HC Deb 13 November 1952 vol 507 cc1245-56

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

10.2 p.m.

Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

I have in my hand one of the gloomiest documents that ever came out of a Government Department. It is the third Girdwood Report on the cost of house building. It covers the period from 1949 to 1951, and I need only read three sentences out of it to give the House some idea of the seriousness of the position, at least as late as 1951. On page iv of the Introduction, the Committee report: There is no evidence of improvement in output per man in 1951 as compared with 1949, and it is still 20 per cent. below prewar. On page 13, the Committee find: If productivity could be restored to the pre-war level, then, with the same labour force as at present, approximately 25 per cent. more houses could be built and the labour cost per house would"— involve a total saving of something over £100. Finally, on page 19 the Committee find that, there seems to be no evidence of further progress in the spread of these schemes between 1949 and 1951. That net costs should rise is perhaps natural in these years, but that net productivity should fall, or at least should remain at 20 per cent. below the pre-war level, after all the publicity and the desire of everybody to try to invent and put into operation all sorts of non-traditional forms of building and all sorts of incentive schemes; that that should have happened and that there should be no improvement between 1949 and 1951, surely shows that there is something much more radically wrong that mere publicity, or persuasion, or exhortation will cure.

I think that if the much-abused monopoly industries, the oil industry or the chemical industry, had shown a record such as this, they would long ago have been punished by nationalisation; but because this is the citadel of the small man, the building industry somehow gets away with it.

If we contrast our position here today with the position in the United States of America, from which I returned recently, there we see great neighbourhood projects going up at an immense speed, a truly staggering speed, with thousands and thousands of houses being built almost overnight. The cost is enormous but the productivity is high. Joiners earn as much as 30 dollars a day, or about £10 a day at the current rate of exchange, but they earn the money. They work from morning till night. One must see them on the job to see how hard they work.

I submit that there must be something radically wrong with this industry from top to bottom. We heard last Friday a serious indictment from the other side—and I am sure it was very justified—on restrictive practices at the top. Everybody knows that those run all the way through. It is not entirely the fault of the operatives. I have always believed that a trade gets the operatives it deserves and that if they do not get the response they desire, it is as much the fault of the people at the top as it is the fault of the people at the bottom. That is true on any enterprise.

What is wrong? Why is there this contrast between this country and the United States of America on the question of the productivity of domestic house building? I wish to quote two sentences from "The Times" leader on this subject two days ago: Whether or not it is true that the very structure of the building trade permits only a snail-pace technical progress, experience is strengthening the sorry suspicion that the industry cannot efficiently bear the strain of full, or over-full employment, and that the productivity may not be much enhanced until the state of the market makes profits and wages less easy to earn. The second sentence is: The average man does not see the inexorable link between his desire for more and better houses and his willingness and ability to pay for them—except when he has a house built at his own expense. In other words, surely there is no countervailing power when there are too many cushions and feather beds between the building industry and the consumer, between the man who lives in the house and the building trade. Until one can get some countervailing power in the hands of the consumer, this will continue. If the desire of everybody on all sides to cheapen the cost of building could itself produce that, then surely during the years from 1946 to 1951 that would have happened.

If the ordinary house dweller had to pay an economic rent, I am sure that he would not tolerate this position, and he would be right not to do so. I am not sure that the system of tenders from the local authority to the Ministry of Housing and back is not somewhere at the root of the trouble, but I am sure that the only way to get rid of these restrictive practices on all sides, which have made the productivity of the building industry so poor and kept it low for so long, is to expose house building to the true competition of the market.

The great hopes that were raised about how great non-traditional building experiments would somehow come in and undercut traditional building have certainly not proved effective so far, and I am sure that in many cases they cannot be effective. I know that in my constituency the weather is so wet and the difficulties of building anything but with the ordinary hand brick—and it must be a good hand brick at that—are so great that one cannot employ cheaper and lighter materials which are more easy to carry and handle because they will not stand up very long to the Lancashire climate.

What I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us tonight is whether there is any more hope since the Gird-wood Committee reported. After all, its Reports do not carry us beyond 1951, and there is almost a year's work since then. Can he tell us how costs are running today?

I do not want to make a party point, but my information from a good source is that prices have been going up since then. Whether productivity has been going up or not is a different question, and a vital question, too, because, although more has been paid for wages, which is probably quite right if that has meant more production, we know there now has to be an extra week's holiday with pay, and that is also quite right if that holiday has been earned by greater productivity. Can the Parliamentary Secretary tell us whether recent figures hold out any hopes of improvement on these lines?

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will get to the root of this matter. Of course, we on these benches think that the simpler construction of houses, which is now being used and which reduces costs very considerably, is the right policy, and, indeed, throughout the Girdwood Reports this is recommended. I should not like the Parliamentary Secretary simply to answer that costs are coming down because houses are of simpler design and of a slightly smaller over-all pattern. That is not the point. The point is whether there is an improvement in productivity, taking all matters into account, such as the size of the houses, the increased wages and the extra week's holiday with pay. Can he make a computation, which I admit is difficult to make, and tell us what are the chances for the future?

These costs have really reached a point at which everybody connected with the building trade and everybody at the mercy of the trade are finding their patience exhausted. The local authorities are in despair, and I think that many of them are welcoming the competition which the builders who work for them will have to face from the private purchaser and private builder, which will bring some reality into the matter, because when a man has to pay the full cost of a house, he scrutinises it much more closely than any public servant, however dutiful and careful. In my submission, that will produce a greater air of reality in this matter than has been the case for the last seven or eight years.

We should like to know where we stand. Are there any hopes that nontraditional building, which so far since the war has not fulfilled all the talk there has been about it, may even at this late hour do something to make this industry more efficient? I do not know, but what I do know is that this is a human problem which is threatening to crush us all, because sooner or later we shall have to stop building houses if we cannot afford them. The time has come when we cannot afford any more increases in prices.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

The House should be indebted to the hon. Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) for taking this opportunity of drawing the attention of the House and of the country to the imperative need for a greater drive in building the houses which everybody now agrees are necessary. He mentioned the building construction that is going on in New York. If I do not stir too many prejudices, I should like to draw attention to the remarkable work of building reconstruction that is going on in Moscow.

If we are to send a deputation to America to find out the latest methods used there, it would be a good idea to go also to Moscow to see what is going on there. I am quite sure that if the Parliamentary Secretary, and indeed hon. Members from all parts of the House, were to put aside all ideological prejudices and see what is going on in Moscow at the present time, they would be very greatly impressed. I was at the economic conference at Easter, and I passed through Moscow in September. I noticed the tremendous difference in the building that had been achieved in that very short time.

For example, in Moscow the skyline is now dominated by three great skycrapers. The University of Moscow on the Lenin Hills is a huge building capable of housing no fewer than 8,000 students. I was accompanied in Moscow in September by a well-known architect who has taken a prominent part in building houses in London. He expressed the opinion that there was far more mechanisation of the building industry in Moscow than there was in London.

I repeat that if we intend to study methods in some parts of the world we should not be blind to what is going on in other countries. We might do worse than send a deputation to Moscow to find out what is being done there at the present time.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

If I may say so without disrespect to my hon. Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) and the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), I find their speeches to some extent a little degrading. Before the war, we had people coming from America, and no doubt from Russia, to see how it was that we were achieving our great successes in this country.

Before the war, in building of all sorts, we were producing goods at a price that compared so favourably with others that we were the centre of interest for people from all parts of the world. I should be sorry to think that a time has come when we should be even thinking of going to other countries to see how to do a job that we used to do so very well ourselves.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can tell us how things have improved over the last 12 months. Can he report progress since the Girdwood Report was published? I hope that he will be able to tell us what has been done to bring about the improvement which I think he will be able to report. I suggest that one reason for improvement is that the climate in which building is allowed to go on has altered and has become a little nearer to what it was before the war when we were the centre of interest and were the guides to other people on how to do the job.

10.19 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 Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) for raising what is one of the most important subjects today. The cost of building will have to be brought down, and to bring it down by permanent distribution of subsidies is an unhealthy sign in a normal economy. The only way is to bring down the cost of house-building.

Before I reply to my hon. Friend, I should like to reply to the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes). The reason why I have not been to Russia is because they will not let me go there.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Has the hon. Gentleman tried?

Mr. Marples

I tried for three years, and for two years I wrote to the Soviet Embassy every fortnight and asked if they would give me permission. On each occasion either they had no accommodation there or could not give me the travel facilities. On the last occasion when they said that they had no travel facilities a friend of mine in Switzerland offered me an aeroplane, complete with petrol and food, and so I did not need travel facilities. The Embassy then said that they had nothing to add to their previous letter. If the hon. Member for South Ayrshire can use his influence to get me to Russia, then I will tell him on the Floor of the House that I will go.

Mr. Hughes

I am afraid I have not very much influence, because I tried unsuccessfully to get a visa for three years. Ultimately I accepted an invitation to go to the Economic Conference. Certainly if I have any influence I will be prepared to accompany the hon. Gentleman to Moscow and to act as his interpreter as well.

Mr. Marples

I said I wanted to go, but I did not say I wanted the hon. Gentleman to accompany me. I am anxious to make the visit, but I do want to be alone. I want to be able to go where I want and not where the people in Moscow tell me to go.

Mr. Hughes

Does the hon. Gentleman understand the language?

Mr. Marples

No, but I can understand building operations, which is better than understanding the language. I can tell if they are efficient, because I am not entirely without knowledge of the building industry. To show the hon. Gentleman the humbleness, not only of the junior Ministers but of every one on these benches, I would say that I recently completed a tour of Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Holland, and I have come back, with the Chief Architect of the Ministry, with some ideas of the layouts of the estates, roads and sewers of narrow fronted houses, which would save as much as £50 and even £100 a house if we adopted them in this country.

One of the things which the Minister wants to do is to give a positive and dynamic lead to the country, not only by sending out circulars on this point, but by doing it in three dimensions so that the house can be in existence and the people can see it. The hon. Gentleman who has had the advantage of going to Moscow should go to the village where we are going to build, and he will see how to get costs down, and in return I hope that he will be able to get me to Moscow.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. H. Nicholls) asked what we had done since 1952. It was a pertinent question, because the Girdwood Report only takes us to 1951 and it is, therefore, out of date. The first thing that the "Welsh wizard" from Ebbw Vale boasted was that he had cut down costs in 1946. In actual fact, hundreds of pounds were added to the cost of the house. We have made no boast at all. We have taken £150 per house off the cost by the introduction of good and intelligent designs, maintaining the same room size that the Dudley Committee recommended and yet reducing the circulating space. My hon. Friend must remember that the Dudley Committee made its recommendations on the size of rooms on the assumption that the cost would be 30 per cent. above what it was in 1939. In fact, the cost was nearly 300 per cent. up. We have still maintained those generous room sizes, and yet we have cut the cost down by £150.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough asked what we had done in 1952. He asked whether productivity had increased and whether costs had come down. That was a pertinent question. The answer is that I believe productivity has increased in 1952 because the building industry has used more cement and more bricks during that period with a smaller labour force. Therefore, if it has used more material with a reduced labour force, then it stands to reason that there must have been increased productivity.

I will give several reasons why I believe productivity has been increased. The first and most important factor is the question of materials. No person will work hard on a building site unless he is assured of an ample supply of materials on that site. We cannot expect a bricklayer, a plasterer, or anybody else, to work himself out of a job. We have to take practical administrative measures to do two things so far as materials are concerned. The first is to increase the supply and production of materials, for example by putting labour in the brickyards and building houses for them. My hon. Friend will remember that in 1950 when we moved a vote of censure on the then lethargic Government of the day, he suggested that those measures should be taken. They have been taken and they have produced results.

In addition to increasing production, we have reduced the consumption of building materials in the non-housing sector. We have done that by a subcommittee on economy—a very good sub-committee, because I am the chairman of it. This sub-committee on economy has introduced measures whereby important building materials which are used for housing are not used extravagantly in the non-housing sector. We can build just as many power stations as before and we can use fewer bricks. We can get exactly the same amount of electric current and use fewer building materials.

The second reason why I believe we have increased productivity in 1952 is that there is now confidence in the industry, and we cannot get anywhere in production without the confidence of both sides of the industry. What we have done is to tell the people concerned that this is going to be an expanding industry. Previously, if a local authority were told that they could build 100 houses in a given 12 months and they built the 100 houses in 10 months they could not get any extra houses to build, so the 100 houses were spread evenly over the 12 months. Now my right hon. Friend, with that shrewd anticipation we all expect of him, has told local authorities that if they complete their programme before the 12 months are out they can ask for more licences if they have the materials and labour available.

Mr. W. A. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

The right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) told them that.

Mr. Marples

Not in the normal loud and booming voice I associate with him, as far as I know.

Mr. Wilkins

Be fair.

Mr. Marples

I will be fair. The party opposite never built 200,000 houses in any year except one, and they only did so then by their "finish the houses" campaign, whereby they dropped everything in order to put a roof on houses which were standing without roofs. The right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland may have said that, but it had no effect on the housing industry whatever. Only in one year were more than 200,000 houses built, and that was the year when the building programme was almost wrecked.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

They built a lot of other things, such as factories.

Mr. Marples

They did not spend as much as is now being spent on factories. The fallacy of the argument of hon. Gentlemen opposite is this: It was perpetrated by the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short), who said that this Government in the first quarter of 1952 had built fewer schools than the previous Government started in 1951, and that therefore we had cut down the school building programme. But the amount of labour, materials and money for school building do not depend on the number of starts, but on the work in progress which is carried over, added to the number of starts in the period, from which is deducted the work in progress at the end of the year, and that gives the monetary assessment of the amount of materials, labour and money which has gone into school building. If that criterion is taken, the hon. Member for South Ayrshire will find that this Government have done more than his Government did as far as the building of schools is concerned. That myth will be exposed in due course in the efficient manner we always associate with this Government.

With regard to non-traditional houses, the difficulty is that in this country today the building of a non-traditional house means the erection of the shell by nontraditional methods, that is, the replacing of brick by "no fines" and other technical substitutes; but that shell represents only 10 per cent. as far as cost is concerned, and therefore, however efficient non-traditional methods are and however much the industry adopts them, they will not be able to bring down the costs simply by prefabrication of the shell. What we have to do is to prefabricate using the system of moduling, what I call, vulgarly, the guts of a house.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

That is what they do in Moscow.

Mr. Marples

The hon. Member may be right. He has a great advantage. He can go there and we cannot. If he will get me a visa and give me a letter to send when I write to the Russian Embassy I shall be happy. I shall go to Moscow and pay my own expenses, and I shall not even eat any Russian food when I am there; I shall drink their vodka.

It is the prefabrication of the guts of a house which really counts. My right hon. Friend has appointed a committee known as the Bailey Committee—to go into the question of the efficiency and speed of building the inside of a house—under Sir Donald Bailey, who was made famous by the Bailey bridge, which made such a great contribution to our success during the war. The Committee's terms of reference are that we are to try to get the efficiency and the low cost of the mass-produced article without the dull uniformity that one associates with mass production, and it can be done if we use the module as the basis for the internal measurements of the house. I hope that Committee will be reporting early next year. Its report will be made available to hon. Members and to the public.

In the Ministry we have decided as a matter of policy that no longer will we be content with issuing mere circulars to people and preaching what they should do. We are going to set an example and show them what can be done in three dimensions and they can come along and see it. It must be shown to people in three dimensions. One of the architects of the Ministry was driven nearly to the verge of insanity—and almost to incoherence—trying to explain on a plan to his wife what the "People's House" was like, but without success. When he took her to the Ideal Home Exhibition she was converted, as the hon. Member for South Ayrshire was converted when he went to Moscow. I hope the hon. Member went to the Ideal Home Exhibition as well as to Moscow. We are going to show our ideas in three dimensions so that people will really understand what we are trying to achieve.

My hon. Friend must be congratulated for raising a subject which is of the greatest importance and, as I was born in the county which he represents, I am sure the county will be grateful to him.

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-eight minutes to Eleven o'Clock.