HC Deb 19 February 1948 vol 447 cc1467-76

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

10.18 p. m.

Mr. Willis (Edinburgh, North)

I wish to raise one or two aspects of the nontraditional housing programme in Scotland which are causing my colleagues and myself some concern. The importance of this non-traditional programme is evident when we examine the figures given in the monthly returns and when we notice that out of 82,000 permanent houses for which tenders have been approved since the end of the war, over 29,000 of them were houses of the non-traditional type. That means that more than one-third of our present permanent housing programme in Scotland is for houses of the non-traditional type.

This fact signifies that in Scotland we are undertaking an experiment of a very large and almost unique character. Because of that, it is imperative that we should be interested in its progress. We are bound, therefore, to examine fairly carefully the progress which this experiment is making. When we do, we find a number of important questions gradually revealed. The first which I wish to mention tonight is one which I have raised previously in the House at Question time. It concerns the rate at which these houses are being completed. The latest Monthly Returns, which I am afraid only go to 31st December, 1947, show that of 114 Wimpey houses which were under construction at the end of 1946, only two had been completed at the end of 1947; of 120 Whatling concrete houses, only eight had been completed; of 460 Orlit houses, only 134 had been completed; of 124 Miller houses, only 14 had been completed; of 250 Lindsay houses, only 36 had been completed; and of 416 Foamslag houses, only 178 had been completed.

This is not typical of all the types which are being built in this programme because, by comparison with these very poor figures, we have the case of the Cruden house, in the same programme, of which, although only 338 were under construction by the end of 1946, 712 had, nevertheless, been completed by the end of 1947. We also have the comparatively good records of the Weir (Quality) house and the Athol] and B.I.S.F. houses. One must ask what is the reason for this very uneven rate of progress and for the very slow rate of completion in the cases I have mentioned? It is not good enough to say, as the Secretary of State said in reply to me on 10th February: These houses are of pretty solid construction and not so easily finished as what are called temporary houses. We are going on as quickly as we can."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th Feb., 1948; Vol. 447, c. 192.] That answer displays an attitude of complacency which we cannot possibly accept. The Scottish Department must give evidence of a much greater sense of urgency about this matter than is displayed by that answer.

I want, for a moment or two, to look in particular at the Orlit house, because I am especially interested in that house as one of the Members representing Edinburgh. The first contract for the Orlit house—one for 410 houses—was placed with the company in August, 1945. At the beginning of 1946, 128 of these houses were actually under construction. Two years later—that is, at the end of last month—only 126 had been completed. At this rate of progress, we shall not have these Orlit houses in Edinburgh completed until the middle of 1950. I want to ask whether my right hon. Friend is really satisfied with this progress. We would like some information tonight of the steps being taken to speed up the delivery of these houses, and we want to be assured that the rate of completion will be very much faster during the next few months than it has been during the past year. In this particular case I am informed on very good authority that had these houses been of the traditional type they would, in spite of all the difficulties and shortages of the past two years, have been completed by this time—the whole 410.

This brings me to the second point I wish to raise. I understood that the intention of the non-traditional housing programme was, that it would supplement the traditional permanent housing programme and would enlist into the Government's housing drive men, materials, equipment, and methods additional to those available within the building industry. However, as far as I have been able to discover, all the men engaged in the production and construction of the Orlit house are building trade workers. The question naturally arises, therefore—and I suggest it is an important one, which my hon. Friend really has to consider—whether we are really getting the best from our building trade workers by allowing them to be absorbed in the production of this particular type of house. The evidence certainly seems to suggest to me that we are not.

If that is the case, I think we might be told whether it is intended to continue placing contracts for these houses. That raises this question—the much wider one, of course—whether or not the original intentions behind the non-traditional housing programme have, in fact, been justified. In certain cases, as far as I have been able to judge from the figures given in this report, the answer would appear to be "Yes"; but in others I certainly cannot see that it is. We are entitled to be given some indication of what the Scottish Office think about this matter, and what they intend to do in future. Are we to get more contracts placed for these types I mentioned earlier? What is to happen to the factory which my hon. Friend opened at Bellshill a week or two ago, where, I understand, some 800 men are waiting for employment? These are questions which are of concern to us, and to which we are entitled to some answer.

We are reaching a stage in this nontraditional housing experiment—for I think we must look upon it as an experiment—to be able to judge what achievements are really possible by these methods, and what are the factors that have to be balanced against the advantages. There is a number of factors arising out of the present economic situation which will probably influence this particular programme. The first of these factors is the result of the cuts in the housing programme. It is obvious that fewer men will be required, and it will be dependent upon what part of the programme is cut, which men will become redundant, and whether or not they will, in fact, be building trade workers or workers in other industries. If the cut falls in such a manner as to force the building trade workers out of the industry then the results may prove disastrous to the future, when it becomes possible once again to expand our building programme. I wonder what my hon. Friend has to say about that particular aspect?

Another point is that one of the features of the non-traditional programme is that it requires much more steel than does a similar programme of traditional houses. I am informed that in building operations a ton of timber does the work of one and a half tons of steel. But we can import a ton of timber for £16, whereas we can export a ton and a half of steel for £60. That seems to me, in the present condition of things, to be a factor of some considerable importance and I expect and hope that the Government have borne this in mind in deciding what their future policy will be and what will be their policy in regard to the non-traditional house. If they have, then I think we are entitled to have some indication of what the effects will be.

There is another consideration. During the past few months the building industry have accepted the principle of bonus incentive payments with the possibilities—in fact I should think they are rather more than possibilities—that the output of the industry will accordingly be much greater than it has been in the past. All these factors taken together seem to raise the question of the Government's policy in the future in regard to this type of programme. Is it to be continued at the expense of the traditional type? If it is not, what is to happen to the various factories that have been built to carry it out. We would like some information on these lines. In conclusion, I come back to my first point, which led me to raise this matter on the Adjournment, namely, what is my right hon. Friend doing to speed up the completion of the types of houses I mentioned at the beginning of these remarks?

10.33 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

I do not think I need apologise for following my hon. Friend, who has selected a subject of very considerable importance to many people in Scotland. It is important not merely to the local authorities, who have been seeking since the war ended for every conceivable means of getting houses, and for the people who wait forlornly for a house, but also to people in Scotland who would be very glad to see a new industry arising—this new non-traditional house construction industry. But I must confess that the figures that we Have had presented to us up to now of the achievements of this industry, give us little to inspire us with confidence in its future. They are very disheartening to those of us who consider that the non-traditional house can play a big part in solving Scotland's housing problem.

Some local authorities have supported the non-traditional house. Only last week Darvel Town Council asked me to see what I could do to get some non-traditional permanent houses, but honestly I must confess I could not give them very much support, because figures show that these new houses have taken much longer to construct than any other type of house. Ayr County Council have supported them from the start and so have Kilmarnock, but the position is that unless there is improvement—and it is for that improvement and speed-up we are speaking tonight—these local authorities will turn away altogether from the non-traditional type of house and this valuable new industry in Scotland will die. I believe in the non-traditional type of house.

Let us look at the figures. Of 20,981 houses begun, 5,525 have been completed. The position is very much worse than that, because of the 5,525 completed, 2,224 were Swedish timber houses. Much as we are anxious to gather bouquets in Scotland, the Swedish timber house was made in Sweden, and Scottish industry cannot claim any great share in that. So that leaves us with only 3,301 completed non-traditional houses. The smallness of these figures, and the slowness of the progress, are such as to demand an immediate inquiry by the Scottish Office and the reaching of decisions regarding two things—how to speed-up the progress of those houses for which tenders have been approved or of which construction has already begun; and secondly, to reconsider, on lines which my hon. Friend has already suggested, the whole future of this type of construction, because these 3,301 houses are spread over 20 different types of house. To my mind, there are far too many types. What is needed is more concentration of effort, and a reduction of the number of types. One can only look at the figures to see which are the most successful types, and I suggest that honour should be given to them.

As to the factories, about which my hon. Friend is worried, they can be used for the development of the selected types, as also can the labour employed at those factories. I would like also to ask about the Lindsay House, of which 550 are being constructed in Ayrshire. It is a good type of house, and the Ayrshire County Council insisted upon it, although I believe the Scottish Office rather advised against it. The County Council insisted upon it because it thought the Lindsay House was a good type of house. But of the 550, by December only 36 had been completed, and I think the number just now is 58. That means that 22 were finished in January. This is altogether ridiculous, compared with the time which has been spent upon this matter. The Secretary of State for Scotland told me last week, in answer to a question, that the average period of construction was 16 months. When it is realised that 50 of these were under construction in July, 1946, there is something far wrong with that figure.

What is wrong with the Lindsay House? Is it shortage of materials, is it shortage of labour, is it a matter of the contractors? I would ask the Scottish Secretary to look into the figures already given by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) regarding the success of direct labour schemes in Ayrshire. We have, in Ayrshire, with these schemes got on rather more quickly with the Lindsay House. Along with that principal point and the general question of this type of house, I would like to stress the point that there should be a general inquiry and a re-statement of Government policy regarding it in Scotland.

10.39 P.m.

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

I would like to say that I, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, share the anxiety expressed by the hon. Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Willis) and the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) regarding the necessity for speeding up the completion of these prefabricated permanent houses. We are not satisfied, and have never expressed satisfaction, with the slow rate at which houses in Scotland are being completed. That applies not only to the permanent types of prefabricated house, but also to the traditional housing programme.

I would like to deal, as briefly as I can, with some of the points which have been brought out by the hon. Member for North Edinburgh and also by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock. First, the policy of the Government, and certainly the policy at the Scottish Office, is to encourage all agencies that can make a contribution to this tremendous problem which we have been facing since the war ended of helping to house the people of Scotland as rapidly as possible. Therefore, the prefabricated type of house has a place and a part to play in the solution of that great problem. There is a difficult situation with regard to this particular type of house, for it is something new in the postwar period. It has been developed since the war, and as in most other new ventures a little time has to be spent in finding out the best methods by which the houses can be easily and rapidly erected.

For example, let us look at the case to which the hon. Member for North Edinburgh referred—the Orlit House. The firm in question was one of the first to he encouraged to build houses in Scotland, and they had a fairly long period of intense difficulty in obtaining the necessary labour force. They had, in addition, to improvise the moulds and machinery which were necessary for the production of the components which went to make the houses and, therefore, there was a considerable period after they were brought in to build the first 410 houses for the Edinburgh Corporation before they actually got into operation. I think it says much for the enterprise of that firm that they were able to start as early as they did—that was towards the end of 1946.

Having said that, I would like to say something further about the difficulties which this particular firm experienced, because it was symptomatic of that which was experienced by many other firms. They had the shortage of labour consequent upon the delay in getting building trade operatives out of the Services. There was also delay in the production of the component parts of the houses due to delay in the building of the factory, and it was very largely due to the efforts of my right hon. Friend, my predecessor at the Scottish Office, that that firm was set going in the early part of 1947.

The permanent housing programme in Scotland can, I believe, make a very great contribution to the solution of this problem and the policy of the Govern- ment is to encourage all agencies, including permanent prefabrication firms as well as the traditional type of building to make that contribution.

Mr. Ross


Mr. Robertson

My time is limited, and it is quite impossible in the short time at my disposal to give answers to all the questions that have arisen, but I want, finally, to say that efforts have been and are now being made to organise supplies to the finishing trades, because it is there where we find difficulty; it is not in the actual construction of the shell or hull of the houses. Recent months have shown that by a greater degree of continuity in supplies to the finishing trades, such as, for example, baths, plastering, and glass, which has been causing some considerable difficulty recently—where there is a smooth and steady supply reaching the sites, then the houses can be easily and quickly erected.

There are signs now that there is a speeding-up. For example, the firm to which the hon. Member for North Edinburgh referred was able to produce during last year from five to ten houses per month. I can give him this assurance that if we have the supply of materials which we expect during this year that particular scheme in Southfield ought to be finished.

Mr. Willis

Will we get the balance of 410 this year?

Mr. Robertson

Yes, I think that is possible providing we have a supply of the necessary materials, which are plasterboard, glass and timber. There is one other point I wish to mention about the necessity of encouraging the prefabricated permanent house. We have experienced a great economy in the use of timber in these houses. These houses can be built with an expenditure of something like 0.9 standards of timber as against two standards of timber in the traditional type of house. For all these reasons, we are satisfied that we ought to encourage and develop this type of house in Scotland, particularly for the rural areas, where there is a scarcity of building trade operatives for the traditional type of house.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Will the hon. Gentleman deal with the point of the Lindsay house?

Mr. Robertson

Yes, I was trying to reach that point, if possible. The Ayrshire County Council placed a tender for 550 Lindsay houses and the first houses were to be completed in November, 1947. Here again the delay in erection was due largely to the shortage of timber, plaster board and iron goods. There is likely to be a better supply of these parts which are necessary to finish that particular type of house. We have been relying on a speeding up of these houses in the scheme to which the hon. Member for North Edinburgh drew attention. It is not correct to assume that all the non-traditional houses have been slower in completion than the permanent type of house. In Edinburgh alone we have one scheme where there are 390 traditional houses on the site not so very far away—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twelve Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.