HC Deb 05 April 1950 vol 473 cc1323-32

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

I wish to take advantage of this Adjournment to draw the attention of the House to the housing situation in the borough of Slough. I do this in no parochial spirit. I do not make any claim for Slough which would be unfair to other towns or to the countryside. I appreciate the difficulty of the Government in procuring the raw materials and the labour for housing, and in using them effectively. I recognise that it is necessary to allocate capital, material and labour so that they are balanced in the national economy to meet requirements, to maintain full employment and to fill the dollar gap.

Nevertheless, I say that there are circumstances in the borough of Slough which justify me in drawing the special attention of the House to them. I begin by filling in the background of the situation. There must be many hon. Members who can remember, as they travelled on the Great Western line in the days immediately after the First World War, the mile of dumps of broken and battered vehicles from the British Army which were then deposited there. That dump was transformed immediately after the First World War into the first modern trading estate in the country.

As a consequence, there was a phenomenal increase in the population of Slough. What had been little more than a village or a small country town became almost overnight a large industrial centre. The population in 1921 was 16,000; by 1939 it had grown to 55,000, and today it is 68,000. At the beginning of that great advance in its population, there was not the foresight to envisage the housing which would be required to accommodate the new population. The trading estate attracted to it, in the late 20's and the early 30's, hundreds of workers from the depressed areas in South Wales, Northern Ireland, Lancashire, the North-East Coast and Scotland.

The authorities in the town at that period, not foreseeing the great advance in the population and the need for more houses, did not then plan the necessary sewerage which could accommodate the greater housing. It was not until the years immediately after the last war that plans of that kind were prepared. The result of that situation is that, unless something most exceptional is done, in the month of June this year housing will come to an absolute stop in Slough. There will not be a single house erected in that borough from the month of June and for nine months afterwards, and that in a town where large numbers of the population are already living in railway coaches and in Army hutments, where overcrowding of five and more persons per room is frequent, and where, indeed, one in five and perhaps one in four of the families in the town have their names on the waiting list for houses. It is because of that appallingly unique situation in the borough of Slough, where, despite these extraordinary needs, housing may completely stop in the month of June for nine months, that I am now making a particular appeal to the Minister of Health.

I have discussed this matter at considerable length with the town clerk of the borough, the borough surveyor and the borough engineer, and we have considered many plans by which this situation may be saved so that housing may go on. We have discussed whether it would be possible temporarily to apply the cesspool system or the septic tank system so that houses may be built, and, when the sewerage plan is developed, to attach these cesspools and septic tanks to it; but I am informed that there is danger of pollution of the River Thames, which is near, and, in the case of the septic tanks, that the relief to the sewerage system would be inadequate.

There is one further suggestion which is in my mind and which I want to put to the Minister of Health. It is that it might be possible, even though the sewerage system is inadequate to meet the new houses which are built, still to build those new houses and so avoid a gap in time, and, having built them, at a later stage to link them with the sewerage system when it is constructed. The argument against that course is that squatters may adopt these houses before that time, or that they would deteriorate in that period.

It is my view that, if the people of Slough were informed of the difficulties of the situation, if a town's meeting were held and the position made clear, and if the co-operation of the people was called for in order to protect the houses that were erected so that when the sewerage system is there it might be linked with houses that people could occupy, there would be such co-operation from the people of Slough that the invasion of squatters or the deterioration of the houses would not occur. The houses would all be in a limited space, and would seem to me to be able to receive the necessary police supervision to prevent anything of an untoward character happening to these houses.

There is one complication of the position in Slough to which I must draw the Minister's attention. The London County Council are planning a large housing estate within the borders of the town to accommodate 17,500 people, and if that large housing estate is commenced while there is an absence of this sewerage system, or while it is still inadequate, it will mean that the terribly overcrowded population now in Slough will have to postpone still further their hopes of obtaining houses.

The sewerage plan which is now being carried through could, by the year 1953, accommodate a population of 100,000. At that point we will be able to take all the population which the London County Council wish to bring into the area. Before that period, we will be able to increase the population for whom houses can he provided, but I want to draw the attention of the Ministry to that particular difficulty in the meantime. I would also point out to the Minister that there will be very great difficulty if housing ends in June, or is seriously slowed up, in maintaining the necessary availability of labour. Labour for housing has now to be brought from other towns—there is no local labour available—and, if that becomes dispersed by the ending of the housing system, when the opportunity to build houses recurs the position is going to be extremely difficult.

Therefore, I want to make a number of specific requests to the Ministry of Health. The first is that the Ministry should recognise this exceptional and desperate condition in Slough, and should offer all possible help in this extraordinary difficulty. I want to say at once that I find that local officials in Slough are highly appreciative of the way in which the Ministry of Health have co-operated in this matter, but I am going to suggest at this particular stage that the Ministry should make a still further gesture, and should indicate to the Town Council of Slough their recognition of the exceptional need and offer their consultation and help along any channel through which that help can pass.

Secondly, I want to ask that, in relation to the proposed London County Council housing estate, the Ministry of Health should keep a very watchful eye on the situation. In December, 1948, there was a public inquiry under the joint auspices of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, and on 14th July, 1949, the Ministry of Town and Country Planning wrote: Nor does it appear that the phasing of the L.C.C.'s proposals need involve any risk of prejudice to the proper development of Slough since the carrying out of the scheme would be dependent upon the provision of adequate sewerage facilities. I am quite sure that the L.C.C. will appreciate the position I have described, but I ask the Ministry to keep a watchful eye on that situation, and, if necessary, to act in order to prevent any worsening of the position by the development of new houses from outside.

The third point which I wish to put to the Ministry is that they should extend the fullest priorities of materials to enable the new sewerage system to be completed within the shortest possible period. Again, I pay my tribute to the Ministry. The local officials say that those priorities have been constantly given. There are difficulties, however; there is the immediate difficulty of the supply of cement, which is holding up the development of the sewerage scheme, and in future months there will be the difficulty of the cast-iron pipes necessary for the drainage system. I am asking the Ministry of Health to anticipate that position and not merely to allocate on paper, but to be ready to secure for the town the supply of cast-iron piping necessary for that drainage system as soon as the immediate crisis of the absence of proper sewerage is met.

I do not ask necessarily for a reply tonight, but my next request to the Ministry is that they should consider sympathetically the proposal I have made that, even if the sewerage is not there at present, house building shall not stop. The absolute stopping of housing in Slough will have a disastrous psychological effect. If housing can go on, and can be linked to the sewerage as soon as it is available, the people will feel that the best has been made of the situation. In view of the extraordinary difficulties in Slough that I have described, I ask the Minister to accept the course of being prepared to allocate houses upon those lines, if the Ministry are convinced that arrangements can be made in Slough to prevent those houses deteriorating or to prevent their being occupied by invaders who are not entitled to them.

My next request to the Ministry is that, as soon as the situation eases and the sewerage scheme develops, the Ministry will be willing to allocate houses to Slough on a larger scale, in order to compensate for the absence of house building, or the diminished house building, during the next few months. I ask the Ministry that, in allowing Slough a larger allocation, they will also look into the problem of providing the materials and encouraging the labour so that the larger programme can be fulfilled long before 1953 by when, it was hoped, the sewerage system may be completed. It should be possible to increase the housing programme considerably as provision of sewerage becomes more adequate. I ask the Ministry to make sure that the materials are available for such larger programme and to encourage the availability of labour.

There is one further point to complete the picture. There is just one hope that the situation may be saved in June. Our civil engineer, who is carrying out the new sewerage scheme, is attempting to apply a very bold method by which it is hoped that 20 acres may be freed for the deposit of sewage. With professional caution he will not be able to say for one month whether that experiment will be successful. Should it be successful, we shall be able to proceed with 60 or 70 houses, but even those 60 or 70 will be a great limitation upon the ordinary allocation, and that relief to the situation will not in any way decrease the general appeal I have made.

I recognise that my final point is not only a matter for my hon. Friend's Ministry but one on which he must consult with others. I ask the Minister if the time has not come for the Government to consider whether there should not be an increased allocation of capital investment in materials and labour for house building within the general national economy. I understand the claims of the export drive and the claims of capital investment in industrial development, but I want to put to the Government very seriously indeed that an ill-housed people cannot be expected to maintain the production drive which is at present proceeding.

In Slough our vast industrial establishments, particularly in the trading estate, are working to capacity to fill the ships today, just as they used to produce the tools to finish the job during the war. But I say to the Government: if this is to go on, the sense of frustration from the present housing overcrowding and ill-equipment must be removed. Our people in Slough remember the frustration of the depressed areas from which they come. Now a new sense of despair is weighing them down, and as I read the letters which come from my constituents I share that sense of despair. I will read one letter to the Minister. It is from a woman in my constituency: We have been on the Slough Council's housing list since January, 1941, and we were married in September, 1939, and have never had a home of our own. All we have now is two small upstairs rooms with cooking facilities downstairs. I am expecting my second child next month and my eldest child is nearly three. I am wondering where I am going to put the baby to sleep during that time as we have no room for another cot in our bedroom; in fact my daughter is ready for a bed but that is utterly out of the question. I cannot even contemplate buying a pram as I shall have nowhere to keep it and I tremble to think of the arguments my landlord and I will be having when the infant cries at night. We aren't really asking for the moon, are we, after nearly eleven years spent in other people's houses? If war were declared tomorrow, nothing would stand in the way of supplying the needs of the Armed Forces. I am asking the Minister to allow nothing to stand in the way in the war against ill-housing at the present time.

10.23 p.m.

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

We are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Fenner Brockway) for the constructive way in which he has raised the question of the very real and urgent housing needs of his own constituency. We sincerely appreciate the difficulties in his area, which he has clearly outlined to the House tonight. I think it is true to say that by the time the last sewerage scheme was completed in Slough, early in 1938, it was already inadequate owing to the vast development of industry in that area and the great surge of population that came in from outside, particularly from the old distressed areas of this country. In addition, of course, during the war years there was another quite unexpected rapid industrial development in Slough which added still further to the difficulties.

Since the war the local authority and the Ministry of Health have done their utmost to press forward with this new sewerage scheme upon which housing development as a whole undoubtedly depends. As my hon. Friend has rightly said, we have done our utmost to help in the phasing of the delivery of materials and to help, with the Ministry of Labour, in providing labour for this vital work. I would say at once to my hon. Friend that I am most anxious to review even now the delivery promises that have been given on this particular project, because we understand how vital it is. While I certainly cannot give any promise or pledge at this moment, we will certainly see, even after all the efforts which we have put into it, if anything more can be done to speed up still further the delivery of the vital plant and materials upon which so much depends. Apart from that, if the local authority will get into touch with us about any of the other difficulties which my hon. Friend mentioned, either about lack of labour or about cement—or, of course, on the problem of cast-iron piping—we shall certainly take the matter up and help, as we have already helped in previous cases.

My hon. Friend raised the question of L.C.C. building in the area. I can assure him that we are in very close touch with the L.C.C. on this matter and I can give him the quite firm guarantee that developments there will not in any way endanger the sewerage position and that, in fact, the work will be so phased as to avoid any further difficulties for Slough. The hon. Member also put forward certain proposals about the use of septic tanks. I will look into any proposals which the local authority put forward, but I am afraid I cannot offer very much hope in this direction. From an outside view of the matter it seems to me, from what knowledge we have of the Slough area, that it would probably mean just as much pumping and use, in the same way, of the already inadequate existing sewerage system, and that would not get us very much further forward.

My hon. Friend further suggested that we should give approval to the building of houses without sewerage facilities in order to avoid any dismissal of workers, because that is one of the great problems in that area, and I quite understand the point he made. Again, however, I cannot be very hopeful on this point. Where we have, unfortunately, had to build houses without proper facilities either of water or sewerage, our experience has been that when attempts were made to avoid their being occupied before the full facilities were provided the results have not been at all encouraging. Any proposals which the local authority care to put forward will, however, be examined by us.

I was also asked whether we could give particularly sympathetic consideration to larger allocations in the future. We will, of course, certainly look at the position of Slough, remembering the difficulties which they are facing now and the inevitable inadequacies in the amount of house building they are able to do at present. In thinking of future allocations, as soon as the sewerage problem has been overcome, we shall certainly do our best to provide larger allocations to help Slough to make up for the period of time which they have had to lose.

The last point which my hon. Friend made was on the allocation of capital resources. As he rightly pointed out, this is a very much wider problem, which to some extent was discussed in the House recently. It is not a matter which we can easily discuss on an Adjournment, particularly when there are only one-and-a-half minutes left. I would only say that the Government would be very glad to be able to devote a larger proportion of our capital resources to this most urgent problem. It is not because of any lack of knowledge of the suffering and the difficulties which are involved in the housing situation today that allocations have been made in a way which is known over the country as a whole, but we have to face demands from other sources for widely different needs in this country—industrial and other needs. We have to make the fairest allocation we can of the resources which are available. Should those resources increase, we shall be only too delighted to increase the amount of house building which can take place in the country.

I hope my hon. Friend will not feel that this has been a wholly disappointing answer. I repeat to him that I shall be very glad to look into the position of priorities for materials for this sewerage scheme and shall do my best to see that delivery is as rapid as possible.

Mr. Brockway

I appreciate my hon. Friend's answer.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.