HC Deb 24 October 1947 vol 443 cc469-80

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

4. p.m.

Mr. Lever (Manchester, Exchange)

I have given notice to the Minister that I want on this Motion for the Adjournment to draw the attention of the House to the waste of precious raw materials and labour supplies on luxury building not only in Manchester, but over the whole of this country. I should like the House at once to understand that my complaint is not based on a few isolated cases of misjudgment where small licences have been granted for work which readily could have been postponed. My complaint is that the luxury building in this country at the present time has reached what I can without overstatement describe as positively gigantic proportions. Hon. Members may get some idea at once of this when I tell them that in the City of Westminster, where we sit, spending in recent months averages the rate of some £4,000,000 a year on building licensed by the Ministry of Works, in addition to the £100 decoration licences granted by the local authorities, and in addition to housing requirements which are sanctioned elsewhere. Hon. Members who may be tempted to think that Westminster has suddenly become a hive of export industry might be somewhat disillusioned if they looked at the schedules printed by the Ministry of Works of what this building consists.

I propose to give a few examples of the building work licensed by the Ministry of Works. At 49, Conduit Street, in Mayfair, a ladies' hairdresser was allowed a licence for £3,300 in order that he might adequately satisfy his clients with a suitable Mayfair background. At 39, Conduit Street, a licence for £2,700 was granted to a bevy of fashionable dressmakers and tailors to carry on their business. Round the corner, at 170, New Bond Street, a cosmetic shop, in order to ply a purely luxury trade in New Bond Street, was granted a licence for £2,535.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke)

Work or want.

Mr. Lever

There may have been a good deal of working put in, but not much wanting, I think, as far as those people were concerned who were fortunate enough to receive licences for that luxury business. At 63, St. James's Street, Johnny Walker, the whisky firm, received a licence for nearly £4,000 to enable them to put their premises into suitable condition.

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

They export.

Mr. Lever

We all sympathise with the great difficulty Johnny Walker have at the present time in selling their products in the shoddy surroundings of stucco walls and the like. But however that may be, we think it is a somewhat excessive amount in the circumstances. Messrs. Thomas Cook, to enable them more efficiently to organise an exodus for holidays abroad, were allowed a licence of nearly £9,000 for premises in Berkeley Street. An interesting licence, which will give the House some idea of the principles which seem to operate in the granting of the licences, is the licence granted to Devonshire House, Piccadilly, the office premises of Odeon Cinemas.

If the House will bear with me it will receive instruction from the details of this licence. It appears there is a showroom in Devonshire House, and our cinema chiefs find the mirror glass round it imperfectly reflects their countenances; and, consequently, that has had to be repaired and reglazed at a cost of £2,160. Whether the masonry of the building was dilapidated or damaged, whether it was bomb damaged or not, the purpose for which the building was used would make it seem surprising that a licence of £3,000 was granted for masonry repairs. Most astonishing of all is the figure of £2,000 to put in new glass in the sixth and seventh floor windows. I am tempted to imagine they must have replaced those windows with Venetian glass taken from the most extravagant Hollywood set. The same building while the job was on, received a licence for £420 for interior decorations of a general nature, and, while at it, to make sure no extravagance of the interior decorator's art should be strait-jacketed by rising costs, a further £350 was granted to cover that little matter. That is a total on the building of nearly £8,000 I could go on taking examples from the list I have—

Mr. Asslieton (City of London)

Could the hon. Member tell us where this information can be obtained?

Mr. Lever

At Alhambra House, the Westminster City Council offices; the local authority provide this information, which I take it the Minister of Works is courageous enough to supply to them. Apparently the public may inspect this, but, unfortunately, the public appear not to have done so. I fear many hon. Members of this House would be startled at the figures revealed in this schedule. I could take hon. Members through a list of luxury hotels in London and show the work done there. The Piccadilly Hotel spent £2,734 to clean and decorate the exterior. The Ritz spent £2,150 for the same purpose—all with Ministry of Works licences—and to repair and decorate what must surely be an interesting spectacle known as the Grand Gallery—which I personally have never seen—they spent £3,633. The Criterion Restaurant was much more modest and asked for a licence for only £900 for exterior decoration which, with a singularly disingenuous euphemism, the Minister calls "Renovating the front elevation," or dolling up the front as it might more popularly be termed.

I can give other items. For example, the Park Lane Hotel was apparently distressed because its customers had to suffer from fuel rationing because of the old-fashioned coal-burning method of providing central heating, so they ordered a brand new one burning dollar-costing oil: a little matter of £3,971. While on the job, they also repaired the ballroom for £396. The Criterion Restaurant, on the other hand, apparently suffered from some lack of cold, and put in a nice new cold room for £1,500, again with the Minister's permission. While on the job, they got licences for £3,000 or £4,000 to put in new concrete floors and, a particularly choice item, £1,000 to put their staircase in order. One would infer that for some years past the Criterion's customers have gone trembling up the dilapidated staircase which urgently needed £1,000 spent on it to put it in order.

It may be said—and I understand the argument—that, after all, London is the heart of the Empire, and we do not want to look shabby when trying to attract tourists. Apart from the fact that a casual glance at the hotel registers of the places I have mentioned shows that most of the tourists are from Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and similar points in this country, I do not want the Minister to be misled by the fact that he often sees left-hand drive 1947 American cars outside: The spate of generosity on the part of newly found relatives in the United States has impressed many of their unfortunate and austerity limited friends in the United Kingdom. We all know that tourists come, and they know exactly the conditions in this country.

The case made out for restoring London's finery, or making it look more attractive, would be more convincing if it were not for the fact that about half a mile away from these premises—in which every extravagance is indulged on this pretext, in Tom Paine's words, Lament the plumage but forget the dying bird. —there are people living in abominable and disgraceful housing conditions, with overcrowding and dampness, conditions which have long disgraced our living standards in London and elsewhere; there is a desperate need for elementary but urgent repairs, yet they cannot get them done because of lack of labour and materials. Therefore, I cannot see the force of the argument in favour of spending thousands of pounds in this way on our West End hotels.

There is another item which the House might find instructive. Lansdowne House in Berkeley Square received a licence because apparently the corner of it was damaged. They were granted a licence for £5,900 to repair that little corner which had been damaged. Was that licence granted to some new export industry which had been driven into the heart of fashionable London? Was it granted to some urgent Government administrative office? Was it granted to somebody who was planning a new drive for agriculture? No, Sir. It was granted to a Mayfair florist's shop: a sum of £5,900. I venture to think that when that licence arrived it was not only the nightingales who sang in Berkeley Square.

Before I pass from Westminster, I should be failing in my duty if I did not raise a matter which will probably divide opinion on both sides of the House, namely, the new House of Commons which is being built. We manage very well in this Chamber; and apparently the people in another place manage very adequately in their somewhat smaller surroundings. It is obviously wrong that we should be spending enormous sums on the House of Commons, when the expenditure could be easily postponed. One is very mindful of the dignity of the House of Commons, but I do not think it adds to the dignity of the House, or of its Members, when people see that vast sums are being spent on work which could easily be deferred. I do not want to weary the House by going into details of licences granted to clubs, which range from £800 to £8,000. It is obvious that of this £4 million only about 2 per cent. could be said to be urgent work which could not be postponed, or work which would help this country in its present economic position.

Regretfully, I now turn to my home town, which I have the honour to represent, where I find the position is no better. The Ministry are granting licences there at the rate of £30 million a year. If the majority of these licences are for really essential work, I and all the other Members for that area have been blissfully unaware of it. We have been made amply aware of the widespread luxury building contained in this vast sum. In the streets, large cradles can be seen going up at hotels for repainting and building. On the other hand, we have deputations from people in the building industry complaining that men have been paid off for two or three days because they are waiting for paint for urgent housing purposes. There is one small restaurant in Manchester which has secured a licence of £8,000 to renovate lavatories. These must be a sight to inspire the most depressed members of the Manchester community. Convenience, apparently, has been raised to a very high level of art. Great offices which could easily wait are being built at the Royal Exchange, while at the same time Manchester Corporation are cutting their housing programme to one-third, and the people are suffering great hardship due to the housing shortage. What is also important is the difficulty of getting repairs to dilapidated houses. This work could be done if there was not this drain on materials and labour in the manner I have suggested.

Mr. Ellis Smith

Can my hon. Friend say the sum of money allowed in the case of the Manchester Exchange?

Mr. Lever

I am afraid that question will have to be addressed to the Minister, I imagine it is quite considerable. In my constituency, two new garages have been built for about £70,000, which is equal to the cost of about 70 houses apart from the land. I would draw attention to the fact that the limit for repairing bomb-damaged houses is £750 per family. No such restriction appears to be imposed in the case of bomb-damaged flower shops. As I said, garages and showrooms, which were not bomb-damaged, have been built quite unnecessarily. I have given notice of the two cases to the Minister. Littlewoods have been able to get hold of a massive piece of steel sheeting for erection in the main street of Manchester, and Manchester Billposting Company have been employing a gang of workers to put up a concrete block on the corner of Deans-gate for the purpose of advertising films. That is the position, and it is obviously not good enough. Perhaps it is a little too much to expect the Minister, when he replies, to say, as I think he ought to say, that, although he is not personally responsible, he is ashamed of licences of that kind being granted on the scale demonstrated, when, at the same time, there has been a great overall stringency throughout the country.

I want him to improve the position for the future. I am not alone in being concerned about this matter. It is not the first time that the attention of the Minister of Works has been called to this. It appears that he has had ample notice of the growing discontent. Building unions have notified him, and the Standing Committee of the Metropolitan Boroughs went to him a year ago to complain and ask him to improve his system of licensing and the principles on which licences were granted. They also asked for one very important remedy which ought to be taken now, that notice should be posted outside buildings for which licences have been granted so that the public and the workmen engaged on them can see the amount of the licence granted and the purpose for which it is granted. The Minister turned down that suggestion on the ground of administrative difficulty. I think that the only difficulty would be in controlling the outraged crowd when they knew that licences had been granted such as I have represented to the House. That would be some check perhaps on acceding to applications for licences. I am not placing any blame on the firms who have applied for these licences and who have been granted them. The blame is on the Minister of Works for granting them. If the Minister is so lost to a sense of what is required by the country as to grant their extravagant requests, he is to blame and not they.

The leader of the Manchester City Council asked me to take up this matter because they do not appear to have adequate liaison with the Ministry of Works. He has complained over and over again to the Ministry of Works about these licences, but apparently the liaison between the Ministry and the officials of the local authorities is something less than adequate, although I am bound to say that there is a good reason for supposing that the liaison between the Ministry of Works' officials in some places and the people who get licences is more than adequate. I would like to hear from the Minister about one of his employees in Manchester who was apparently notorious and who was eventually proceeded against. I believe that a warrant has been issued for his arrest. I would like to know the total of the licences granted by him, whether proper care was taken in his selection, and whether, since that date, the Minister has taken steps to see that unworthy and inadequate staff are not allowed to make very important decisions in the granting of licences where large sums of money are at stake, and when buildings are being put up today to be sold immediately for two or three times their original price.

I expect the Minister to get into touch with the local authorities and with the local trades councils, who can advise him about the work going on. I will not weary the House with more details. I have registered my protest, and I would like the badly housed, overcrowded constituents of the Exchange Division to know that their Member does not approve of the actions of the Socialist Minister of Works who has granted these licences. I am not satisfied, and I hope that the House will not be satisfied, by any bureaucratic sophistry about bomb-damaged buildings. Bomb-damaged florist shops should remain damaged until the people of this country are decently housed. I have mentioned that £6,000 has been spent on a florist's shop, and thousands of pounds have been spent to enable whisky salesrooms to be put in order. I hope that we shall have an assurance for the workers who have been asked to postpone their demands in many things, to work harder and longer, to exercise more patience and deny themselves any chance of solution of their housing problems, that this kind of luxury building will be stopped forthwith.

4.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Durbin)

In the time available at my disposal I cannot consider in detail the dozen or so cases which my hon. Friend the Member for the Exchange Division of Manchester (Mr. Lever) has mentioned. I have here full particulars of all of them, and they can be communicated to him if he is not satisfied with the information he gets in this first instance. I must, therefore, turn for a moment to one or two of the principles which arise out of what he said. When a licence is granted for any building operation three questions arise—the need for the work to be done; the practicability of getting the work done; and the economy in the use of materials and resources in doing it. The two latter, the practicability and the economy, are Ministry of Works responsibility. When it comes to the question of need it cannot be a matter for the Ministry.

This is not a matter of departmental "buck passing." My right hon. Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power is—Parliamentarily and departmentally—responsible for the allocation of coal. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply is responsible for the allocation of steel. We are responsible for the allocation of scarce building materials. The fact remains that it would be quite impossible for any of these Ministries to determine this question of need. If it were done, the Minister of Fuel and Power would be, out of the exercise of his own authority, directing the whole life of the nation. In the same way we should be guiding and determining the whole capital development of the nation. We must, therefore, in granting the licences always turn to the interested Government departments to ask for their sponsorship and support.

This business of sponsorship is, however, subject to two controls. First, there is the control of building labour ceilings. The amount of labour available for the building industry is allocated in broad figures between the various Government Departments. We have to satisfy ourselves that a licence, whose sponsorship is accepted by a Government Department, is within their labour ceiling. Then finally, in large cases, there is the starting date procedure by the regional building committees. In the case of licences where there is no Government Department sponsorship, the local authorities are consulted in almost every case.

In every case in Manchester quoted by my hon. Friend the local authority has been consulted.

Mr. Ellis Smith

Does that include the Stock Exchange in Manchester?

Mr. Durbin

Yes, so I am informed.

In the particular case on which my hon. Friend laid so much stress, pressure has been put upon the Ministry of Works by the local authority to grant the licence. That is the first point. The second point is the problem of the dangerous structure notice. The local authority exercising its power and fulfilling its duties under legislation issues dangerous structure notices to occupants of particular premises. If that is done it carries the automatic granting of a licence. If it did not it would put an occupant into an impossible position. Either he would break the law by continuing to occupy these premises or he would break the law by conducting building operations without a licence. So it has been the practice to follow dangerous structure notices in all cases with licences from the Ministry of Works. In almost all the instances of shops and other types of premises—not all, but I will go into the details of any case with my hon. Friend after this Debate—quoted by the hon. Member for the Exchange Division of Manchester dangerous structure notices had been served.

Mr. Lever

Was a dangerous structure notice issued for the reglazing of the showroom in Devonshire House, Piccadilly, which cost over £2,000?

Mr. Durbin

Most of that work at Devonshire House was done under orders issued by the district surveyor. On a general point it must be remembered that external painting is necessary very often for the preservation of the fabric and yet the brilliant appearance of buildings in the centre of London, like a shop or a house, will create an impression that far more extensive work has been done than has in fact taken place. That painting work is essential in order to prevent more expensive calls upon labour and materials in the. future. In the same way, much of the internal glazing and decorating work to which my hon. Friend has referred is done by specialist contractors with specialist types of workmen who are not available for work upon housing construction, or indeed any kind of building construction, that my hon. Friend, in common with us, is so eager to press forward.

I must call my hon. Friend's attention to a rather striking figure which I had not myself realised. When we turn away from the things to which he has referred, and consider how much work on repair and decoration in houses is asked for from the local authorities as against that which is licensed by them, we find the difference to be extraordinarily small. In the last six months in London, that difference was only 5 per cent. That is, in numbers of licences.

Mr. Lever

Most of these licences are for very trivial sums, whereas the few to which we have referred are for enormous sums, in some cases 20 or 30 times the amount.

Mr. Durbin

The total value of the licences does add up to a very great deal; but that is not the point. The point is in the proportion. The fact is that of the licences which were applied for for repair and decoration to local authorities in London, only 5 per cent. were refused. There is not an enormous unsatisfied demand for repairs, painting and decorating, at any rate in London, in the houses of ordinary persons. I concede at once that this is to me a rather curious fact, but these are inescapable figures.

The last thing I want to say is that I have examined all the cases of which my hon. Friend gave me notice, and that I am satisfied that in two cases, further explanations are necessary. In one case to which he referred, I think there was undoubtedly an immense inflation of the value of the work done upon the original licence. I looked into this case myself when I was in Manchester and I gave instructions that such inflation upon an original licence shall not be permitted and shall be prevented by a closer co-ordination among the local authorities and the inspectors of my Ministry. Finally, on one of the particular cases which my hon. Friend has mentioned, I must call attention to the fact that shops which were reconstructed and redecorated had been used as an air-raid shelter. I agree that the figures shocked me when I looked at them, but the matter is open to the argument that a particular moral obligation rested upon us to make restitution in this particular case.

In general, no one can contend that when thousands of licences are being issued here and there a mistake will not be made. I should be the last person to say so, and nobody in his senses could make any such contention. I will only say that upon examination of the list of cases that were submitted to me by my hon. Friend, when we have excluded the cases of dangerous structures, and the hotels that are necessary for "dollar-spending" foreign travellers in the centre of the city—they will not go to hotels that are not furnished and decorated according to the standards that they expect—a residue remains, I will not deny and I will not dispute—

It being Half-past Four o'Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.