HC Deb 17 December 1948 vol 459 cc1551-62

12.41 p.m.

Miss Herbison (Lanark, North)

I feel fortunate in having been allocated time today to raise a question which is seriously perturbing many people in my constituency and, I would say, all over Scotland. I refer to the burning question of housing. I should like to make it clear at the outset that I am proud of the Government's achievements to date in housing for Scotland. Up to the end of this year, I understand, we shall have completed, in 1948 alone, 28,000 houses, temporary and permanent. In the peak year between the wars we find that 26,000 houses were completed in Scotland; in 1938, 20 years after the first world war, 26,000 houses were completed. At that time there was no shortage of labour and building materials. This year, in spite of serious shortages of materials and certain classes of building operatives, we have been able to complete 2,000 houses more than the Tory Government could build during the peak year between the wars.

I should also like to make it clear that, although I am proud of the achievements of the Government and local authorities in Scotland, that does not make me complacent. How could I be complacent when I have, in my constituency, two hamlets where not one house which is fit for human habitation would be destroyed if a bulldozer knocked down the lot? I should like to touch on matters as I see them in my own constituency and in Lanarkshire, though what applies to Lanark applies to a great extent to the whole of Scotland. My constituents are not suffering because there was little or no housebuilding during the six years of the war; they are suffering because of a tragic neglect by previous Governments. The problem facing us today is very serious indeed, and I raise it because I am beginning to wonder whether its seriousness is also realised by the Government.

What is the present position in Scotland? This year we shall have completed 28,000 houses. The figure given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland for 1949 is 20,000 houses—which is 8,000 less than we shall have had in 1948. I know that our temporary programme is coming to an end, and that these 20,000 houses will, in the main, be permanent, but I feel that if the present policy of the Government is adhered to, we shall not in 1950, and succeeding years, get anywhere near the 20,000 mark. That is a question which is troubling not only those who sit on these Benches to represent Scottish constituencies, but local authorities all over Scotland. On 7th November, my right hon. Friend, in answer to a Question, said that an 18-months to two-years programme is required if there is to be a steady flow of building in any community. That is a point which local authorities in Lanarkshire and elsewhere have been stressing when seeking authority from the Scottish Office for tenders for further housing. Unless we have these tenders, our whole programme will be out of balance.

The Lanarkshire rate of completion of houses between January and October this year exceeds the number of new approvals for houses by 354, and I understand that by the end of this year it will exceed the number of new approvals by 866. If this rate continues in 1949—and from all the information I have I understand that there will be no speeding up—unless new houses are started, which cannot be done unless authority is given by the Department of Health for Scotland, the programme will be wholly out of balance in Lanarkshire and in many other areas. The bulk of the traditional houses in Lanarkshire now under construction are at or beyond roof level. Out of 1,590 houses now in progress, 1,248 are at various stages of construction beyond roof level, and only 342 are between ground-floor level and roof. The large number where outside structure is almost finished shows clearly why the Lanarkshire local authorities are seriously concerned about the future of their housing programme. It is a serious situation for the county, whose needs are so great. Unless there is a further allocation for the building of traditional brick houses, I am certain that no brick houses will be built in Lanarkshire by the end of 1949. If that is the case, then my right hon. Friend's statement that there must be an 18-months to two-years programme is not being given proper attention.

On 23rd November my right hon. Friend said, also in reply to a Question, that the starting of new houses will continue to be authorised for priority cases such as agricultural workers, miners, key-workers and to meet certain other exceptional needs. It is the phrase "certain other exceptional needs" which I would like to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. I do so because I am convinced that in my constituency there are people whose needs are exceptional. Consider one area of North Lanark, which has a population of about 18,000. During the last three years not one permanent house has been built in that area. There is not even the beginning of the preparation of a site in that district. Most of the workers there are miners. It is not the fault of the Government that we have not had a site; there have been difficulties through material shortages, and in finding a place on which to build houses. We have overcome all those difficulties. Two sites have been passed for building houses, but now we come up against the problem that Lanarkshire has been given its quota of houses. These houses are distributed over other parts of the country and this district has no hope at the present time, or even in 1949, of having one house built in it.

I have spoken previously in the House, of this district as a place where there are miners living in houses of the sort that the Tory coalowners thought were fit for miners to live in. The miners come home to a house the whole of which is one single room. It can be understood how those miners are feeling at the present time. They are continually asking the local authority and their M.P. when the houses are going to be built in that village to take them out of those dreadful slum conditions. It is because of this, that I am convinced that there could not be more exceptional need than that all over Scotland, and because of this quota system, these people are now going to be penalised.

Are we today being told that we cannot build more houses in Lanarkshire? I know that previously the answer given was we would have to get our programme into balance. The figures and facts that I have given today show that that programme was in balance, but it is going to be out of balance if something is not done in the way of an allocation. Is this because of a shortage of labour? I have studied carefully the answers to Questions that have been asked in the House during the past month. Is it a shortage of material? I do not think it is either. We are suffering from the cut in capital expenditure. That cut will not affect Scottish housing right up to the end of this year, but—and this is the point I want to stress—it is going to affect seriously Scottish housing in 1949, 1950 and perhaps even 1951.

We in Scotland understood at the beginning of the term of office of this Government that because England had suffered very badly from war damage, there should be special housing concessions for England. We were content that England should be given these concessions for her blitzed areas. From the figures that are given for housing in Scotland and Wales I feel it is time we should now give special consideration to Scotland. Is the Government going to regard our country—I do not speak of Scotland—as a United Kingdom, or, for housing needs, are we going to divide it into England and Wales on the one hand and Scotland on the other? We talk about eleven-eightieths of capital expenditure going to Scotland with the rest for the whole of the United Kingdom. Because housing in Scotland before the war was always much worse than it was in England and Wales, and because England has overcome to a great extent the damage that was done by the blitz, it is time for us to see that something is done for Scotland.

I want to finish on a different note. Not only have we bad housing in Scotland, but, from the figures given in the Debate on the Health Estimates it would appear that the tuberculosis figures for Scotland are the worst in Europe, a fact which shocked the whole of Scotland. The figures given in an answer about infantile mortality show that, although at the present time they are lower than they have ever been, they are much higher than in England or Wales. I am sorry that we have not a representative from the Treasury here, but my plea to the Joint Under-Secretary of State is that the Scottish Office must do something quickly if we in Scotland are to meet in any measurable time the great needs of our people for housing.

12.54 p.m.

Mrs. Cullen (Glasgow, Gorbals)

I am glad to be given the opportunity of making my maiden speech on housing, a subject of paramount interest to the people whom I have the honour to represent. I feel sure that I shall be given the same courteous and favourable hearing as is usually given to hon. Members when they are making their maiden speeches. I want to confine my arguments to the constituency which I represent. The people of Gorbals are, no doubt, known to hon. Members of this House through the play "The Gorbals Story." The Gorbals people are hard-working, decent citizens, but at the present time they are depressed and disheartened because of the conditions in which they are living. There are many families living in dilapidated, tumble-down, rat-infested buildings.

I should like to give some figures which will demonstrate the appalling lack of proper housing accommodation. The latest statistics show that slightly over 4,500 families live in one-apartment houses. Nearly 10,000 families live in two-apartment houses. For those who have never experienced living in such conditions, it is difficult to imagine the tragedy and the misery of living, eating and sleeping all in the one apartment, especially when the family consists of anything up to eight members, while sometimes in two-apartment houses it is as high as 14 members. I am sorry to say that amongst these families are many young people in their teens suffering from tuberculosis.

There are also in my constituency 2,289 houses of one or two apartments which have been scheduled as unfit for human habitation and are still occupied; yet because of the shocking neglect of the housing needs of the people of my area, they must continue to be occupied. Even if I were a great orator, it would be quite impossible for me adequately to describe the slum conditions of my constituency. Thousands of young men from Gorbals answered the call in the 1914–18 war, and their sons in the 1939–45 war did likewise. They fought for a better way of life, for decent homes in which to rear their families and for a certain amount of home life, of which they are now deprived. They have waited in vain for that result. It is true to say that 900 families from the Gorbals have been housed, but the tragedy of that is that when these families were transferred to new houses, instead of the tumble-down shacks being demolished they were allowed to be reoccupied.

That is how conditions are in my area. I do not blame the Government. Like my hon. Friend who has already spoken, I think the Government have done a great job of work in regard to housing during the last few years, but I feel that many working people in my own constituency have been neglected for nearly 30 years. When materials and labour were both plentiful and cheap, the Government of that day did not think fit to start to remedy the slums and do something for the people living in them, and in particular for the Gorbals constituency, which is, I maintain, the worst in the whole city of Glasgow.

My appeal to the Secretary of State for Scotland, from the bottom of my heart, is that he should, in conjunction with the local authorities, make a survey of the Gorbals with a view to finding a site on which a block of flats might be erected. I have no doubt that such a site could be found for this purpose. I ask him to make a start in the Gorbals, which is the greatest slum menace that I have ever known.

I was elected to this House on 13th September and I took my seat on 27th October. During the first fortnight that I was here, the Press made vicious attacks upon me because I had not spoken in this House about the housing conditions of my people, and especially Mr. Cummings of the "News Chronicle," who seemed to think that had I got up in this House and thrown a fit of hysteria, some fairy would have waved a wand and all would have been well in the Gorbals. That does not happen. I appeal to the Joint Under-Secretary of State to do his best to make the survey for which I have asked. We are coming near to Christmas; thousands of my people have still to spend Christmas in their dens. The only way I can express myself is by calling their apartments "dens." I trust that, in this holy season of Christmas, the season of good will towards men, my appeal will be successful and that by next year, quite a large number of my folk will be able to spend Christmas in much brighter and happier homes.

1.4 p.m.

Mr. Raikes (Liverpool, Wavertree)

I rise for the one purpose of saying that I should like to have the opportunity from this side of the House to pay my tribute to the very admirable maiden speech to which we have just listened from the hon. Lady the Member for Gorbals (Mrs. Cullen). In the Gorbals she has succeeded an old parliamentarian and a friend of mine, Mr. Buchanan. Although we differed upon almost every subject, I can say that he was a first-rate Member of Parliament. If he were here this afternoon, I am sure he would he very pleased that his successor, the hon. Lady, has taken up straight away the very human problem of the Gorbals.

The hon. Lady has spoken not only with sincerity but with effect, and I hope that we shall have the opportunity of hearing her many times. This House always appreciates the opportunity of listening to any Member who speaks with sincerity, no matter on what side that Member may be. The hon. Lady was wise not to be stampeded by the Press into getting up to speak the first moment she got into the House of Commons. Nobody can speak well in this House until he has had some time to absorb the atmosphere. On this side we appreciated the hon. Lady's speech and we hope to hear her on future occasions.

Mrs. Cullen

I thank the hon. Member very much.

1.6 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. J. J. Robertson)

I should like to add my few words of congratulation to my hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals (Mrs. Cullen), to those which have been so eloquently expressed by the hon. Member for Wavertree (Mr. Raikes). Making a maiden speech is always an ordeal, but the hon. Lady has touched the House with the pathetic story of the housing conditions in her constituency.

"The Gorbals story," if I may borrow a somewhat theatrical caption, is unfortunately a description of housing which can be applied not only to the Gorbals but to many other industrial towns in Scotland where the huge, unplanned, hideous, dreary and barrack-like tenements were built 50 years or 100 years ago. They present a terrible problem to the Scottish office, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the local authorities who are responsible for dealing with this tragic problem. The Corporation of Glasgow are fully aware of the problem of the congested areas and of the need for clearing them away and rebuilding with new houses the cleared sites.

Glasgow Corporation have under construction at the present time 4,827 houses. They had completed since the end of the war 7,926 houses, to the end of November this year. It is significant to note that the speed of completion has been remarkable, not only in Glasgow but in other parts of Scotland, during the past year. Out of a total number of 5,376 permanent houses completed in Glasgow since the end of the war no fewer than 2,193 were completed this year. The problem of the Gorbals resolves itself into two distinct measures which should be taken. One is the improvement of houses worth improving in the area and the other is the clearing away of houses which are not fit for human habitation. I should not like to say how many houses fall into each of those classes, but I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals that we have this matter actively under consideration at the present time.

The Government have promised that the new Housing Bill which is to be introduced very shortly, will contain provisions for financial assistance for the improvement of existing houses. The only real remedy for unfit houses is slum clearance procedure, but that would take time. Our problem is accentuated by the shortage of labour, not only for house building but for the clearing of sites. The Secretary of State for Scotland, and I as junior Minister responsible for housing, do not need to be reminded of the serious needs of the Gorbals or of other congested areas in Glasgow. The Corporation have been authorised to make a limited start on slum clearance as soon as they feel that their new housing programme justifies them in doing so. In the meantime, an allocation of 400 permanent aluminium houses to the City for rehousing families with members suffering from tuberculosis will help them to make a small but immediate contribution to the improvement of housing conditions in these congested areas.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

Considering the high rate of pulmonary tuberculosis, would it not be as well to extend the scheme for the special allocation of that type of house? One thousand are no use in relation to the high rate of tuberculosis in Scotland.

Mr. Robertson

I said that 1,000 houses have been agreed upon as an immediate measure. Other means may be adopted to deal with the serious problem of tuberculosis in Scotland. I am dealing with the immediate position at present.

Lanarkshire is the largest county housing authority in Scotland, with a population of nearly 300,000 and requiring about 22,000 new houses to be built. At present the county of Lanarkshire have tenders approved for 4,249 houses. Of that total, 1,455 houses have been completed and 2,694 are still under construction. As to the progress made so far with additional houses in the county of Lanarkshire, we feel that they have on hand enough houses to keep them going until at least the middle of 1949. The general policy, apart from certain priority classes, is not to approve new tenders meantime, the aim being to concentrate available resources of material and labour on the completion of houses already under construction.

The county council estimate that by the end of the current year, they will have completed just over 1,000 traditional houses and 800 non-traditional houses, of which—this might be noted—about two-thirds will have been completed in the course of 1948 alone. The county council are satisfied that they have enough non-traditional houses approved and under construction to provide continuity during 1949. Therefore, the question at issue concerning Lanarkshire applies to traditional houses only. The local authority estimate that the balance of 1,224 traditional houses will be completed by the middle of 1949. They have been told that the Department of Health would be prepared to consider early in 1949 the question of further tenders in the light of the progress made to that date.

Miss Herbison

I mentioned the 18 months to two years programme. The Under-Secretary of State says that Lanarkshire expect to have completed all their traditional housing programme by the middle of the year, and yet only three or four months before its completion are they to be told whether they are to be allowed to accept new tenders. It seems that there will be a very serious time-lag in the building of those houses.

Mr. Ross

And the labour will run away.

Mr. Robertson

I can only say, in the very short time available to me, that Lanarkshire have 2,694 houses under construction. We shall be very glad if Lanarkshire are able to complete as many as that in the time I have suggested. If that is the case, we will consider the approval of new tenders in the light of the progress made by the middle of next year.

I now come to what has already been done about the preparation of new sites. To enable the county council to take advantage of any possible relaxation of the position with regard to traditional houses in 1949, the Department has indicated that it is prepared to approve additional site servicing for the following sites: Thornhill, Blantyre, 238 houses; Allanton, Shotts, 110; Chapelhall, 462; and Dykehead, Shotts, 250. The lay-out plans for all these schemes are, meantime, the subject of discussion between the Department's architects and the county council's technical advisers. It is expected that these plans will be approved at an early date and site servicing will be commenced as soon as tenders or estimates for the work have been submitted by the county council.

As to the general position, prior to October, 1947, more tenders were approved than could be completed with the labour and material available. Up to December, 1946, no fewer than 60,000 local authority and 3,800 private enterprise houses were approved but only 5,239 and 640 respectively were completed. There was also competition for materials for the temporary housing programme. With the publication of the White Paper on Capital Investment, it was necessary to apply some limitation to the issuing of tenders. The restriction on tenders dates from the capital investment review of 1947. The number of tenders increased rapidly up to the end of 1947 owing to existing commitments, but approvals have been drastically reduced since that time.

I want to say a word about the achievements in 1948. Let the figures speak for themselves, because they are a complete vindication of the policy which the Secretary of State for Scotland, and I as a junior Minister, have had to carry through during the difficult year since we took office. Already more permanent houses have been completed in Scotland in 1948 than in 1945, 1946 and 1947 put together. We expect to finish at least 20,000 permanent houses this year and we hope to maintain and improve that figure in 1949. I hope that the hon. Lady the Member for North Lanark (Miss Herbison) will not take the figure of 20,000 too seriously. We hope to improve on that, but we must depend entirely on the building industry itself to speed up the rate of production. I think that the materials will be coming forward much more smoothly during the next year, and we must ask the building industry to speed up its rate of production.

Mr. Ross

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that, unless he gives to the building industry a reasonable assurance that there will be continuity of work for it, which means starting new houses next year, the psychological effect will be a slowing-up?

Mr. Robertson

I find myself in agreement with my hon. Friend on that, and steps will be taken to acquaint the local authorities of what we expect them to do during next year.

Taking permanent and temporary houses together, this year already we have passed the highest pre-war peacetime record of house building. Therefore, 1948 will constitute an all-time record building year as far as Scotland is concerned. We shall hope to reach at least 28,000 permanent and temporary houses by the end of the year, and, if we do reach this figure, it will mean that, during the past year in Scotland, we shall have re-housed families at the rate of 80 per day, or one family every 20 minutes. I should like to assure the House and all the people waiting for new houses in Scotland that the Secretary of State and all of us who are at St. Andrew's House today grappling with this problem will not rest satisfied until the combined efforts of the Government, the local authorities and the building industry in Scotland have solved this tragic social problem.

Mr. McGovern (Shettleston)

May I ask my hon. Friend a question before he sits down? Is he aware that this statement today will cause consternation in Glasgow and in Scotland generally, and is he further aware that the community is in a very bad state of mind on this question and fears that, unless there is a tremendous improvement, 30 or 40 years from now many people will still be demanding houses and will not be able to get them?