HC Deb 26 September 1944 vol 403 cc198-207
Mr. Henderson Stewart

I beg to move, in page 2, line 26, at the end, to insert: Provided however that the local authorities in all such areas shall be entitled to share in the determination of the numbers and types of houses to be built by the Association, the selection of sites or areas for building and the selection of tenants. The intention of Clause 3 is to give the Secretary of State powers to direct the Special Housing Association to go into any locality he likes where he thinks the housing shortage is serious and put up in such places such houses and in such numbers as he, the Secretary of State, directs. I must confess that I do not like this proposal at all. "When this Special Housing Association first saw the light of day it was a body which was part of the Special Areas organisation, and no doubt performed a very useful function. Later it began to be a body which experimented with new types of building, and here again it did useful work. I see great possibilities in the Housing Association or some other body experimenting in building houses in considerable numbers with the help of the Government in a way which a local authority could not, and would not, have the right to do, but the proposal in this Bill to give the Secretary of State, which means St. Andrew's House, power to send the Special Housing Association into Fife, Perthshire, Angus, at the whim of the Scottish Office, to do what the Scottish Office says, irrespective of the wishes and desires of the local authority, is, I think, taking this totalitarianism too far. I am asking in this Amendment for something which is supported by the Lanarkshire County Council, the Fife County Council, and the Association of Scottish County Councils and other bodies. I have telegrams here.

Mr. Johnston

The County Councils' Association?

Mr. Stewart

Yes; may I read this telegram to my right hon. Friend? When I put this Amendment down in August I received this: The Association of County Councils in Scotland strongly supports your Amendment to the Housing (Scotland) Bill at the end of Clause 3. The Association also supports the Lanarkshire proposed addition to the Amendment. The proposed addition was: Co-operation and consultation with the local authorities shall be required.

Mr. Mathers

This Amendment is not at the end of Clause 3.

Mr. Buchanan (Glasgow, Gorbals)

But it is what they are supporting, surely.

Mr. Stewart

I think my hon. Friend is being slightly pernickety. I am asking a very simple thing. I am asking that the local authorities in all areas to which the Secretary of State proposes to send this Association shall be entitled to share— …in the determination of the numbers and types of houses to be built by the Association, the selection of sites or areas for building and the selection of tenants. I think that is a reasonable thing to ask. I fancy that it is the misdeeds of the Socialist Glasgow Corporation and its failure to produce the necessary houses, that have persuaded my right hon. Friend to take in somebody else and give them the power to do the job.

Mr. Buchanan


Mr. Stewart

No, I cannot give way. Because of the misdeeds of one authority—

Mr. Buchanan

Surely the hon. Member will give way.

Mr. Stewart

—he should not penalise others. I move my Amendment, quite satisfied that it would meet the democratic wishes of the Scottish people.

Mr. Buchanan

The hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. H. Stewart) has shown himself lacking in the ordinary courtesy and decency of this House by refusing to give way. I am sorry that he showed himself in a light different from what I expected, because I always thought that he was a good Parliamentarian. I do not want to go into the question of the deeds and misdeeds of the Glasgow Corporation. I am sorry that he should have used this Amendment to bring in the question. I would not mind debating Glasgow, and its rights and wrongs, at any time, but do not let the hon. Member call in Glasgow at the tail-end of such a question as is raised in this Amendment because he has some fetish about it. The Amendment has nothing to do with Glasgow. If he wishes to have a debate on Glasgow, let him raise it on an appropriate occasion, and we will answer him. There is something to be said for the County Councils' Association. They are building houses in areas where, after all, the county councils are the responsible authorities. But I hope that, at half past seven at night, Members will not use a small Bill, which has nothing to do with Glasgow, as an occasion for hitting at the Glasgow Council.

Mr. McKinlay

Despite the display of ignorance shown by the hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. H. Stewart) at the tail-end of his remarks, I have a great deal of sympathy with the Amendment. I myself sent in an Amendment, which I thought was in Order, but I cannot find it on the Paper. When the Special Housing Association set up there may have been a reason for it, but I do not see why their powers should be extended. There is a very great danger that this association will supersede the local authorities. This association cannot create building trade workers or building trade materials, and, while it may be all very well for the Secretary of State to direct the association into an area where the local authority is not doing its work, I believe that the Secre- tary of State has sufficient power without the further strengthening of this association. They made an excursion into my own division, and I have a very serious complaint. When this association invade a district they treat the local people as though they had the plague.

There is a grave lack of collaboration between the Association and the local authorities. During our perambulations of the coalfields on the housing sub-committee, we arrived at one place where there had been a colossal waste of public money at the instigation of the Special Housing Association, and where the most appalling abortions had been erected and named houses. When we were there, I made inquiries from the local county councillor and I asked "What did this cost?" He said they did not know, as they had had nothing to do with it, nor had they accepted designs or provided the sites. These people just came and then went. I put a Question in this House five years after the houses had been completed and before the figures were disclosed, and, if I may say so again, it was a colossal waste of public money. The houses were not worth the money. As a matter of fact, I understand that one of the blocks they built was burned down shortly after it was erected, but that was not the fault of the Association.

Why extend the powers of this body? They cannot produce a single extra house which could not be produced by a local authority, and I am too good a local authority man to want to see that special association coming in to supersede the local authority. If a local authority is lacking in its duty, then the central Government has the power—or should get the power—to call it to book. This is a very dangerous thing. They are going to be indemnified against extra cost. They will get more money out of this business than even the local authorities. It is a bad thing—these special concessions to this special association. It should either exist on a competitive basis—and the hon. and gallant Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) will agree with me here—or not exist at all. If they existed for the purpose of experimental work, possibly that could be justified, but I understand that there have been murmurs from some districts that even the experiments have not been too successful.

The principle is still the same. I do not think any nominated body has any right to spend public money, when the responsibility for housing people in Scotland at the moment is the responsibility of the local authority. The Housing Association has been in my own division. I was asked on Thursday night if I thought 9s. 2d. a week a reasonable rent for a house that was always damp. This is one of the special Housing Association's houses. I never answered, because I had not visited the houses. What did they do in Leven Vale and other districts? They have not done anything in Dalmuir or Clydebank the local authority could not have done. They get facilities to supply men and materials that were denied to other people. I think we ought to walk very warily in strengthening the position of this Association.

I will deal with the hon. Member for East Fife and the misdeeds of Glasgow at some other time. I know something about that and the hon. Member does not. I will take it from the hon. and gallant Member for Pollok, but not from the hon. Member for East Fife. I hope the Secretary of State will give us some assurance that, when this Association is going into a local authority area, at least there will be the closest consultation on questions of how the houses are to be allocated. It is quite easy for a town councillor or a county councillor to say, "Do not blame me if you do not get a house under that scheme. It was a special Housing Association scheme and we have nothing to do with it. You had better write to St. Andrew's House in Edinburgh." We should walk very warily before we extend the powers of this Association.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to indicate that he is at all events in sympathy with the principle behind the Amendment. There is a considerable amount of feeling among county councils in Scotland with regard to this matter, and only yesterday I was talking to the clerks of the county councils within my very large constituency and they both expressed themselves as very much in sympathy with the principle of the Amendment which was to have been moved by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay) and which, I understand, was unfortunately, not in time to be placed upon the Order Paper. There is no doubt, and the Secretary of State must realise it too, that the county councils are very conscious of the powers which have been given, and which perhaps are going to be given by this Measure, to housing associations. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to say something to allay our feelings on the matter.

Mr. Johnston

On the somewhat precise allegations made by the hon. Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay) I have no information. I have no notice of those allegations and, therefore, I am not in a position to reply, but this much I can say. I personally consulted the Association of County Councils, the Association of Cities and the Convention of Burghs on this matter, and I know personally that there is strong support—I do not say that it is unanimous, in view of what my hon. Friend has said, and it is known that there are difficulties—for a Government organisation, a non-profit making organisation working with Government money, to go into hard-hit areas and build houses, and break down, where they exist or are suspected of existing, contractors' rings and prices, and to act as Government agents in the national interest. They are disinterested public men who are only acting in the public interest.

I would say on the precise Amendment which has been moved that most explicit assurances have already been given to the county councils, the burghs and the cities, that in no case would the Association go into an area of a local authority without that authority's knowledge and concurrence. The trouble at the moment is that there are more requests from local authorities for aid than otherwise.

Mr. McKinlay

What does the right hon. Gentleman actually mean by "aid"?

Mr. Johnston

We had authority to build houses in 1943 and 1944. There are areas, county council areas too, where they have not yet got the acceptance of contracts although a year and a half has elapsed. I have had requests from areas to come in and help, and I can conceive of no more potent weapon that a Government or a State could have than to have an all-party non-profit making organisation willing to go in to help areas which are temporarily in difficulties of that kind.

As to the precise terms of this Amendment, may I say that no housing association could go into a local authority's area and build houses without the knowledge of a local authority. The local authority is in command of the water supplies, the local authority is in command of the drains, the local authority have all the information about it. But the last thing the association want to do is to quarrel with the local authorities—indeed they want to assist the local authorities. I am perfectly certain that there is the greatest goodwill towards those associations from over nine-tenths— I will put it as high as that—of the local authorities in Scotland to-day.

As for giving the local authorities the right to say what numbers of houses are to be built and in what areas, may I put this to the Committee: it would defeat the whole aim and object of this Bill if there is to be a sort of Dutch auction, or competition, or struggle with the wealthier areas like Edinburgh, who have no rating difficulties at all. If it is to be a struggle for areas to get their fair whack as against other and more needy areas, then the whole purpose of this Measure is defeated. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Member who moved this Amendment will not pursue it. I will give him this assurance, that in no case whatever will the Housing Association go into any area unless with the concurrence of the local authority concerned. I repeat that I am amazed to find that there is any opposition or criticism, because I have seen personally all local authority associations on this matter and I had no hint whatever and have had none yet—except what I have heard today—that there is the slightest difficulty in the minds of any local authorities in the matter.

Mr. Thomas Fraser (Hamilton)

The Secretary of State said that a housing association could never go into a county council area or a local authority's area without the knowledge of the local authority, and he seemed to me to say a little earlier that it could not go in without having some consultation with the local authority. Could he give us an assurance that the association will always have some consultation with the local authority about the type of houses to be erected? The hon. Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay) mentioned the Lanarkshire scheme as giving some cause for concern. The Secretary of State must know that the association completed about 100 houses in Lanarkshire something like six months ago, and those houses are becoming very near to being uninhabitable to-day. Whenever it rains, the rain runs straight through and across the floor of all these houses. I understand that the tenants and people living in that part of Lanarkshire protested to the local authority, who, I understand, blamed the Special Housing Association which, in turn, I am led to understand, have passed on the blame to the Ministry of Works because the houses were built to their specification. It seems to me regrettable that there should be this "passing of the buck," and, in my submission, at least some responsibility for the type of houses should always lie with the authority that is nearest to the people. With all due respect I suggest that the local authority should at all times accept some responsibility for the housing of people if that housing is to be done from public funds. I hope my right hon. Friend can give some undertaking that there will be some consultation with local authorities with regard to type and so on before any scheme is proceeded with by the association.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence (Edinburgh, East)

I had intended to raise the point which has been raised by my hon. Friend behind me on the Motion that the Clause should stand part of the Bill but as it has been raised it will probably save time if I say a few words about it now. I think it is evident that in some parts of Scotland houses have been built by the Scottish Special Housing Association which have not come up to standard. The point I wanted to put to the Secretary of State is this: Has he or any local authority any say as to standard and if houses are built by the association which do not come up to standard, which are faulty, who is the person who is going to call them to book? Someone ought to have the power and if it is not the local authority is it my right hon. Friend himself?

Mr. Johnston

As I have already said, as regards precise instances or criticisms of the Housing Association's efforts I cannot speak to-day except to say that happened to see in the Press that there were complaints by Lanarkshire tenants about Maycrete houses, a new type of construction with which the Housing Association were urged to experiment. I do not blame them at all for experimenting with anything and everything that technical experts and other Departments say should be experimented with; there must be trial and error. I believe that is now being remedied. On the point raised as to whether there will be consultation, whether there is consultation, and, if so, is it effective, I think the answer is generally "Yes." The Housing Association tries to raise the standard, tries to do the best it can with materials and labour which are not always adequate in war-time. As to whether local authorities give their concurrence to the Association before there is any building, I would like to give the most affirmative answer on that. There may have been a "slip-up" somewhere, but I cannot imagine the Association going to Lanarkshire, Dumbartonshire or any other county where water supplies and drainage are owned by the local authority, without the local authority knowing all about it and without having approved of the plan. But if any case is brought to my attention I will see that it is taken up forthwith with the Housing Association.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

I am reluctant to prolong this Debate but with respect my right hon. Friend has not answered the case I made, or dealt with my Amendment. I will present him with the telegram I received from the County Councils Association dated 1st August. I present that telegram to my right hon. Friend now. He may have seen the Association since that and have exercised his usual charm. My right hon. Friend wants to persuade us that this Special Housing Association would never do anything wrong, harmful or disagreeable but I would read the words of the Clause. They provide that the Secretary of State should make to the Association payments in respect of such number of houses provided by the Association in such areas as he may determine. It is these words in this proposed Act of Parliament to which I object, and nothing that the right hon. Gentleman has said alters my objection in any way, is giving the central authority power to step over the local authorities in the exercise of one of their most cherished and most important functions, the housing of the people in their area. It is not enough to say it means that you must not leave it as a scramble for a number of houses, and therefore money, as between rich Edinburgh and poor somewhere else.

There is the question of sites. I want an assurance that the question of sites shall be discussed with the local authorities before the right hon. Gentleman issues any directions to any outside body. It is intolerable for the Scottish Office, no matter how sympathetic the Secretary of State for the time may be, to have power to say to an outside body, "Go and build houses in that part of Lanarkshire without any necessary agreement with the Lanarkshire County Council." It is intolerable that the Scottish Office in effect shall select tenants to go into houses irrespective of the wishes of the local authority. I am not suggesting that the right hon. Gentleman or the Under-Secretary would do that, though the higher the Under-Secretary rises the less he seems to remember his own local authority associations and loyalties. I am surprised that the Under-Secretary should be supporting a Measure of this kind, he who has stood so strongly for local authority privileges and rights in the past. It is the words of the Bill to which I object and, unless the right hon. Gentleman can give me an assurance that he will reconsider this before the next stage of the Bill, I shall have to divide the Committee.

Amendment negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 4 and 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.