HC Deb 26 April 1950 vol 474 cc1093-102

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

10.21 p.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Rugby)

The subject of this Debate may appear to be somewhat limited in its geography, but since there must be hundreds of county divisions and thousands of rural district councils my difficulties will perhaps be common to many hon. Members in this House.

In the Debate on the King's Speech the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler) said this: My appeal is that we use this Parliament for the purpose, among others, of giving a real encouragement and fillip not only to the agricultural industry but to the countryside as a whole."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th March, 1950; Vol. 472, c. 322.] We have made unprecedented advances in the agricultural districts since 1945, but one important impediment towards self-sufficiency in the lack of amenities in the countryside, and until we give the countryside more housing, better sewerage and piped water supplies we shall never produce the food we need, we shall never have back on the land the people whom we used to have, and we shall never be independent of the dollar.

If we hope to achieve the standards of living which we desire so much, we must provide these things in the countryside. The Minister has done a magnificent job since 1945. Something like 110,000 houses have been built in the. rural areas of which at least one-quarter built by the councils have been let to, farm workers, but I am no more complacent than he is when I go into some' of the villages in my constituency, such as Long Lawford, and see behind the picturesque exterior of the houses conditions as bad, if not worse, than in many of the slums in the big industrial towns.

The village I have mentioned has a population of something like 1,600. It contains many farm workers and is a dormitory for the British Thomson-Houston works of Rugby. They have built there some eight houses since 1945.

I should like to describe one of the houses common to the village. It is, only one of those that were condemned as long ago as 1939. There were some 30 houses due to be pulled down before the war broke out. In this house there are five adults and three children—the mother and father and their three children age eight, five and one and a half years, the mother and father-in-law, and a brother-in-law, age 26. These people are all living in a house with one room upstairs and one room downstairs. I am ashamed when I go into these houses and talk to some of the housewives who are attempting to keep their homes clean when flakes of plaster are falling from the ceilings all the time and the walls are so damp that their children are often suffering from colds or even from pneumonia.

We are all delighted that the housing cuts have been restored. I am pleading now for a larger allotment of houses for the rural district councils, particularly such councils as mine, which last year had only some 76 houses built. I am hoping that next year there will be a larger allocation. When we come to the water supplies, we find that they are unhealthy in these districts at any time of the year. At least 15 parishes out of the 40 have no piped water supply but get their supplies from wells, springs and the like. In some villages housewives are getting their washing water out of the canal.

There are some 400 farms in the division, and it can be appreciated that they consume an enormous amount of water during the year. Many farmers have to cart their water in milk churns and vessels of all descriptions during the summer Months. I should like to quote an official of the local N.F.U. on this matter of water supplies. He states: Only yesterday I was out at Stockton where a farmer had had his cowshed condemned mainly because of the polluted water supply. Although he had got his plans passed for the erection of a new shed and building at his own expense, he could not see his way clear to commence operations as the necessary piped supply was not available. In this connection, I would particularly mention the Ansty and Shilton water supply schemes, which have been held up some 12 months owing to a lack of pipes. Further delays have recently occurred, although work has just begun. Even when these schemes are completed the households will not have water laid on. There are to be some six standpipes, two of which will be outside the village " pubs " and the other four, by a curious coincidence, outside the houses of the Conservative members of the local council. Meanwhile, the housewives have to walk in all weathers for some 100 yards in the open to get water from corrugated iron butts which are filled twice a week by a water cart coming from Rugby, some 10 miles away. These butts have no cover and are liable to contamination.

In all fairness to the rural district council, it should be stated that they have schemes prepared for the whole district, some of which are at the Ministry. I earnestly plead that rural district councils should get a larger supply of pipes, as the shortage of pipes is holding up some 'of these schemes. My farming friends were delighted to see that the Gracious Speech mentioned a new Bill for water supplies in the countryside. I find that sewage disposal is closely linked up with water supply. In many of the parishes there are no sewage disposal pipes. In fact, this is general in that part of Warwickshire west of Watling Street, towards the borders of Coventry. A number of schemes have been submitted to the Ministry, in particular that of Binley.

May I again quote a local member of the Farmers' Union who, speaking of the effect of this upon the farming community said: South of the borough you will find antiquated sewage systems stretching past Princethorpe that causes considerable pollution of the water of those streams used for watering cattle in this area. This is extremely serious, and I am taking up the matter myself, looking at it not only from the particular point of view of cleanliness, but also of animal health. One can see the great danger which the cattle are being put to through this leakage. I would say that in Warwickshire they are making good progress with regard to attestation for dairy cattle. I want particularly to mention the National Farmers' Union, the auctioneers of the town, the Agricultural Executive Committee, and the County Milk Officer, who are doing their best to get more cattle attested. But it can be seen that in conditions like this it is difficult to get on with this important task of having more cattle attested. May I, in conclusion, say that until we do have, in the countryside, these amenities of sewerage and water, of electricity, bus services, telephones, and many other things which are accepted as being essential in the towns, we shall never check rural depopulation. It is not only an economic matter but a socialogical matter. There has long been a cleavage between town and country. Until the countryside is given a square deal, and a fair share of those fair shares which have been going round, there will always be a tendency for the countryman to grumble about the townsman, and for the townsman to grumble about, and to fail to understand, the countryman.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Profumo (Stratford)

I am intervening in this Debate for a few minutes because I am pleased that the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Johnson) has raised this subject. The problems about which he has been speaking are not limited by the notional borders which bound his constituency and the one which I represent. In fact, these problems merge in with each other and overflow and are interdependent one upon the other.

With regard to the housing problem, may I say that many people living in the rural district of Southam, which borders the area of the hon. Member opposite, work and have their main interest in Rugby. They come to our areas to seek houses, and, consequently, live in the Southam rural district. We welcome them, but, in fact, anything which can be done to speed up housing in the Rugby district will help both of us because, obviously, many people have their names on the housing lists of both areas. We have an extremely difficult problem from the point of view of housing and water supply and sewerage. We would, therefore, welcome anything which the Parliamentary Secretary may feel able to do to accelerate housing in the Rugby district and also in our own.

I agree about the shortage of bricks for housing. Sometimes there is delay of up to 12 months, after approval of schemes by the Ministry of Health, in getting bricks. That is holding up housing very much. We are finding, in the remoter parts of the country, great difficulty in getting contractors even to tender for housing. But even after that we are finding there is a delay of something like 12 months because of a shortage of bricks.

May I make two suggestions to the Parliamentary Secretary? The first is that priority should be given to rural areas for bricks so that, after they have taken a great deal of time to get tenders agreed, building shall not be held up to such an extent through shortage of bricks. Second, greater latitude should be permitted by the Ministry of Health in the matter of standards and costs of rural housing. The great difficulty is sometimes to find contractors prepared to tender at all, particularly where we are building only two or three houses in these villages. It is practically impossible for them to tender at the price the Ministry insists upon, because they have to move labour and materials. Consequently, we are finding that these schemes are held up for a long time. It would be of great assistance if the Minister could restore the balance of one in five houses to be built by private enterprise.

In the latter part of March, negotiations were going on between the Rugby rural district and the Southam rural district, under which we were to be supplied with water by Rugby. These negotiations broke down because Rugby felt they would not have enough water over, after meeting their own requirements, to provide a supply for us. If the supply of pipes or other requirements needed to satisfy their own area could be speeded up, that might help us because they might well find that after satisfying their own requirements they could satisfy the needs of our district. This is a very serious matter indeed. Even in regard to water supply we are finding that there is great delay after the ordering of pipes.

Why should we not be allowed to order pipes in advance of the schemes being actually approved. May I give an example of what I mean? In principle, a scheme has been approved by the Minister of Health for local water supplies in Ratley, Shotteswell, and Warmington, but the Minister will not allow the necessary pipes to be ordered until a trial borehole has been sunk. The local authority has to wait something like 12 months before ordering the pipes, and then there is a delay; if the pipes could be ordered now, they would be available when required

One final word on the sewerage question. Only a few miles from Binley. which has already been mentioned, are Harbury, Bishops Itchington, and Napton, where the Minister has approved, in principle, a comprehensive sewerage scheme. This is, I understand, to be held up in the interests of national economy. Again, if we could order our pipes, we should not have to hold up our schemes when permission to proceed was eventually granted. I do hope that the Minister will give serious consideration to these questions; the present grievous situation is giving rise to widespread alarm, causing all sorts of irresponsible local attacks on the councils concerned and making their already difficult jobs even harder.

10.39 p.m.

Mr. Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)

Although this matter is raised to-night in the interests of the vicinity of Rugby, I would like to speak of Lichfield, as I think that the Parliamentary Secretary may condition his reply in the light of restrictions on capital investment. I would like to ask two questions, one of which concerns the ancient city of Lichfield. Recently, I wrote asking my hon. Friend to consider a plea from that city that the plan for the re-construction of the sewerage works should be given effect to, and for permission to proceed. I must read the last paragraph from a letter which the Town Clerk of Lichfield sent to me and which I sent to my hon. Friend. In it, he said: The city council are very concerned with the state of their present works, and consider that this work is most urgent. If it is not allowed to proceed, the city council fear a major breakdown, and do not like to contemplate the result. In his reply, the Parliamentary Secretary referred to the restriction on capital investment, and said there was a review about to be carried out, and hoped permission would shortly be given.

It seems extremely dangerous that it should be only a question of capital investment as to whether or not this plan is allowed to proceed; because, if there is the danger, as is implied by the Town Clerk's letter, surely action should be taken. I am no bacteriologist, but, clearly, what is in mind is the fear of outbreaks of diphtheria, and even worse. There have been 382 houses built since the war and there is this additional burden on the sewerage -system. This plan, which is the subject of the correspondence I have had with my hon. Friend, was initiated in 1938, and when these plans are put forward for consideration, and application made for reconstruction, it does seem most important that the medical aspect should be considered.

The hon. Member who opened the Debate spoke of rural areas, and my second point concerns a rural area. is the Parliamentary Secretary satisfied with the terms of reference or the instructions issued by his Department to the sanitary inspectors of rural authorities? I know of a small village called Elford, near Tamworth, where night-soil is disposed of in the back gardens of some cottages; these gardens are very small indeed, and one can imagine what this accretion is like, year after year. Sewage disposal for small villages is something very important indeed.

10.43 p.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. J. Johnson) for having raised tonight what is, undoubtedly, a very important subject; and to others who have contributed to the discussion. To deal with some of the specific points which he has raised, I would first refer to the speech of the hon. Member for Stratford (Mr. Prof umo), who, quite properly, pointed out that the area he is immediately concerned with abuts on to the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby.

So far as housing, specifically in Long Lawford, is concerned, allocations are made to the rural district council itself and responsibility for distributing them over their area is one which must remain with the council. We are anxious, so far as we can, to see that the work is distributed as far as possible over the area of the authority. Only eight houses have been built in this parish since 1945, but this is one of 40 parishes in the rural council's area and I gather that there is a site already available to the local authority on which a further 40 houses can be built. I understand that it is intended to proceed with them very shortly; we are awaiting from the council their plans for a sewerage scheme for this parish, although I understand that this does not necessarily hold up proceeding with the actual housing in the district. Still, a further sewerage scheme there is under consideration. I believe we should have fuller details from the authority very shortly.

I am glad to say that on the whole the housing position in this rural area is not seriously unsatisfactory by comparison with other areas in the country. The council have been improving their housing work. The completion rate has been improved and I can say that although they have only built, up to 31st March this year, 210 houses, at the beginning of this year there were 77 under construction. There was the allocation of 62 houses carried over from last year's allocation which are not yet in contract, but which I hope will shortly be in contract. There are a further seven private licences issued on which building has not yet started and there is the preliminary allocation for this year of a further 35 houses, making a total of 181 houses which they can proceed with in the rural council's area. We shall be very willing to reconsider the question of further allocations for this year, and, of course, the problem of allocation next year, depending upon how quickly the local authority can proceed with the work they already have in hand.

My hon. Friend raised the question of the provision of water, particularly in the Anstey and Shilton areas. There, the position is that the scheme was authorised on 4th March last year. Work only started on 29th March this year and the delay was undoubtedly due, in part, to the fact that the authority did not take advantage of our suggestion that they should put their order in for the pipes before authorisation was given. We invited them to place orders in advance but, unfortunately, they were not at the time ready to do so until they had fixed the actual contractor for the work. That was not necessary and some six months' delay did arise, due to that factor alone.

We appreciate, of course, the difficulties in connection with pipe deliveries for water schemes. This is not only true of this particular area, or of rural areas generally, but is also true of some of the big urban areas as well. It is a matter we have always very seriously under consideration, as has also our Central Advisory Water Committee. We are most anxious to make any progress we can, although we realise there are other very real claims upon these pipes and that we have to do our best with comparatively limited resources. However, we are most anxious to meet, in any way we can, the demands of the rural areas. I believe it is true that there are still nine parishes in this rural district area with no piped water supply and for which, so far, no proposals have been put to us.

We appreciate the difficulties that the authorities have to face, but we are anxious to get these schemes in as soon as possible, because we know there are many other delays inevitable in carrying these schemes through to fruition. The sooner we can get the schemes completed the better. It could, of course, be quite properly pointed out that if some of these schemes had only been carried through earlier the position would have been very much better today. But that opportunity has passed, and we are only anxious now that we should get on as quickly as we can with the schemes before us.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the question of sewerage in Binley. There, it is true, there has been very real difficulty. There has been delay because the original scheme was, I believe, approved before the war and was re-submitted towards the end of 1947. Tenders were later obtained and it was hoped that we should be able to proceed. Unfortunately, this scheme, with many others, has had to be reviewed in the examination of the general capital investment programme. I know how difficult it must seem to the authority concerned, and those living in that area, when we tell them that they must postpone their hopes of starting this scheme in view of wider national considerations.

I can assure my hon. Friend that in reviewing all the sewerage schemes which come before us we take into account the needs of the area and, in particular—and this is the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member of Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow)—the health services in the area and the effect which a new sewerage scheme would have on the health of the people concerned. We try to give every possible consideration to the major needs of the district itself. I can only say that although we have not been able, so far, to receive a deputation from this council. which, like many others, wants to see us about their sewerage proposals, we hope before long that we shall have some further information for them which will make it worth while for them to see us. I would only add, generally, that we appreciate the housing, water supply and sewerage difficulties that face both rural and urban areas. They are not peculiar to any one part of the country and we are doing our utmost to secure—

The Question having been proposed after 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 Nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.