HC Deb 04 December 1952 vol 508 cc1906-16

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

10.52 p.m.

Mr. Ralph Morley (Southampton, Itchen)

I wish to bring to the notice of the House, as I have done on previous occasions, the question of the reconstruction of our blitzed cities. The people in those cities and towns suffered heavy civilian casualties from repeated and heavy air raids during the last war, and many thousands of men, women, and children were killed.

But, in addition to the frightful human casualties, there was very great destruction and loss of property. Shops and houses, offices, churches, and schools were destroyed, and it is, I think, generally agreed that the citizens of the blitzed areas endured the terror inflicted by day and night with very great courage.

Frequent panegyrics were uttered in this country and abroad on their courage and endurance, but our people were encouraged at the time by the thought that, when victory came—and they never once doubted but that it would come—reasonable priority from our material resources would come to them for the reconstruction of their towns and cities.

These people were fortified by a statement by the present Prime Minister who, in March, 1945, said that we were at last within sight of victory. The right hon. Gentleman added that, of course, we should have to concentrate first on those parts of our cities and towns which had suffered most heavily from air attack. My Conservative opponent at the last General Election quoted that statement of the Prime Minister in his election address, and I have no doubt that it was successful in obtaining a good many votes for him. But, unfortunately, the citizens of those areas have been disappointed in their hopes that they would be given priority in capital and material allocation for rebuilding as soon as the war was over.

It is true that in most of the blitzed towns and cities a considerable number of houses have been built since 1945. For example, in Southampton we had 5,000 houses completely destroyed by enemy action. But successive borough councils, using the admirable housing schemes initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), have since 1945, by public and by private enterprise, supplied the citizens of Southampton with 6,885 new houses, so that in Southampton today we have more houses than we had before the war.

It must be admitted, of course, that 1,746 of these 6,885 houses are prefabricated, but these prefabricated houses, as most hon. Members know, are fitted up inside as well as many a flat in London for which one would have to pay five guineas a week to rent. But while we in Southampton have done pretty well in the building of houses, as, I believe, have most other blitzed cities, very few shops and offices have been reconstructed in that city since 1945.

The enemy destroyed almost the whole of our main shopping centres, and one can now walk down what were in pre-war days our main shopping streets and see acre after acre of bare and desolate ground upon which handsome shops and offices formerly stood. Therefore, we were looking forward very anxiously indeed to the statement to be made by the Minister of Housing and Local Government in order to know what would be the allocation next year of capital expenditure for the reconstruction of the blitzed cities.

We were extremely disappointed when we heard that the allocation for new capital construction for the 18 blitzed cities of this country next year was to be only £4,500,000. I understand that out of that sum £2 million is a carry-over, so that actually there will be only £2,500,000 of new capital construction in our blitzed cities next year.

I am informed that the annual capital expenditure of this country is now running at the rate of some £2,000 million, and £4,500,000 represents only.2 per cent. of that figure. Is it the fulfilment of the Prime Minister's pledge, that only.2 per cent. of the total annual expenditure is to be devoted next year to the rebuilding of our blitzed cities? My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) had a Ministerial reply the other day which stated that only a quarter of 1 per cent. of the amount to be spent on the nation's total building programme was represented by the £2,500,000 of fresh construction to be allocated to the blitzed cities next year.

The first question I wish to ask the Parliamentary Secretary is, how was this £4,500,000 arrived at? By what strange esoteric method of computation was it thought that.2 per cent. of the nation's annual capital expenditure would be sufficient for the reconstruction of the blitzed cities? I will take my city of Southampton as an example, because that is the one with which I am most familiar.

The largest allocation we received was in 1949, when we were allocated £438,000. In 1950, the allocation was £202,000; in 1951, £240,000, and from January to September this year it was £163,500—a total allocation during the four years of £1,045,000. That is an average of £261,000 a year. In the figures given recently by the Minister, Southampton is to be allocated £350,000 next year. Of that sum £87,500 is a carry-over from this year, so that the actual reconstruction next year will be about the same as the average for the past four years.

It is argued by the leaders of the borough council that the total cost of the reconstruction of the blitzed areas of Southampton would amount to £39,608,000, and at the present rate of progress, at the average of £262,000 a year, it would not be until 2088 that the work would be completed. The Parliamentary Secretary is a young man, and we hope he will have a very long life, although on this side, of course, we hope only a very short period in office; but although the prospects of longevity are continually increasing, at the present rate of progress he will not live to see the reconstruction of the blitzed cities.

The leaders of the borough council are of the opinion that we should have been able to spend in the last four years something like an average of £350,000. To keep up with that average, it would be necessary for us to be allocated £705,000 next year. But in Southampton we are very reasonable and moderate people. We always keep to the middle of the way in our thinking, and I am not asking the Minister to allocate that sum next year, but I am asking him to allocate £528,000. With that sum we could get on with 13 projects that are very urgent and which should be proceeded with next year.

Of course, in asking for our allocation to be increased, I do not want the additional amount to be subtracted from the allocation to the other blitzed cities. Far from it. I want the Minister to reconsider the global sum and to see if this meagre sum of £2,500,000 cannot be increased.

It has been argued in previous debates that it would be unwise to encourage more rapid reconstruction of destroyed shops and offices because it would take away labour from the more urgent work of building houses. That is no longer a tenable argument, because in the reconstruction of shops and offices most firms use their own labour force. It is a specialised kind of labour and it is not drawn away from house building labour. In fact, one shop was rebuilt in Southampton last year—the British Homes Stores—entirely by the firm's own labour force.

Another argument used frequently in the past is that we cannot afford to increase the area of reconstruction of shops and offices because there is not sufficient steel for the purpose. I wonder if that argument is tenable any longer, since we are told that steel production is running at an unprecedentedly high level. We have never produced so much steel in this country as we are producing in this year. In addition to that, we shall have the million tons of steel that we are going to get from the United States of America.

Apart from the increased production of steel, it is also a fact that many firms who are waiting for licences to rebuild their blitzed premises have their own supplies of steel, almost sufficient in themselves to carry out the work of reconstruction which they need. For instance, I am told that Woolworths, who are waiting for a licence to rebuild in Southampton, have 160 tons in hand, and C. & A. Modes, who are also waiting for a licence to rebuild, have 150 tons of steel in hand. So I do not think it can be argued that the capital allocation for reconstruction must be limited either through lack of steel or lack of labour.

As I said earlier, the announcement of this very limited allocation for capital expenditure has met with considerable protest in practically the whole of the blitzed towns in this country. I can only quote a few of the protests, but I will quote the protest that has been made by Hull as reported in the "Hull Daily Mail" on Wednesday, 26th November: Councillor R. W. Buckle, deputy Chairman of the Town Planning Committee, told the 'Hull Daily Mail' yesterday, 'Our feeling is that Hull's allocation is very disappointing and hoplessly inadequate. We feel bitter that we have not been given a fair chance when we have the labour and the materials. We shall expect our M.P.s to stamp on Mr. Macmillan's doorstep'. I should imagine that the stamp of the hon. and gallant Member for Hull, Central (Captain Hewitson) would be an earth-shaking event.

Mr. Buckle goes on to say: We shall stamp ourselves if he will let us. Maybe we shall stamp if he doesn't let us. The Mayor of Southampton has said recently: I am by no means fully satisfied. Alderman John Lane, who is the Chairman of the Town Planning Committee in Southampton, said: Every one of the badly blitzed cities is going to express disappointment and dissatisfaction. I am starting the chorus of protest. Sir Clifford Tozer is Chairman of the Reconstruction Committee, and Alderman John Lane is a leading member of the Conservative Party in Southampton, and there is, of course, a Conservative majority on the Southampton Borough Council. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Probably it will not be of very long duration, but I do not want to damp the enthusiasm of the hon. and gallant Member for Portsmouth, West (Brigadier Clarke). Sir Clifford Tozer said: It would be foolish to pretend I am satisfied with the allocation. I hope we will have some more. I am certain that if there were time, every representative of the blitzed areas present would join in this protest against the meagreness of the allocation that is proposed for the blitzed cities. This matter I am raising tonight is not by any means a party matter at all, and I do not wish to make a party matter of it. It is on record that I made a number of speeches criticising the lack of help to the blitzed cities under the Labour Government in 1945–50 and 1950–51—not that they did not give help; they did give a considerable amount of help; they gave more help than has been given in some instances by the present Administration.

The allocation to Southampton next year is only £350,000, of which £87,500 is carry-over, while the allocation to Southampton under a Labour Government in 1949 was £438,000. But, as I have said, I do not wish to make a party matter of this. I criticised the slowness of the reconstruction of the blitzed cities under the two Labour Governments. My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) deployed his hereditary eloquence in a series of brilliant speeches to the same effect, and my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Southampton, Test made the subject of the blitzed cities the chief topic of his maiden speech in the House. On all sides, therefore, we are asking the Minister to be a little more generous. In this instance we are all Oliver Twists, asking for more.

I therefore ask the Minister, when he replies, to tell us the truth about this. Why is the allocation so meagre? Surely, it cannot be for lack of steel. After all, we should claim a fair degree of priority in the allocation of steel for the reconstruction of the blitzed towns. It is not a question of labour, because most of the councils in the blitzed towns will say that they have the labour available for the construction which they think should be put in hand immediately.

Is it that the Ministry are afraid of increasing the total capital expenditure of the country? Is the Minister intimidated by that weekly chronicle of woe, "The Economist," which affirms almost every week that our capital expenditure is too large and may lead to further inflation? If it is a case of keeping down the total amount of capital expenditure, we would suggest to the Minister that he might cut down some of the capital expenditure in the non-blitzed cities.

There must be a good deal of capital expenditure allowed in the non-blitzed cities. The rateable value of Southampton is only 94 per cent. of what it was pre-war. For Plymouth, the figure is 95 per cent., and for Portsmouth, 96 per cent. of pre-war. But the rateable value of Reading is 129 per cent. compared with pre-war. Reading is a non-blitzed city, and could not have had such an increase in its rateable value unless it had been allowed a considerable amount of capital expenditure. I hope, therefore, that in his reply the Minister will be able to give us some reassurance that more capital expenditure will be allowed to the blitzed cities for the very urgent tasks of reconstruction which they ought now to put in hand.

11.12 p.m.

Brigadier Terence Clarke (Portsmouth, West)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Itchen (Mr. Morley) for having raised this subject tonight. As time is short, there is no time for all the Members for Portsmouth to speak, and I have been asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth, South and Langstone, to state the case for Portsmouth.

We in Portsmouth are more than happy that this year we have been allotted more for blitzed cities than we have ever had before. Nevertheless, we feel that that is not sufficient, and we share the views of the hon. Member for Itchen. We hope that the hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot), when he writes in "Tribune" this week, will say what the Socialists did in the past and how much more the Conservatives have given us this year.

But I hope that the hon. Member for Itchen will still press the Minister to give us more in the future. We are not satisfied. We never shall be satisfied until our city is rebuilt, but I am sure that after another two years of Conservative Government we shall once more have the blitzed cities just as any member of the British Empire would like to see them, restored once more to their proper state. After six years of Socialism, they are right down to the bottom.

11.14 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

The hon. Member for Itchen (Mr. Morley) has pursued with great assiduity the cause which his heart is set upon, and that is to rehabilitate the blitzed cities. He has stated the case with moderation, and the debate has been extremely good tempered. Perhaps in the short time—seven minutes—that remains to me, I can try to reply to some of the principal points.

The hon. Member asked how the "meagre" global sum of £4½ million was arrived at, and by what strange esoteric method it was calculated. I shall tell him. It was calculated at precisely twice what the Socialist Government gave to the blitzed cities.

Mr. Michael Foot (Devonport)

It is not true.

Mr. Marples

The hon. Member must not become so wild, because the work done in 1949 and 1950 was £2,300,000, in 1951 it was £3½ million, in 1952 £4½ million and in 1953 it will be £4½ million. That allocation will be matched in steel. In other words, it will not merely be a paper allocation which cannot be carried out because of a shortage of essential ingredients in building. It is an allocation that it is possible to reach because we have provided the materials. We have been able to increase it, not at the expense of other non-blitzed cities as the hon. Gentleman suggested, but because productivity in the building industry has risen because the flow of materials to the industry to sites all over the country is better, and because confidence in the industry is better. The hon. Member for Itchen must recognise, whether he likes it or not, that this Government is giving twice as much as his Government did.

Mr. Foot

It is not so.

Mr. Marples

The hon. Gentleman must restrain himself. He has an opportunity of writing weekly, which I do not get. He also appears on television with a big staff, and he must restrain himself here while I reply to the debate. Therefore, some hon. Members might congratulate the operatives who are getting greater productivity in the building industry, and congratulate the Government on enabling the blitzed cities to do twice as much as they did under the previous Government.

Mr. Foot

Absolute nonsense. I have figures from HANSARD.

Mr. Marples

If the hon. Gentleman will listen I will explain. The test is a question of what resources and materials are spent in the blitzed cities from 1st January one year to 31st January the next year on all projects whether started earlier, or begun during that period. It is wrong to take the value of the work started. For example, if a £10 million power station is started at Southampton on 31st December, 1950, would the hon. Gentleman say that that amount of work had been done? It will take five years to finish that work. It is wrong also to take the number of projects finished. If the power station is finished on 1st January, 1957, no Government could claim that the whole £10 million belongs to any particular year.

What has to be done is to take the uncompleted portion of the work at the beginning of the year, add to it the value of the projects started or licensed during the year, and deduct from it the uncompleted portion of the jobs at the end. In that way one arrives at the amount of building work done in any particular year in any particular area.

In 1953, taking it as a test, we find we shall probably licence, and in giving this figure I am not committing the Government, about £4½ million worth of work in the blitzed cities, of which £2½ million worth will be done in that year and another £2 million which was carried over from last year will be done, making in all £4½ million. The remaining part of that which we planned for 1953 will be done in 1954. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman must reconcile his figures and not start on this propaganda nonsense about so many schools not started. The monetary figure is an assessment of men and materials poured into building projects in that year. The distribution of the £4½ million is twice as generous as any previous Government has made. The hon. Member for Itchen said we should give more to Southampton. Every blitzed city says that. If we gave more to them, will the hon. Gentleman say to whom we should give less?

Mr. Morley

I said increase the global sum so as to give more to Southampton and other cities.

Mr. Marples

In 12 months we have doubled what the previous Government did. Perhaps we shall be able to do better if we get greater productivity. The hon. Member asked that the sum for Southampton should be increased. He referred to Plymouth, and asked also that there should be less building at Reading.

Mr. Foot

The suggestion was that greater priority ought to be given to blitzed cities, especially when the whole of the hon. Gentleman's case is disproved by the fact that there is growing unemployment among building workers in the blitzed cities.

Mr. Marples

The hon. Member's phobia about unemployment is only matched by his eloquence on television. There is no evidence of unemployment. If there should be unemployment, the Minister of Works has a scheme whereby when any district can prove to him that it has unemployed resources of men and materials it need only apply to the Regional Office for more houses and it will get the go-ahead straight away, and the materials. Therefore it is wrong to say that there is unemployment in the building industry. In the decorating trade there may be, but decorating would not be much good to blitzed cities.

The hon. Member for Itchen said that labour and materials are available. How does he know that? Does he know what projects will be going on in Southampton? Does he know what power stations may be started? I would ask him whether he knows what would be the peak labour force for a power station in Southampton?

Mr. Morley

I cannot answer offhand. All I know is that members of the Borough Council have assured me that they have enough labour for the projects which they want to put in hand next year.

Mr. Marples

It is not possible to make an assessment of what will be available unless one knows of every project which is being entered upon. For example, is there going to be an extension of the oil refinery in Southampton. I do not want to deny that the blitzed cities have a great claim on—

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 Twenty-two Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.