HC Deb 15 December 1944 vol 406 cc1465-9
The Minister of Works (Mr. Sandys)

During the Debate on housing last week I informed the House that I was examining the possibility of improving the arrangements for the distribution of building materials for bomb damage repairs in London. I thought hon. Members would wish to know the action that has now been taken.

This problem raises three main issues. First the standard of emergency repair to be aimed at this winter; secondly, the type and quality of materials to be used; and lastly the administrative machinery for the distribution of these materials.

Hitherto, a fairly wide discretion has been left to local authorities to decide what standard of repairs should be carried out in their area. The result is that the standard has varied greatly from borough to borough, and in many cases work has been done which could not reasonably be regarded as essential—such as internal decorations or repairs to unoccupied parts of large houses.

This extra work consumes scarce building materials which are needed for other more essential repairs and, of course, takes up more man-hours of labour than would otherwise be necessary. In consequence people whose homes have not yet been reached by the repair squads are forced to wait longer for their turn.

There has also been a tendency in certain areas for local authorities to insist upon using materials of the highest quality and to decline substitute materials, even though these are quite serviceable and effective. This leads to shortages of particular materials in other places and is liable to cause a hold-up in the work.

The Government consider that this state of affairs should not be allowed to continue. They have, therefore, issued to local authorities a circular prescribing in some detail the standard of repairs which should, at this stage, be undertaken. This circular is accompanied by a list of the substitute materials which should be used. The introduction of these new standards will, I am sure, result in more speed and more fairness in the execution of repairs and I am confident that local authorities will see to it that they are fully enforced.

Hitherto contractors and local authorities have been free to buy materials from any builders' merchants in any part of London or outside. The result has been that materials have been travelling to and fro long distances and that some of the more enterprising contractors and local authorities have gathered larger stocks than our supply position justifies.

In order to secure a more even distribution of materials in short supply, it has been decided throughout the London Region to allocate a list of builders' merchants to each local authority. The builders' merchants on the list will sell these materials only to the specified local authority and the contractors working for it.

Each local authority will receive a weekly allocation of building materials which it will sub-allocate among the builders on its list. These arrangements will at present be applied to plaster, plasterboard, slates and glass. Other materials may have to be added should the supply position require it.

The builders' merchants organisations and the manufacturers have undertaken to operate this scheme on a voluntary basis, and I wish to express my thanks to them for their ready co-operation.

Sir Percy Harris

Will the right hon. Gentleman say who is to be responsible for the working of this new scheme, which I recognise to be a brave attempt to co-ordinate our efforts? Will it be the Minister of Works, and, if so, will he be careful to see that it does not lead to red tape and to any new method of holding up because of central control?

Mr. Sandys

One cannot have it both ways. I explained in the Debate the other day the central machinery for concerting and co-ordinating the functions of all Government Departments in this field. This is being done by what is known as the London Repairs Executive. So far as red tape is concerned, all I can say is that we will try to see that pettifogging regulations are not introduced. On the other hand, any restriction of the free discretion which has hitherto been exercised by local authorities is bound in itself to increase central control. It is a matter of balancing the two extremes.

Sir Irving Albery

In vew of the right hon. Gentleman's efforts to accelerate the repair of bomb damage, does he consider that any alteration is necessary in the present labour arrangements? Is not the present grouping system giving some cause for concern?

Mr. Sandys

I am at the moment looking into the question of the more effective use of the labour which is available. One of the most serious difficulties is to get the correct balance of labour; that is to say, to get the right proportion of craftsmen of the various types on the various jobs. It is not just a question of getting an even balance throughout. Each different job requires a different proportion.

Mr. Thorne

My right hon. Friend mentioned the London area; does that cover only the London County Council area, or a wider area?

Mr. Sandys

I said "the London Region," by which I mean the London Civil Defence Region.

Mr. Astor

Will my right hon. Friend place copies of this circular in the Vote Office as soon as possible, so that members can study it? Is he satisfied that he has sufficient powers to insist that local authorities should use these materials and not be unduly conservative?

Mr. Sandys

I will gladly place a copy of the circular in the Library. So far as powers are concerned, our experience with local authorities has been very good, and I have every reason to suppose that they will co-operate fully in enforcing these standards. They have been consulted about the circular, and I have every reason to suppose that they will work it effectively. Should it become necessary to take powers, that can be considered if the scheme breaks down, but I am confident that in the great majority of cases it will work smoothly.

Mr. Frankel

Will the Minister lay before the House what standard of repairs he will ask the local authorities to set up, so that the House can determine whether it considers that they are enough?

Mr. Sandys

As I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for East Fulham (Mr. Astor), I will put a copy of the circular in the Library so that hon. Members can see for themselves the standards which we are laying down.

Captain Bernays

As this allocation of materials apparently applies only to the London Region, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that there are other bombed areas?

Mr. Sandys

I am well aware of that, but our most acute problem is in London.

Captain Duncan

The Minister referred to the enforcement of the scheme by local authorities; will he ensure that they have sufficient staff to do this?

Mr. Sandys

We are helping local authorities with this scheme by attaching to each a representative of the builders' merchants organisations in order to advise them on the distribution of the available building materials in their areas.

Mr. W. H. Green

In reply to the hon. Member for East Fulham (Mr. Astor), the right hon. Gentleman said he would place a copy of the circular in the Library; as Members would like to be in possession of the circular, will he place it in the Vote Office?

Mr. Sandys

I will make that arrangement.

Mr. Reakes

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that this scheme will remove the series of bottlenecks, in view of the fact that only last evening certain building contractors engaged on work in London made to me an allegation to that effect?

Mr. Sandys

I am not suggesting that everything was perfect last evening. I am hopeful that this scheme will vastly improve the situation, but I would not like to say that it will necessarily succeed in removing all bottlenecks.