authority for Greater London. The London County Council are doing something to that end by developing estates outside their area, but those estates are not for people from north, south, east and west, or for the migrants who flock into London; they are primarily for the people who are inside the county.

The new populations require proper housing on bold lines, just as much as do the people who are inside the county. It might be advisable to have a joint housing authority for the whole of the Greater London area. That is a problem which will have to be faced. There are questions connected with traffic and with new roads. It is curious that many people who are working in Slough, or places like that, are living in London, while people who are working in London are actually living in Slough. There is an unscientific movement of the population in and out of London every day. There is no scientific policy behind it. I am afraid that I have raised rather large problems, but I can assure the Minister that the whole House, irrespective of party, will be behind him in any policy he puts forward if it is bold and comprehensive, and I believe that the House will not grudge him the financial support necessary to defray the cost.

8.29 p.m.


Nothing could be more welcome to the Government or to the Minister of Health than this early opportunity of raising the great questions connected with housing. I have heard little but what was welcome in the three speeches which have been made, and with much of what was said—with everything, as regards the ideals that we have set before us in our work for housing—I am completely in agreement. With all three speakers I am completely in agreement that in order to accomplish the gigantic task which we are setting ourselves we must maintain a public opinion under, if I may use the metaphor, a high head of steam. We want it to govern the movement as it moves forward, in the complicated system of housing control that we have in this country under the housing authorities and the Ministry of Health. I thank hon. Members for the constructive assistance which they are giving me in the anxious responsibility which I have to discharge.

The criticism of the hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks) seemed, if he will forgive me for saying so, to be made completely regardless of all recent events and with an almost studied ignorance of the actual state of affairs at the present time. How can one meet an attack launched against a situation which does not exist, and based upon no facts and no figures? I could have understood the speech being made six months ago, or before the White Paper on slum clearance was issued. I could understand a criticism being made against me personally, for not having issued that White Paper before. I will tell the House why I did not issue it before. It was because I am in such cordial agreement with my critics that programmes are nothing while achievement is everything, and I was not willing to put that programme before the country until I was confident that it would be carried out. For that reason, it only saw the light of day some month ago. Its appearance then gives an assurance on the part of the Government and of the Ministry of Health that the programme is capable of being carried out and, with the continuance of the same will and resolution on the part of the country as a whole that it shall be carried out, that it will be carried out. That is the only condition that is made. The only condition necessary for the fulfilment of that programme is that we should have behind us the steady support of public opinion in the same frame of mind that it has been in up to the present.

There is nothing with which I agree more cordially than with what has been said this afternoon about the difference between programmes and performance. I hope that this House, the local authorities who are responsible for housing and the public opinion of the country as a whole, will follow from month to month and from year to year, during the five years' programme, the actual achievements of the housing authorities, in order to make sure that the programmes are carried out in time to achieve what we believe to be capable of achievement within the five years. The question that is pertinently asked of me to-night—it was observable, reading between the lines of the speech of the hon. Member for East Woolwich, and I heard it expressly in the speech of the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) is: "How are things going with the programme so far, in regard to actual achievement?" The House should realise that we are still in the period of acceleration, when the great new effort has not yet come to the peak of its achievement in regard to pulling down the slums and putting further houses in their place. We are still in the period of acceleration, but I can tell the House that we have already achieved such an increase of speed in the work as to assure us that, if it is continued, we shall achieve the programme in five years. In other words, to make my meaning absolutely plain, because the point is so important, I would say that we are going fast enough already to get the work done in five years.

I think that the actual acceleration of the work of slum clearance is best shown by the figures of the resolutions declaring clearance areas. The House will apprehend that that is a critical point—the point when the slum is actually declared to be a slum, and its clearance and the provision of fresh housing accommodation are made inevitable and certain. In the first year of what I might call the dawn of the idea of a campaign upon slums, the year which began on the 1st January, 1933, when we were just starting on the work, 200 local authorities declared 894 fresh areas. In the three months that have followed from the 1st January of this year to the end of last March, the number of fresh areas declared has been nearly 1,000. It will be seen, therefore, that in the last three months more areas have been declared than in the whole of the preceding year. In other words, anyone watching the curve, as I do, will see that we have already multiplied the rate of progress in slum clearance by four in the carrying out of the programmes. And that curve is going up, because some of the biggest figures we have ever had are those for last March, when 347 fresh areas were declared. That carries with it the promise of a future increase sufficient to enable us to work up to the peak to which we have to work in order to get the programme achieved in the five years.


Would the right hon. Gentleman give one other figure—the number of these areas in which the work of clearance has actually been started? That, after all, is the most important figure.


As a matter of fact, that is not the critical figure. I am afraid I cannot give the number at the moment, but I could do so in reply to a question. It is not, however, the critical figure. The critical point is the actual declaring of the area. After that, the work proceeds at a practically fixed rate of progress. I should be able to satisfy the House and the hon. Member of that if I showed him the actual dates of the progress of the schemes. I shall invite the House in, I hope, frequent reports, always to follow the declaration of the area as the point which indicates the progress of the slum clearance campaign. That deals with the actual rate at which the progress is taking place.

Now let me deal with one or two points in the criticism of the hon. Member for East Woolwich. His main criticism is that this is a paper programme, and nothing is being done about it. I have satisfied the House that that is being done about it which is necessary to secure the achievement of the programme. Then the hon. Member expressed certain fears about the future—about the availability of labour for the carrying out of these schemes. Will he help us with the building labour if there should be any difficulty about getting sufficient labour to build the houses that the country wants? I shall be delighted to think that the fears which he has expressed in that regard on this occasion mean that in the future we shall have that co-operation from all sections of the House which is necessary to obtain sufficient labour for building. I cannot think that the House or the country will ever agree that anything should be allowed to stand in the way of the provision of this essential commodity which the country requires.

As regards the actual organisation of the work of building, the hon. Member also expressed certain fears which, however, I believe to be absolutely groundless. There are no more experienced or powerful organisations in the world than the housing organisations of the great local authorities which are principally concerned with the work of slum clearance. There are no bodies which are better used to negotiating contracts for mass production. I can assure the House that undoubtedly the co-ordinating work which has to be done by the Ministry of Health, as the co-ordinating force which is essential to all the local authorities, will be carried out with due provision as regards the great calls which the campaign that we have before us will make upon the building trade and the building organisations of the country.

The hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green, with his great practical experience, touched upon a point which always requires attention, namely, the amount of time that is necessary in order to get the schemes through. He expressed fears lest there should be unnecessary delay, and, indeed, I think he expressed the opinion that there was already unnecessary delay. Undoubtedly, this question of the time that it takes to secure the most rapid progression of the schemes that is possible requires constant attention, and I am hopeful that it will be possible to shorten the time. The truth, of course, is that in the past there has not been very much experience of the working of the Act. It is recognised that it is only since this fresh drive was taken up that full experience of the working of the machinery of the Act has been gained, and it is not too much to say that with that experience we should be able to shorten the time that it takes to get the schemes through. I believe it would be possible for the local authorities, by organising their housing machinery in the light of that experience, substantially to accelerate the progress of schemes as they get more used to the work, and it will be our business at the Ministry of Health to promote that in every way that we possibly can. I can assure the House that there will be no delay at the Ministry, and that ample measures have been taken beforehand to secure that every scheme put forward will pass through those stages which are inevitable and necessary at the Ministry without a day's delay.

Let me remind the House of one thing. It is necessary to do so because of a phrase used by the hon. Member for East Woolwich. He asked, "Why cannot you abolish all these inquiries?" That, of course, is very easy to say. How quickly we could get on with our business in any form of government if we abolished all the inquiries. But, unfortunately, we might incur two very bad results. In the first place, we should not be sure that we were doing the work that we thought we were doing; and, in the second place, we might be doing very great injustice. I am afraid some inquiry is necessary if you are to avoid doing injustice and wasting your efforts.

The House will remember the nature of a slum inquiry. It is an inquiry as to whether a house is a slum house or not, and it is, therefore, an inquiry as to whether that house is to be cleared away without compensation to the owner. I believe we are all absolutely agreed that, if a house is a slum house and is unfit for habitation, there ought to be no compensation to the owner, because it has no value. I do not think that principle is challenged in any quarter. But I do not think that anyone either will challenge this, that that is a provision which requires very careful administration. Is it really suggested that it is possible without inquiry, by the mere arbitrary act either of an official of a local authority or of the Minister himself, to say, "This house shall be pulled down without compensation"? It is an obvious and elementary principle of justice of the sort to which we are used in this country that, when you are proposing a measure of such stringency upon private owners, they should have an opportunity of being heard. The House will realise, as the country realises, that that stage in the proceedings cannot be cut out, or even cut short, and that is the stage which really takes most time—first of all, finding out who are the parties who are entitled to be heard at the inquiry, and, secondly, actually holding the inquiry itself. Apart from that, I hope and believe that the experience and the use of the provisions of the Act will enable us to achieve a substantial shortening up of the procedure as time goes on.

May I turn to a rather wider aspect of the great housing problem? There are two unfortunate circumstances in the Debate being called at the present moment. One is, as the hon. Member for Woolwich East may have been aware, that it will be a week or two before we shall get the official figures as to the last six months' housing. Again, nothing surprised me more in his speech than his apparent complete oblivion of the fact that we are seeing now a great boom in the building trade, and particularly in house building. I really do not think that any observations on the situation can be a useful contribution which do not take the fact into recognition, that for the last 18 months we have been seeing the most remarkable activity in house building as a whole. I hope we shall all be careful about arguing that, because one thing happens after another, therefore it happens because of another. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable coincidence that the abolition of the subsidy has been followed by such a boom in house building, and I am sure I shall not be accused of being unduly illogical if I see some connection between the two facts.

I saw the figure quoted the other day, that 11,000 houses had been provided by private enterprise for the lower-paid wage earners in the course of the last six months. I cannot imagine where that figure came from. It has no authority that I know of, and according to all my information it is completely inaccurate. The best figure that I can give the House to show what the activity in small house building has been is this—it is, I think, the latest reliable figure forthcoming—that in the six months to the end of September last the number of small houses built by local authorities and private enterprise combined for the lower-paid wage earners was between 55,000 and 60,000. [An HON. MEMBER: "To let?"] Some to let, not all. That is a production of small houses for the lower-paid wage earners which compares quite favourably with previous years. It is encouraging to observe that that activity continues, to the best available information, undiminished. The building plans passed and so on show that the house building boom is going on, if anything, with increased activity. Exactly how the last six months' figures compare with the previous six months we shall not be able to give for some weeks to come.

The other circumstance which imposes a certain disadvantage in dealing with the topic to-night is that on this occasion we cannot deal with matters requiring legislation but only with matters requiring administration. Nevertheless, there is an aspect of the matter that was raised by the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green which certainly deserves a moment's attention. He referred to the fact that I had hinted on a previous occasion that local authorities were still free to build houses without subsidy to meet the demand for wage earners' houses in their localities. I have not only hinted, but I have expressly stated that in the most direct terms on numerous occasions, both in the House, to local authorities in correspondence and on other occasions in public speeches. It is an essential principle, it is one of the bases of the housing policy of the Government, that local authorities are not only free but have the duty of providing houses to meet the demand in their locality when private enterprise is unable or unwilling to provide them.

May I refer to a yet wider aspect of the present housing situation. In dealing with the question of policy as to how our activities can best be directed to remedy those evils as to the nature of which we all agree, we must keep in mind certain recognised facts. I will mention them, partly in order to serve as a preface to future proceedings in Committee and partly in order to explain the work which is at present in progress. The first thing that we may all learn from experience is that expenditure on housing subsidies in the past has not succeeded in achieving the object for which it was incurred. We have a housing bill of £13,500,000 a year on the Exchequer at present after all the work that we have done since the War. We have many beautiful municipal housing estates, we have 2,000,000 fresh houses since the end of the War, and we have slums and overcrowding almost as bad as they were. Surely we may learn by experience from that, and the lesson that we learn is that an uncontrolled subsidy is useless to cure the housing difficulty. That is the whole basis of Government policy, and it is being developed stage by stage at present. There was a subsidy when the present Government came into office for the purpose of constructing those magnificent housing estates, beautifully planned, skilfully laid out, solely and simply for the better paid wage earners of the country. At all events, generally speaking, the purpose they were serving was to house the better paid wage earners of the country, and what I may call without offence the lower middle-class too. Surely, the first thing to do was to check that enormous misdirection of public funds and to make sure that in future they were used only for the purposes the country required. At that time the construction of houses of the types which were being built under subsidy could already be effected without subsidy at rents which were the same as those we had before us of 7s. 6d. and 8s. a week, without rates, and so it was a waste to use public subsidies for the purpose. Since then, owing to the fall in building costs and rates of interest, those houses have been and are being built cheaper still.

The next thing, not in order of importance but in the development of the position, was to turn the whole of the force of the housing energies of the country and of public funds to getting rid of the frightful and disgraceful sore of the slums, and to register the national resolution that it would no longer be content to tinker with housing here and tinker with it there and leave the slums unremedied. That is the second foundation stone of the policy of the Government—the resolution, by the programme which we are now carrying out with the assistance of public funds, backed by the whole housing energy of the country and of the public opinion of the country, that the slums shall be no more. But that is not all. That was the biggest evil, and it was an evil which could be defined and limited, and, if I may once more use the military metaphor to which the hon. Member for East Woolwich objected—


I did not object.


—it was an evil upon which you could launch the attack at once without waiting. But the attack takes time to organise, and we are beginning to get the organisation completed now. When that organisation is completed and the attack is launched, we can go on to the last and most intractable and difficult stage of the use of controlled subsidy instead of uncontrolled subsidy where it is necessary, and that is to deal with overcrowding. That is a matter which, when the time is ripe—and it will be ripe before long—I shall be able to develop to the House. It is the answer to the questions asked me by the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green when he said that more was required as regards the area which must be covered by subsidy. I agree. There are other housing evils which cannot be remedied without subsidy. The greatest of those evils is the misdevelopment, bad planning and bad building of the cores of our towns made some 150 years ago before modern housing standards and modern town planning came into being. To remedy those errors of the past you need national effort and national finance. Private enterprise cannot do it unassisted.

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Captain Bourne)

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not develop this matter, because it appears to me to require legislation.


I was conscious of the fact, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that I was approaching the point at which I might properly be called to order. I was merely recording the fact that there is a state of affairs in the present housing conditions of the country which cannot be remedied by administration, but which must need legislation and the extension of the area of the public subsidy. But, to pick up one small point before I conclude, it is not the case that you can anticipate the declaration of slum clearance orders by promises of subsidy or any other authorisation of local authorities, because it is clear that until you have ascertained that there is a slum there is nothing upon which the Central Government can work in the way of promising subsidies or the permission to take action. The whole of the conditions of the Act of 1930 only begin to operate when it has been ascertained that there is a slum in existence.

I have tried to outline to the House, even to the verge of order, the present position of housing work and housing policy. The slum clearance campaign has been begun by the local authorities and the Ministry of Health at such a rate as will ensure its success if maintained throughout the five years by the House of Commons and by the public opinion of the country. The policy of the abolition of the uncontrolled subsidy and the direction of subsidy to the sources where it is necessary will be supplemented in due course, and in the meanwhile we are watching the remarkable activity of private enterprise in building small houses, and there is a tendency in the activity of private enterprise to build those houses smaller and smaller, and more of them to let. In those circumstances I believe that I can assure the House that no efforts which it is possible and useful to take for remedying the evils of housing which are present to all our minds are being left undone by the policy of the present Government.

9.3 p.m.


I think that every Member would agree with the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Maitland), when he stated in effect that Members of the House would be better engaged in assisting the Government to carry out their housing policy than merely in criticising the Government; but criticism which is constructive ought to be considered as helpful to the Government. I wish to offer one or two criticisms in regard to the existing state of the housing policy of the Government. I speak with some experience. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks) when he said that the organisation of the material necessary for building houses is not adequate. It is not satisfactory, and as the policy of the Government is brought to a state of greater perfection it will prove to be less and less satisfactory unless something else is done. The private enterprise people who are attempting to build houses to-day are meeting with difficulties. The Minister has just told us that there is a boom in the building industry. I do not agree with him. There is not a boom in the building industry in any real sense of the word. There may be a boom compared with 12 months ago but that is hardly a fair comparison.

What are the difficulties experienced by those who are desirous of building houses? I would remind the Minister of speeches that he made in dealing with slum clearance and the housing policy of the Government. I have a very vivid recollection of the speech he made in regard to the help that the building societies were going to give when private enterprise took over the building of houses. We were assured that private enterprise could and would build houses to be let at rents which could be paid by the lower paid workers. We were assured that the building societies had stated that money would be available in sufficient amount for this purpose. I challenge any Member of this House, including the Minister, to contradict me when I say that the promise given by the building societies, if it was given, has not been carried out. I say emphatically and definitely that there are only two or three of the large building societies that are lending any money worth speaking about for the building of houses of the type to which the Minister referred.

I think the Minister said that he had a number of interviews with the chairman of the building societies, who had given an assurance on behalf of all the societies that money would be available in sufficient amount. I say emphatically that the experience of people who are approaching the building societies is that the particular society with which the chairman is associated is one of the worst offenders in the direction to which I am referring, and that there is not any eager desire among the building societies to lend money to those who desire to build houses to let or to be sold to the poorer paid members of the working class. The promise of the building societies which was announced by the Minister has not been carried out.

Is the Minister satisfied in regard to the organisation of material for the building of houses? I can hardly believe that he is satisfied that the supply of material is adequate and is likely to remain adequate. When the boom in the building of small houses began—the Minister has described it as a boom—there was a shortage of bricks. Great difficulty was experienced by anyone who desired to purchase bricks in any large quantities. The builders approached the people responsible for the brick-making industry and many conversations took place between them. I have an intimate knowledge of some of the conversations. What is the point of view taken by the manufacturers in regard to the supply of materials? I am taking bricks as one example. Other examples can be given. Their reply was this: "Our experience is rather a bad one. There have been many Government promises and many campaigns in the past, and we have equipped our works to meet what we were told by Governments would be a boom that would last for years. We put our capital into it, but the next Government that came along scrapped all that was said or promised by the previous Government; there came a slump in the building industry and our capital was very largely wasted."

We were told, and any one who desires to find out for himself will be told today: "We are not prepared to put our capital into new works, new plant and new machinery unless we have some definite assurance that that machinery and capital can be used effectively for some reasonable period of years." I think the Minister and others will agree that that is a perfectly reasonable point of view to be put forward by the people who are being asked to speed up the production of necessary material for the building of houses. They express a good deal of fear, in my view rightly, as to what is going to happen if they spend large amounts of capital in the equipment of the works necessary for the production of the building material that would be required if there was a real boom such as the Minister indicates is possible within the next five years. I am certain, and I am speaking with some knowledge of the building trade, that unless the Minister's Department gets down to the question of organising the supply of building materials, even if he gets the other part of his machinery ready for the production of houses, he will fail when it comes to getting the material for the building of the houses.

What about the organisation of the supply of men? The Minister asked my hon. Friend the Member for East Woolwich: "Will you help me in organising the men?" I do not know that he has asked him before, and I do not know that he has asked those responsible for the organisation of the men to assist in the great question of house building. I have had some experience in regard to this side of the question. If I were responsible to-day for the organisation of the men from the trade union point of view and the Minister said, "Will you help me in organising the supply of labour for the building of working-class houses," I would say: "Yes, provided you give me certain guarantees." My experience of previous Governments lead me to believe that those guarantees will not be given, and that even in so far as they might be given they would be shamelessly broken in the future as they have been in the past. Government records in regard to the organisation of labour and association with trade unions are not such as to inspire any confidence among the trade unions in the building industry in regard to promises that might be made, because those promises would very likely be broken after they had served the purpose which the Government required them to serve. Therefore, if the Minister is asking for assistance he must give an assurance to the men that any assistance that they may give and any confidence that they may show will be reciprocated on the Government side also.

What is the experience of those in the building trade in regard to the supply of men? I could give the Minister many instances of towns where there is an adequate supply or an over-supply of men, while in some places scores, hundreds and thousands of building trade workers are out of work and cannot get work. On the other hand, I could give the names of towns where it is impossible to get workers in some of the building trades. In many small towns one finds perhaps an adequate supply of carpenters and joiners, but a definite shortage of plasterers and bricklayers. It may be said: Why do not the men go to those towns where there is a shortage in one branch of labour? The reason why men are not so anxious to transfer their labour from one district to another is obvious. To keep up two homes is a serious matter for a man with a family, and to go from a town where the rate is 1s. 9d. an hour to a town where the rate is 1s. 2d. is another very serious consideration. All these things have to be considered, and I can understand a man refusing to go from a higher paid district into a lower paid district; he is always hoping that a job will turn up in his own town.

I do not say that the Minister is responsible for these things; I am asking him to face them. Unless he does so the houses of which he speaks cannot be built within five years. I hope he will be successful, as indeed everybody hopes he will, but if he is going to be successful he will certainly have to pay attention to the organisation of the supply of building materials, inspire confidence in the people who are being asked to invest their capital in the works required for the production of materials, and also make arrangements which will give an adequate supply of labour where it is required. There is something else I would also suggest. Whatever we do in regard to the organisation' of the supply of building materials, so far as they are produced in this country, we have to consider that a great part cannot be produced in this country, and must be, in fact, imported. Timber, for instance. You cannot get the timber necessary for the building of these houses in this country; it is, and must be, imported. The Government's policy is to restrict the importation of the necessary timber, thereby adding to the price when it reaches this country. If I were organising the supply of building materials one of the things I should consider first would be the purchase, nationally, of the necessary timber to distribute to those people who are building houses. I discussed this matter some years ago with another Minister of Health, the late Mr. Wheatley, and he at any rate was giving serious consideration to it. I say emphatically that if the Government would consider the purchase of the necessary timber it would enable builders to build much cheaper than they can at present and also assure a supply, which is not always the case now. You can go to the docks and see plenty of timber there at any time, and the timber yards are full, but it is not the kind which is wanted for building working-class houses, the size and quality are not right, and most certainly the price is not right. I suggest that the experts in the Department should give serious consideration to these matters when they are considering the building of 1,250,000 houses in five years.

The policy of the right hon. Gentleman has been wrong in the past, but there are now signs that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that fact. I cannot discuss the question of the subsidy, but the Minister knows perfectly well that as soon as the policy of the Government changed the number of houses built by local authorities dropped immediately. That ought to be a lesson to the right hon. Gentleman. In regard to the diminution in the number of slums, I hold the view that it is not only a question of pulling down houses which are slums and putting up other houses, into which you can remove the slum tenants, but that there are many overcrowded houses which are becoming slums and which must become slums unless overcrowding is prevented. You have not only to remove slum dwellers, but also to prevent overcrowding; and the only way is to increase the actual number of houses built to meet the requirements of people living in overcrowded conditions. I suggest that the Minister should use every possible source of supply. If I were responsible I should use private enterprise to its fullest possible capacity because of the evil which exists. Further, I should use public utility societies to a much greater extent than they are at present, and, further, I would use local authorities to the fullest possible extent. I think they should be encouraged. I am not going to suggest to the Minister ways in which they might be encouraged to come back into the house building industry. They have done fine work in the building of houses in the past, but when the means of supply were cut off from them the number of houses they built dropped. That again ought to be a lesson to the Minister. However one may argue about the working of the subsidy, the fact remains that as a consequence of its abolition the number of houses built by local authorities diminished very materially.


Is the hon. Member aware that since the subsidy has been withdrawn, so far as corporation building is concerned, local authorities in many parts of the country have become far more violent in their opposition to private enterprise than they were previously?


I do not think that any such contention can be proved, and at any rate it has nothing to do with my argument. My argument is that there are sources available for the building of housing which everyone agrees to be necessary. One of them is private enterprise, another the public utility societies, a cross between public and private enterprise, a sort of limited private enterprise, and another is the local authorities. It is an indisputable fact that as a consequence of the abolition of the subsidy the number of houses built by local authorities, to meet the needs of the working classes, dropped. That is a serious matter, and if the subsidy cannot be re-instituted, then we should find some other means of encouraging local authorities. I am telling the Minister that we ought to find some other means of encouraging local authorities to build houses of the type that were built prior to the abolition of the subsidy. That is all I am asking, and I hope that the Minister can and will find some other means.

The last point I want to make concerns cases where the local authorities are very anxious to build more houses and the builders themselves are willing, but the difficulty is in the price of land. In the place where I live it is impossible to purchase land at less than £1,000 an acre, and very little of it is available even at that figure. I know, and everybody else knows, that if you have to pay £1,000 an acre for land, you cannot build houses for the poorer sections of the working classes and let them. There is no builder in the country who can do it or who does it to-day. Consequently, the Ministry ought to take this question into consideration in some areas. In most parts of the country there is an adequate supply of land at reasonable prices, but there are many places in which it is impossible to build houses to let as long as the price of land remains as it is to-day. As the Under-Secretary knows, land continues to increase in price, and that is a matter to which the Minister will have to give attention.

What I have said has been intended as frank and helpful criticism, and I hope that the Government will succeed in the plan which has been announced by the Minister to-night. I am, however, doubtful of its success unless they are prepared to go further than they have gone. I have indicated, from my own slight experience of the building industry—I do not claim a wide experience—the snags that I and others have encountered. Those snags have been experienced by everyone who has engaged in an attempt to build houses to let to the poorer sections of the working classes to-day.

9.28 p.m.


It is true to say that both inside and outside this House there has been very real doubt as to whether the slum clearance schemes have actually been executed. We have had an excellent answer from the Minister to-night, but I should like to emphasise that point from the experience which I have had in Birmingham. Birmingham gave as its programme 4,500 houses, and I have not the slightest doubt that that programme will be fulfilled in the specified time. With that knowledge, I am quite convinced in my mind that other authorities are equally definite in their schemes. It is interesting to go through the White Paper and to see the details given by the various local authorities. I know those in the Midlands, and I am confident that the various numbers of houses that have been mentioned are the numbers of the actual houses which will be pulled down and replaced by others. Further, it is interesting to note that in Birmingham the scheme is now being enlarged and there is great probability that, instead of 4,500 houses, there will be at least 10,000 houses in the next five years.

That is quite easy to understand, because, as has been well expressed in the various speeches to-night, the difficulty of getting schemes going must have hindered local authorities from putting down definite schemes to the full extent of what they had hoped to be able to manage. We know that delay must occur, and it is not surprising that 12 or 18 months must elapse before anything is actually done. One of the difficulties is to build houses in which to put the displaced tenants, and as soon as that part of the scheme is properly completed, as it is in Birmingham and no doubt in other towns as well, and there are a considerable number of houses in proper localities into which to decant the displaced tenants, then the authority can go straight forward in a smooth and gradually increasing scheme. There is no doubt—and the Minister gave us reason to believe it—that instead of the 285,000 houses mentioned in the White Paper, there will he more nearly 300,000, and perhaps rather more.

The difficulties that are actually in the way of this scheme do not only include the true cases where compensation will be necessary. We are all agreed as regards the true slums. There are also the intermediary cases, and such cases as those where small shopkeepers have bought their property and have been living in it and earning a livelihood for 10 or 20 years. Although that property is to-day slum property and should be pulled down, it is undoubtedly necessary to consider the case for compensation. I also feel that there is more likelihood of difficulty in obtaining material and labour than there will be in finding work for those now unemployed. It was curious to note, in the opening speech of the hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks), that while he first condemned the Minister for inaction, and said that he would never deliver the goods, at the same time at the end of his speech he stated that the right hon. Gentleman would have difficulty in finding sufficient labour to carry out his work. The latter part of the speech must have been a truer expression of what was in the hon. Member's mind, as it is in the minds of most of us: that this scheme is a great scheme and will be carried through satisfactorily.

I should like particularly to refer to what has been one of the great parts of the Minister's work. We can all recollect that a year ago he was stimulating public opinion, and it is possible within our memory that the editors of most of the newspapers were writing criticisms and urging the Government to carry out this work. The clergy in all the pulpits were preaching the same thing, and suggestions were made that 300,000 houses were not nearly enough, and that the number required was more nearly 1,500,000. What must have most impressed us has been the way in which the Minister has failed to answer that criticism—and for a very good reason. That criticism was exactly what he was hoping to get, and by not answering it he has encouraged the critics and done what he was desiring to do. To-night's criticism and to-night's Debate will, I am sure, assist that public opinion which is necessary to complete this obviously stupendous task in the face of all the difficulties which confront the Government. We can congratulate the Minister on what he has done, and can feel satisfied that he will see to the difficulties that we have to face, and will overcome them to our satisfaction.

9.34 p.m.


A momentous sentence fell from the lips of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health when he said, a little earlier in the Debate "Programmes are nothing, but achievement is everything." If this were the proper occasion, I should have liked to trace the right hon. Gentleman's rather unfortunate history as regards achievement in the matter of housing. His policy since 1931 has been one first of repression and suppression, and then of very tempered encouragement of local authorities. The right hon. Gentleman in his administration did his best, when he came into office because of a national crisis, to torpedo all the activities then taking place under the Housing Acts of 1924 and 1930. He deliberately discouraged local authorities from pursuing their housing programmes, and if they were so persistent as to demand that they should build houses he did all that that he could to enforce on them the building of the smallest and the meanest type of house.

The right hon. Gentleman never meant to introduce housing legislation. He was forced to do so because the Chancellor of the Exchequer said he had to do so, and he introduced a Housing Bill which will stand on the Statute Book to the discredit of one Minister of Health. It is a Bill which in effect ended the housing activities of local authorities, except as regards slum clearance. That Bill was introduced at the end of 1932 and slowly worked its way to the Statute Book by 18th May, 1933, after the right hon. Gentleman had told us, in words used by another distinguished statesman, that it was "a question which brooked no delay." After six months' gestation the Bill appeared on the Statute Book. What has been the result of it? I take the most recent questions which have been asked in this House.

Under the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act of 1933 up to 31st December last the number of arrangements made covered 1,033 houses; the actual number of houses contemplated for inclusion in arrangements by local authorities at that date was 16,100 houses; and the right hon. Gentleman said he understood that arrangements covering 3,780 houses were in course of negotiation. Those were the fruits of his Bill which warned off local authorities from building houses, which put the onus on private enterprise, backed by the building societies. It is interesting to note that after the Act had been on the Statute Book for about eight months the most that the right hon. Gentleman could produce was arrangements for about 1,000 houses, contemplation with regard to 16,000 houses, and negotiations with regard to between 3,000 and 4,000 houses. A little later than that, in March of this year, when the right hon. Gentleman made a dramatic entrance into the conference of the Association of Municipal Corporations and then beat a hasty retreat before there was any discussion on his speech, he said that he had learned that one society had arranged for 8,000 houses under the scheme. Yet at the end of last year we had 1,000 produced, with thoughts about 16,000, and with negotiations about between 3,000 and 4,000.

Then on 8th February the right hon. Gentleman was asked a question by the hon. Lady the Member for East Islington (Miss Cazalet). She asked how many houses to be let at 10s. a week or less had been built by private enterprise and by local authorities respectively since the passing of the Housing Act of 1933. Of course the right hon. Gentleman started by saying what was perfectly obvious, that he did not know, that he had not got any statistical information. How could he have any? He had stopped local authorities from building houses. But he could say that between 1st May of last year and 31st December local authorities and private enterprise erected 35,561 houses with the aid of the subsidy, that during the half year ended 30th September, 1933, local authorities and private enterprise erected 76,185 small houses without subsidy of which—this is the important point—it was estimated that about 17½ per cent., or 13,300, were let, and about 40 per cent., or 31,000, were houses of a rateable value below £3 or £20 in London, which means that in the half year the number of houses which he estimated, on no real basis, had been built to let to working-class people, was 13,000—about the smallest number for any half-year within the past 10 years. But the hon. Member for East Islington went on to ask whether the right hon. Gentleman was satisfied that a sufficient number of these low-rented houses were being built to meet necessary requirements, and the right hon. Gentleman's answer was: At the present time there is no doubt the demand for small houses to let, at the rents under consideration, is being adequately met."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th February, 1934; col. 1290, Vol. 285.] That means that the 13,000 houses per half-year was in the right hon. Gentleman's view sufficient to meet the working-class demand for houses to let. Let me say that I do not agree with him. I shall not pursue the very evasive answers of the right hon. Gentleman, but I ask, what is the position to-day under the right hon. Gentleman's administration? First, as regards slum clearance, as a result of the numerous speeches made by the right hon. Gentleman and the assistance given to him by the Press of this country one might regard him as the author of the 1930 Housing Act. He is the Great White Knight of slum clearance. Not that he has added one word to the law on the matter. But he has now taken from the late Government, so far as he could, credit for the Act which we placed on the Statute Book, and he speaks of this great national effort to deal with slum clearance. The right hon. Gentleman quoted his White Paper to-night. I shall quote it again. On page 2 there is this sentence: Authorities were asked to submit not later than 30th September programmes of the action to be taken by them under the Housing Act, 1930, to secure the demolition of all slum houses. It was requested that programmes should be drawn so far as possible on the basis of clearing away such houses not later than 1938 and that an immediate beginning should be made with the work. I ask the House to note the allusion to "all slum houses." The right hon. Gentleman has got his return and he has said to-night that he is satisfied with the programme. But that programme is one of clearing away a little over 250,000 slum houses in the next five years. His own circular referred to "all slum houses." Everybody knows that there are more than 250,000 slum houses in England and Wales. The right hon. Gentleman professes to be satisfied with his programme but it is certainly not adequate. There is no large town in the country which could not multiply by two the programme it is now undertaking and then it would not be certain that all the slums which are now on the mind of the Minister of Health were being cleared. The right hon. Gentleman has always tried to differentiate between normal house building and slum clearance. I admit that there is a distinction but to my mind they are two aspects of the one problem.

The right hon. Gentleman passed his Housing (Financial Provisions) Act, 1933, but it might be more correctly described as a Housing (Local Authorities Financial Deprivation) Act. It had nothing whatever to do with providing houses. What it did was to stop the subsidy and provide certain microscopic assistance to certain building societies. I think it is clear from the figures which I have quoted that the 1933 Act has been an almost complete failure. We were told that all we had to do was to lift the heavy hand of municipal enterprise and houses would arise like mushrooms—houses "to let at rents within the means of a working-class family," in the words of the formula which has been used on all sides of the House for the last 10 years. We were told that if only we stop this wicked subsidy local authorities would stand aside and private enterprise, not interested in private property but acting from public motives, would step into the breach and fill the bill. What is the situation? The truth is that private enterprise is not doing what the right hon. Gentleman thought it was going to do.

Here is the case of Jarrow-on-Tyne. A resolution was passed by the council only three months ago declaring that private enterprise was failing to build houses under the 1933 Act for the purpose of letting to the working classes at reasonable rents. Three months ago the Barnsley County Borough Council had before it a report to the effect that, in spite of appeals by the local authority, no proposals had been received from private builders for the building of working-class houses to let. The council have asked permission to build 1,000 houses themselves. The right hon. Gentleman has told us that it is part of the duty of local authorities to build houses, and it is the policy of the Government that they should build houses, provided that private enterprise cannot or will not fill the need. If they have not done so, it means either that they cannot or that they will not, and this large borough council, which appealed under the Act of 1933 to private builders for schemes and has had no reply, seems to provide the answer to the right hon. Gentleman's argument.

There is also the case of Stoke-on-Trent. Three or four months ago we were told in a resolution that the council viewed with great concern the fact that private enterprise was failing to build houses for letting to the working class at reasonable rents. This council happens to be the "whiteheaded boy" of councils, according to the right hon. Gentleman. When he was speaking on the Ministry of Health Estimates last year he gave a gold medal to the Stoke-on-Trent Council for the progress it was making with slum clearance. He said he gave it full marks. Here was a council doing all that it could for slum clearance, but within six months of the right hon. Gentleman's commendation, it turns round on him and says: "Your 1933 Act is not producing the goods as far as private enterprise is concerned." The right hon. Gentleman would hand slum clearance over to private enterprise if it were a paying proposition. It is not a paying proposition and so he retains it as a public service. But as regards the general problem of the need for new houses, the right hon. Gentleman's solution is private enterprise. Our view is that we must rely to an increasing extent on public enterprise to meet the need for houses to be let at rents within the means of ordinary working-class families.

What the right hon. Gentleman has done has been to butcher the activities of local authorities and discourage them from carrying on their work. He has allowed himself to be misled by private enterprise and the building societies. Private enterprise and the building societies have not produced the goods. It is true that houses are now being built. They are being built all round London to-day, not for the people who stand in urgent need of houses but for people who can afford to buy houses. His scheme has not produced and is not producing houses to be let. He has presented no figures to prove that the 1933 Act has worked at all. What is clear is that the number of houses built by local authorities to be let has steadily decreased month by month. About the time the late Labour Government left office there were actually under construction each month under local authority schemes 44,000 to 45,000 houses. Since then the number of houses under construction by local authorities has steadily declined until at the end of February, the last month for which figures are available, the number of houses under construction, under local authority schemes had fallen to 26,000. That means that local authorities' activities are gradually being suppressed and discouraged, and yet, on the other hand, under the Act of 1933 that gap is not being filled by private enterprise and building societies' guarantees.

The right hon. Gentleman can argue as much as he likes; he can put his hand on his bosom and say that he would like to be the great hero who swept away the slums. The truth is that he has taken out of the hands of local authorities a weapon which was assisting the public of this country to deal with the general housing problem. He is now adumbrating—that is the only word I can use—further legislation to go back on his tracks and to re-introduce some kind of subsidy, so as to help to fill up the hole that he deliberately dug in 1931. The Government's housing policy has been a fiasco from the start. Everybody who understood the housing problem knew that it was bound to be a failure, everybody who was interested in working-class houses knew that you could not leave the problem to be solved by private enterprise or by the building societies, and everybody knew that, once the local authorities had had their hearts broken in an economy campaign, reactionary local authorities might be willing to give way to a demand for economy and that this kind of pressure on the local authorities would reduce their activities, both as regards slum clearance on the one hand and normal house-building on the other. I am bound to say that, whatever the right hon. Gentleman has in view now, he will never do better than he might have done had he left the 1924 and 1930 Acts alone on the Statute Book, kept his fingers off them, and not tried to destroy them, because the longer he lives as Minister of Health, the more certain it will be that he will have to go back nearer and nearer to the principles established in the Acts of 1924 and 1930.

9.58 p.m.


The right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood), who has just resumed his seat, has given us an interesting criticism of what he considers to be lacking in the administration of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health, but he has failed to touch even the fringe of the subject that he rose to discuss. He referred to certain resolutions passed by the Stoke-on-Trent, Jarrow-on-Tyne, and Barnsley Councils calling upon the Minister to remove the restrictions placed on local authorities in respect to subsidies, but he never referred to the resolution passed by the Sheffield Council only a few days ago or to any resolutions that have been passed by councils that are not, as in the case of the councils quoted, unable as building propositions to build in fair and open competition with the private builder. The trouble with those corporations is that, having had the subsidy withdrawn, they find that their direct building schemes and those who have been in charge of and responsible for them are in no way a capable alternative to private enterprise in the building industry; so that other means have to be sought to give to the country at large some idea that private enterprise is failing to meet the requirements of the present Act.

The right hon. Gentleman, as he always has done, as his colleagues always have done, and as all members of every party always have done, in dealing with this problem, has said that we must rely on public enterprise—I say, of course, private enterprise—to provide houses at rents which the people can afford to pay. But on the administrative side I would like to draw the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to many things which to-day are preventing not only public enterprise but private enterprise from going ahead with housing to a much greater degree than they are. We have been told to-night that the private builders have difficulties in producing houses at rents which can be regarded as economic. I do not believe that private builders have half the difficulties that have been attributed to them this evening. I believe that many of their difficulties are imaginary, existing only in the minds of their opponents, and that most of their difficulties that do exist are actually the products of their opponents.

Let me give to the House an idea of what has happened recently in Sheffield, a city with an enormous slum problem and an enormous over-crowding problem. The opposition by the Corporation of Sheffield to private enterprise in building has been so great that during the past few days, owing to the results of a quinquennial valuation, the assessments of corporation houses were found, like any other instance of property, to be too low, and it was decided by the corporation to increase those assessments according to the law, so that the figure would more or less represent the true letting value. What did the corporation do? They automatically said that such adjustments should be made as would not compel the tenant of a corporation house to pay any more rent than he was now paying, but the tenant of a private dwelling, whether of a 4s. 6d. cottage or of an 8s., a 10s., or a 20s. house, had to pay on the extra assessment, with the result that a private builder who would build in open competition has a barrier placed against him by that resolution of the Sheffield Corporation which, in my opinion, is a disgrace to ordinary business procedure.

For a long time past the Sheffield Corporation have allowed another assessment to exist in respect to many of their properties as apart from their own corporation houses, especially when those figures are compared with a comparable area, such as Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, or any other heavy industrial area; and to-day, unfortunately, we are there, by virtue of the political make-up of the council itself, placing obstacles against the private builder which are unjust and to a large extent dishonest. I use that phrase quite sincerely, because many of the people who have voted for this unfair competitive condition for the private trader and private builder are tenants of corporation houses themselves. I think the Minister, when he is looking into this question of corporation activities in the matter of housing, would do well to sift out some of the conditions that prevail in Sheffield.

Mention has been made of the prices which private owners have demanded for their land from those desirous of building houses. The Sheffield Corporation, by slum clearance, a short time ago acquired two sites. A builder, a friend of mine, in Plymouth decided to submit plans for the erection of flats on those sites. Everything met every requirement of the law and of the local estates committee, but when the gentleman applied for the purchase of the land, he was told that, these being the only two sites immediately owned by the corporation within the centre of the city of Sheffield, the price would be no less than £4,300 an acre. The hon. Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. McEntee) grumbled at a private owner asking for £1,000. I grumble at the Sheffield Socialist Council asking £4,300 an acre for land which is only a slum-cleared site, and upon which one person was anxious to build houses that could have been let for workers at working-class rents to fit working-class pockets. I submit that these oppositions and obstacles are something which the Minister should take into very careful consideration.

May I emphasise what the Minister himself has suggested in respect to many of the sites which have come under criticism this evening? A large number of our people could be granted houses at a price which their wages could meet if many people were turned out of houses built by local authorities by virtue of the fact that their positions do not justify them in holding those houses. Men with £300, £400 and £500 a year have no right to live in houses that have been built at the public expense for the purpose of overcoming the housing problem of the working classes, and the Minister will go a long way if he demands, within the operation of the existing law, a complete comb-out of the housing estates that were built with the assistance of the subsidy. Such a comb-out should be automatically followed by the occupation of the houses which are released by people who cannot afford higher rents, and who cannot in the present conditions avoid living in overcrowded conditions. When all the housing estates have been combed out, the local problems of overcrowding will in a large degree be eliminated. In order to do that combing out, I believe that the Minister needs no more powers than those he already possesses, and I trust he will carry it out at the earliest possible moment.

Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.

Supply accordingly considered in Committee.

[Captain Bourne in the Chair.]

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