§ 2.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Derek Walker-Smith (Hertford)
Whatever view the House may take of the matters which have just been under discussion, they will at least, I think, be agreed that the people of this country will have very little to celebrate on 8th June in regard to the progress of the housing programme. It is to that aspect that I wish to draw the attention of the House. I notice that we are somewhat ahead of schedule, again differentiating ourselves and our procedure very markedly from that of the right hon. Gentleman and the Government in regard to their housing programme. The specific aspect of it, to which I wish to address a few observations this afternoon, is the recent revocation of building licences and the implications attaching thereto. It is my intention to address myself to the general implications of this matter in the hope that some of my hon. Friends will be successful in catching your eye, and will be able to adduce further specific local instances of the way in which this action is bearing heavily upon the various localities of the country.
This matter arises out of a letter and a circular sent by the right hon. Gentleman's Department to the local authorities. I think the House in general is familiar with these documents, so that I need only refer to them briefly. The letter was sent to 161 local authorities calling upon them to discontinue the issue of licences for private enterprise building, and to 32 local authorities instructing them to cancel certain licences already given. That letter referred to the Ministry of Health circular, and, in particular, to paragraph 3, which contains the following words:Inevitably during the months ahead resources of labour and materials will remain restricted in comparison with need. Applications for licences must therefore be considered in relation to their possible effect on building of new houses by local authorities. For the present, the erection of houses by private builders must be controlled so as to ensure that such work does not absorb a disproportionate amount of labour and materials. The number and proportion in each area will vary with local conditions, but it is clear that effect will only be given to the general policy if the housebuilding programme of the local authority is substantially in excess of the number of houses for which licences are issued.The action of the Minister in this regard really means that private enterprise 2939 building is being still further restricted in an effort to maintain what I consider to be an artificial ratio between the rate of local authorities' building and private enterprise building. I think that a justification for the Minister's action must rest upon four premises. The first of these is that the demand for houses to let as compared with houses for sale is in the ratio of four to one; secondly, that the local authorities are a good instrument for the building of houses to let and private enterprise is not; thirdly, that the two agencies cannot properly, usefully, and profitably co-exist; and fourthly, that local authority building will benefit in proportion as private enterprise building is discouraged. It appears to me that all these four premises to a greater or lesser extent are false. I propose to deal briefly with each in turn.
The first question is that of the ratio between private enterprise and local authorities. On 6th March the Minister of Health attempted to justify in the House of Commons his fixing of the four to one ratio in favour of the local authority building. I quote from the HANSARD of that date:It certainly is not a figure based upon any strict statistical inquiry, because the facts are not available, but because it seems to me to bear the proper relationship to the social situation of most of our people, because four out of five in Great Britain need houses to let and cannot afford to buy them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th March, 1946; Vol. 420, c. 454.]I propose to assess the value of that statement in regard first to the ascertainable position, which is not ascertainable since before the war and, secondly, in regard to the evidence of the wishes of the population at the present time. In regard to the statistical evidence which the right hon. Gentleman said was not available, there is, in fact, statistical evidence available for the year 1939 in a Report of the Fitzgerald Committee, which analysed the position in regard to eight million dwellings and issued a Report under the title "Valuation for Rates, 1939." That Report shows that at that time 35 per cent. of the houses were owner-occupied and 24 per cent. were let at an unsubsidised rent. It is common knowledge that there is no appreciable difference between the amount paid in unsubsidised rent and the amount necessary to make repayment to a building society for the purchase of a house. Therefore, taking 2940 these figures it would appear that not 80 per cent., as the right hon. Gentleman has suggested, but 40 per cent. was the maximum need in this country for houses to let because people were not in a position to buy them. It appears that the right hon. Gentleman has followed the old discredited policy of taking the number he first thought of and doubling it. That is a comparatively modest arithmetical project for the right hon. Gentleman, because I observe that he said on Thursday, 11th April, in this House, in answer to a question put to him by myself:I would remind hon. Members opposite that we have already built far more houses in the six months following the end of the war than were built in the three years at the end of the last war."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April, 1946; Vol. 421, C. 2092.]I submit that that bears not the slightest relationship to the known published figures. In the three years after the last war the local authority built 51,153 houses and private enterprise built 22,919 subsidised houses and unsubsidised, an estimated figure for four years of 30,000. That is, a total of 100,000 houses, whereas under the right hon. Gentleman's policy local authorities for the first six months since VJ-Day built 445 houses and private enterprise has erected 1,600 houses, making a total of 2,045. So the right hon. Gentleman fixes himself a ratio of 50 to and makes that extraordinary statement in this House, the contradiction of which I am glad will now go upon the records. With regard to the evidence of demand at the present time, I should like to refer to the analysis of a cross-section of opinion in the Army and the Air Force, which was made by Mr. Arnold Whitley, lecturer on housing and planning to the Forces. The result of his analysis is set out in detail in a letter to the" Daily Telegraph "on 19th November last. I cannot refer to it in detail, but I may quote his conclusion, which is this:There appears to be a general desire to own the house one lives in; the gratification of this wish depends largely on economic security; and private enterprise was making a considerable contribution to this among the lower income groups in the years immediately before the war.In fact all the evidence goes to show that between 1919 and 1938 there was a steady increase both in the ability and desire on the part of all sections of the community to own the houses in which they lived, 2941 and building society records show that in 1939 50 per cent. of their clients were drawn from the wage-earning classes.
I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House that the desire for owner occupancy is still continuing, but unhappily the ability to do so owing to the actions of the right hon. Gentleman is not. Indeed, during the years of the war the desire for owner occupancy has increased, because in 1945 Building Society advances were as much as 50 per cent. of what they were in the peak building year of 1936–50 per cent. in the period when there was no house building at all. What is the explanation of that? It is that many houses that were rented in 1938 and 1939 are now passing into owner occupancy. Therefore, on the first issue of demand my conclusion is that the desire for owner occupancy is deep-rooted in this country. The Minister is undermining the possibility of implementing that desire, but he is quite unable to exorcise the desire itself.
I pass now to the second false premise on which the Minister's action is based, namely, that the local authorities are a good instrument for building houses to let and private enterprise is not. It is a well known parrot cry of many hon. Members opposite that private enterprise did not or could not build houses to let and that the houses that were built were built only for sale. This is a contention frequently made in this House, but it does not bear examination on the facts and figures. During the five years before the war private enterprise produced unsubsidised 1,316,000 houses, a figure which will take the right hon. Gentleman some time to emulate at his present rate.
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
It is, I am sure, within the recollection of the House that I did say five years. If the right hon. Gentleman had done me the compliment of listening to me he would have heard me say "five years." If the right hon. Gentleman wants to interrupt me I will give way.
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
In the five years before the war. The war started in 1939 and, therefore, it would be from 1934–39. Of those 1,316,000 houses, 481,000 were 2942 built for a rateable value of not more than 13, 672,00o were built for rateable values of £14 to £26 and the balance, 163,000, were built for rateable values of over £27. That means that the majority of the houses built were smaller houses, of which the community stands in dire need today. Were those houses built to let? In the two and a half years before the war, from April, 1937, to October, 1939, one-third of the houses built by private enterprise were built to let. Were they built only for the rich, and the well to do? No, because many of those 163,00o houses built to let were built for a low rateable value. Equating that in terms of weekly rent, they were able to be let, unsubsidised, at a rent of perhaps less than the 10s. at which the right hon. Gentleman aims today and which, as I pointed out on the Second Reading of the Housing (Financial Provisions) Bill—in figures which the right hon. Gentleman has not sought fit to refute—he may not attain without placing a grievous and undue burden on the ratepayers.
Now I pass to the other side of that issue, that is to say, the capacity of the local authorities. During the period of most intense building activity in the country only boo local authorities were active in the sphere of housebuilding. Appendix B of the right hon. Gentleman's February housing return shows that of approximately 1,500 local authorities 911 had not one house under construction by the end of February. This is after the encouragement and urging by successive Governments over a period of some three years. I am aware that they could not build until a comparatively late period, but the right hon. Gentleman will realise that they were urged to take preliminary steps a long time ago, by his predecessor in the days of the Coalition Government.
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
The hon. Gentleman seems to have an irresistible urge to put a point. If he cannot wait until he catches Mr. Speaker's eye I will give way to him. As I was saying, after all that encouragement not one house was under construction by 911 of these local authorities. The Minister of Health, who does not count among his admirable qualities the sovereign virtue of logic, thinks that because an agency is not building houses to let it is, on that account, building 2943 houses for sale. That is a pathetically false syllogism. Local authorities are not building houses for sale; they are not building houses at all. It is clear from these figures that the right hon. Gentleman is putting aside the substance in a vain effort to grasp and come to grips with the shadow.
§ Mr. Rees-Williams (Croydon, South)
Where were the large number of houses, built for a rateable value of less than £13, erected? My experience is that few such houses were built before the war.
§ Mr. Rees-Williams
I ask the hon. Gentleman to extend the information he is giving us, by saying where those houses were built. That is a perfectly fair question.
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
To tell the hon. Gentleman, or this House, where many hundreds of thousands of houses were built, to pin-point them, would require a much longer time than I feel I ought to take. I can well appreciate the surprise of the hon. Gentleman at the versatility of private enterprise, because it is one of the regrettable facts about human nature that when people become soaked in prejudice and error they become, to some extent, innoculated against the truth.
I pass to the third false premise, that these two agencies, local authorities and private enterprise, cannot work contemporaneously together. This question must depend, obviously, on the availability of labour and materials. I addressed myself to the question as fully as time allowed on 25th March, when we discussed building materials. My recollection is that the Minister of Health did not see fit to attend that Debate, although it concerned matters touching so very nearly the great task which has been committed to his care. I do not wish to repeat the various argument which I adduced on that occasion, and which are on record in the OFFICIAL REPORT, but what I would say now is this: Before the war, in the building industry, without the civil engineering industry, there were 1, 000,000 building operatives normally employed. Of those, normally one-third were employed on housing work, one-third on maintenance, and one-third on construction Other than house building. In January of this year, 2944 the returns showed that there were 755,000 building operatives available for work. They have been coming in at the rate of about 15,000 a month since then, and so the total is now about 800,000. As the Government has given, or pretends to give, priority to housing in the matter of construction there is no problem of labour. There is an abundance of labour, provided it can flow freely into the channels in which it can be used.
How about materials? On 25th March I addressed myself in this House to the problem of the brick industry. I do not want to repeat what I said then, except to say that there is no long-term difficulty about the production of bricks. That there is a shortage now is a grave reflection on the lack of prescience on the part of His Majesty's Government. They are choosing to punish, by this revocation of licence, private enterprise building, and, what is much graver and more important, the whole community for their own sins. The right hon. Gentleman imitates the genial practice of other despots of old, who chose to expiate their own offences by ordering a severe flogging for the innocent whipping boy. We now have a repetition of that frame of mind in the action which has prompted his revocation of these building licences.
Mr. Montaģue (Islington, West)
Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that the only thing needed to build houses is bricks?
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
No, Sir. One of the things required is bricks. One of the things that the present Government have neglected is bricks, and I say that an administration which could not foresee the necessity for bricks is sadly lacking in prescience. Perhaps I may carry even the hon. Member for West Islington (Mr. Montague) with me when I make that proposition. I sum up that part of the issue by saying that the labour and materials position not only permits but positively invites combined and contemporaneous activity by both the agencies to which I have referred, and in so far as it does not, the fault lies at the door of the Government.
I come to the fourth premise, that local authority building will benefit in proportion as private enterprise building is discouraged. I believe that also to be a false premise. To some extent, I think it has already been refuted in the considerations which I have addressed to the House. The 2945 Minister's contention appears to be that, in so far as there is a shortage, the resources which are denied to private enterprise building will automatically be available for local authority building projects. That is a gross oversimplification of the problem. The local authorities' schemes are, in many cases, not ready, and they have not reached the point at which they can take on the labour and materials which might be released by the revocation of private enterprise building licences. I pray in aid the case of Wokingham, where I understand that 48 building licences were revoked out of 72. Looking at Appendix B to the February Housing Returns, I find that there are only four tenders approved for local authority building in Wokingham. What is to happen to the labour and materials of the other 44? That is the sort of practical question to which the right hon. Gentleman would be well advised to direct his attention. He may say that if some particular local authority is not ready to absorb the labour and materials, some other local authority will benefit by the labour and materials.
I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman how that labour is to be transferred. It may have escaped the attention of the right hon. Gentleman, in his romantic dreams and tempestuous perorations, that a change has come over the habits of building labour in this country. It is less mobile than it was, and it is less mobile for good reasons. Today, if a building operative cannot get wholetime employment near his home, he prefers parttime or casual employment near his home, or in some cases even a protracted holiday on his accumulated savings, rather than emigrate unwillingly to some other place in order to get only the exiguous increase in his earnings which the high taxation policy on earned incomes of the present Government allows. I tell the right hon. Gentleman that he will not get this mobility of labour by voluntary means. He has the right to direct labour under Defence Regulation 58A, but if he does that, then as a corollary he must schedule those works under the Essential Work Order. If he does that, we shall get back to the conditions that existed in wartime and which have been so rightly and so unanimously condemned—conditions of high costs, slow progress, and, naturally, extreme disgruntlement on the part of the building labour involved.
2946 I put this question to the right hon. Gentleman—and if he does not answer it this afternoon, I shall continue to put it on every possible occasion in this House and outside—Does he intend to make use of these powers to direct labour in order to get that mobility? If he does not intend to direct it, how does he propose to do it voluntarily? That is the question to which I hope I shall receive an answer from the right hon. Gentleman. Owing to our being ahead of schedule, I have addressed the House longer than I should otherwise have done. I am hopeful that my general observations will be reinforced, if my hon. Friends are so fortunate as to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, by local illustrations of which there are, of course, a great multiplicity, although we can hope to bring only one or two illustrations to the attention of the House. Unless the right hon. Gentleman is a little less stiffnecked and uncircumcised of heart in his building policy—
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
I am sorry that a quotation from the Scriptures should meet with this curiously unexpected response in the House where, in the great days, quotations from the Scriptures were given on both sides as a normal part of Debate. I am sorry if our standards have gone down. If the Minister of Health does not take a more elastic and practical view of his policy, I do not see how we shall get the houses. To cancel and revoke building licences for private enterprise is a negative thing; of itself it yields nothing, except to minimise the production of houses. If the right hon. Gentleman continues that way, he will find that confidence, progress, houses are lost—all is lost save office; and, after a bit, that will be lost, too.
§ 2.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Sparks (Acton)
I am very glad to have the opportunity of supporting my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health in the action he has taken in revoking a number of licences for private building in certain selected local authority areas. I think it absolutely essential that he should have taken such action. The position obtaining in many of these areas is that they are local authority areas where land is available for housing development and in most cases, although not in all cases, 2947 they are controlled by a Conservative majority. Many of these local authorities are refusing to exercise the housing powers which are placed at their disposal. Not only are they refusing to exercise their own housing powers, but they are preventing other local authorities, which have to go outside their boundaries to develop housing schemes, from acquiring land in their areas. The policy they are following is very largely a dog-in-the-manger policy. They refuse to exercise their own housing powers, they refuse to allow another local authority to come into the area and develop housing schemes; they are simply holding the ring for private enterprise to utilise the land to build houses for sale.
I entirely disagree with the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) that there is a great demand for owner occupancy. I do not believe that the bulk of the people who are in need of homes desire first and foremost the ownership of a house. What they desire is accommodation for themselves and their families, and nine people out of ten would prefer to become the tenant of a decent house in a decent locality. I have had experience of this problem in my own area. During my 14 years' membership of the Acton Borough Council, I have served for 13 years on a Conservative controlled local authority. My experience—and it is the fairly general experience wherever the Conservative Party controls local authorities is that on matters of policy and principle they do not agree with the local authority exercising powers to develop housing schemes and to provide houses to let, but they centre their policy mainly on the principle that houses should be built by private enterprise for sale.
In the borough in which I live there was a time before the war when, if anybody wanted to live there, they could not get a house to let, although there was land there at the time. They had to buy a house at an inflated price. Many cases have been brought to my notice in which families have been persuaded to hang around their necks a burden of debt for 20 years, buying houses, incurring heavy mortgage costs, and denying themselves food, clothing and a decent standard of life in order to provide the mortgage charges on the houses which they were supposed to own. It is all very well to tell people to run into debt for 20 years to buy a house. Many such people 2948 have had to come out of the houses after a few years because they have not been able to maintain their mortgage payments and they have lost their deposits, together with practically all they had. I am very glad that my right hon. Friend sees that danger. We do not want a repetition of that situation. I appreciate the difficulties with which he is confronted at the present time. In many cases he has had to face local authorities, controlled by the party opposite, refusing to exercise their housing powers and holding the ring for private enterprise and speculators to build houses for sale at inflated prices which, in my view, is not in the best interests of the country or of those who need homes.
The people of our country want to see the maximum number of houses built as quickly as possible. I believe that my right hon. Friend is going about it in the right way. He has had to meet considerable opposition from some local authorities, but in the last few months the composition of many of them has changed. My right hon. Friend will get far more co-operation in the days to come from those authorities than ever he has had in the past. I am satisfied that he is adopting the right policy in seeing that building materials and labour shall he placed at the disposal of local authorities who are anxious to exercise their powers to the full to provide the maximum housing accommodation for the ordinary man and woman desiring a home.
If my right hon. Friend did not pursue the line which he is adopting, but acceded to the wishes of hon. Members opposite and merely continued the old Conservative policy of building houses by private enterprise for sale, he would not touch the fringe of the housing problem. People who prefer to buy a house and take a mortgage are only a fringe of the population now badly in need of housing accommodation. Average working class people do not want that type of house. They want a house of which they can become tenants at a rent that is reasonable. The local authorities are the only authorities in a position to provide houses of that type. I hope that my right hon. Friend will realise that on this side of the House we think his policy is good and wise. We want to see local authorities have the maximum of power at their disposal to get ahead with building the maximum number of houses for 2949 average families, who want houses to let at a decent rent in decent localities, and not houses to buy on a 20-year mortgage, which would deprive many of them of the fuller and better life to which they are entitled. At the end of 20 years such houses have usually been worth nothing near what they paid for them. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh but it is a fact that quite a number of jerrybuilt houses, especially in the West London area, have developed cracks and serious defects in the structure after the first ten years.
Those of us who have served on local authorities are aware that many families are not able to maintain their mortgage payments and have had to get out of their houses. The houses have been put up for sale over their heads. There has always been a great difference in the price. It has always been estimated that a house automatically depreciated by at least 10 per cent. immediately it was sold, and more often by 15 per cent. That was regarded as the builders' normal margin of profit. It is in the best interests of our people that they should not be forced to take on these burdens of mortgage payment which they cannot afford but should have the opportunity of the tenancy of a decent house at a reasonable rent, which can be provided only by local authorities exercising their housing powers to the maximum. I hope that my right hon. Friend will see that local authorities exercise their powers.
I believe that my right hon. Friend is fair when he says that for every four houses built by local authorities one should be built by private enterprise for sale. That is a very reasonable proposition and the ratio is good. I do not believe that more than one person out of five would prefer to buy a home than to rent one. My right hon. Friend is on absolutely right lines and I hope that he will stick to them and will take care that local authorities exercise their housing powers to the widest possible extent to provide homes for the people who need them.
§ 2.58 p.m.
§ Briģadier Low (Blackpool, North)
I do not intend to follow the line of argument of the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks). The hon. Member started upon a general attack, based on one particular 2950 case, upon the local authorities. It will be interesting to hear whether the Minister of Health associates himself with that attack, particularly upon the Conservative local authorities. The constituency which I have the honour to represent is ruled by a Conservative local authority. It did not change its composition in the recent election. It will be interesting to hear whether the Minister expects to receive the co-operation of that local authority or whether he will associate himself with the allegations which the hon. Member for Acton has just made. In this matter I want to avoid any kind of delay, even the smallest, in building houses in my own constituency. There are 4,000 families who have applied in Blackpool for houses, and we are naturally—
§ The Minister of Health (Mr. Aneurin Bevan)
Will the hon. and gallant Member tell me what that figure represents?
§ Brigadier Low
The implication which the Minister of Health is trying to suggest does not affect my argument for one moment. Perhaps he will let me continue. In the Minister's circular of 6th March—I hope the House will remember that date—he made two particular points. The first was to wish that everybody would hurry on with building. The second was about the terms of the licences. He said that the proper proportion between licences for private builders and for the local authorities' housing programme would vary with local conditions. Then on 2nd April—I hope the House will remember that date, too—he comes along with a cancellation of that permission. No revocation of licences in this case; just cancellation of the permission.
I want to know, and a great many other hon. Gentlemen want to know, what inquiries he made between the time when he thought fit to issue his circular on 3rd March and 2nd April when he cancelled the permission for licences to be 2951 issued. Did he make inquiries to find out what were the needs of the people applying for houses? Has he any idea how many families wish to be owner occupiers? Has he any idea how many of the houses to be built under these licences were to be built for sale or to let? Has he any idea of any arrangements the local authorities may have made, or may have had in mind to make, with the owners of these houses to be built under these licences? Has he made any inquiries to see what would be the effect from the labour manpower point of view of stopping the use of the building labour in the future on houses built under these licences? Has he any idea whether that labour would immediately be available and immediately be wanted for bundling houses under the local authorities' programme? Is he quite certain that there is a definite hold up in the local authorities' programme?
If he has not made these inquiries, and if he really is alleging, as I have no doubt the hon. Member for Acton would like him to allege, that the local authorities of Blackpool are wilfully obstructing his wishes and his programme, then surely he is guilty, to say the least of it, of a form of injustice. He may argue that to be completely just in this case would cause delay, and that delay for making up his own mind on this point would be bad from the point of view of his own programme. What would have been the result? Merely licences going to private builders to proceed with the building of more houses.
I want to make a point on the dates of these two documents to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) referred earlier on. The first, the House will remember, was dated 3rd March. It was therefore after the date of the Housing Return, Appendix B, which is dated 28th February, 1946. If the Minister will consult this document, and if he has also available the number of private licences granted up to 31st March by the Blackpool Corporation, he will find that on 28th February, 349 licences were issued, and on 31st March, 376, an increase in the course of that month of 27. Why should it be that, as a result of 27 extra licences issued over and above the 349, he should have completely altered his mind? It seems extremely difficult to justify that on any rational basis, and one can only fall back 2952 on some kind of assumptions to which my hon. Friend referred. It is indeed difficult for us to understand why a circular should have been issued on 3rd March, bearing apparent signs of sanity, and then the good effect of it completely undone on 2nd April. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of the questions I have put to him, so that perhaps the constituency I represent will understand why the system that their corporation have worked out to do their best to get houses up, which is what the Minister asked them to do, should have been stopped—on what seemed to be purely arbitrary grounds.
§ 3.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Rees-Williams (Croydon, South)
When I saw that the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) intended raising this subject today, I did not anticipate that we should hear anything new. I believed it would be the old, old story once more, very ably put across, as the hon. Member always puts his arguments across, but still the old, old story. I must admit, however, that I have had a considerable surprise, because he told us today that a number of houses were built before the war at a rateable value of £13 or less. From that, he went on to argue that because they were built at a rateable value of 13 or less, they were built to let. That, in my view, is a non sequitur.
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
I did not say that. What I said was that some houses were built of a low rateable value and some houses were built to let. I did not say that all the houses built of low rateable value were built to let.
§ Mr. Rees-Williams
Then I do not really see why the point was made at all. Every one knows that some houses are built at a less rateable value than others. However, even if his argument is that those houses were built to let, it would take a very great amount of argument on the part of the hon. Member, unsupported as yet by facts, to convince me that it was so. For some years before the war I was the Clerk to the Cardiff Assessment Committee and, as hon. Members will know, all new houses within the city and county borough must have their rates agreed to, as it were, by the Assessment Committee, which acts as the judicial body between the ratepayer and the rating authority. In my experience, the average rateable 2953 value at which houses were assessed before the war was £19—that is, the type of house of which the hon. Member was speaking. The subsidy type of house is rated at £19, and I do not believe that between the war years there was any house in the whole of that city and county borough, where the rating assessment was as low as £13. I can only imagine that if there were any assessments in any part of this country at the low rateable value mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, then the rating authority and the Assessment Committee were not doing their jobs because they were not making proper assessments.
The argument of the hon. Member for Hertford in favour of private enterprise is one that is really at the present moment quite out of our consideration. There is no argument whatever between the local authority and the private enterprise builders. What happened in private enterprise building between the wars was that the average builder borrowed the money and built a house Before he could build a second house, he had to sell the first one, or he had to get a further supply of money on the basis of having completed the first one. There was no other way in which he could do it. The average builder could not afford to build houses to let because, in order to build more houses, he had to sell the houses he had already built or had almost completed. That is what happened all over the country. When I first went into the law over 20 years ago I remember my old principal saying to me, "Whatever you do, never have anything to do with lending money to builders. There have been more solicitors ruined, and more solicitors have committed suicide over builders, than over anything else." The hon. Member for Hertford having left the arid slopes of the Temple for the fleshpots of Fleet Street—
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
It is not correct to say that I have left the Temple for Fleet Street. In point of fact, I do my modest best to combine the two. I would not like the hon. Member to go on record as having said that.
§ Mr. Rees-Williams
I apologise to the hon. Member. Most of the activities of the hon. Member are now, I think, centred in Fleet Street, but I hope that 2954 more and more we shall see him back in the Temple.
The real case which the Opposition should adduce against my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health is not private enterprise against local authority building, but national building against local authority building. I had hoped that my right hon. Friend would come out with a big scheme of national building, concentrating all building labour and direction in one hand, his own hand. He has not done it in that way—I have no doubt he knows more about it than I do, and his reasons are perfectly good and sound. But this is the only real argument on housing. Shall we do it by a big, national, corporation, concentrating everything in one big centre and able to allot building materials, labour, and finance when required, or through the agency of local authorities? When hon. Members talk about private enterprise coming into the building programme by means of the jobbing builders and I remember their menace to the local solicitor, it really makes me laugh. If they cannot bring up better arguments on which to attack us than this, then we are here for good.
§ 3.7 p.m.
§ Colonel Wheatley (Dorset, Eastern)
I wish to support the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) and to speak for a body of men who have been greatly disillusioned since the facile promises were made by the Party opposite and who are exasperated by the conditions in which they have to live. I am referring to the ex-Servicemen. The Minister, as in so many cases of planning of which we hear, gives orders without regard to the interests of a great many people. As in many Government arguments, generalities are used by which to cover their actions.
A great many ex-Servicemen are exasperated by the conditions in which they have to live and because they cannot get houses. I speak with great feeling about this. As an Army Welfare Officer for five years, and a member of a local authority for a great many years, I know the conditions in which these people are living. Many of them do not mind how they spend their gratuities so long as they can be provided with a house. They go to a small builder—the class on whom the right hon. Gentleman casts aspersions. I regret that he should cast aspersions on 2955 a very skilled and hardworking class of people who are not all speculators but who include honest men out to do an honest job. Many are quite small builders employing one or two men who have worked for them for years. They have the materials, and are willing and ready to put up houses for ex-Servicemen who want somewhere to live, away from the terrible conditions in which they are at present.
I ask the Minister not to generalise over Orders, counter-orders and disorders, but to try to think of these people and by some means evolve a scheme whereby ex-Servicemen can employ small builders to put up houses for them. They are quite willing to put down gratuities and any savings they may have in order to own their own houses. From my experience I entirely disagree with the hon. Member for Actor} (Mr. Sparks), who said he believed there are hardly any people in this country who want to own their own houses. That is entirely news to me and—
§ Mr. Sparks
On a point of Order. The point I was trying to make was that people, if given the choice, would prefer a house to let, rather than a house to buy, simply because most people have not the money to put down to buy a house. They would have to run into debt and they prefer a house to let rather than do that.
§ Colonel Wheatley
My impression of Englishmen generally is that they would all like to own their own houses if they could. I point out that there is the saying about the Englishman's home being his castle. That is because he owns his own house. I may be wrong but I have a suspicion that the Minister of Health, if he could get people into houses to let, would like that because he can move them about with more facility than if they were in their own houses. I cannot help feeling, having that suspicion, that there must be something behind the Minister's desire, excluding his own theories and ideas. He must have something in his mind when he is so hard upon anybody who wants to build a house of his own in which to live.
Has the hon. and gallant Member any experience of the security of tenure in fact enjoyed by people who were buying their houses through building societies before the war? The percentage of people who got to own their own house was quite small. A very large number of 2956 those houses were not houses at all by the time the payments had been made. There were a number of big fraud actions involving large estates in which the alleged fraud was that the erections had ever been represented to be houses.
§ Colonel Wheatley
I have a good deal of experience of this. The hon. Gentleman, like many other hon. Members on his side of the House, is generalising. We all know there have been jerry builders and people who have lost their houses. We all know there were cases where people lost money when they came to sell after the mortgage was paid. There are thousands living in their own houses now who have paid for them, and are proud of them. I make my appeal to the Minister to think of these disillusioned ex-Service men who want to do what they can on their own. They do not want to wait for five or six years, in the meantime living in one room with their families growing up under deplorable conditions. I ask him to remember those men and somehow to think out a plan by which he can help them to attain their desire.
§ 3.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Bevan
I have spoken on the Motion for the Adjournment already and can speak again only with the permission of the House. The speeches to which we have listened from the opposite side have thrown no new light on this problem. The hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) speaks on this subject with considerable eloquence, but with an ingenuousness that astonishes me. He does, of course—as indeed hon. Members opposite always do whenever housing is under discussion—pay the Government the greatest of all compliments. They compare the housing record of this Government, after nine months of office at the end of a great war, with their own record after 15 years at the end of the last war. It is a very considerable compliment indeed and I am very grateful for it. An hon. Member stated just now the housing figures between 1924 and 1939—a period 15 years from the end of 42 years of war. I shall be perfectly prepared to face the comparison after four years of this Government, and to be able to show d building record far better than the one they showed at the end of 15 years. The position, surely, is this, and it has not been denied in any part of the House. What we need to do most at the present 2957 time is to provide houses for need. The hon. and gallant Member has made a moving and, I am quite certain, very sincere appeal for ex-Service men unable to find shelter for themselves. Does he believe that it ought to be possible for wealthy ex-Service men to build luxury homes for themselves while needy ex-Service men have no homes at all? Does the hon. and gallant Member believe that?
§ Colonel Wheatley
I am not talking about the wealthy ex-Serviceman, because he can probably find better accommodation. I am talking about the poorer ones.
§ Mr. Bevan
Exactly, so I have carried the hon. and gallant Member part of the way with me already—that there ought to be a limitation on the size of the houses, and the cost of the houses to be built. We are agreed so far. I think hon. Members will agree that there are far more ex-Servicemen and other people in this country who cannot afford to buy a house than there are of those who can. Will I carry hon. Members with me on that? I would like to know.
§ Briģadier Low
It may be so in this country, but it is not necessarily so in each local authority area.
§ Mr. Bevan
The hon. and gallant Member should postpone his chastisement; I shall reach Blackpool in a minute. I am in full agreement with the House, that there are far more people in the country who cannot afford to buy a house, than there are people who can. I think I should also carry the House with me when I say that there are not enough labour and materials in this country at present, to provide houses for everybody. Therefore, those who can afford to buy a house, ought not to be able to do so before those who cannot afford to buy can have a house to rent.
§ Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)
It is all a matter of need today, and the man with the money may be in even greater need than the man without it.
§ Mr. Bevan
The question is whether the existence of money is the test of need. I thought we had already agreed in all parts of the House that a man ought not to be able to get a house merely because he can afford to buy it. He 2958 ought to be able to get a house because he needs it. We are agreed on that. As there is a shortage of labour and materials—the hon. Member for Hertford shakes his head. He made a most astonishing ingenuous statement just now—
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
Since the right hon. Gentleman does me the honour to refer to me, I shook my head because, on the figures I quoted, there is no shortage of labour. There is unemployment in the building industry.
§ Mr. Bevan
Even if there is no shortage of labour, materials go to the building of a house, and hon. Members have not discovered that fact yet. If there really is no shortage of labour and materials for house building in this country at the moment, only eight months after the end of a war, we must have accomplished a miracle. Everybody knows that there exists, and must exist for some time, a shortage of materials, because, at the end of a war of six and a half years, and while we have been dealing with the problem of repairing bomb damaged houses, when all the pipelines of supply are empty, when factories have to be rebuilt, everybody realises that there must be a limitation of materials. Even if hon. Members do not realise it, the ordinary citizen understands it very well.
§ Colonel Wheatley
Is the Minister not aware that there are numbers of little builders who have got the men and the materials and can build the houses?
§ Mr. Bevan
I will deal with that in a moment. Let us deal now with the main approach to the problem. Therefore, it is necessary that those persons who can afford to buy houses should not be able to build houses in excess of those who need houses to let. They must be rationed. I should have thought it was a perfectly reasonable proposition that a local authority ought not to allow more than one house in five to be bought, as against four to be let. I should have thought that proposition so reasonable, in fact, that it was much in excess of what hon. Members opposite succeeded in doing at the end of the 1914–18 war. As I reminded the House the other day, I am now providing labour and materials for houses to sell far in excess of what was done at the end of that war. There- 2959 fore, the situation made it necessary—I think there is no doubt about it—to limit the number of houses built to be sold. Hon. Members opposite have not yet committed themselves to the proportions. I should have thought that a proportion of one in five was reasonable in the circumstances; in fact I sometimes take the view that it is too generous in the circumstances Some local authorities—I hope that I am still carrying all the Members of the House with me—have, in fact, exceeded that proportion. Are we to permit local authorities, by their own behaviour, to thwart and frustrate the intentions of Parliament? Exactly, I carry the House with me again.
§ Mr. Bevan
Then I take the opposite conclusion, that hon. Members opposite believe we ought to permit the local authorities to do this. The situation is this: Now I come to Blackpool. The hon. and gallant Member for North Blackpool (Brigadier Low) referred to the housing situation there but his researches do not seem to have carried him very far. He did not even know how many applications there were on the local authority's list. I doubt if there are many hon. Members on this side of the House who do not know the number of applicants on their local authorities' lists.
§ Briģadier Low
The local authority's list includes all the applicants. I have referred to my notes since I made my speech, and I find that there are 4,000 applicants on the local authority's list. That is the total number of applicants for houses in the whole of Blackpool.
§ Mr. Bevan
Many of those applicants would, no doubt, rent houses if they could get them. All they want is shelter. Even those who could afford to buy houses would often take one to rent if they could find one. Let us look at the Blackpool record. The number of houses for which tenders were approved at the end of February was 60. The number of houses under construction, 26. That is the local authority of which the hon. and gallant Member said there would be no change whatever in its composition. That is very much to the distress of the citizens of Blackpool. They issued licences to the number of 349. Only two, of course, have been completed. Com- 2960 pare the record of a small local authority, Rotherham, which has a majority of a different kind. The number of tenders approved in Rotherham was 406; the number of houses under construction at the end of February, 196; the number of licences issued, 38. The conclusion I reach is—
§ Hon. Members: How many completed?
§ Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)
Basically, Blackpool is well housed compared with Rotherham.
§ Mr. Bevan
A large number. It is poorer than Blackpool. The answer is that if Rotherham had issued more licences to build houses for sale, it would have diverted labour and materials from its own housing programme.
The situation, as we see it, is perfectly clear. I know it varies in different parts of the country. I ask hon. Members to realise some of these facts. A very large number of the licences revoked were licences that were already legally dead. In other words, the condition attaching to the licence is, that unless work is started in two months the licence is automatically dead. A very large number of the licences which I have cancelled by my circular were dead. The circular merely called attention to the fact that more than two months had elapsed and the licences were, therefore, legally invalid. So, the very considerable amount of indignation which has been caused has been caused quite unnecessarily, because these licences were inoperable, anyhow. But what we should not have, is a very large number of licences in excess of the 2961 labour and materials in that particular locality; and, furthermore, what we cannot have is, as has happened in some parts of the country, local authorities neglecting their own housing programmes and diverting labour and materials from neighbouring authorities to build houses for sale. [Interruption.] I cannot give way again. I really must finish.
The situation, therefore, is as I understand it, perfectly clear. Some local authorities, quite foolishly, have cancelled the licences of those who were already building; and this, indeed, has been done by the same local authorities that had already issued an excess of building licences. I have not been able to understand why action of that sort was taken, because there was nothing in the instructions sent out by the Ministry of Health, to give rise to the impression that work on the houses under construction should be stopped Wherever that action has been taken, the position has been examined and the building has been renewed. Where it has not been, as I said in an answer to a Question today, I hope hon. Members will tell me, and I will see that it is.
Something has been said by the hon. Member for Hertford about local authorities as instruments for building. There had been great scepticism about the use of the local authorities as a medium for tackling the housing programme.
§ Mr. Bevan
The hon. Gentleman talks too early. As the year advances it will be found that the local authority machine, slow to get into action, will, in fact, be building houses on a very great scale. I will tell hon. Members at once, quite frankly, that my main anxiety is that the local authorities should have more housing schemes started and more houses ready to be put up than the nation will be able to find labour and materials for. Indeed, we have already reached that situation. Hon. Members opposite must always realise that, so long as building is carried on in this fashion, there will have to be synchronisation between the number of houses going up and the supply of labour and materials for them. That is the very essence of the matter. Hon. Members opposite have been so accustomed to a neglect of labour and material that they cannot face the opposite situa- 2962 tion. They have not yet got into that state of mind, but we will educate them as Parliament continues. As the year advances, we shall see local building schemes well under way, but I want to point out to hon. Members opposite that they had better make all the Parliamentary sunshine they can now out of this situation because all over the country things are going well, and local authorities are doing the job as we expected them to do it. A national housing corporation would have suffered from administrative indigestion from the very beginning. To have to build houses in 1,469 local authority areas on very many thousands of sites and, in addition to that—
§ Mr. Bevan
There is a Housing Association in Scotland and there may be one in England just now. If we tried to build houses by a housing association it would be administratively wrong from the beginning. There are far too many sites and far too many schemes and, therefore, a decentralisation of the administration was an essential condition for getting the job done at all.
Hon. Members opposite have been trying to give the impression that the Government are against people owning their own houses. That is entirely untrue. On the contrary, what I have been trying to prevent is people buying their own houses with money provided at extortionate rates of interest by moneylenders. A great deal of the indignation of hon. Members opposite is due to the fact that we have thwarted that development. It will be remembered that, in the Housing Materials Bill, we raised the level at which people could borrow money from £800 to £1,500. Interest rates are falling, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a fall of interest the other day. Therefore, people will be able to borrow money from local authorities at Public Works Loan Board rates of interest of below 3 per cent. Indeed, people are able to borrow money at the present time at a higher value for the houses and at a lower rate of interest than at any time in the history of this country. So far from people being prevented buying their own houses, they have been encouraged to do so. But what we do not want and what we shall try to prevent, is the encouragement of ex-Service- 2963 men to use their precious gratuities, in order to line the pockets of moneylenders.
We said at the Election that we were not going to permit this scarcity market to result in people making vast fortunes out of the necessities of others. That is the policy we propose to continue and I believe, as the housing programme develops, that the principles of it will justify themselves to the people of Great Britain. It is hardly for hon. Members opposite to remind us of our housing needs and of the large number of people in this country who have no shelter over their heads. If they had done their duty in the last 25 years, we would not have hundreds of thousands of people in this country in that situation at the moment. Hon. Members opposite must remember their own miserable record and realise that the main sufferings of our people lie at the door of the most useless party that ever occupied Office.