HC Deb 28 March 1946 vol 421 cc667-80

As amended, considered.

CLAUSE 7.—(Reduction of local authorities' contributions in certain cases, and corresponding increaese of exchequer contributions.)

7.51 p.m.

Amendment made: In page 5, line 23, leave out "rate," and insert "rates." [Mr. A. Bevan.]

CLAUSE 8.—(County council contributions.)

The Minister of Health (Mr. Aneurin Bevan)

I beg to move, in page 6, line 39, after "may," to insert "with the consent of the Minister."

This Amendment is moved in order to meet a wish which was expressed almost universally in the Committee.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

7.52 p.m.

Captain Crookshank (Gainsborough)

If I trespass on the time of the House, it will be for only a few minutes, in order to explain the position taken up in this Third Reading Debate by my hon. Friends and myself. When we had the Second Reading, three or four weeks ago, I moved, on behalf of some of us who sit on these benches, what is known in House of Commons parlance as a reasoned Amendment. In it, we said that we recognised the necessity for a subsidy to assist local authorities to provide houses at reasonable rents, but we were not desirous of accepting the Bill on Second Reading, for three reasons. The reasons were that it omitted to take account of the contribution that the private builder could make in the critical housing situation in which the nation now unfortunately finds itself; it did not give sufficient stimulus, in our view, to housing for the agricultural industry; and it made no provision either for the conversion or the reconditioning of houses. We failed in our submission to the House, and we were unable in subsequent stages to insert any Amendment which would have brought the Bill more into accord with the lines of policy adumbrated in our reasoned Amendment. The reason for that was, first, because the very tight Money Resolution prevented us from moving Amendments such as we would have wished to move, and, secondly, because the tightness of the Money Resolution was due to the mental attitude of the right hon. Gentleman, who still, at present at any rate—he may have to change as time goes along—is entirely unwilling to allow the private builder to make the contribution to housing which the builder and we think he could make.

We discussed the Bill amicably, I hope, and certainly in considerable detail, earlier this week. Now we are faced with the Third Reading. We do not propose to divide the House, because we stated on the previous occasion that we recognised the necessity of a subsidy to assist local authorities to provide houses at a reasonable rent. As we study the Bill, we consider that it will go some way, at any rate, towards that object. If we look at the earlier Clauses we find that in the normal case, what is called the general standard amount of Exchequer grant and assistance is a total of £22 per annum for 60 years. That sum is made up of£16 10s. Exchequer contribution arid £5 10s. rate fund contribution. Besides that, there is the special standard amount of £28 10s. for 60 years, made up of£25 10s. from the Exchequer and £3 from the rate fund, for areas where there is either low rent-paying capacity or where the area is agricultural in nature. Besides that, there is the special case of flats and some houses, which is made possible under Clause 4. It relates to expensive sites where it will be mostly a case of flats awing put up. For that purpose there is a special rate, as defined in the Schedule.

All this, of course, will be done at a very advanced cost. The Minister pointed out that the standard of rent which he assumes and hopes will be achieved will bi round about 12s. 6d. a week in London and los. a week in most areas and 6d. in the country districts.

Mr. Bevan

Net rents.

Captain Crookshank

Yes, net rents. There is some doubt whether those figures will be achieved. There have been a good many figures quoted, and there will be more, no doubt, as time goes on. I would like to give a quotation from the "Economist" of 9th February. In recent months the "Economist" has not been unfriendly to the Government. Therefore, this is not a critical statement. I think the Minister will recognise that it is meant to be an objective statement of what they think the Bill will mean when it becomes an Act. The writer there says: It is very difficult to follow the arithmetic. and because it is difficult I shall not attempt to give it now, except the conclusion which he reaches— To rent at 10s. a week, a house (including land) must therefore cost £960 at the most, which seems a very optimistic figure. The conclusion would seem to be that there will be very few houses let at net rents of 10s., very few, in fact, at gross rents of under £1, especially when rates are inflated by the cost of the subsidy. We must remember that the more this policy is successful the more charge it inevitably brings upon the rates, it means that any special concession which local authorities may make to large or particularly poor families will have to be balanced by higher rents to other tenants. There is the real risk that local authorities who build really large numbers of houses will find, as in the interwar years, that those houses have to he let to people other than those for whom they were primarily intended.

That brings me straight to the question. For whom are these houses primarily intended? Upon that question we had some observations from the Minister during the Committee stage. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith), whose assistance to the House in these matters is so valuable, asked a question to find out what has happened in the Bill to the definition of "working classes." The principal Act refers to the use of subsidies for that purpose. The Scottish Bill which is now going through the House has references to working classes. The Bill leaves quite open the question "For whom are the houses to be provided?" The right hon. Gentleman in reply to the question in Committee as to whether there was any limitation said: On the contrary, we in the Ministry take a most generous definition of the working classes. Indeed, some hon. Members opposite might qualify for inclusion in that definition. I suppose that is just his fun. Considering the hard work we do in this House we are all entitled to call ourselves almost super-working class. The right hon. Gentleman is certainly one of them and is most attentive.

He added: There is no limit whatever."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Tuesday, 26th March, 1946; Vol. 421, c. 236.] Then he went on to describe lyrically some of our loveliest villages where people of different income groups all live together. There is one difficulty which emerges as a result of this Bill. Gone is any consideration about who should get any of these new houses, except the need for a house. "The Times" yesterday contained- some interesting statements in its first leading article. It pointed out that at the moment, such is the shortage of housing that in every section of the community people need houses. It is going to be a very difficult business for local authorities when, having done away with the previous inhibitions about who was to get subsidies, it is open to everybody. Local authorities are going to get into even greater difficulties in deciding on the degree of need.

Mr. Guy (Poplar, South)

They ought not to have any difficulty. Many of them lost much of their revenue as a result of the bombing of property.

Captain Crookshank

I do not know whether the first call is to be for those who have no houses as a result of the destruction caused by the enemy. But that applies right through the country; it is not the middle class, the working class, or any particular class that is affected. It may be the head postmaster, or the sanitary inspector, or the dustman. It is bound to be very difficult for local authorities to assess need when only need is the criterion, and quite undefined. Nothing has gone out, certainly not from this House, and perhaps not even from the Minister, on that point. He will correct me if I am wrong.

Mr. Bevan

Yes, I sent out a circular to local authorities quite recently pointing out the circumstances in which they should take need into account.

Captain Crookshank

I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman, but even so, it is going to be a very difficult and invidious task. There will be a further complication arising from the fact that these houses may be occupied by anyone on any income standard. The difficulty is that, unless arrangements are made in good time, there will be people living in these houses and getting the benefit of the subsidies from the Exchequer and from the rates who do not, in fact, need them because of their standing. That is going to be very difficult, but I think it is inherent in the problem. I sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman. He has to face this difficulty, which arises particularly from the fact that the previous categories have gone for the moment. They may have to be introduced later on, but at the moment they have gone, and only need qualifies for these houses. That is what I had in mind when I gave the quotation from the "Economist."

The matter is also going to be difficult, because the estimated cost of these houses is so high. Even with this very high subsidy from the Exchequer and from the rates, we fear, and I expect the right hon. Gentleman fears, that there will still be a gap which the rates will have to make up over and above the contribution from the rate fund envisaged in the Bill. In those areas, the more houses that are built the bigger the burden that will fall on the rates in consequence. The best thing we can all do is to try to see how to get costs down as quickly as possible.

The Bill, in Clause 10, regularises the position of houses built during the war, especially agricultural cottages. The right hon. Gentleman has naturally fulfilled the promises and obligations which were entered into by his predecessors in the war Governments who explained that these houses would get the benefits of subsidies which were to follow immediately after the war. No one will complain of that. Clause 13, which raises from £10 to £15 the subsidy for private enterprise houses in agricultural districts, is of some, but not very much, value. In our view, the amount is insufficient and is unfair to the private builder as compared with the advantages the Bill will give to local authorities even in the agricultural areas. We had some considerable discussion on this the night before last. It does not cover the case of the tied house, which is important while there is a shortage of houses. For that reason, we consider that while there may be some advantage in Clause 13, it is nothing like so effective as it might have been.

Clause 17 allows the Minister to make grants for houses not constructed by traditional methods. While it has been impossible during the Debates to find out exactly what the Minister hoped would be the result of his policy, it happens that since then his estimates have come out. He is asking for the sum of £9,750,000 for this purpose. According to the Explanatory Memorandum, the calculation, a purely mathematical one which does not carry anyone anywhere, shows that if we pay £200 per house and build 50,000 houses it would cost £10 million. The fact is that neither the Minister nor anyone else can make an accurate forecast. If one is hoping to do something entirely fresh in a field which has never been explored, one cannot be definite in the first two or three months. Perhaps as the year goes on we may have more information on the matter.

Clause 18 rather shocked me when the real explanation of it was given the other night. The Clause looked extraordinarily innocent on the face of it. The Minister could make arrangements for the provision of housing associations and could assist them in various ways. The total amount was not at any time to exceed £15 million. We had thought that when the Minister's own Explanatory Memorandum said that this provided for the setting up by the Minister of one or more housing associations which would provide houses which the associations would manage, it was a further development of the general arrangement for the provision of housing associations. But when it came to debating the matter on the Committee stage, it meant nothing of the kind and the rather confusing nomenclature did not refer to the question of housing associations at all.

The right hon. Gentleman is setting up a private building army, and the reason he is doing so is that he is jealous of the Minister of Works, who has one already. That seems to be the only explanation. He said: I want the Ministry of Health to be able to establish a building organisation that can step in to build houses with the consent of and in cooperation with the local authority, where the local building resources in any direction whatsoever are insufficient for local housing needs. He then said: Hon. Members will recall that when the Building Materials Bill was before the House, the Ministry of Works had power to direct building. It is thought that the Ministry of Health, which has very much more direct relationships with local authorities, should have similar powers.''—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th March. 5946; Vol. 425, C. 328.] Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman is to have an army which will be able to come in, in agreement with the local authority in some cases, but, as I understand it, without its agreement if the local authority is in default, and build houses, and this local army will live on the country; it will collect all the money which would otherwise have been available to the local authority if it had built the houses. That is quite a fair description. It is a novel idea. I suppose that, as long as the right hon. Gentleman is at the Ministry of Health, we have to expect novel ideas; but novelty is not necessarily the same thing as good, and I ant not sure that is a good Clause in the Bill. However, we are prepared to let the right hon. Gentleman try the idea and see whether it works. One can see the argument for it, but one can also see a great many arguments the other way.

This is a necessary Bill. It is not anything like the kind of Bill which hon. and right hon. Members on this side would have liked, and I am certain that if the Minister had been willing to take the benefit of our advice arid marry it with the advice which he got from his own side, he would have got a better Bill, and more houses would have been built, which is, after all, what we are after. This is a financial Bill. The Minister knows as well as I do that money alone will not provide houses. Money, as he said, is a comparatively minor element at the moment; the important things are labour and materials. There was a Debate on that subject on Monday last, which the right hon. Gentleman may have had reported to him, and grave anxiety was expressed in every part of the House on the materials position. That is what will want watching; but of course, when one has all the labour and all the materials, obviously one will want finance. This Bill will give that to the Minister. It will give it to him in a very lavish manner. We can only hope that the objective Which all of us have in mind will be reached, and that is, as quickly as possible as many houses as possible. If that is, as I am sure it is, what the right hon. Gentleman wants, we hope this Bill will be an instrument to that end, but we are very sorry that it is not the Bill which it might have been, a really good, substantial contribution to the housing problem. It is a miserable little affair, cribbed, cabined and confined, by his purely doctrinal views. Let the right hon. Gentleman try his own doctrinal views first; but in the end common sense will prevail.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Kinley (Bootle)

In saying "Goodbye" to this Bill and sending it on its journey towards becoming an Act, I hope the House will pardon me, if I point out briefly one bad spot in the Bill, and that is the financial side. I have for very many years believed that the housing problem was one of the most urgent with which Parliament could be called upon to deal. I have been disappointed with every effort hitherto made by Parliament to solve, or to attempt to solve, the housing problem, because in every case the basis of the Measure has been a financial con- tribution, as in this Bill, from the local authority and from the tenant. In this Bill, there are three contributions to be made: one by the taxpayer, to provide the Government's part of the subsidy; one by the ratepayer, to provide a further part; and one by the tenant, because the very fact that the house is to be built under the provisions of this Bill requires that what he pays shall be his share of the interest upon the money which has been borrowed to permit the house to be built. This is a Bill that might just as well have been prepared and brought forward by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen of the Opposition. It is as much a capitalist Bill as any yet, and my regret is that we have not, with a Socialist Government, adopted a Socialist basis and changed entirely the whole of the financial contribution.

I understand it is the intention of the Government that, through the instrumentality of this Bill, there shall be built in this country a very large number of houses. It is hoped by the Government, I understand, that through the instrumentality of this Bill house building shall continue until the housing shortage has been overcome. The housing shortage is a very large one, and it will require the building of a very large number of houses to overcome it. It is here that one comes to the first objection of the Bill. Every one of those houses must be built on borrowed money. The local authority must borrow money required in respect of every house. I say that is wrong, but because of that it is necessary for the Government to make provision to come to the assistance of the local authority, first, with the subsidy, and secondly, to insist upon the local ratepayer bearing a very unfair proportion. That is one of the evils which at present spoil the Bill. If the local authorities throughout the country are to be responsible for the building. of a very large number of houses under this Bill, they will need to be responsible for taking from the general money market a very large volume of money year by year. I suggest that the Government having got this Bill should now be preparing an amending Bill to deal with the weakness which I am pointing out in this one.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member. He has been very skilful so far. He is not now dealing however with what is in the Bill, but what he thinks ought to be in it, and that is not in Order on the Third Reading.

Mr. Kinley

I unfortunately failed to make my point on Second Reading although I tried, and this is my last opportunity. I feel strongly on this matter, because there is nothing of greater importance to the people of this country than good housing. We want not only good housing, but cheap housing, and that is utterly impossible on the basis of borrowed money. This Bill has that basis, and because of that, I do not like it. It is the only part of the Bill I do not like. I regret that the Government I support should have introduced a Bill with that as its basis. While I am prepared to praise what the Government have done, I am bound to take this opportunity, when I do not agree, of expressing my disagreement, in the hope that I may persuade the Government to change their ways in future. I repeat that on the basis of borrowed money, we shall never be able to solve the housing problem in this country. On such a basis we are bound to impose unfair burdens upon those least able to bear them. In the interests of public health, of the right development of the future generations of this country, it is essential to realise that this Bill will not provide the homes, the atmosphere and the environment necessary if illness and disease in our towns are to be circumvented and made impossible in the future. The Government may take their Bill. I hope that the next one will be a Socialist Bill, and will not be like this one.

8.23 p.m.

Mr. Gibson (Kennington)

I do not regard this Measure as being the miserable little Bill described by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank). This Bill will be of enormous assistance to local authorities in tackling in a big way the tremendous housing needs of the people of Britain. The financial Clause of the Bill has the support—I was about to say the enthusiastic support—of the local authority associations in this country. I do not say that the local authority associations have secured all they asked for in the first place, but the subsidy under this Bill is the best which any housing authority in this country has yet had.

Mr. Kinley

Did not the Addison Act limit the demand on the local authority to the product of a penny rate?

Mr. Gibson

I do not wish to become involved in the labyrinths of my hon. Friend's argument. I say again that this Bill contains the best subsidy to the local authority to assist the housing programme that we have yet seen. All the local authority associations agree, and speaking as a representative of one of the largest of them, I say we regard this Bill as being one which will give us great assistance in tackling our problem in a serious way.

I wish to say a few words about the Clause which provides that the subsidy on higher priced land shall be paid at the higher rate, where the average of the development is three storeys or more. Some of us have been keen on building cottages wherever we can. That has been discussed in this House during the Second Reading and the Committee stage. But in places like London and other large cities, housing needs are so great, that the people will insist on living in these closely congregated centres, and the area of land is so restricted that it is impossible to house them merely in cottages. This Bill provides the opportunity, because of the way in which the subsidy is laid out, for local authorities to indulge in mixed development, which will provide not only for flats but for cottages, and provide not for the outworn prewar conception of cottages, but for cottages and flats for all sections of the community.

I do not see any reason why local authorities, in their housing work, should be restricted to the old-fashioned definition of a working man. It has been stated that, in these days, even Members of Parliament can claim to be working men. I hope they will become more and more liable to that description. I have heard it said that this House is becoming more a purely working machine. I cannot see why anyone who earns a living should not be entitled to expect from the community at least minimum housing accommodation. Inasmuch as the way in which this Bill is drafted will enable the definition to be widened, I think it is all to the good, and as I say the subsidy is so framed as to enable local authorities to indulge in the principle of mixed development. I am glad, because already it has been possible to develop in London the principle of mixed development and to provide cottages in a part of London where it might have been expected that only flats could be built. I am referring particularly to the East End of London. Inasmuch as the Bill does that, it is worthy of the enthusiastic support of this House, and of all the people outside. I believe that this Bill ought to receive a unanimous Third Reading. I know that local authorities in this country will be encouraged by it to go ahead and push on unceasingly, and with gathering speed, as labour and materials become available, in the greatest housing drive that the country has ever known.

8.28 p.m.

Major Leģģe-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

There is one paint on Clause 7 which I should like to raise. The Clause as it stands is perfectly adequate for the vast average of the country, but I am a little worried about areas where the county rate is very high, and where rural districts are very poor. Although I give this Clause my blessing so far as I can, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will keep an eye on these poor counties and places where the county rate is very high, regardless of what the rates for housing may be. If I might take up one point raised by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Kinley), I would say that this Bill cannot well be regarded as an expense, because its object is the most important on which money can be spent these days. I would only add that there are other fields where, perhaps, money might not be spent quite so lavishly, but to avoid getting out of Order I had better leave the point there. I wish this Bill as big a blessing as I can give it. There is a growing need for houses today and the great thing is to get them built. I do not think this Bill will do it in the best way possible. In fact, without being rude to the right hon. Gentleman, I would like to sum up the Bill, and the Government's conduct, so far, in the words which were used in a certain very popular programme on the B.B.C. a few Sundays ago, by a man who purports to be one of the Minister's countrymen, who said: I am doing my very best; i could not be doing worse. try as I may.

8.31 p.m.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Aneurin Bevan)

I am sure the House will not expect me to make a long reply to the speeches which have been made on the Motion for the Third Reading. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) made a very fresh and entertaining speech but, nevertheless, one could not say that any new points emerged. The main argument that we do not put sufficient reliance upon the resources of private enterprise, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned in the first part of his speech, was answered in the last part of it when he said the main limitation was labour and materials. Therefore, if we got on to the building sites all the building contractors in Great Britain at the present time, they would not be able to build an additional house because the limitation is on the supply of labour and materials. All the talk we have heard, both here and in the Press, about the contribution that could be made by the speculative builders is entirely beside the point because they could not give us any more houses at all. With regard to housing associations, which gave rise to some anxiety in the right hon. and gallant Gentleman's mind, I am very sorry indeed that the confusion of language obscured the intention of the Clause. It was not intentional. I think I made it clear in the Committee stage that the Ministry of Health does not need to have direct building powers. There are instances, especially where we have blitzed towns and where we have new industrial development, where it might be necessary to reinforce the resources of a local authority. Also, there have been circumstances in the last six months where it would have been very useful indeed if the Ministry of Health had been able to build and, therefore, prevent certain combinations arising which for a while had the effect of holding up building prices.

Captain Crookshank

Why is it not sufficient for the Minister of Works to act as an agent in these matters, as he does in so many other directions?

Mr. Bevan

Because the Minister of Health has statutory obligations to the local authorities which the Minister of Works has not got. In any case, it may be necessary for the Ministry of Health to continue to hold houses after having built them, which is a function the Ministry of Works could not discharge. The Ministry of Works could not erect houses and hand them over to the Ministry of Health because, as the law stands at the moment, the Ministry of Health could not accept them. Therefore, it would be an extremely undesirable thing for the Ministry of Works, which does not stand in the same relationship to local authorities as the Ministry of Health, to have these powers.

Captain Crookshank

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. It was worth making the point.

Mr. Bevan

Certainly; I am very much obliged to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman. I cannot reply to the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Kinley) without getting out of Order, and that I do not propose even to attempt.

Mr. Kinley

Well, I did it.

Mr. Bevan

I am very grateful to the House for the urbane way in which the Debate has been conducted. I hope now the Bill can have the Third Reading.

Major Leģģe-Bourke

Would the right hon. Gentleman give some assurance that he will watch these county areas?

Mr. Bevan

I certainly will watch the matter very carefully. I shall watch the whole of the housing programme carefully and anxiously, and, I hope, later on, enthusiastically. The hon. and gallant Member has no need for anxiety on this point because he will find, I believe, before very long that the rural authorities are so satisfied with the rate of subsidy under the Bill that they will be building houses relatively more quickly than any other local authority in Britain.

Major Leģģe-Bourke

I would point out to the right hon. Gentleman that in the cases where some of the councils have many houses under £10 assessment—some of the counties have many rural areas which are very poor—Clause 7 is not giving them as much benefit as it gives to many other councils.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.