HC Deb 07 June 1946 vol 423 cc2361-8

1.56 p.m.

Captain Baird (Wolverhampton, East)

I want to raise the question of the redevelopment of derelict land in the Black Country. Anyone who has travelled by train from Birmingham to Wolverhampton must be well aware of this problem, for, on both sides of the railway line, stretching away for acre upon acre, we have the dismal sight of this derelict land with very little vegetation upon it. There is, in my opinion, no more deplorable or depressing sight in any part of the country than this derelict land in the Black Country. For the benefit of those hon. Members who do not know the history of this land, may I sketch it briefly? Some 15o years ago, both coal and ironstone were discovered in that area which we now call the Black Country. The coal and ironstone were found very near the surface, and unlike other coal areas such as Yorkshire and Lanarkshire, there were no large pits, but, instead, a very large nurnber of small pits scattered all over the countryside. Indeed, up to 5o years ago, we had something like 15o coal mines and about roo iron furnaces in this small area. As a result of that, we did not have that typical coal mining atmosphere characterised by the large pits, but instead, small refuse tips scattered over the whole area of the district. As a result, today, we have acres and acres of land which is slightly undulating but on which very little vegetation will grow.

In my opinion, there is no more fitting monument to the waste and selfishness of the capitalist system than the waste and of the Black Country. The coal and ironstone of this district were worked out 30 to 5o years ago, and there are no longer any coal mines or ironstone mines there though the monument to their wastefulness still remains. It is greatly to the credit of the people of this district that, while their basic industry disappeared 30 to 50 years ago, new industries have arisen and this is still a prosperous area. I would say to the Minister that these industrious people deserve better of the nation than the condition of the area in which they are living at present.

There is no reason today why the Black Country of England should remain black. These derelict areas, these receptacles for old tin cans and bricks, could become real open spaces, lungs for the people of the district. I know the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Town and Country Planning and his Ministry are well aware of our problem. Some months ago the Ministry published a very admirable report, the Beaver Report, dealing with this problem. I know the Ministry has commenced a campaign, and is carrying out a series of exhibitions in connection with the possibilities of the Black Country throughout the region itself. f he Beaver Report shows that there are some 9,300 acres of derelict land in the Black Country. Of that 9,300 acres, some 3,200 acres are scheduled for building and for development; indeed, some development has already commenced. Even when that is taken away, there remains a hard core of some 6,100 acres of derelict land, which is useless at the present time and is a liability to the nation.

The point I wish to raise this afternoon is: What are we going to do with this hard core of 6,100 acres of derelict land? I have said that the Minister already knows the problem. I say further, the local authorities in the districts also know of the problem. We have the problem and we have the, solution on paper. The question I am asking this afternoon is: What is going to be done to implement that Report, and what is to be done to make the Black Country green? There are two main reasons for the delay in implementing the Ministry's own report. The first reason is the cost. This land has to be levelled. In the town of Wolverhampton we are carrying out building on one housing estate on derelict land, the Willenhall Road Estate. On that estate the cost of roads and sewers per house amounts to £153. In another area in the same district, with the same problem, the cost of levelling is £200 per acre. The reason for the high cost of the derelict land is because the derelict land is in small patches, and interspersed with this land there is built-up land. To get the derelict land levelled we have to buy the built-up land and lump it in with the derelict land. The cost of the land is £300 per acre, and the cost of levelling is £200 per acre, which brings the total cost up to.£500 per acre before we can get the land fit for building.

Mr. Mack (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. May I direct your attention to the presence of a strange hon. Member on the opposite benches? Would it be in Order—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

That is not a point of Order. The hon. Member can sit where he pleases.

Captain Baird

Might I say how pleasant it is to see someone on the opposite benches? I quite appreciate that there is only one Conservative Member left in Staffordshire, and there are none in the Black Country. Perhaps that is why they are not here, although they are responsible for the problem. But I am glad one of my hon. Friends is there so that I can look at him.

In my opinion, the local authorities in the Black Country cannot afford the cost of reclaiming this derelict land. We have already carried out some reclamation in Wolverhampton, but when the houses have been built we have found we could not let them at rents comparable with other working class rents in the district; therefore, we have had to subsidise them out of our housing fund. Thus, it is not a problem for the local authorities. That brings me to the second reason for the delay, namely, the need for unification and regional planning in this area. At the present time, in the area we know as the Black Country there are something like 18 different local authorities; there are county boroughs, non-county boroughs and urban district councils. Some of the local authorities are rich, some are poor; some might be able to carry out reconversion of this land, some certainly cannot afford to reclaim the land. Therefore, we must have unification and coordination under the leadership, in my opinion, of the Minister of Town and Country Planning. I know the Ministry has set up about four sub-regional committees. Cooperation and coordination are necessary at a much higher level. If we are to tackle this problem—and it is a major problem in a very industrious area of the country—there must also be consultation between the various Ministries concerned. I hope we will get that in the very near future.

There is need for much research in the utilisation of this derelict land. Even when we have levelled it and built houses on it, we find that nothing will grow in the front and back gardens. In this area we have been forced to cart soil from other areas and dump it in the gardens at thicknesses of one inch to four inches. By a system of green manuring I think it is possible to make this land quite fertile within a period of three years. By advising the local authorities on this subject of green manuring and other problems, the Ministry of Town and Country Planning could do a good job. By levelling and carrying out a process of green manuring we might considerably cut the cost of making use of this-land. I would therefore ask the Minister first to approach his right hon. Friend the Chancellor, to see if something could be done to get financial support for the plans which he is drawing up for the utilisation of this land. Secondly, I would ask him to call a conference of the local authorities at the earliest possible moment, to get their cooperation and coordination in facing up to this problem. Thirdly, will the Minister also give us the benefits of research, with a view to making the land more fertile.

It has been argued by the Ministry of Agriculture that, if the Ministry of Town and Country Planning could utilise this derelict land it would save other agricultural land which is at present being used for housing, because we could build houses on the present derelict land. I agree that much of this derelict land can be utilised for housing. At the same time, it is essential, if the Black Country is no longer to remain black, that much of this derelict land, when it is developed, should be used as open spaces. The people of the area must be given open air lungs in which to breathe. At the present time, in that area which stretches through Birmingham, Walsall, Wolverhampton and all the other Black Country towns, towns which have poured out so much wealth throughout the world, and done so much to lay the basis of the industrial prosperity of this country, it is black and morbid because of the derelict land. It is essential that now we should seize the opportunity to use this derelict land in such a way as to build houses, and see to it that a considerable area is retained, not as slag heaps and waste land, but as green open spaces to give open air lungs to these very deseving people.

2.10 p.m.

The Minister of Town and Country Planning (Mr. Silkin)

My hon. and gallant Friend has quite accurately set out the problem of derelict land in the Black Country. There is no dispute about the facts. My own Ministry has taken a considerable interest in this problem and, as he pointed out, has actually been responsible for a survey of the area, with very valuable results. It has issued a report prepared by Mr. Beaver on the whole problem of derelict land in the Black Country. The problem is not really so acute as my hon. Friend made out. A good deal has already been done. We started off with a gross number of 9,000 acres of derelict land. Some 3,000 can be excluded because plans are already in existence for dealing with them by levelling up to provide sites for houses or for open spaces. Some very remarkable work has been done in the saving of land of this kind. I think one has to recognise that about 2,500 acres in the Black Country are quite irreclaimable. They consist of such features as marl pits, which may be as much as 50 feet deep, with precipitous sides, and full of water; and they could be dealt with only at prohibitive cost. And so we are left with a hard core, not of 6,000 but of 3,500 acres. I think that that is the extent of the problem. I would not accept the position that it is beyond the means of the local authorities to deal with it. A good many of them have already dealt with a considerable part of their areas of derelict land, and I think that they can deal with the rest.

Captain Baird

May I point out that some local authorities have built houses on derelict land but have found out afterwards that they could not rent the houses at reasonable rents because of the costs? I quote Wolverhampton, for example, which has quite recently entered into negotiations with the Ministry of Health about getting a subsidy, because the houses built have had to be subsidised out of their housing revenue account.

Mr. Silkin

I do not know what the land costs are in Wolverhampton, but in the particular instance my hon. Friend gave, of land costing £500 an acre, after taking into account the cost of reclamation, the cost does not seem to me to be a very formidable figure. Indeed, we are advised in this report that the cost of reclamation ranges between £200 and £350 an acre. I should have thought that if the derelict land had been compulsorily acquired, the amount would have taken into account the cost involved in reclaiming it, and that the ultimate cost of the land to the local authority would have been no higher than if they had bought ordinary land for housing or open space purposes. If I am right—and that is certainly borne out by the Beaver report—then really I can see no substantial case for financial assistance for the local authorities. That is borne out by the fact that a good number of local authorities, possibly more than half of the 18 my hon. Friend talked about, have already done something in the direction of reclaiming their land. I hope that the result of my hon. Friend's raising this matter in the House this afternoon will be that the remaining half of the authorities will be inspired to do the same.

So far as my Ministry is concerned, we are doing everything we can, by education and by personal contacts through our regional officers, to encourage local authorities to deal with their derelict land. At the moment that is all that we can do. We have no powers either to make a contribution or to act in default

I am very conscious of the whole position of the Black Country, of the large number of authorities, and of the fact that--perhaps, less than in other parts of the country—there is lack of coordination. I have had under consideration the whole problem of the Midland conurbation of which the Black Country is a part. My own view is that one must look at this area as a whole; that it cannot be taken in parts; that the problem of the Black Country is only part of the problem of the Birmingham area. I hope in the very near future to do what my hon. Friend suggests, and to have a conference of all the local authorities in the area to see whether we cannot do what has already been done in the Greater London area—look at the picture as a whole, make a complete survey, prepare a plan and endeavour to deal with the Midland conurbation as one unit. I agree very much with my hon. Friend, also, about the question of research into fertility. I will certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture to the evident desire and need for doing something, particularly in areas such as those of which my hon. Friend has spoken. I do agree with him that that is particularly the case where something should be done. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will be only too delighted to be of such help as he can.

In conclusion, I would say that on the request for financial assistance the answer is, first, that there is no power and, secondly, that I think that there is really no case: I think that the local authorities ought to do the job themselves. On the need for unification and coordination, I hope in the near future to consult the local authorities in the area with a view to finding agreement upon the preparation of a plan for the whole of the area. Thirdly, as regards fertility, I will certainly draw the attention of the Minister of Agriculture to the observations of my hon. Friend. I think I have dealt with all the points he made.

Captain Baird

There is one other point. Will the right hon. Gentleman give some guidance to the local authorities on the point that although some of this derelict land should be used for housing, a considerable portion of it should be retained for open spaces, because there are few open spaces in the area?

Mr. Silkin

I certainly agree. As a matter of fact the amount of open space in the area is very substantially less than what most people agree is necessary. Some of the land that has been reclaimed has been, in fact, used for open spaces and not for housing. Wherever possible and appropriate—sometimes it is not appropriate to use a particular piece of land for open space because it is more appropriate for housing—but wherever it is appropriate, the influence of my regional planning officers will always be directed to making up that shortage. I will draw their attention once more to the point made by my hon. Friend, to see that the claims of open spaces are not lost sight of.

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