HC Deb 08 March 1945 vol 408 cc2371-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Mathers.]

7.20 p.m.

Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)

I apologise for detaining the House at this time. On 25th January I asked my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health: whether, as the programme of 3,000 houses for agricultural workers is virtually completed, he will arrange for the building of a further 3,000 houses to assisting in meeting the acute housing shortage in the countryside."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th January, 1945; Vol. 407, c. 957.] His reply indicated there were difficulties in this matter. This question of housing in the rural areas is becoming more and more acute, and I do not know what the position is likely to be, unless the Government take the most energetic steps within their power to deal with the matter at the earliest possible moment. I suggest that the most satisfactory method of dealing with it is, again, to duplicate the programme of 3,000 houses for rural workers which was initiated by my right hon. Friend's predecessor, the present Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, on 4th February, 1943. The reason for initiating that programme was that the increased food production has aggravated the exist- ing shortage of houses. That shortage has become greater and greater ever since, and, as a result, labour does not now move to the farm which needs it most. Workers move to farms that can offer a roof for the agricultural worker and his family. The urgency of this demand for houses in 1943 was shown by the keen interest which this House displayed from time to time by Questions, addressed to the Minister, as to the progress being made. Indeed, the announcement had scarcely been made that this programme had been instituted when Questions began to appear on the Order Paper asking what progress had been made. A flood of Questions was addressed to the present Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and his Parliamentary Secretary on this matter.

Now, when the flood of Questions has subsided, we can see the positive advantages this scheme has given us. I believe they are three-fold. First, we gained widespread experience in the building of rural houses all over England. Secondly, rural councils have been able to overhaul and get working again the machinery for dealing with this problem. We have tested out costs of building in rural areas. We have had a chance of training workers in building, and above all, and this is the most important point, we have 2,800 houses to show for it, which means that that number of houses is off the waiting lists of local authorities. I believe that the right thing to do now is to have another scheme for 3,000 houses, and see whether we cannot build them at a lower price, and in a shorter time.

After all, the Ministry of Health, if my right hon. and learned Friend will permit me to say so, is the right Ministry for housing problems. He is the Minister responsible, and it was his Ministry which was expensively educated after the last war, at Government expense, to deal with this matter. It was an expensive education, but the Ministry proved an apt pupil, and in the Ministry we have the additional advantage that it is, of all the Ministries, the one in closest touch with this House. I think of those who have occupied the position now held by my right hon. and learned Friend—the late Neville Chamberlain and Sir Kingsley Wood, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Kelvingrove (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot), the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Green- wood), and so on. Now this housing question seems to be slipping away from the Ministry that knows the job and that can do the job, and is disappearing somewhere over the other side of Lambeth Bridge, where a Commissioner of Works, enlarged and swollen by the war, has taken his offices. The Department that once was in charge of this House and of the great vine at Hampton Court, and that used to build post offices and employment exchanges that were required by various Government Departments, is in charge of this matter.

I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to look at his matter again, to examine the work done under the programme of 3,000 houses, and to see whether it is not possible to put another scheme like that in hand, under the sole control of his Ministry. I believe that he would get the whole-hearted co-operation of every rural district council. They are disappointed that this scheme is not being driven forward. They know and trust his Ministry. If there are any difficulties in the way, either of labour or of the supply of materials, I hope he will take this House very fully into his confidence, so that the House can give him the assistance that it gives to Ministers charged with difficult jobs. Rural housing must not be allowed to go by default. It is so easy to surge ahead with great schemes for dwellings—it was going to be a great scheme for temporary dwellings: now we are to have great schemes for permanent dwellings. These 2,800 houses put up by the right hon. and learned Gentleman's predecessor are in the countryside, with families in them. They are known as the "Brown" houses. I want to see 3,000 houses that can be called the "Willink" houses.

7.28 p.m.

Mr. Edgar Granville (Eye)

We are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) for raising this question of an increased supply of rural houses, because, as he says, the matter is very urgent. In the county of Suffolk the shortage of rural houses has become chronic. There have been no number of repairs carried out, and no replacements, and we received only a very few of the 3,000 cottages built under what was called the "Brown" scheme. I have hardly the heart to write any longer to the billeting officers or housing officers in my part of the country, because they are endlessly trying, so far as I can see, to get a quart out of a pint pot. I am glad the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Minister of Health is here, because he is very much concerned with this question. Old people are occupying farm cottages because the county institutions are full, there are no vacancies available as I know in Stow-market or because there is a shortage of man-power or woman-power in the county institutions. These old people are left in the cottages without the care and attention they should receive. That is a very serious aspect of the rural housing problem. I realise that there is a man-power problem, which primarily concerns the Minister of Labour. Another aspect of the position is that magistrates receive an application for possession of cottages, because farmers want to put in farm workers at the behest of the Minister of Agriculture, or the W.A.E. Committee, to increase food production. What can they do? The magistrates are giving orders for possession of these cottages, and whoever is living in a cottage is dispossessed, and in some cases is left with no alternative accommodation. As I say, I have hardly the heart to write to the billeting and housing officers, because I know the worrying position they are in.

The position in some of these villages is pathetic. There is serious overcrowding. There is a waiting list. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, most of the Members representing rural constituencies could give him case after case of serious hardship. I wonder that the Minister of Agriculture does not stand on his hind legs and protest on behalf of the community, which has stood him well and backed him up in his war time food production programme. The National Farmers' Union and the Agricultural Workers' Union have passed resolutions of protest, and have stated over and over again their anxiety with regard to the serious shortage of farm cottages in the villages. They have said that the countryside will be hard put to it to maintain food production unless there is an increase in the number of cottages available. I wish the Minister of Agriculture would put up a fight about it, if it is a question of priorities of materials and man-power.

Why does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not do something about the houses and cottages requisitioned by the Army authorities and really available which may require a little repair or, perhaps, more than a little repair? Has the Minister looked through the number of evacuated business offices, offices evacuated from London during the blitz or later, which have taken root in some of the rural areas where there is a housing shortage? Has he considered the possibility of cottages and houses around the airfields that were taken over and may now be available? Has he considered that we may have to take over some of the hostels of the Women's Land Army? Some of these hostels may be available, I imagine, after the disappointing statement of the Prime Minister to-day that they are not going to get the war gratuity or the business grants scheme. I imagine that they will all want to transfer into the A.T.S., W.A.A.F.S. and Wrens and that some of their hostels may be available for emergency housing accommodation.

As the Minister knows, it is not the fault of the local councils. They can do nothing. They are tied hand and foot, and can do little but pass resolutions and make vain appeals on a short-term programme to the Minister of Health. The Government have promised an amendment to the Rural Workers Housing Act. I believe that a Question was asked the other day, and that the answer was that it was to be introduced shortly. I beg the Minister to regard this as a matter of urgent priority and of great importance to the amenities of the deserving countryside. We cannot wait for the long-term housing programme. But why not use the local builders? If we give them the opportunity, and the materials and manpower and, above all, gave back to small local builders the equipment which they, in most cases, voluntarily surrendered to the large contractors when the Government wanted airfields and camps constructed as a matter of prior urgency, I am perfectly certain that they could carry out a considerable programme of repairs, of reconstruction and even of new houses.

Finally, I say that, if this is the case now, in the name of goodness, what is going to be the position in rural as well as urban areas when demobilisation begins and the men and women come back from the Forces? I warn the Government that, over this housing problem, there are going to be crucial Debates in this House, and that will be the most serious domestic crisis in the history of this country unless the Government take steps now to grapple with it on a bold scale. In my submission, unless this problem is dealt with as we dealt with the supply of war equipment and aircraft, and unless the Government appoint a man of initiative, drive and energy, a man with the resourcefulness of a Beaverbrook, it is going to be one of the biggest domestic problems we have had to solve. If the Minister cannot get the necessary powers, I ask him to come to the House of Commons for them, so that the housing programme will be for the rural areas not one of 3,000 houses, but of 30,000.

7.35 p.m.

Lieut. - Commander Joynson - Hicks (Chichester)

I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Granville) has just said, not all of it, but a good deal of it, and I agree with him most heartily in urging the seriousness of this problem. If for nothing else, we are indebted to my hon. Friend for raising this question on the Adjournment for the reason that, if it gets reported in the local papers, it will bring some hope to the people in the countryside who are not only worried but just desperate about the question of housing. At any rate, it will show them that we here in Parliament are interested and worried about the subject ourselves. It is nearly two years since I put a Question to the Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Works, when all the world was being led to hope that the solution of the housing problem would come through the temporary prefabricated house, asking him how he proposed to make this house available in the rural areas where no electricity, gas or main water supplies were laid on? I received the answer one might have expected, a perfectly straightforward, honest answer, that prefabricated temporary houses were neither of any use for nor were they intended for rural areas where those conditions prevailed.

Then I turned my attention to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Minister of Health and asked him what steps he proposed to take to meet the rural housing needs, in view of the fact that the temporary prefabricated houses were of no avail. He said that the matter was having attention and that he would be making a statement on the subject shortly. He made his statement but he has not, as yet, produced any houses, and that is what we need. The situation is really quite as serious as has been represented this evening. Houses have been demolished in the country as the result of enemy action. It is not only the towns that have suffered. They have fallen terribly into disrepair and many houses are still being occupied which have been condemned for years. In addition to all that, the post-war state of the problem is one of very acute concern indeed. A lot of the agricultural labour, particularly that supplied by the Women's Land Army, and the temporary labour supplied by the Forces and organisations generally have been housed either in the towns, coming out in lorries, or in hostels. They have not been in occupation of the rural workers' houses or of cottages and, therefore, after the war, when that labour is removed, there will be no release of cottages or rural dwellings for those who are to work on the land.

But, upon the other hand, the labour will have to be reinstated on the land. People will come out of the Forces to go and work on the land and the housing conditions will become much worse. Will not the right hon. and learned Gentleman take steps, even if he cannot go as far as the hon. Member for Eye suggested, to enable the country builder to get to work? There are an enormous number of country builders dotted about the countryside itself. They have the materials and themselves can provide the skill and the technical side of the labour, and they can get locally the unskilled labour which is necessary to complete the job. If only the restrictions could be removed and these local builders could be allowed to go ahead, while I do not say that the situation would be by any means solved, at any rate it would show that something was being done and it would tend to ease what is a very aggravated situation indeed. I have spoken rather harshly to my right hon. and learned Friend. May I conclude by saying that I know he is in full sympathy with this matter? I know he must be well aware of the difficulties, if not in Norfolk and the Eastern counties, at any rate in the part of the country I represent, which he knows very well indeed. I hope sincerely that he will, if necessary, increase his local knowledge, and when he next pays my constituency the honour of a visit he will recognise for himself how serious the situation is. If we down there can help him we shall be only too glad to do so, but we hope he will help us as well.

7.41 p.m.

Dr. Peters (Huntingdon)

I endorse what my hon. Friends say, living as I do in the countryside. There is one thing I would like my right hon. and learned Friend to bear in mind. In my own county we have, I suppose, something like 8,000 acres taken up by aerodromes, with enormous airways and, within reason, with water supply, electric light, sanitation, and so on, some of them quite near to villages. Then we have camps in connection with these aerodromes, with similar facilities, and miles of roads. These would be enormously expensive to take up, and I suggest that my right hon. and learned Friend might have regard to those works if there is to be an immediate, or, at any rate let us hope, some near-future effort to provide buildings for temporary housing. I do not see how we can erect houses, properly built of brick and stone and so on, to meet the immediate needs, and the position is quite as impossible as by hon. Friend the Member for Eye (Mr. Granville) has indicated. It is no use writing to billeting officers. I have been in the county courts and have seen judges sitting a whole day dealing with nothing else but possession cases, and very much concerned as to what order to make. Therefore, if we could make use of the facilities at our door, even if only as a temporary arrangement, it would save a great deal of trouble, although the farmers may be calling out for the return of the land.

7.42 p.m.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Willink)

I do not complain for one moment of the strength of the language that has been used by my hon. Friends with regard to this question of rural housing. As they are well aware, they have not left me enough time to deal in any way adequately with the number of points they have made, but that is not so serious as it might be, because I have reason to hope that there will be an opportunity of dealing with this subject in a comprehensive way at no distant date. There are, however, a few points which I would like to make in this short time before I answer specifically the points suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) with regard to an additional programme of rural houses.

I was very grateful for what was said about the close relations between the rural district councils and my Department, both now and in the past, and for the tribute that was paid to the work of my predecessor and the Department in connection with those 3,000 cottages. I think there is no doubt that, small-scale though that programme was, it has been educative in many ways. It has taught rural district councils what a good cottage should be, and aesthetically, and in many other ways, they are a great advantage to the countryside where they stand.

The things which I would stress particularly are three: I remember in a rural housing Debate two or three months ago, that a rural Member—I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller)—said that, though a rural Member, he had the greatest direct interest in the efficiency of the repair of London, because it was only when that work was done that he could hope to get men back to the countryside. Now that repair work has not become less in the intervening period; in fact the concentration of men upon that work is to-day greater than it has ever been. There are in London no less than 45,000 men from the provinces and, serious though the situation is in the country, as everywhere else, perhaps the most important thing of all is to get the inconvenience and worse which results from war damage straightened out before we go on with our main job.

Secondly, there is still much preparatory work to be done in many rural districts. It is true that the land acquired by rural district councils is sufficient for 33,000 houses and that land for another 60,000 houses is in course of acquisition. I would urge members of the housing committees of rural district councils to apply themselves to this matter, to study that most valuable Report we got from the Hobhouse Committee and make themselves ready in every way to go to tender for such cottages as we can authorise at the earliest possible moment. That involves the submission of lay-outs for villages and small towns, and getting the preparatory work done, such as roads for heavy traffic and drains. What is really essential is that in order that every rural council may be able to make a start with a reasonable proportion of their first year's programme, nothing must be left undone that can be done now. Thirdly, I entirely agree that there are large areas of the countryside in respect of which amendment of the Housing (Rural Workers) Act would be of value. That cannot be discussed now, but I have promised recently that that is to be regarded as a matter of high priority, and that the advice which has been given to us will be taken.

My hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston asked for a new programme. I cannot believe that that would be right at this moment, and that on a balanced view, when one considers the destruction and loss of houses in towns, it could be considered right, except for a specified war need, to start on a programme for the rural districts this month, next month, or for a few months to come. As my Noble Friend the Minister of Reconstruction said in another place, we hope that the building of new houses will start this year, and we want everybody to be ready to make that start. We believe that that is the greatest contribution which rural districts, which are as keen on this work as anybody in this House and as I am myself, can make in the present situation. I cannot hold out hope with this immense concentration of labour in London, and the demands for labour at this double peak of the war, of embarking on a special rural programme this year; but I hope that in the war-damaged districts advantage will be taken of the opportunity of rebuilding war-damaged houses up to the value of £1,500, offered in a circular I issued last November. For the rest, I hope the advice we have given to the rural councils, to get themselves absolutely ready, will be taken.

A word or two was said about temporary houses. It is true that there are many places where the need is most urgent, and hon. Members may like to know that, whereas at the beginning allocations were made only to crowded urban areas, the rural councils have now been invited to apply for allocations. There are many rural districts which have parts of their areas where, temporary houses can be suitably erected, and 6,000 of them have been allocated.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Thirteen Minutes before Eight o'Clock.