HC Deb 31 March 1950 vol 473 cc823-8

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Henry Usborne (Birmingham, Yardley)

In the remaining quarter of an 'hour I want to draw the attention of the House to the problem of housing. Before I start my speech, I want to make a couple of points by way of introduction. The first is this: it is now almost exactly an hour ago since I started my speech. I then sat down because, under arrangement with the then occupant of the Chair and under his direction, it was understood between us that the old Debate would first be finished off, that perhaps the Minister would reply and then I might be lucky enough to catch his eye. Now, I have been sitting here ever since because I then believed that there would be adequate time to ventilate the subject about which I want to talk. What I want to talk about is not something that I can deal with adequately in a quarter of an hour. It requires more time than that. Nevertheless I must do my best in the very little time which is now unfortunately available.

The second point is that it was only at the last moment, in fact at lunch today, that I decided that this matter ought to be raised. It so happened that at lunch I was seated next to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Moeran). We discussed housing and, as we conversed, we both came to the conclusion, almost simultaneously, that we had stumbled on an aspect of this problem which was exciting and, perhaps, also important. It was certainly an aspect that was very novel indeed. Therefore, at the last moment, realising that there might be a chance of discussing it in the House, we decided we would come here and try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. At such a late moment it was not easy to give the Department adequate warning or any clear indication of the kind of things we were going to discuss. However, particularly in regard to the rather novel things we were going to say, I felt that, in a sense, it was not a great disadvantage. I was not very anxious to compel a Member of the Government to come and reply, at short notice, to a Debate in which, almost certainly, he would be obliged to point out some of the difficulties of which we were already vividly aware.

We know nearly all the difficulties in housing today, but unfortunately we do not seem to know enough about methods of overcoming them. Late last night—too late to be recorded in today's OFFICIAL REPORT—my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Yates) raised on the Adjournment the problem of housing as it affected Birmingham. As a Member who also sits for a Birmingham constituency, I should like to recapitulate briefly some of the salient points.

It is generally agreed in Birmingham that 100,000 houses are urgently required. We also know that at present no more than about 1,500 houses are being built each year—hardly enough to cater for normal wastage. In other words, under the present programme no dent is being made at all in the real problem of how to get 100,000 new houses built in Birmingham in the shortest possible time. The problem is exacerbated because the only bottleneck in Birmingham is the shortage of skilled labour able to build houses. It is from that point of departure that I now am going to make a few observations to the House.

I believe that in Birmingham there is, as there must also be in many other parts of the world, a large reservoir of untapped labour. I said advisedly "untapped" labour and not "skilled" labour. I believe that almost any man of the type who lives and works in Birmingham is perfectly capable in certain circumstances of building his own house. I do not believe that is impossible. I think that if certain things were provided for them, most people, or at any rate a great number of people, in Birmingham who definitely need houses could contrive to get them built with the labour of their own hands and the help of friends which they could undoubtedly rope in. The problem, therefore, is how to make use of the willing labour, the individuals who want to build houses while admitting that the skilled professional labour is in short supply.

This is where I want to propose a method by which private enterprise can be developed. When I refer here to private enterprise, I am not thinking in the traditional terms of using existing incorporated building firms or companies for building houses in Birmingham. Indeed, they are already being used, and up to the hilt. What I want to do is to provide a means by which a private individual who is not a professional builder can use his enterprise to build himself a home. I believe that in certain circumstances this can be done. The circumstances in which it can be done are circumstances which I would advocate being parallel with and complementary to all that is now being done. Nothing that I propose is intended in any way to conflict with the existing programme. It is a supplementary additional idea which might be very useful.

I am thinking in terms of the way people—particularly children and even "grown-up children"—build for themselves complicated things, such as exquisite model aeroplanes and the like. This happens to be one of my own hobbies. I know that, given ad equate instructions, adequate sets of raw materials and the will to do so, almost any enterprising and intelligent person who knows how to use his hands can build the most beautiful mechanisms. I am wondering whether it is not possible for the authorities to provide the materials out of which a house could be built.

There are two categories of material which are required. First, there are the site and the foundations, and those, of course, must be provided by the authorities themselves. The concrete must be ready and the plumbing and the electric points must be provided. But given the basis of the operation, the site, I believe it is possible for almost any enterprising person with the assistance of one or two friends to put a house together and make a home for himself, provided all the materials are designed for a standard type house which had been worked out in detail and for which plans, blue-prints and instructions had been provided.

The circumstances in which that can be done are important. What is necessary is this. A separate and entirely different department of the Ministry should be set up at a distance from Whitehall, and a group of persons should be employed to work out the design of one or two, or perhaps at most three, small, simple, cheap and easily constructed homes. They should work this out in the greatest detail so that primarily they can be constructed out of materials which appear to be available now and which are likely to continue to be available in the future. These houses should be constructed out of parts which can mainly be made in the factories and which can then be sent to site suitably labelled so that almost any person could put those parts together and make them into a home.

There are two great advantages here. The first is that if the authorities were to lay down the broad outline drawing for the type of house they would regard as suitable, they should then hand the general arrangement, the outline drawing as it were, to the specialised department who would be told, "Make three variants of that kind of house on paper, work out precisely, in detail, every nut and bolt, every window frame and every item that will be required to turn it into a house, and see whether these things can be obtained from the smaller factories in this country which are available for extra work."

One would say straight away that they should not try to obtain materials in very large quantities from a few very big firms, for those firms are probably already fully occupied. Broadly, they should try to obtain the materials in penny parcels from the smaller firms and then should get the materials, as required, collected in a few depôts suitably situated around the country. The department of the Ministry whose job it would be to break down the general arrangement drawing into detailed construction plans would be responsible for obtaining from the various industrial firms up and down the country the raw materials and the parts which are required and of collecting them into the depôts. They would also be responsible for seeing that all these parts, all the parts of the jigsaw puzzle which make up a house, could be suitably boxed. I do not necessarily mean that they would all be put into one box, but possibly on one lorry and at the right moment delivered to the site and handed over to the men who wanted to buy them. The individual would buy the parts and set about making his own house.

I have only two or three minutes left and there are two further points I wish to make. I think that if this system could be developed, then, for example taking the sites in Birmingham where traditional building is going ahead apparently as fast as possible, a few selected sites could be made available for this special house, the home builders' house—types A, B or C. Then an individual who wished to do so could buy the site from the corporation at a very cheap price on the understanding that the lease of the house he ultimately builds should revert to the corporation in so many years—10, 15 or 25 years. He could be helped in finance through the corporation or the municipal bank and he would then be able to buy the materials which go to make up a house, possibly on deferred terms.

Lastly, the corporation should then see to it that there is a technical school, a night school or something of that nature in Birmingham where the individual who is interested in the possibility of buying the parts and building his own home could study the art of putting the thing together, where a prototype of the house could be continually erected, moved and pulled to pieces and examined in the process of construction. Thus an individual who wanted to try to build a house in this way—because the bottleneck in Birmingham is shortage of labour—could study the "know-how" at this school to see how the job is done. Possibly, before attempting to build his own house he could find someone else in Birmingham, possibly a little more experienced, who was building a similar house for himself, and could go for week ends and volunteer to help. He would be helping the other man and at the same time gaining experience to start the venture himself.

I have no further time and I must end with this comment. As I explained, I entered this Debate at short notice. The problem I wanted to cover is very big have not worked out all the details and, of course, I do not know all the answers, but I believe that something like this could provide at least a part of the answer to what is perhaps the most appalling problem which faces the constituents of Yardley at this moment.

The Question having been proposed at Four 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 Half-past Four o'Clock.