HC Deb 27 September 1944 vol 403 cc288-301
Mr. Willink

I beg to move, in page 2, line 14, at the end, to insert: Provided that, in the case of a structure made available for erection on land of excep- tionally high value, the said terms may either—

  1. (a) not include any such provision, or
  2. (b) not include any such provision but on the contrary provide for the making of a contribution by the Minister out of moneys provided by Parliament towards expenses incurred by the local authority in connection with the provision and maintenance of housing accommodation in the structure."
This Amendment is in relation to the financial Clauses of the Bill and the arrangements to be made under them. The Committee will realise that in the Bill as drawn originally provision is made for payment by the local authority in every case where there is a bungalow. In the course of our consultations with local authorities it became clear that there were cases, particularly in the Metropolitan area, but it may arise elsewhere in which it will be right, in the emergency we are facing, to erect bungalows on land of a very high value, and that unless some alteration to the Bill was made there would be an intolerable burden on the local authorities.

1.30 p.m.

Consequently this Amendment provides that it shall not be universally the case that a payment shall be made by the local authority—indeed that the terms on which the bungalows are made available by the Minister to the local authority may provide that there shall be no payment annually either way, or alternatively that the Minister out of the moneys made available by Parliament shall contribute towards the expenses incurred by the local authority in connection with the provision and maintenance of housing accommodation. That leaves the matter flexible, as in my opinion—and I hope the Committee will agree—it should be. The circumstances will be infinitely various as I have said on more than one occasion. The prices of the land will vary from the ordinary site outside of a small town to the very expensive site somewhere about the middle of the Metropolis. In the circumstances I hope the Committee will accept the Amendment.

Mr. John Wilmot (Kennington)

I am very glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has taken the course of putting down this Amendment. It is, I am sure, the desire of all of us and the desire of the country, that those areas which have been most heavily damaged by enemy action should not have the greatest financial burden thrown upon them for this temporary accommodation, which, in no way, in the long run, will relieve them of the duty of providing permanent houses for their citizens. But the Amendment is so widely drawn and, as the Minister says, leaves such flexibility, that I ask him to consider whether within the wording now proposed he cannot go a good deal farther in this direction than he seemed to indicate both yesterday and to-day.

It seems to me, upon examination and consideration, that the method of financing this proposal which has been devised is really not worth all the trouble. There are various provisions for the acquiring of land. There is a kind of normal cost over which the Minister is proposing to make certain exceptional arrangements, and rather than have these payments, one way or the other, grants to the local authority for the purchase of the land, and then the collection of rents and the payment back to the Exchequer of moneys collected, would it not be very much better if this temporary housing, and the land upon which it is going to stand, were acquired by the Minister, and the houses lent to the authority, and if the local authority performed the function merely of a manager and collector for these temporary houses, leaving the local authority to its proper task of the provision of permanent housing for its citizens? It seems to me that, upon examination, all this contra accountancy is not worth while.

What is the basis of local government finance? It is that the citizens within a town or borough shall be wholly or partly responsible for those public services over which it has authority of volition. In this matter it has very little volition. The houses are being made by the Government, the sites are being acquired by the Government, the price is being fixed by the Government. Everything over a the Government. certain limit is to be paid by the Government. Is there any case for avoiding the obvious conclusion that the best thing would be for the Government to acquire the site, or to lease the site, to pay the owner of the site the proper compensation or rent, as the case may be, to manufacture the houses, to allocate them to the local authorities on loan, and for the local authorities to manage the estates, collect the rents and pay over the moneys to the Minister? That would save encumbering the arrangements or finances of both parties and would make clear what it is very important to make clear, that this temporary housing is in an entirely different category from permanent housing. It is something provided by the Government to meet the emergency. that will go as soon as we can put permanent housing in its place. That is the function of local government. I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to consider whether, within the terms of this Amendment, he can come down to that method, which is the right one as I see it.

Mr. Willink

The point which has been made and so forcibly suggested by my hon. Friend is, of course, on its face, attractive. But I would remind him, in the first place, of one point, and perhaps the Committee as a whole of another. He and I are both Members for parts of the Metropolitan area, and we see problems arising, with regard to these expensive sites and with regard to damage done, both by the earlier blitz and by the flying bombs, more clearly when we see the main purpose of this Bill, which is to make a general contribution to meet arrears of housing all over the country. There would be very grave difficulty, and I believe very grave confusion, if, with regard to the bungalows erected all over the country, local authorities were to be asked by the Government to accept, the mere position of managers, or agents, of the central Government in housing their people. Is the manager or the agent to decide how many houses he is to manage? Is he to decide what will be the appropriate rent, not only generally but in special cases? We felt, and I am under the strong impression that our feeling was shared by the associations of local authorities whom we met, that there should be as much discretion, as much responsibility, with regard to management in this field as there is in the field of permanent housing. That is the basic difficulty in regard to the proposal which my hon. Friend makes. It is not within my personal recollection, although it may be within the recollection of many Members of the Committee, that the policy immediately after the last war, whereby the central Government shouldered everything in excess of a 1d. rate had unfortunate administrative results. I think that a basis of partnership is the right policy if the local authority is to have the sense of responsibility which is neces- sary, when it is drawing very largely—and in this particular service more largely than ever—from central funds.

Mr. Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

The local authority will have no real power.

Mr. Willink

It will have the responsibility of fixing the rents and of deciding the burden which, under the financial arrangements of the Bill, falls on each tenant. It will have a very wide discretion. On the other hand, we heard yesterday a forceful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Key), who is particularly familiar with the problem with which my hon. Friend has just been dealing. I think that, on this Clause, I should make the view of the Government as clear as I can. We feel that the deficit should be dealt with, as all other housing matters are dealt with, on the basis of partnership between the Exchequer and the local authorities—which is the basis of this Bill, as of all housing Bills. But it is our intention to protect the local authority against excessive losses, which may otherwise arise when it is necessary to erect bungalows on expensive sites, or when the expenditure on development which has been referred to is likely to be largely wasted in future. The actual terms will be laid down in agreements to be made under the Bill. We feel that it is only in that way that we can take into full account the circumstances of individual areas.

May I make the matter clear by showing how it will work out in certain cases? In discussing these matters with the local authorities, we took into account the cost of building and the probable level of rents, and in the proposal which has been put to local authorities the position is this. May I take two classes of cases? In the normal case the average loss falling on the local authority will be £4 a year, plus site charges averaging about another £4 a year, for each bungalow, and the corresponding charge on the Exchequer will be £45 a year for each bungalow. The Committee will observe the difference from the ordinary ratio, which is two on the Exchequer to one on the local authority. In the normal case, it will be £45 on the Exchequer and £8 on the local authority. But where the cost of the land is very high or there is unavoidable waste in development and there is an excess over the normal charge, we propose that the local authority shall be asked to bear only 20 per cent: of the additional charges, the Exchequer bearing 80 per cent. We believe that the burden on the local authority will be kept to a reasonable figure, but, to cover any cases which may not be met, I suggest that in the agreements there should be a provision that if the local authority can show that in fact the rates have sustained, by reason of excessive or unremunerative cost in providing the site, a greater loss than the normal, the sum payable should be adjusted further.

Now I come to the third class or category. It is really the case of Bow and Bromley and West Ham, and places of that sort, which need an excessively large number of these bungalows by reason of the blitz, and where the general level of the price of land is particularly high. They will be needing a disproportionately large number of the total bungalow programme. That very fact will throw an unusual and heavy demand upon them.

Mr. Wilmot

With a depleted rate fund.

Mr. Willink

Yes, depleted not only in this respect, but in many other respects. As the Committee is aware, Exchequer assistance is being given at present to the extent necessary to keep the rates stable in such areas, and, after the war, the financial position of such authorities will, of course, have to be reviewed with a view to determining what Government assistance will be necessary to enable them to carry out their essential functions, and I can give an undertaking that expenditure incurred in the execution of this scheme will be taken into account with those other factors.

1.45 p.m.

I believe this is really one with the specific assistance provided under the Bill, with the promise I have given with regard to the terms of the agreement, and with the undertaking that special circumstances regarding this programme would be added to the other special circumstances, which are manifold, under which these particular authorities are suffering. I believe that that is the proper administrative method of dealing with this problem, rather than making so sweeping an inroad in our whole structure of housing matters as between the central and local government, as my hon. Friend suggested.

Mr. Silverman

I cannot think that the Minister has given a very satisfactory reason why the proposition of my hon. Friend should not be adopted. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said in his last sentence that it was not advisable to make so sweeping an inroad in administrative practice, but the sweeping inroad has been made, and made by the enemy.

Mr. Willink


Mr. Silverman

I do not know why my right hon. and learned Friend says "No," but it is because it is so sweeping that the Committee is faced to-day with a special problem, which has very little bearing upon the general housing problem of the country and its administration. That is why you have this Bill—because you need to do something quickly, and in a temporary way, and you need to do something exceptional. That is the justification of this Measure and of dealing with this problem in an exceptional way. All that my hon. Friend suggested, as I understood him, is that, if you are dealing, in an exceptional and temporary way, with an exceptional and temporary problem, you need not fear to use an exceptional and temporary financial expedient, even if that expedient is simpler, more workable and not less equitable than the. complicated system which you are proposing.

I think the Minister made a mistake when he said that you ought not to alter the general administrative system in this way. That could be a sound observation to make only if what were contemplated by this Measure were not a temporary and exceptional thing, but were to become a permanent part of housing structure and administration. But the hypothesis on which we are proceeding is that that is not so. If that is not so, let us look at this proposal on its merits. You are entitled to do that in an exceptional case which is intended to disappear in a few years.

If we look at it on its merits, everybody sees that it is practicable, and I do not think anybody sees why it cannot be adopted. The Minister referred to how much the local authorities are to do. In practice, how much choice have they got? The Minister talked about agreements, but he is not going to negotiate separate and distinct agreements with every local authority. They have got to take what he gives them. No doubt he will listen sympathetically to suggestions they make, but, in the end, it is not an agreement, but an agreement under duress. The local authority cannot do anything but take it, and it cannot decide how many of these houses it is going to have. In a technical sense, it can decide, but, in a practical sense, it cannot.

Mr. Willink

It can decide not to ask for any.

Mr. Silverman

I am talking about legal rights. Under the Bill, they may decide to ask for none, or they may decide to ask for the lot. In fact, what they will get is their ration, or the equitable proportion of the production as it comes into being, and every local authority will, presumably, get that. What it needs will not be determined by the local authority; it has been determined by the enemy. What it can get is not determined by the local authority, but by the rate at which the houses can be produced.

I think that what my hon. Friend suggests is a practical way of dealing with it. It is a plan for a temporary purpose, and, if you adopted the suggestion you would avoid a great deal of unnecessary bookkeeping and cross-accounting and save the work of a good many civil servants. If the Minister has to do the kind of calculating which he has been describing, in a great many instances all over the country and for a great many years, he will need a great many of his temporary houses, not to house tenants but to house officials going in to the accounts. Why bother about it? If it is to be done only for the academic purpose intended in the last sentences of the Minister's speech, I think I have suggested a reason why the academic purpose need not apply. If you can do it more simply, why not do it?

Mr. Willink

I forgot to mention one point in my speech. If my recollection is correct, the suggestion was that the whole operation should be conducted by the Government, including the acquisition of the land.

Mr. Silverman


Mr. Willink

Well, my hon. Friend will observe that we are at once in a difficulty, because local authorities are proposing to use land which is now their own, and, surely, the essence of this must be that management must be in the discretion of experienced housing authorities, where all experience of these matters lies. My hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman), has suggested that it is a perfectly simple matter for management to be delegated by a large number of local authorities. I shudder at the prospect of arguing with local authorities, who have no financial interest in this suggestion, as to what rents should be charged for every bungalow provided by the Government. I see that the hon. Member for Peckham (Mr. Silkin) is in his place. My own experience, in dealing with local authorities, is that they desire the same type of management and the same rights and responsibilities with regard to these structures which will be built as housing provision for their people as they have in regard to permanent houses.

Captain Duncan (Kensington, North)

I wish to ask a question in regard to the position in London. The London County Council is the local authority for the purpose of housing, but the Metropolitan Borough Councils have some agreement, under the 1936 Act, for doing some of the housing themselves. What is going to be the position under this Bill between the Metropolitan Borough Councils and the L.C.C.? I have no doubt that it has been settled, but I think it ought to be on record in this Committee what the terms of the agreement are. I ask the question for this reason. On the Second Reading of the Bill, the hon. Member for Peckham (Mr. Silkin) spoke as if the L.C.C. was going to do it all, but the hon. Member for Bow and Bromley (Mr. Key) made a speech yesterday complaining of the difficulties he might have to face in Poplar. It does not seem too clear on the opposite side of the House what the position is, and I do not know myself. I should be very grateful if the Minister will clear the whole thing up once and for all.

Mr. Willink

The hon. and gallant Member may not have noticed that I am, later, moving an Amendment relating to the powers of the London County Council with regard to housing in London. It is a technical Amendment, and I must not refer to it now.

Mr. Wilmot

I wonder if I might make another appeal, with the indulgence of the Committee, and put forward some considerations, which I refrained from doing earlier because I rather thought the Minister would accept the suggestion? If he does accept it, I do not think there is much validity in his point that the local authorities would be in an inferior position as to management. The management will be just the same, the same people will be doing the job, and, as a matter of fact, these temporary houses are going, in the main, to the blitzed areas. They will have to go wherever there are the most homeless people, and, in those areas, the demand will be so great, with people clamouring for a house, that the local authorities will have to apply for them. They have got no option. These houses are all they can get in which to shelter their people. The consequence is that this choice, and the ability to choose, is, as has been suggested, really not there. They are bound to take these houses, as many as they can get, and they will only get a ration in the end. The point made by the hon. Member for Nelson and Collie (Mr. Silverman) is absolutely clear. What sort of an agreement can be negotiated in each separate case between the Minister and each separate authority which has got thousands of homeless families, whom they must house? The terms, in fact, will be dictated by the Minister, and the local authority will have to take what it can get and let the houses at rents commensurate with the locality.

I beg the Minister to reconsider this matter between now and the Report stage, because there is something else involved, besides convenience and simplicity and the avoidance of a tremendous waste of clerical staff. There is this—that, if we are not careful, we shall load upon these stricken areas such financial burdens for housing that they may become permanently bankrupt. Their estate is being administered all the time in Whitehall, and they are living upon doles made from the Exchequer on all manner of complicated and weighty formulas. That is not the way to build up a new civic spirit in these stricken areas. You want to get the right kind of people coming forward to shoulder the new burdens of local government. If we dole out money as municipal relief, we shall not get these people, who want to feel responsibilities in which they have some choice and which they can properly shoulder. If we really want to get back to a healthy relationship in local government, we have to tide them over this temporary period of repairing damage by straightforward Government assistance, and in getting the land to provide the houses for the working people while the local authority gets on with its proper job.

I beg the Minister not to continue this bankruptcy of local authority finance. The whole position will have to be reviewed as to the relations of the central Exchequer and local authority finance before we can really embark on our postwar programme. In the meantime, we ought to clear away these pettifogging formulas, and I beg the Minister to consider again the suggestion which I make in all humility that these temporary houses should be provided and loaned by the Government in order that the local authority may get on its feet and shoulder its own burdens in a proper way.

Sir William Wayland (Canterbury)

May I add a few words in a special appeal for the devastated areas of the South coast, where the position has been worse than it is in many towns in the interior, which have been blitzed? These towns are facing practical bankruptcy, unless they have help and priority in rebuilding, because these coastal towns rely in great measure on the tourist and holiday traffic.

2.0 p.m.

The condition of these houses at the present time makes it impossible for the occupiers to accept any visitors. Most of the houses require repair, and some quite a lot. They have been empty for the last five years. These people have had help from the Government but, as the hon. Member for Kennington (Mr. Wilmot) said, they do not want to have to rely on doles all the time. They want practical help to rebuild what has been devastated and destroyed. The Government should consider that the population of this country are looking forward to holidays next year and if they go to these places and find there is no accommodation, or accommodation that is not nearly as good as that which they have at home, naturally the people now looking forward to holidays will be very bitterly disappointed. The coast towns, especially the South-East coast towns, have in one way suffered even more than London, because they have been blitzed ever since 1940. Although flying bombs have done an awful amount of destruction in London, it has to be remembered that hundreds of these bombs were shot down and fell in the countryside and in seaside towns. If one goes to these towns to-day one realises the unfortunate position of these people in not having been able to carry on their trade since the Germans started the blitz. I hope that the Minister will give consideration to the position of seaside towns and give them priority to rebuild their houses so that they may carry on their trade for the reception of holiday-makers.

Mr. Silkin (Peckham)

I take it that the Amendment is intended to assist local authorities where the cost of land is exceptionally high and they would not, but for a provision such as this, be in a position to use this expensive land for the erection of temporary houses. The Clause is delightfully vague, but it certainly does permit the Minister in some cases actually to make contributions to the local authorities instead of vice versa. I hope that the Minister will consider the suggestion of my hon. Friend but I do not want him to go quite as far as my hon. Friend suggested. There will be cases where it will be difficult for the Government to undertake the whole of the work themselves and it may be possible in such cases to undertake the work. They are already doing a great deal by putting up the structure but it might be of advantage in some cases if they also acquired the site. But this should be lef4 to the local authority. If the local authority is prepared itself to undertake the task it should be allowed to do so, but where it wishes the Ministry of Health to come in to do the whole job, I hope it may be possible for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to undertake it. That probably is the best solution of the problem.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

Mr. Cocks

I support the proposal of my hon. Friend, but taking the thing as it is now, it was suggested yesterday that the normal rent of these bungalows should be 10s. Could the Minister say, apart from the question of the value of the land, what proportion he is proposing to charge for the structure itself to the local authority? Presumably the cost to the Exchequer is £600. What is the annual charge at which he proposes to let them to the local authority, apart altogether from the question of site value and land and so on?

Mr. Douglas (Battersea, North)

The Clause, as now amended, is certainly a great improvement. It gives the Minister the power to deal with cases in which the cost of land is very high and that particularly will apply in London and the neighbourhood of London which has suffered so severely during recent months as a result of flying bombs. It must be clear that to erect temporary buildings of a bungalow type upon land which, normally, would be used for building flats or even three-storeyed houses, is not an economic proposition. I would ask the Minister, in operating this Clause, whether he will not make it a rule that no local authority shall be compelled to bear greater expense because of the higher price of the land which has to be used for this purpose. A temporary house is necessitated because of the circumstances which have arisen out of the war. The destruction of property by enemy action is an incidence which ought to be financed nationally and it would be very unfair if districts which have suffered heavily by bombing—London, Hull, Plymouth and Coventry—were compelled to bear a very much heavier charge than the rest of the country by reason of that fact. The temporary house is not a permanent solution to the problem. It is to be replaced in due course by permanent housing and that presumably will entail exactly the same burden upon the local authority as if the permanent housing was provided now. It is unfair that these districts which were hit so severely should have a very heavy burden put upon them by reason of the necessity for the erection of temporary houses. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to make it clear that no loss or burden shall be inflicted upon local authorities beyond that which they would be expected to bear in cases where the land is such as would normally be used for bungalow construction, and that where the land is more expensive than that, and is used for that purpose, the Government will bear the whole of the deficiency.

Mr. Willink

With regard to the question raised by the hon. Member for North Battersea (Mr. Douglas), I think he will be in a position to-morrow morning to see the very clear statement which I have made with regard to the three classes of cases which both he and I have in mind. That statement is comprehensive and clear and I will not at the moment go beyond it, either in amplification or explanation. With regard to the question of the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Cocks) perhaps the position has not been made sufficiently clear, but may I give what is the normal cost where the question of expensive land does not arise. The average cost of site and development will be about £75 a house, giving rise to annual loan charges of say, £3 10s to £4. Let me take £3 10s. as the estimated cost—and this is a provisional estimate—of providing, transporting and erecting the temporary houses, involving the Government in loan charges for 10 Years of £68 11s. May I take the figures as £3 10s. and £68 10s. which together make £72. The payment contemplated in such a case by the local authority would be £23 10s. Against this, they will, we anticipate, be receiving on an average 10s. a week by way of rent—£26 a year—less an estimated annual maintenance charge of £6 10s.—£19 or 10s. net. We are thus proposing that they should make a net contribution of £4 a year from local authority income, while the Exchequer will bear £45.

Mr. Silkin

There is nothing allowed for the cost of management.

Mr. Willink

The estimate of £6 10s. is for repairs, maintenance and management.

Question put, and agreed to.