HC Deb 27 January 1949 vol 460 cc1231-40

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Pryde (Midlothian and Peebles, Southern)

In raising the question of housing in Peeblesshire, I wish to make it perfectly plain that I do so in no spirit of carping criticism. The Government housing programme is indeed a sound one; but I have read in certain journals of some Ministers claiming incredible records. For instance, I have read of one person being housed every three minutes, and of another Minister who says that 3,000 persons are being housed each week. Be that as it may, all I wish to do tonight is to try to divert that celerity into Peeblesshire. I feel that one short week of this rate of house-building would probably solve all our difficulties in that delectable county. I am fully alive to the Government policy in regard to priorities. I believe that it is a very sound policy; but there never was a law to which there was not a variation. It is always the exception that proves the rule.

In recent weeks in this House I have listened to housing claims being urged on behalf of the great cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and of Lanarkshire and the Highlands and Islands. When I hear of new towns being built at East Kilbride and in the Lothians, I recognise that some effort is being made to solve the difficulties of the two premier cities in Scotland. The county of Lanark suffers today from a great decadence, the result of mismanagement in years past. I recognise that it is accepted that Peebles-shire can be of immense assistance to Lanarkshire. I believe that the Highlands and Islands can make out a case more easily than any one else. Tonight, I wish to draw the attention of the House to the County of Peebles. Here, not 20 miles from the capital city of Scotland we have a county with all the physical features and characteristics of a Highland county.

I shall endeavour to build my case on three principal grounds. First, the question of unusual emergency; secondly, that of our importance to the national economy; and third, closely allied to the second, the question of local government economy in Scotland. Let us consider the question of emergency. All over the country recently, but possibly more heavily in south-eastern Scotland, we have suffered from an alarming set of circumstances. Rivers have suddenly increased their volume and, by flooding, have caused widespread damage and alarm. The constituency represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and Haddington (Mr. J. J. Robertson) in August of last year suffered severely in this respect.

Part of my own constituency suffered in a similar way. I think the fact that the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland was compelled immediately to authorise the building of 16 houses in the town of Haddington in East Lothian amply demonstrates the great danger. We in Peebles have had similar injury, although not on such a widespread scale as in either Berwick or Haddington. Nevertheless, taking into consideration the effect on our precarious financial position in local government economy, it constitutes a grave danger to social and economic life in Peeblesshire. If we were to examine in particular just what happened here, we would get some idea of what this danger means to the county of Peebles.

A tributary of the Tweed, the Eddleston Water, rising on the borders of Midlothian and flowing south towards Peebles, passes the picturesque and once very prosperous village of Eddleston. In August last year, the one main street in this pretty little village had three feet six inches of water in the houses. A fortnight ago, excessive rain in the south-east of Scotland again faced us with this danger, and Eddleston escaped only owing to immense expense on the part of the county council in dredging in the river bed, and the county council has not the resources to do these things. The result is that this main street of the village of Eddleston is now in the position that, because of the dampness and submerged location of its houses, they are uninhabitable and a danger to the public health. Eddleston requires houses now, and I think there is no finer place in which to build them than in this little village.

If the condition of the people in Eddleston is bad, much worse is the condition of the tenants at Waterside in Peebles, near the mouth of the stream where it joins the Tweed. Here, twice in six months, eight families have had to be evacuated because of the rise in the level of the river. I do not pretend to know the reason why this phenomenon occurs in south-east Scotland. Last week, I heard experts discussing the reason, and one of them suggested that it was because there was a great improvement in land drainage in Scotland, and that is a feasible proposition. Another put forward the suggestion that hundreds of years of flooding had brought down silt from the upper reaches which had silted up the bed of the river until it was several feet higher than it was 50 or 100 years ago. In any case, what happens to these eight houses at Waterside in Peeblesshire is that, when the water invades the houses, it also puts out of operation the main sewer, which disgorges its contents into the waters and causes the houses to become contaminated and creates a danger to public health.

The experiences of one of these tenants in August last year was terrifying in the extreme, because, unable to escape from the house, she had to stand in the water and watch and feel it gradually rising until, happily, it reached its level just short of her mouth. Experiences of this description are quite sufficient to show that these houses are not habitable. There is also the fact that the water makes the plaster-work soft and damp, and there emanates from the houses a noxious stench which pervades everything.

In all sincerity I must forcibly reinforce the town council's application for eight houses as an emergency measure to rehouse those eight families, over and above their very modest housing programme. I hope that my hon. Friend will take cognisance of those views when he is replying. Later, I will give him the figures for the town of Peebles, and I think he will agree that between the two wars this was by no means a reactionary town council. From the point of view of emergency, I think I have shown clearly that there exists in the County of Peebles an emergency situation.

Let us examine the second ground, that of national economy. What part can Peebles play in our great drive for national recovery? It can play an immense part. Every phase of agricultural activity is carried on in this lovely shire. There is hill farming, cattle rearing, arable farming, and dairy farming where, month by month, the T.T. herds are on the increase, and where old farmers of over 70 years of age are volunteering to build houses in which to house their people, people who are difficult to get.

Industry is only carried on in three towns in the whole of this widespread shire. At Peebles, Innerleithen, and Walkerburn is an industry which is known all over the world. The firms of Thorburn and Ballantyne are household names. They are known to weave the finest cloth that men can wear. Since the war the firm of Ballantyne Bros. introduced a new sports wear which is doing immense service to the national economy. It is competing in the world markets and is holding its own with the best. I wonder how many people who have watched our Highland regiments marching along with kilts swinging have wondered where those kilts were made? They have no doubt thought that they were woven in the Highlands. They are not.

Two English Members of this House were with me in Peeblesshire two summers ago when I was very fortunate indeed to meet these employers and to discuss economic conditions with them. I was shown over the Ballantyne mills in March Street. There we saw tartans being woven with which to clothe our Highland regiments. Let me remind the House that there are 16 million Scots abroad, all very anxious to find a market for the supply of the kilt. Here our people could develop a splendid dollar-earning avenue. This is an industry which is capable of vast expansion, and in which houses can play a very important part. Lanarkshire is a reservoir of labour power. I am sure that if our people at the Treasury would grant the money with which to build a few houses in this shire, they would be repaid by the dollar-earning capabilities of the weaving process in South-East Scotland. Hawick recently announced that it had produced £1 million of exports, and I am firmly convinced that what Hawick can do, Peebles can emulate.

Turning to local government economy, I want as quickly as possible to draw the attention of the House to this fact. Peeblesshire occupies a unique position in local government economy in Scotland. Unfortunately, it has the highest rateable value per head of the population in Scotland and the result is that it does not benefit from any grant under equalization—in fact, rather the reverse. It has inflicted upon it a great injury because it is not sufficient to meet the outlay on the Services which the Act compels the shire to provide. It suffers a great injury because these factors lead to a declining population. Although Peeblesshire houses valuable waterworks for other counties and other local authorities that in itself is a burden upon Peeblesshire because it attracts no grant. The moral here is more houses, more people, or Peeblesshire will become a burden upon the Treasury in local government economy.

May I quite briefly remind the House of the exact housing position in the county and the two burghs because Peebles has only three building authorities—the County Council, the burgh of Peebles and very small burgh of Innerleithen. From 1930 to 1939 there was built in the County of Peebles 20 prefabricated houses, 10 Crudens and 16 traditional type houses—46 in all. There is under construction 48 houses. But the County Council have before them 210 live applications. The rateable value of the landward area is approximately £81,000 and the consolidated rate is 17s. 6d. in the £. The burgh of Peebles built between the two wars 355 houses, no mean record, only equalled by such towns as Kilsyth, Cumnock, Dalkeith, Wishaw. Since 1945, 72 prefabricated houses, Crudens and traditional houses have been built. Private enterprise has built 15. But the applications before the Council number 400. The rateable value of the burgh is approximately £61,000 and the consolidated rate is 17s. in the £. The little Burgh of Innerleithen built between the two wars 155 houses£not a bad record for a small town like that. Since 1945 they have built 42. In the course of erection there are 80, and may I say in passing that those 80 are taking a very long time to build. Applications before the Council number 394. The rateable value of the Burgh is £19,500. The consolidated rate for the burgh is 17s. 10d.

The total number of applications in the county of Peebles is over 1,000. The electoral roll in the county is approximately 10,000 but I do not want the Minister to fall under the misapprehension that only one in 10 of the electorate are making applications for houses. The reverse is the case. These 1,000 applications mean 1,000 families and that is a very serious position for the people in Peeblesshire. I think I have provided sufficient data for the Minister to reconsider the decision in regard to housing in the county of Peebles.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Willis (Edinburgh, North)

I am sure we are all interested in the problem of the housing of the rural population of Scotland, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Southern Midlothian (Mr. Pryde) has referred. We must be concerned with this matter. At the same time as we are appealing for more houses for Peeblesshire, we are confronted with the news that the firms producing the Cruden house designed for rural areas are closing down. This is a matter which is worrying a lot of us. We want to know why this is. Here is a house designed for rural areas, a large number of which have been erected in what might be called a record time. This work is now coming to an end. I wonder if my hon. Friend in replying to the Debate—I know he has not much time in which to do so—can give us any information as to why, in the face of this crying need throughout the whole of Scotland, not simply in Peeblesshire, the activities of these firms should be brought to a close.

10.21 p.m.

Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge)

Is it the case that Tarron's of Bellshill have actually closed down? This was the firm which made prefabricated permanent houses. Is it the case that Weir's Housing Corporation factory in my own constituency is about to close down? Is it the case that Scotland has a worse tuberculosis rate than Hamburg? Every local authority is straining at the leash to get building done, and yet these firms which can produce the non-traditional houses, and are employing 95 per cent. of unskilled labour, are threatening to close down.

10.22 p.m.

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

I am sure the House will not expect me to cover all the wide range of questions raised by my hon. Friends tonight in the course of this Debate. I should, however, like to deal with the first point of my hon. Friend the Member for Southern Midlothian (Mr. Pryde), that relating to the question of rural population. I congratulate him. I think he has asked it at an opportune moment, because I have with me what must be one of the finest planning reports ever published, the original plan by Sir Frank Mears for the south-east of Scotland. This report is worth close study. With regard to the County of Peeblesshire the report says that although the population of Peebles County as a whole has fallen by about 7 per cent. since 1931 it is higher by about 2 per cent, than it was in 1881. It is the burghs, however, which have grown.

I do not need to be convinced that good housing is one of the things needed to arrest rural depopulation, but it is not the only means. Last March I met representatives of Border counties and Border industries in Scotland, when it emerged that the immediate, as distinct from the long-term, need was for more female labour for the tweed industry. Hostels rather than houses seemed at the time to be the immediate requirement. Hon. Members may rest assured, however, that in the long-term policy to meet rural depopulation the closest attention will be given by my right hon. Friend to the recommendations of the Mears Report.

I should like to turn to the point made by my hon. Friend with regard to Peebles County Council's activities prior to the war. Peebles County Council built only 58 houses between the wars. Relatively to the population, this is only about a sixth of the houses built by the next county of East Lothian, which I have the honour to represent in this House, during the same period. Since 1945 the Peebles County Council have had tenders approved for 98 houses, of which 46 are finished—nearly as many finished during the last three years as in the 20 years between the wars; the figure for tenders approved includes eight agricultural houses. In addition to these tenders approved, there are four agricultural workers' houses which have yet to be brought under construction; a site has been approved for two of these houses, and a site for the remaining two is under consideration.

I now turn to the question of complaints by the county council about the supply of materials. No complaints have been received recently, and there are outstanding no requests for the release of materials.

Mr. Pryde

I did not say that the County Council had registered any complaint. I observed that the houses in the town of Innerleithen were being built very slowly.

Mr. Robertson

I had that point in mind, and I rather concluded that the difficulty was the slowness in supplying the materials. With regard to new tenders, no request has yet been received from the county council for more tenders for 1949. However, progress on the 48 houses under construction does not justify a fresh allocation of tenders at the present moment. The County Council are being told, however, that they may now make a start on the four houses contracted for but not yet begun. My information with regard to the flooding is that no houses were damaged by the recent flooding at Walkerburn. If there are other areas where damage has been done to such an extent that houses have become uninhabitable, then it is the duty of the county council to make that known to the Department.

I have not time to deal with the position in the burgh, but I do want to say that, as the House will be aware, the Scottish Ministers spent the whole of the Christmas Recess visiting a widely spread area of the 229 local housing authorities in Scotland. Each of us had a senior official of the Department accompanying him. Speaking for myself, I should like to say that I personally found these visits a profitable experience, and I am sure I could say the same for my colleagues. I should also like to think that the local authorities also felt that our intimate contact with the local authorities responsible for housing was profitable. All matters brought to our notice during this particular period with regard to any shortage of supplies had immediate attention. The surprising thing was the few complaints that came forward about shortage of supplies; but where it was brought to our notice immediate action was taken. I should like to add a special word of praise for the planning lay-outs of the local authorities. Many of the smaller schemes in the burghs were beautifully laid out, and it was a great comfort to know that local authorities were taking such care in laying out the schemes.

On the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Willis), I can say that the Cruden problem, which has been exciting the interest of the people in that area, is being closely considered at the moment. Crudens have, however, at the present time 1,071 to complete.

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

Adjourned at Half-past Ten o'Clock.