HC Deb 25 February 1952 vol 496 cc896-906

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

1.16 a.m.

Mr. Michael Foot (Plymouth, Devonport)

Just before Christmas, we had a debate in the House on blitzed cities, but no apology is needed for raising this matter again because since we had that debate the blitzed cities have suffered a double blow. First, we have had the statement by the Ministry to various of the blitzed cities on the subject of steel allocations, and secondly, we have had the statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the capital investment programme.

These two blows together constitute by far the most serious setback which the blized cities have received since they started upon their reconstruction programmes after the war. The danger is that if this policy which the Government have now declared is carried through, the whole prospect of planning in the blitzed cities will be disrupted.

A few days ago, I went with a delegation from the Plymouth Corporation to see the Parliamentary Secretary on this matter. He received us most courteously and did his best to be as helpful as he could; but he could only act within the limits laid down by Government policy, and the limits laid down by that policy are so severe that they make planning virtually impossible.

Consider what has happened. This illustration is from my own city, Plymouth, but it applies to many of the other blitzed cities also. When we had the debate before Christmas, we were optimistic enough still to hope for an early announcement of the normal allocation of licences for starting on new projects in the reconstruction areas during this year. We feared that the number of those projects might not be as much as we would like, but we still hoped for enough to maintain continuity and to retain our labour force on reconstruction.

But now we understand that there is to be no provision whatever for issuing licences for any new projects this year, and there is no indication of when a definite announcement can be made about what new projects may be started this year. Such a statement as this would have been made enough in itself, but something much worse has happened.

Under licences issued by the Labour Government, projects had already been started and developments in the City of Plymouth, for instance, had already received delivery dates for steel. Considerable sums of money have already been spent on the sites, but now, some of these projects are to be held up for the lack of any guarantee about steel later this year.

Even that is not the end of the story. The policy which the new Government have declared must mean, if it is carried through, a reduction in the labour force engaged on reconstruction in our blitzed cities. In my own city, the only chance of saving anything from this part of the wreckage would be if we were allowed to go ahead with such projects as the rebuilding of our Guildhall or our Library, which require very little steel and which certainly are overdue and necessary if we are to have elementary amenities provided. But here we are confronted with the second ban imposed under the new policy of the present Government: the capital investment cuts. I do not think that the Parliamentary Secretary would dissent from the description of the facts which I have given.

Now, I should like to look for a moment at the reasons which are given for these fresh limitations which have been imposed. The first claim of the Government, as I understand, is that the stoppage of these projects is inevitable owing to the physical absence of the steel. The steel, we are told, is just not there. I understand why the Ministry says this, but I do not think it is a completely correct statement of the facts. What the Ministry really means is that the steel is not available under the allocation made to them. It is being used for other purposes. Indeed, some of the steel previously allotted to us under licences issued by the Labour Government, have been taken for these other purposes.

We believe, on this first issue of steel, that a much bigger fight should have been put up by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to get a proper allocation of steel for the blitzed cities, particularly when the present policy and the present allocation does involve the hon. Gentleman's Ministry in a breach of faith with the developers and the blitzed cities themselves.

The same kind of criticism, I believe, can be made on the second issue—the question of cuts in the capital investment programme. The other day in the House the Minister himself made some replies on this subject. He was asked about the capital investment allocation to blitzed cities this year, and he gave a most nonsensical reply. He said the capital investment programme for the blitzed cities would not be known until the end of the year.

We know this reply was nonsense for a variety of reasons. First, there was the specific statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he made the announcement which referred to the general capital investment programme, and, secondly, there is the information the local authorities have had in the blitzed cities when they have applied for licences for various projects.

The truth is that capital investment allocations for the blitzed cities have been cut to practically nothing, and I ask the Parliamentary Secretary tonight to tell us what is the total figure allocated for capital investment in the blitzed cities last year, and what it has been cut to this year. I hope the hon. Gentleman gives us that, even if it contradicts what the right hon. Gentleman said last Tuesday.

I refer to HANSARD for 19th February, column 24, when the Minister was asked by the right hon. Gentleman for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton): whether or not there is a reduction in the provision for the rebuilding of blitzed cities this year as compared with last year? The reply of the Minister was: cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman until we come to the end of the year." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th February, 1952; Vol. 496, c. 37.] I say that reply, apart from it being complete nonsense, is also an attempt to deceive the people in the blitzed cities because here the right hon. Gentleman is trying to pretend that the cut in the capital investment programme, which has taken place, does not affect the issue at all. I hope the hon. Gentleman will tell us tonight exactly what are the figures and show what a ridiculous reply this is.

It is a pity, I think, that the Minister himself has not made a better effort to understand the problem of the blitzed cities. This issue is all the more important because the developers are now being asked to make plans for building in different forms of construction to use less steel. I am sure they will do all they can to carry out that very wise suggestion, but there will not be much sense in it unless they can have a guarantee that capital investment cuts will ease. It is not much use escaping the Macmillan axe on steel, if they have their heads cut off by the Butler guillotine on investments.

The Ministry have not fought hard enough for a proper allocation for the blitzed cities. They have taken the Treasury's decree far too tamely. This is not the first time we have had this kind of difficulty in the blitzed cities. We have had shortages of steel before and difficulties in capital investment, but on all of these occasions, when we raised this question in the House of Commons under the previous Government, we had an understanding of the difficulties of the blitzed cities and a Ministry which would fight for their rights.

We must start from the beginning again to educate this new Government in the special problems which blitzed cities have to face. The truth of the matter is that the present capital investment ban means that blitzed cities are, in fact, receiving no priority whatsoever. They are being treated in exactly the same way as cities and towns that were not bombed at all during the war. It is especially hard on such cities as Plymouth which have not yet been able to recover their pre-war rateable value.

If the hon. Gentleman's Department are going to go through with such a policy and not fight for a better allocation of steel and capital investment for these cities, and if this is to be the new policy of this new Government, then at least the Ministry ought to re-consider and reopen the question of a special grant for blitzed cities.

If we are to be told tonight that we are to be denied the right to go ahead as fast as we were able to do under a Labour Government with reconstruction in order to regain our rateable value, then it alters the whole of the previous argu- ment of the Ministry of Health and the argument the Ministry of Housing and Local Government has put up now for the allocation of special grants.

If the hon. Gentleman is to say tonight that his Ministry can do nothing to try and make a better fight on behalf of blitzed cities for more steel and better capital investment, and he can say nothing hopeful, I hope he will understand the problem a bit better than his Minister did the other day. I hope he will go back to the Department and make a solemn resolution that instead of taking the Treasury decision lying down he will make a fight for the blitzed cities which bore the brunt during the war.

1.27 a.m.

Mr. J. J. Astor (Plymouth, Sutton)

This is the first time I have had the honour to address the House and I am in need of the usual indulgence accorded to those making their maiden speech.

The two factors that are hindering the reconstruction of the blitzed cities are the shortage of steel—which is necessary for defence and exports—and the cuts in national expenditure, cuts which are necessary to avoid national bankruptcy. Any comparison between the efforts of the last Government and this Government can only be fair if it is remembered that between the years 1945 and 1951 the whole of our economy was underwritten by foreign aid, and that during that period the world situation did not necessitate the defence programme that we have to have now. The citizens of these cities realise that they must have a proper defence programme because without it they might be blitzed again, and that is the last thing they want. They also realise that unless these cuts are made, their wages and pensions will become valueless.

But within these limiting factors, I should like to make three points. Firstly, in order that the blitzed cities may be able to retain their labour forces—and I speak for Plymouth, which is somewhat isolated in the West—it is essential that there should be continuity in the flow of materials. I put forward the suggestion that the Parliamentary Secretary might get the Ministry to give guidance as to the possibility of having phased programmes, and, while steel is short, using load-bearing bricks with which a building of between four and five storeys can be constructed. Load-bearing stone could also be used. In this way we could retain the labour force during the period of the steel shortage.

My second point concerns the position of the blitzed cities in relation to new towns. It has been suggested that new towns have not been cut as much as blitzed cities. It is argued that where new towns are half built, it is a waste of public money if the building does not continue. That arguments also applies to building in the blitzed cities where licences have been issued and the building started, and, therefore, it is imperative that material be made available for these so that money is not lost and the Ministry are not forced to break faith with private developers.

Thirdly, one sometimes forgets the importance of blitzed cities. The greatest testimony to the blitzed cities is the fact that the enemy in the war was prepared to risk men and materials in an effort to annihilate them. That surely is testimony enough. I speak for blitzed cities in general and for port towns in particular; and it does seem somewhat illogical to repair battleships if one does not reconstruct the place that provided the facilities for those repairs and also many of the men who sail in Her Majesty's ships.

1.32 a.m.

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

This is the second occasion tonight on which I have had the privilege of congratulating an hon. Member—on each occasion from this side of the House—on a maiden speech. That to which we have just listened had many advantages; it was lucid, clear, and easy to hear, and, above all, my hon. Friend represented the interests of his constituents in a very moderate and constructive manner. It was constructive as opposed to being merely destructive.

My hon. Friend made the point that he is worried about retaining the labour force in Plymouth. That is an extremely good point, because if there is not sufficient building work to carry out, the force may tend to disappear from Plymouth and it may be difficult to attract it back. But I can assure him that we in the Ministry will try to see that all the building work is kept at a level to retain the force.

My hon. Friend spoke of erecting buildings that did not use much steel, and referred to load-bearing walls of brick. In that connection, may I ask blitzed cities to consider the recasting of their building programmes so as to dispense with the use of steel as much as possible? That is possible by the use of load-bearing walls in brick. If they think it necessary to build in steel, I ask them to use reinforced concrete and thereby save up to 50 per cent. of steel.

May I add that I hope the House will have the opportunity of listening to my hon. Friend on many more occasions, as, indeed, it has often listened to his ancestors in the past.

I come now to the points raised by the hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) who, if I may say so with respect, is in one of his more benign moods and expressing sweet reasonableness, and who has been tonight mild and constructive. He spoke of the limiting factors of steel and the capital investment programme, and asked whether the allocation of steel to the blitzed cities this year, as compared with previous years, was to be reduced. The Minister was quite right in saying that it is not possible to do that now, even if it were desirable.

There has been a tendency in debates in this House to regard government as planning either everything or nothing at all. Either the government plan right down to the last detail, or it is all laissez faire and there is no planning. The Socialist Government always specialised in rigid planning, in which they related their allocations to a given calendar year irrespective of altered circumstances during that year. We have adopted an entirely different method. We have a flexible plan, because conditions change. I should like to quote to the hon. Member for Devon-port what another journalist, Mr. W. Lippmann said about planning. It is the duty of military and diplomatic planners always to be prepared with more than one plan, and never to tie themselves irrevocably to a fixed and rigid estimate of what their opponents might do. There is a difference between a survey and a plan-especially dealing not with a 'still' but with a changing kaleidoscope continually shifting in all its. aspects. We have had to have a flexible plan, because we did not know what quantities. of steel we should have in the second half of this year, and to make a rigid allocation of steel would be to make a plan which in effect—

Mr. Foot

Mr. Lippmann knows a little less about blitzed cities than the Minister. Is the Minister really saying that there has been no decision by the Government to cut the actual figure allocated for capital investment in blitzed cities? If he is, it is complete contradiction of what was said by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 29th January.

Mr. Marples

If the hon. Gentleman had listened more closely, he would have observed that I was referring to steel and not to capital investment. He rises with indignant rage about an item I have not yet mentioned.

I was on the question of steel. If I may say so, we do not know what steel will be allocated. We have not allocated it for the whole year: we have allocated only for the first instalment, and the remaining instalment depends on a variety of factors. We hope to get from America one million tons of steel, but the timing of its arrival cannot be settled definitely until shipping difficulties are known. It may be just under a million tons. In an earlier debate hon. Gentlemen were not keen on getting it, and if they had had their way we should have been in difficulties.

The hon. Member for Devonport waxed indignant on wrong premises in dealing with the uses made of steel. The steel we are consuming today is on plans and designs passed by the Socialist Government, our predecessors. They were very wasteful in the way they used steel. They used structural steel in place of reinforced concrete, and had they started fewer offices, or used reinforced concrete, they would have saved a great deal of steel. In one block of offices they used 2,010 tons of structural steel, but if they had used reinforced concrete 1,000 tons of steel would have been saved.

What would Plymouth give for 1,000 tons of steel now? The time for the hon. Gentleman to raise his complaints about the lack of steel allocation to Plymouth was when excessive use was being made of it elsewhere and when his own party were in power. The blitzed cities, like Plymouth, stood up to a tremendous attack during the war and deserve every sympathy, but I suggest that they should re-design, if possible, the rebuilding of their centres.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a library. I want to get this matter straight for the record because, when we last debated this subject, the hon. Gentleman said that the City Library in Plymouth was destroyed by Hitler's bombs and that: Hitler burned the books in a large number of our cities, and the first act of the new Government so far as the City of Plymouth is concerned is a Hitlerite act of condemning our library to continued destruction and uselessness."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th December, 1951; Vol. 494, c. 2513.] What the hon. Gentleman did not say was that the proposal for rebuilding the library was turned down by his own Government.

Mr. Foot

No, it was not. I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is wrong about that. It was turned down by the hon. Gentleman's Government under the capital investment ban, which he will not have time to deal with unless he hurries.

Mr. Marples

If the hon. Gentleman will look at it carefully, he will find that the previous Government would not allow them to rebuild the library.

I will deal now with the capital investment programme. Again the same principles apply to this as to steel. It is to be reviewed later in the year. Therefore, no person can accurately give the hon. Gentleman the allocation to blitzed cities for the year because it has not yet been made.

Mr. Foot

There has been no cut?

Mr. Marples

It has not been made. There is not a cut or an increase. It has not been decided, so how can anyone give it to the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Foot

The Chancellor of the Exchequer said it in the House.

Mr. Marples

No. The capital investment programme is to be reviewed before the end of the year because circumstances may change.

Brigadier Terence Clarke (Portsmouth, West)

Under the Socialist Government, we got neither houses nor anything else for the blitzed cities. Now under a Conservative Government we may get some- thing. There were many opportunities previously when the hon. Gentleman opposite could have assisted me, because I also represent a blitzed city and I had no assistance whatever from him when I raised exactly the same matter on the Adjournment. Now that we have a Conservative Government, the hon. Gentleman attacks my hon. Friend. I see no ground for such an attack.

Mr. Marples

I still cannot give the figure to the hon. Gentleman, nor can anyone else until a review is made. I suggest to him that he should wait until later in the year, when we may be able to give him a figure which might be more encouraging.

Mr. Foot

Can the hon. Gentleman give us any date? It is no use asking the blitzed cities to make plans for using less steel if they are not to know whether they will have sufficient capital investment allocation with which to go ahead.

Mr. Marples

My right hon. Friend has already said that the limiting factor is not capital investment but steel, and that he will see that the capital investment requirements of the blitzed cities match the available steel. Therefore, all this discussion about capital investment may provide the hon. Gentleman with good propaganda for what he has in mind, or party points, but it is not the deciding factor in their building of the blitzed city centers.

Now I come to one more point. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a special grant. Judged by the test of rateable value per head over the whole country, the blitzed cities are relatively wealthy. If they were not, they would get help under the equalisation grant.

One last point. The hon. Gentleman deplored the failure to consult with the local authorities concerned before the decision was taken about the delays in reconstruction, and urged consultation with a view to reversing the policy. The Department have always been in touch with the local authorities, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and they know the programmes of the blitzed cities for reconstruction purposes. There is no doubt that we are well aware of the fact that, as far as we are concerned in the Ministry, the blitzed cities have not been allocated enough steel for their entire building requirements. We have that in mind and we shall continue, as a Department, to press it whenever meetings are arranged on the allocation of steel.

What has dictated the inadequate allocation to the blitzed cities has been the shortage of steel in relation to the commitments which the Government have to undertake now because of the overloading of the programme which was handed on to them by their predecessor. That is what necessitated a three months standstill on most of the building operations. When a legacy is received where the amount of work on hand is greater than the available resources, there are only two alternatives: either to increase the resources, which we cannot do, or to cut down on the amount of building which is going on.

Mr. Foot

The Ministry has less steel.

Mr. Marples

We would have had even less. Hon. Gentlemen opposite ridiculed the million tons which my right hon. Friend got from America.

Mr. Foot

Not at all.

Mr. Marples

This afternoon there were cries. I was in the House this afternoon when hon. Gentlemen opposite were dissenting from the view that the million tons of steel which my right hon. Friend secured from America was a good bargain for this country. If it had not been for that, I do not know what would have happened to our building programme.

The hon. Gentleman has had the answers to most of the questions he put. I am sorry that, because of the limited time at my disposal, I cannot speak any longer, but we do want to treat the blitzed cities with sympathy, and we shall do all we can.

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

Adjourned at Fourteen Minutes to Two o'Clock a.m.