HC Deb 29 February 1952 vol 496 cc1674-84

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Martin Lindsay (Solihull)

I hope this Adjournment period will be useful in giving an opportunity to the Government to state their policy in regard to the numerous associations which are now springing up all over the country for the purpose of their members building their own homes. It happens that there are more self-help housing groups in my own constituency of Solihull than in any other. This is partly because the first of these associations, that of the Post Office workers, started in the neighbouring City of Birmingham, but chiefly because we are fortunate in having a progressive urban district council, which believes in private enterprise, and enlightened officials. They appreciate that these groups of fine young workmen are performing valuable pioneering work, and have therefore given every possible encouragement to them.

In consequence, we now have in Solihull no fewer than nine self-building groups in course of building, and several more which are in process of training and formation. There are some 100 of these associations in different parts of the country at the present time, but I am sure that the number will grow rapidly.

I believe, therefore, that the time has now come for the Government to give considerably more thought to the housing contribution which these groups are capable of making and to the problems which they bring in their train. The most important of those problems is the question of relations with the trade unions if, as is likely, these groups grow to mammoth numbers in a few years. I trust the time will never come when there will be opposition to men building their own homes in a free country. Nevertheless, the relationship with the unions is something which must be considered in good time.

I want the Minister to realise, if he does not already, what an immensely valuable building potential these groups are at a time of great national labour shortage. In my constituency, I hope we shall complete 80 to 100 houses this year and about 150 in 1953. Taking this figure of 150 houses, if self-help groups would average only half this level of production all over the country, it would be equivalent to 47,000 houses a year—a bonus of 16 per cent. on the Government target of 300,000 houses a year, without any call upon the normal building labour force.

I therefore believe that the Government should do all they possibly can to assist well-managed building groups to come into existence all over the country. The housing need is there, the latent will to build is there, and what is required is technical assistance in the initial stages, such as guidance through the immense legal and administrative difficulties, which cannot possibly be envisaged by the ordinary man wishing to work in a group.

There are three agencies which the 'Ministry should use to promote these groups. First, of course, there are the local authorities. Every authority could organise a section of its public works department to supervise and direct a number of these groups. The second agency is industry. In one or two cases companies such as, for example, Dunlop's and Cadbury's, in my own district, have helped societies from among their own work-people to get on their feet, not by financing them, but by providing the technical services of their own consultants, such as the company's lawyers. I am quite sure that very many companies would be glad to do the same if their attention were drawn to the possibilities.

Then there is the possibility of voluntary bodies, such as the Rotary movement, which normally has in it the cream of local business talent. Incidentally, the Rotary Club of Chichester is already doing valuable pioneering work in this field.

It would be exceedingly difficult to find a movement more deserving of encouragement. What these men are doing is most impressive, working at weekends and in the long summer evenings, or, at the present time, by are lamps until 8 o'clock on Sunday nights. If the Minister could spare a weekend afternoon, there is nothing I should like more than to take him round from one group to another in my constituency and let him see them actually on the job.

These are the men with guts and enterprise, who are getting on with the job instead of waiting for something to be done for them. Often they work a 78-hour week, whilst being paid for working 44 hours. I like to think that they are typical of what we hope are going to be the new Elizabethans.

The Assistant Postmaster-General has told me that it is noticeable how the character and initiative of the men who have worked in the Post Office group have been developed by this experience. From what I have seen of them, I believe that these men are typical of the best human material, and that this experience will develop their characters and personalities so that they will be of increasing use in industry, and that many of them will in consequence gain promotion.

I suggest that the Minister should give local authorities much more guidance. At present, local authorities in London and the South seem to be in doubt as to what these housing associations are able to do and are continually referring to Birmingham, Solihull or Sutton Coldfield.

I should like my hon. Friend to get out a simple pamphlet, so that we would have something to give these men when they ask us how to set about forming a group, and be able to tell them how to proceed. I should like him to consider the whole question of publicity which should be given, bearing in mind its effect upon the public, upon trade unions, and upon local authorities.

One of the things that we need to ensure at this stage is that it is made as difficult as possible for undesirable people to get hold of these associations. By this I mean people who grossly overcharge these men in return for piloting them through the veritable mass of legal and financial difficulties connected with getting a building scheme going, and for providing technical assistance in the course of building operations. I am not suggesting that unscrupulous promoters have as yet got hold of these societies, but there is a great temptation and a danger.

These societies need the best kind of working rules, in the simplest form, and there is need for special guidance and co-ordination. Sixteen years ago, the Government set up an organisation for this very purpose: that is to say, to safeguard the interests of housing associations; and ever since then the National Federation of Housing Societies has received an Exchequer grant.

But we cannot insist upon a closed shop, and the fact is that at the present time only 15 of these associations have in fact joined the National Federation, and the remaining 80-odd do not belong to it. The Federation can be of great assistance to these housing associations in seeing that they are properly conducted, that their long-term finance is sound, and that they have all the benefits obtainable under the law, such as, for example, charitable registration with exemption from Schedule A Income Tax.

As we are not going to insist upon the closed shop, we must, I think, rely upon the local authorities. Particulars of each housing asociation must pass successively before the housing committee, the finance committee, and then the full council, and finally go to the regional office of the Ministry. I want the Ministry to ask the local authorities to give guidance, where necessary, in regard to the constitution of these schemes, and to make sure that their trust deeds are well drawn up, that they have a properly worked out rent formula, and so on, so that abuses do not take place.

The relationship of these groups with their local authorities is very important, and little would be achieved without full co-operation. Previously local authori- ties used to be suspicious of these groups, regarding them as people who wished to jump the housing queue, particularly when they came from across the boundaries of another authority. But the Minister's wise statement that local authorities could expect to get an unlimited number of additional licences in accordance with building progress made, has removed this suspicion, and given local authorities much greater confidence, as I myself experienced when I took a deputation from my own local authority to see the Ministry's regional officer, to return with 281 additional licences.

Nevertheless, I am quite certain that the Ministry must give much more guidance to all local authorities on the encouragement and assistance which, in my opinion, should be given to these societies. The local authorities have big responsibilities in regard to designation and amenity planning, subsidy and mortgage facilities, and so on. Working together, the local authorities and these self-help housing groups, with proper encouragement and help from the Ministry, can make a great and novel contribution to housing problems, such as we all desire to see.

4.14 p.m.

Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Erdington)

I am very glad the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. M. Lindsay) has taken the opportunity of bringing this matter of self-help housing associations before the House. He and I stand in this relation, that the Birmingham people, like those in my constituency who build the houses, go to the constituency of the hon. Member, and he is at the receiving end as far as the houses are concerned. It is the Birmingham artisans and workers who build these houses.

The hon. Member referred particularly to one scheme in his constituency, that is, the Fortitude Housing Association connected with the Dunlop factory. There are 50 men involved, and the lastex section of Dunlop has given them every assistance in developing their training. Some of them, of course, were building workers before they went into the factory. They have contributed something like 12 houses up to the present. It is very obvious that schemes like this can make a valuable contribution to the housing problem in places like the Birmingham area.

In Birmingham we have a housing waiting list of about 60,000 and people who are coming into the city far outnumber the number of houses which are being built by the local authority. The bottleneck in Birmingham is not so much building material as shortage of building labour. The consequence is that these people are building in the Birmingham area houses which would otherwise not have been built. That is the important point to remember.

I made representations to my hon. Friend who was Parliamentary Secretary in the last Government on this matter. It is fair to say that the last Government took the initiative in giving extra licences for these houses. I am glad that the present Government are at least reverting to that policy and giving extra licences to cover these schemes, because such schemes are undoubtedly a valuable contribution to the total solution of the housing problem, especially in areas like Birmingham.

I do not entirely share the optimism of the hon. Member for Solihull about these schemes spreading like wildfire throughout the country. In areas where the shortage of building labour is the key problem—and I think that Birmingham is a very special case in that respect, though some other authorities may be in the same position—there is ample scope for these organisations. Frankly, I do not think that there will be a demand from many other areas, and I am not sure that it would be altogether desirable to allow these schemes to develop to an unlimited extent.

I am glad the hon. Member for Solihull raised the question of control and the scrutiny of every scheme, because it is most important that that should be done. If such schemes are limited to the places to which they are proper—and I do not think there is the danger of an excessive extension—there will not be any clash with the building unions. It is obvious that the minds of members of the building unions must always hark back to the position which existed in the early '30s when many thousands of men were out of work, and the days before the war when it is true to say that at no stage were there fewer than 10 per cent. of the building workers of this country unemployed. It is very natural that they should be on the defensive because of the fear that those times may perhaps come again. That is perhaps why they look askance at these schemes.

I do not think that they need have any fears of that for a long time to come. I understand their natural reaction, but I do not think there will be any difficulty. In certain other areas in which there is a reasonable supply of building labour—and there are such areas—it would certainly be rather more difficult to justify these housing associations because it must be borne in mind that they are getting a share of building materials and labour which are in short supply throughout the country, and in that sense those concerned in them are getting in front of other people. That must always be considered.

In areas like Birmingham, however, there is the strongest possible case for these schemes and I hope that the Government will listen to the hon. Member's plea and give these organisations all possible assistance. There is no doubt that they are doing a good job not merely for their members but also in their contribution to a solution of the terrible housing situation in cities and areas like Birmingham.

4.19 p.m.

Brigadier Terence Clarke (Portsmouth, West)

I am very glad of the opportunity to support my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. M. Lindsay) and the hon. Member for Erdington (Mr. J. Silverman). For a long time my constituency, which was badly blitzed in the war, has been trying to secure the opportunity for the building of houses by this self-help method. We have been unable to get licences in the past, but permission has now been given for 40 houses to be built by this method. I share with my hon. Friend the view that this will make a considerable contribution—perhaps not as much as he said, but nevertheless a considerable contribution—towards the solution of the housing problem in this country.

This form of building has one novel aspect. A man has the incentive to build a house for himself, whereas if he works overtime his money is immediately taxed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and half of it taken away. The sweat of his brow cannot be taxed; but he can build a house in which he can live for the rest of his life. In my constituency I give every encouragement to this self-help type of building, and if every right hon. and hon. Member gave equal encouragement we should go a long way towards solving the housing problem. In Germany and on the Continent it has been done, and we can do it in this country.

4.21 p.m.

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

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Lindsay) for raising this matter, and I confirm what he has said about his own local authority. It is a very progressive local authority and it deals with its allotted task with intelligence and imagination. Solihull is fortunate in several respects. It has a body of citizens determined to help themselves, to roll up their sleeves and get down to some real hard work. They have also shown political sagacity, inasmuch as they have consistently returned my hon. Friend to this House, which shows that they not only work hard, but have wisdom as well.

I would say a word about the self-help groups and the National Federation, which is the central association giving guidance. I refer the House to Section 96 (1) of the Housing Act, 1936: If a Central Association or other body has been or was established for the purpose of promoting the formation and extension of Housing Associations and of giving them advice and assistance, the Minister may, if he thinks fit, recognise such Association or body for the purpose of this section. The only body so far recognised for this purpose—and I emphasise that it is the only body—is the National Federation of Housing Societies, whose headquarters are in London. Among their members they have various self-help groups to whom they give assistance from time to time, and any local authority which receives inquiries from a self-help group can do no better than refer them to the National Federation. I will bring to the attention of the Federation the valuable suggestion by my hon. Friend, that there should be a pamphlet setting out under clear headings what a self-help group should do in order to start building for themselves.

I come now to the assistance the Government wish to give to local authori- ties if they have any self-help schemes in their area. Under the last Government there was a rigid annual allocation of houses given to each local authority. That allocation was rarely altered during the year, whatever the circumstances. When this Government came into office, the system of allocating houses was altered. Instead of the fixed rigid annual allocation we had a flexible series of instalments, and over the next three years we shall have a programme expanding as rapidly as resources permit. By resources, I mean labour and materials.

The initial instalment is made according to the needs of the local authority and taking into account the resources in the particular area. The next instalment takes into account what the area did with the first instalment and what resources are still in the area. It is a sensible flexibility, because if we were too low in our initial estimate we can alter that by giving the authority more in the second instalment.

These self-help groups reduce demands on labour, but not, of course, as the hon. Member for Erdington (Mr. J. Silverman) said, on materials, which have to come from the general pool. We must always bear that in mind. But the duty of seeing that self-help groups are encouraged rests primarily on the local authority and the Minister is considering —and I will bring to his attention the remarks made in this debate—issuing a circular to local authorities for their guidance and setting out as clearly as possible what should be done to assist self-help groups.

But the local authorities have a duty, and, in respect of those houses which they build to let, they must see that they house the people whose needs are most urgent, and, if they give private licences, they must also see that the needs of the selected applicants are comparable with those of people on their own waiting lists for council houses. Local authorities must satisfy themselves by an examination of the constitution of the self-help group, its resources, financial arrangements and the obligations of its members, that there is a reasonable expectation that the group can complete a given number of houses in a reasonable period of time.

If they do that, and if they find that they want an extra instalment, in order to give the self-help group some work to be going on with, I hope they will go to the principal regional officers of the Ministry in their district, when we will see what we can do to give them an additional instalment. It is up to the local authorities to satisfy themselves that the self-help group can really do the work, and that it has the resources to do it, and in this respect I reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull said.

It would be most unfortunate and very undesirable if the self-help groups were to get the wrong advice at a very high fee, and it may be—indeed, in one or two cases there have been Press reports of this nature—that undesirable people get hold of a main housing association and give advice at a fee which is much too high. Therefore, I suggest that the self-help groups should take notice of this debate, and that hon. Gentlemen here should let their local authorities know that, if a self-help group wishes to work efficiently and expeditiously, it should apply to the National Federation.

The Minister wants to do everything he can to assist these groups in suitable cases. Not all cases are suitable, though the self-help group in Solihull is. I hope more like it will be formed.

There is nothing more satisfactory to a man's soul than to do something con- structive with his own hands. I well remember that, when I was in hospital during the war, the idea of the various physicians, surgeons and psychiatrists was to insist upon all soldiers who had been injured trying to do something with their hands. I remember making an excellent leather case, which I took around with me, until somebody else had the same idea as myself about its excellence and it was suddenly removed from my ownership. It gives dignity to a man, and also gives him self-respect, by making him feel that he is of some use, when he can produce something he has made himself.

Therefore, we as a party, and my right hon. Friend as the Minister, are most anxious that we should help this trait in a man's character. So far as I am concerned, I call attention to the preface to a book which I wrote, which quoted these words: Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. That comes from the First Book of the Corinthians, chapter 3, verse 8. It will assure my hon. Friend that the principles which he has at heart are close to my own.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Four o'Clock.