HC Deb 30 November 1948 vol 458 cc1957-66

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

11.17 p.m.

Mr. Elwyn Jones (Plaistow)

I rise to put to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health a number of questions regarding the critical housing situation in West Ham, where housing shortages are causing grave misery to thousands of families and are, I believe, adversely affecting output and production in one of Britain's key industrial areas. Housing difficulties are no novelty to West Ham, and in case anything I may say may be thought to give aid and comfort to hon. Members opposite, I want to say that one of the main aspects of West Ham's problems is the legacy of semi slum property that we have inherited from the hey-days of private enterprise when houses were not built to meet decent standards but for quick profits.

One of our problems is that over 4,300 houses in West Ham are over 75 years old, most of them squalid, dingy and small. I need not say anything about the pre-war conditions of housing in West Ham to elaborate further my proposition that the Tory Party have nothing to be proud of for its record in this field. It was scandalous. This problem of blight was accentuated and added to one hundredfold by the problems of the blitz. Of West Ham's 50,000 odd houses, over 13,600 were destroyed by the blitz and totally cleared; thousands of other houses were seriously damaged and the present position with regard to West Ham's housing is that there are about 22,000 families on the register waiting for homes. That list is going up by 150 families a week, and if we allow four persons per family, that means 80,000 people are waiting for homes.

It may be that some of these families are on other housing lists and may not be the direct responsibility of West Ham, But even if we were to reduce the figure to 18,000 families it leaves a gigantic problem when we consider that since the war only 868 permanent houses have been built in West Ham. That is, 868 houses rebuilt as against 14,000 destroyed in the war. So that whatever qualifications may be put upon the total figure of 22,000 the facts which are known and which can be established are that there are thousands of families waiting for homes who are for the time being living in desperate circumstances. My own post-bag gives harrowing stories and accounts of conditions in which the families of West Ham are forced to live. For example, at the present time, 25 families are faced with eviction because, through no fault of their own, orders for possession have been made against them and the alternative facing them now is eviction into the streets or the workhouse.

Over 400 houses classified for demolition in West Ham are still occupied. Most of these are dangerous structures, in terrible condition, and are a menace to the families living in them. Seventy-eight families live in dwellings in respect of which closure orders have been made by the courts because of their insanitary condition. These homes are not fit for human habitation and are a breeding-ground for sickness. Ninety-three families are squatters in ex-military and labour camps, living in many cases in an appalling squalor. Four thousand, eight hundred families on the waiting list are families of ex-Service men and merchant seamen, who want to set up homes in West Ham again, or young families who want to set up house for the first time. It is a dreadful thing that there are thousands of young married couples in West Ham, many of them with children, who have never known what it is to have a home of their own. One hundred and fifty families on the waiting list are aged folk. One thousand, four hundred families are living in seriously overcrowded conditions or have insufficient bedroom accommodation to allow for the proper segregation of the sexes. That is the terrible extent of the problem that the authorities in West Ham and the Government have to face today.

I think I am entitled to say that the local authority cannot be accused of lacking energy or initiative in this matter. Of the 94 housing authorities in Greater London at the end of June of this year, West Ham was on the top in the number of dwellings approved and completed. But it is quite clear from what I have said that what has been accomplished is only a fraction of what needs to be done and must be done.

What has been done so far to tackle this grave problem? There was, first of all, a mountain of repair work to do and that dissipated a great deal of labour and materials. There were 1,032 two-year emergency hutments erected. These have been already occupied for more than three years and are still occupied, and one wonders how long they will continue to be occupied. Five hundred and fifty ten-year hutments have been erected, and, as I say, 868 permanent houses. Of these, 124 were war destroyed houses which have been rebuilt. If one adds the number of ten-year hutments to the number of permanent houses, it means that in 3½ years we have only coped with a small fraction of West Ham's rehousing problem.

This situation in itself is bad enough, but the future prospects are equally disturbing. I am greatly concerned, as are many of my constituents, in particular by the precipitous drop in the number of new houses under construction. At the present time 298 houses are under construction, and on 19th November the Ministry of Health approved a contract for a further 10 houses. In these days the houses are being completed at the rate of about 60 a month. This means that in about five or six months' time all the houses under construction in West Ham will be completed and unless substantial new constructions are approved in the meantime, it means that house construction in West Ham will come to a standstill. Since February, 1947, only two contracts, totalling 78 dwellings, have been approved by the Ministry of Health and placed; and I want to ask my hon. Friend: Why has there been this reticence on the part of the Ministry and can we hope for a quicker reaction to this desperate situation in the future so far as the approval of contracts is concerned?

I appreciate that one of the main reasons why contracts put up by the local authority to the Ministry have been rejected is that the Ministry consider the tenders submitted were too high. I thoroughly sympathise with the interest in public economy which has led to that point of view. In order to meet that point of view, the West Ham Council has already reduced its housing standards below what it considers to be really desirable. It has stripped many of the features of its early housing programme. In the kitchen equipment, for instance, I am advised that a number of cupboards is no longer included in the new houses, and that the height of flats has already been reduced to the by-law minimum, which is not entirely desirable. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that there must be a limit to this cutting down of housing standards, otherwise we shall be once more building slums.

The council has its own financial difficulties, and appreciates the importance of economy in these matters. But what I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary is, has the Ministry's ceiling figure for these housing contracts been adjusted to meet the increases in wages and cost of materials? The position at present is that the contractors, and even the council itself using direct labour, cannot bring their costing down to the level required by the Ministry. The effect is most dispiriting to all concerned with re-housing in West Ham. The time taken by technicians in scraping the barrel and trying to cut down to the Ministry's figure is causing frustration among the staffs of the technicians concerned. The situation is becoming grave from that point of view. I am not criticising in any way the decision of the Government in September last year to reduce the number of houses under construction; but it seems to me that we have long since passed the problems which gave rise to that decision. and that the problem now, particularly so far as West Ham is concerned, is that unless urgent action is taken to improve new contracts, the continuity of operatives engaged on housing will be broken; the labour force which has been accumulated with difficulty will be dispersed, as many of the technicians are dispersing and as have many of the building men in the council's Works Department.

Once a labour force of that kind disperses it is difficult, particularly in London, to attract them back again. It may well be that my hon. Friend will say that London and West Ham housing prices are higher than those in other areas, but I ask him whether his Ministry has given full consideration to the special factors which give rise to these circumstances in West Ham and in London? There is no doubt, for instance, that the rate of wages in London are higher than in any other part of the country. Then there are other special factors in London which operate towards raising the level of costs of house construction. There is a high demand for all types of labour in London. There is a large amount of war damage repair work still to be done on factories, shops and hotels which offers attractive contracts. I might add that conditions of living in East London are not always conducive to the maximum output in the building industry. Therefore, I would ask that special consideration should be given to these facts.

I am anxious not to take up too much time and to allow my hon. Friend time to reply. But I would deal with one general matter which perhaps the hon. Gentleman cannot directly deal with, and that is the question of the new towns and how they will affect the waiting lists of the councils. It is most desirable that there should be quick development of the new towns. West Ham is particularly anxious that Basildon, in which both East and West Ham are interested, should be dealt with as a top priority. If the hon. Gentleman is in a position to give any declaration to that effect tonight, it will be of great comfort to the people of West Ham. The people on whose behalf I plead to the Ministry in order that as much assistance as possible may be given them, are people who work hard; they are some of the key workers of our country; stevedores, ship repairers, sugar refining workers, cable makers, fertiliser makers, and workers in power, transport and in many other undertakings. I do not ask for priority for them over coal miners or agricultural workers, but I do ask my hon. Friend whether they should not have equal consideration, and it is on their behalf that I have made my plea tonight.

11.31 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. John Edwards)

I do not dissent in any way from the description given by my hon. Friend of the housing situation in West Ham. What I do say is that it is, unfortunately, true that we have this difficulty and this worrying situation in West Ham, and elsewhere, and the question which I think I must try to answer tonight is whether we are doing what we can, and whether we have done as much as we could. I think that there is no doubt that the final and long-term solution of the problems which London has in the housing field must be found in the new and expanding towns; but I cannot deal at length with the proposal, which my hon. Friend has mentioned. for a new town at Basildon, although it would be of particular interest to inhabitants of West Ham. All I can say about that matter tonight is that a public inquiry has been held by my right hon. Friend, the Minister of Town and Country Planning, but he has, so far, not anounced any decision and, therefore, I canont tonight say anything on his behalf on that topic.

I must content myself with dealing with the points which have been put about housing in West Ham. I do not argue with my hon. Friend whether the housing list is right or wrong but we shall know because of the review which is taking place in West Ham as well as in other places. I must confine myself to the problems arising from the policy we have felt bound to adopt. The figure of 327 houses under construction was the last official figure, and since 31st October there has been a slight change; I understand that that is the position; but we share the council's anxiety over the drop in the number of houses under construction, and the Ministry of Health has pressed the council to submit further contracts but, for one reason or another, the preparatory work has not proceeded on their side as rapidly as might have been desired and there has been some difficulty in obtaining acceptable tenders; on that point I will say something in a moment. I agree that no tender was approved from February, 1947, to March; 1948. But I think that this fact on the whole can be approved, because there is no doubt at all that in February, 1947, the programme was very badly out of balance. Of 1,087 permanent houses, only 34 had been completed, 356 were under construction and the remaining 697 had not been started. Clearly that had to be put into balance. During 1947 we had several complaints from the council about various difficulties holding up their completion. We did make every effort, in conjunction with the Ministry of Labour and National Service, to improve the position.

Whether because of that, or for other reasons, certainly towards the end of 1947 the situation was improving considerably. At the end of December, 1947, the position was that of the 1,087 houses, 204 were completed, 701 were under construction and 182 still remained to be started. That improvement has continued and the position now is that we do in fact want to see West Ham having a continuously running programme of work, with new tenders keeping pace with completed work. The council's future programme was discussed with their representatives and officers early in the year and again in July last, and allocations for future construction were mutually agreed. It was agreed that the allocation of houses for West Ham for the year ending 30th June, 1949, should be 420. I wish to make it clear that these allocations were based on the council's own estimate of what they could undertake. It is of interest to notice that at the last discussion the number was in fact increased at the suggestion of officers of the Ministry of Health. I would ask my hon. Friend to accept that as an indication that we are not trying to hold back the councils.

Let me make it very plain that even with this allocation of 420 we have not imposed any limit, and I think that the officers of the council were perfectly well aware that we are prepared to give further approval to as many houses as they are able to submit, provided that the price is satisfactory. With regard to the question of price, the tenders submitted in the past seemed to the officers of the Ministry of Health to be abnormally high, and we have felt bound to ask for revisions. I would not accept the view that such revisions as have been made have meant a reduction in housing standards. May I say quite frankly that I believe, and I am advised by my own people in the Ministry of Health, that the primary reason for the high tenders is expensive design.

For example, we rejected two tenders for 82 dwellings in May and June of this year because the price was high, and the revision made thereafter we think is likely to yield lower tenders. I am told that the plans for the council's dwellings have now been redesigned and the borough architect is hoping that there will be less difficulty in obtaining acceptable tenders in the future. A tender for 32 dwellings on the redesigning principle is now before us, and I have every reason to believe it will be approved this week. I would say a word about what is meant by this redesigning. Our architects' suggestions which have been accepted by the borough architect of West Ham include such things as redesigning the roof pitch, simplifying the outline and eliminating unnecessary breaks, simplifying design wherever we can and making a more straightforward and therefore less expensive type. I am now talking about the broad structural matters and not fittings.

What about some of the particular things that have had to be changed? Here are some. The Borough wanted an independent boiler and an open fire in the living room. Our people said: "No, have an open fire in the living room with a back boiler and a radiator in the dining recess." I think that not unreasonable. Take the separate fuel store. The Borough architect wanted an entirely separate building and our people said: "No, that could not be chosen because it meant a higher price." It was therefore proposed, and accepted, that the fuel store should be a separate compartment in the ordinary out-building with its own door. Take another case where it was desired to use unit type kitchen fitments, which are expensive. It was said that there should be in the kitchen a full-length cupboard and dresser and two fitted table tops. This cut the cost. This is the kind of thing involved and I would remind the House that when all this is done we get a lower price of tender, and it does not mean we have cut standards to any appreciable extent, and certainly the houses re-designed are well above the standards laid down in the Housing Manual.

It is to the mutual advantage of the Ministry and the authority that this should be done, because if the authority is in financial difficulties it does not want to undertake greater expense than is necessary, because either it has to ask tenants for higher rents or find the money out of the rates. I think that there has been a disposition to go in for expensive designs which however admirable they may be, and I have no complaint of that, do force up the price, which makes things somewhat difficult for everyone. I would assure my hon. Friends that as far as we are concerned at the Ministry we will help the council in every way we can, and the sooner it is able to put other tenders in front of us the better. At the present time, when this tender for 32 houses has been settled, we shall not have a single tender in front of us, but having regard to those discussions about re-designing, which, I am sure, are going to have the desired result, I hope the council will let us have new proposals as soon as possible. While we cannot promise that there will be no delay, I do say to my hon. Friends that we will do all we can to ensure that West Ham has a continuous run of work so that the labour force available is properly used.

11.43 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Upton)

While I accept what my hon. Friend has said that there should be some modification to bring the fitments, etcetera, more into reasonable lines as far as cost is concerned, can he give an assurance that while these discussions are going on be- tween his Ministry and the local councils there is no appreciable delay on the part of the Ministry before giving an actual decision to the local authority?

Mr. Edwards

As I have said, we must review these cases, and while I cannot say there will be no delay, now that we have got the new arrangement with the local authority I believe the tenders will be lower, with the result that I think we shall be able to dispose of them much more quickly.

Adjourned accordingly at Seventeen Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.