HC Deb 02 April 1953 vol 513 cc1380-95

12.23 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, North)

I am very glad to have the opportunity of raising today a matter which is of very deep concern to the people of London. I refer to the recent decision of the Minister of Works to approve licences for £10 million for the construction of office buildings in central London. The main point which I want to emphasise in initiating this debate is the need for an absolute priority for the building of fiats in the inner London area over every other kind of construction.

I want to make it clear to the Minister and to the Minister of Housing and Local Government that whatever arguments there may be in favour of licensing office construction in the City, those arguments are negligible beside the overwhelming need to rehouse the people of London. In the past there have always been two arguments in favour of licensing office construction at a time of housing shortage. They were arguments that were used by the Labour Government, and the Labour Government approved the building of several offices for Government Departments.

The first of the arguments was that these offices, when built, would release residential accommodation. As far as the Civil Service was concerned to a large extent that was true. Government Departments were occupying large blocks of flats all over London. But the licences which we are discussing today are, I understand, for private firms. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what is his estimate of the amount of private residential accommodation, if any, that will be released as a result of the construction of these offices.

It was also said that the construction of offices did not compete with house building. To some extent there was a measure of truth in that also, but only in so far as it applied to the building of houses. In London, and particularly in the inner London area, we cannot build houses. We build flats, and where flats are concerned the position is entirely different. We use precisely the same type of material, the same type of constructional equipment and the same type of labour for building a block of offices as we do for building a block of flats. Furthermore, exactly the same type of site preparation, which is a big job as the Minister knows, is required in each case.

I say that the two forms of building compete directly with one another for resources and manpower. I wanted to discover the effect of this decision and I asked the Minister a Question just over a month ago. I invited him to estimate the number of flats of average size which could be provided by local authorities in London out of the building resources which will be required to construct the £10 million worth of office accommodation in central London. He passed the baby to the Minister of Housing and Local Government and his right hon. Friend side-stepped very smartly in his reply. He said: This would depend upon the design and method of construction of the flats. I am left therefore to make my own calculations. I believe that the average cost of the average size flat in central London is roughly £2,000. From that figure I estimate that Londoners are being deprived of no fewer than 5,000 flats as a result of this decision to build offices. If the right hon. Gentleman does not accept my calculations. I hope he will give the House his own.

To do the Minister justice, he did not fall back on those two old arguments. When I put a Question to the right hon. Gentleman on the same day as to why he had authorised these licences, he produced some new ones of his own. He said: It is of national importance to begin the rebuilding of the City of London."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th February, 1953, Vol. 511, c. 202 and 204.] We all agree that the City had its share, indeed more than its share, of bombing. The City looks a mess and we all look forward to the day when it can be rebuilt. We hope to see it rebuilt just as soon as the country can afford it, but I do not believe that London is ashamed of its battle scars. On the contrary, London is rather proud of them, and the people of London do not want to see those scars removed at the cost of dealing with the housing problem.

The right hon. Gentleman claims that the erection of these offices will add to the economic strength of the country. In what way will it do that? Does he not agree that it is far better for the economic strength of the country that the workers, both office and manual workers, should be decently housed? I believe that not enough attention has been paid to the relationship between productivity and good housing. It is an important factor. Of course, there is bound to be some overcrowding in offices in the City, and no doubt it causes some discomfort, but what is discomfort of this nature compared with the ghastly conditions in which tens of thousands of Londoners are still condemned to eat, to live, to sleep and to bring up their children? I believe that the office workers themselves would take this view if they could see some of the conditions under which these people are living.

Then the right hon. Gentleman offered the most astonishing argument of all, that since housing sites in London are limited, the housing programme will not suffer. It is true that the bombed sites resulting from the war are now largely built on or in the process of development—the larger ones at any rate. There are still plenty of small sites, but these are mostly infilling jobs and are unsuitable for large schemes.

But what about slum clearance? By now the London boroughs ought to be hard at work on programmes of slum clearance. There are many authorities who are anxious to get ahead, who want to use their powers under Section 3 of the 1936 Housing Act but the Government will not give them the permission for which they are asking. There are enough areas in London in urgent need of demolition and reconstruction to keep the building resources of London busy for 10, 20 and probably 30 years, but we are not allowed to get on with the job.

Does not the Minister appreciate that London is still in desperate need of rehousing? Despite everything we have done in seven years, the problem seems still as serious as it ever was to those of us who come face to face with it every day. I want to quote one or two illustrations taken from my own borough of St. Pancras. I am especially fortunate here in that St. Pancras was one of the selected areas for the sample tables of the 1951 Census recently published by the Stationery Office, so that the figures which I shall give to the House are accurate and up to date. I make no apology for quoting these figures because they are an index of human discomfort, frustration and, in some cases, sheer misery.

Out of 48,000 families in St. Pancras 33,500 live in shared dwellings. That means they have not got their own front door. The Minister will know what that leads to in the way of trouble with neighbours, difficulties about the pram in the hall, the use and cleaning of the stairs, and so on. This means that 70 per cent. of the population are sharing a dwelling as compared with 15 per cent. for the whole of England and Wales.

More than half the families in St. Pancras lack their own water closet; more than three quarters of the families in St. Pancras lack their own bath; and more than one quarter of them are without their own stove and sink. Nearly 4½ per cent. of the population are living in overcrowded conditions of more than two persons per room, and for this purpose rooms include kitchens.

All these figures, which are not untypical of London, are just about double the national average. My own borough council recently overhauled their housing list and the resulting figures are an accurate index. There are now 6,000 families on the housing list, one in every eight in the borough. Over a quarter of these are really urgent cases on grounds of ill-health, of sanitary conditions and serious overcrowding, and, even if the past rate of housing is maintained, many of these families will have to wait up to four years at least.

In this category of urgent houses there are families where there is tuberculosis, where perhaps, a parent is in a sanitorium and the doctor forbids them to come home to a damp and overcrowded basement. There are families where the parents have to share the same bedroom with adolescent children of opposite sexes. There is, of course, the equally tragic group of young married couples living with in-laws who can see no hope of being able to live a normal married life in their own home, because their cases are not even priority.

I could weary the House with endless individual cases to underline the point I am trying to make, but I shall quote just one letter which I received only yesterday from a hospital almoner about a patient who is a constituent of mine. She is suffering from a serious complaint, and is expecting a baby shortly. The husband and wife and one child are living, eating and sleeping in one room at the top of the house. The fresh water supply is out in the yard, which means that the wife has to go up and down two flights of stairs for this and also to empty out used water, as there is no sink in her room and no lavatory in the house. You will appreciate that this is an extremely difficult situation for her as she has a young baby and, from a medical point of view, it is serious as she must avoid all undue strain. That is not the worst case by any means, but it happens to be the most recent one I have had.

The Metropolitan borough housing lists are only half the story. The London County Council have on their waiting lists nearly 200,000 families, 70,000 of which are categorised as priority A. My hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson), if he is fortunate to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, knows a lot more about the L.C.C. aspect of the problem than I do.

I hope I have said enough to convince the Minister that there is still a desperate need for rehousing the people of London and that it is utterly wrong to divert building resources away from housing at this time and in this situation. The position is that 18 months ago, possibly longer, an absolute ban was placed on the building of offices and no further licences were to be issued. The £10 million grant which the Minister has just made is the first breach of that principle. I want to ask him certain specific questions about those licences and to ask for one or two assurances.

Is there any way in which these licences can be rescinded or suspended? If so, will the Minister take appropriate action? Over what period is the £10 million to be expended? How many licences does it represent? There are rumours that it represents a very small number of large licences. Which firms have been granted the licences? Is the Bank of England one of them? How are these firms chosen by his Department out of what must have been hundreds of applications from City firms? Rumour in the City has it that there has been an ugly scramble for licences. How does the right hon. Gentleman discriminate? On what basis does he select his fortunate candidates for these licences?

Has he given any starting dates? If so, how many? Will he give an assurance that he will not give starting dates for a long time in those cases which have not been awarded them already? Above all, will he give an assurance that no more licences for offices will be issued for a long time to come? Finally, will he tell the House and the country that he and his right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government will in future see that the maximum building resources of London are devoted to housing the many ill-housed people there, who have suffered for so long and perhaps too patiently?

12.40 p.m.

Mr. C. W. Gibson (Clapham)

We are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) for raising this question, which is of very great importance to London and, in particular, to the tens of thousands of families on the waiting lists there.

Unfortunately, both the Minister of Works and the Minister of Housing and Local Government have been extremely coy in answering Questions on this subject. They have dodged quite straightforward requests for information as to what effect the granting of permission to spend £10 million on office building will have on the supply of materials and labour for the housing work of the London County Council and the London boroughs.

On Monday last I put down a Question for Oral answer. It was not reached, but I have had an answer in writing. I asked if the Minister of Works could tell me the estimated number of skilled building operatives who would be employed on this work. His reply was that he did not know. I have tried to find out what would be the effect on the supply of materials, but, again, the reply I received from the Minister was that he did not know. Are we to understand, therefore, that this enormous sum of money—£10 million—has been allowed for the building of offices in the City of London without any inquiry as to its effect either on the supply of building materials or labour in London?

The Minister of Works (Mr. David Eccles)


Mr. Gibson

The Minister mutters "No," but he has not answered any Questions which we have put to him on that point. None of us is against the rebuilding of bombed offices in the City of London. We all want to see them rebuilt. But there must be priorities in this matter, in view of the housing position in London, and up till now the first claim on building materials and labour has been given to housing. That has gone, and I am afraid that this is only the beginning —although it is a very big one, of £10 million—of a break into the supply of building materials and labour for London housing.

The Minister cannot avoid breaking into the labour supply which is used on housing if he goes on with this proposal. The suggestion that there is a pool of unused labour which can be used on this work and which will not in any way interfere with the development of housing is quite wrong. The figures published by the Ministry of Labour Gazette prove it. I took the trouble to look them up yesterday, and the Minister will find them on page 97 of the March Gazette. The number of unemployed building trade workers, including civil engineering contractors' labour, is only 36,700 over the whole country. That is a tiny-proportion of the 1,250,000 men employed in the industry, and it gives no slack for additional large work anywhere.

I am much more interested in the position of London. The returns show that for the four weeks ending 14th January, roughly 29,400 building trade and civil engineering contractors' men were placed in work, but there were 16,932 vacancies unfilled, apparently because the Ministry could not find men to fill them. For the next period—the four weeks ending 11th February—the number placed went up to 34,152, but the number of vacancies unfilled also increased, to 18,059.

With a labour market of that kind in the building industry it is futile to think that we can start several million pounds' worth of new work in the City of London. I admit that the work in question is important and that it ought to be done at some time, but it is futile to suggest that we can start on it now without drawing labour from housing work. We are short of skilled labour on all our housing sites in London.

Mr. Eccles indicated dissent.

Mr. Gibson

The Minister shakes his bead, but it is true. We have been short of skilled labour ever since the war. We have been short of bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers, tilers and similar people. There is plenty of unskilled labour. The figures of unemployment in the building trade in the London area, which were given to me by the Minister some weeks ago, showed that most of these men were unskilled workers.

They have probably been absorbed again since then, but the skilled operatives out of work in the building industry in these days are out of work only because they are changing their jobs. They find themselves without jobs only when the jobs on which they are working finish and they have to transfer to others. They may lose a day or two, or sometimes a week, in getting on to new sites.

The figures published in the Ministry of Labour Gazette this week prove that the granting of permission to commence the large rebuilding of offices in the City of London will inevitably draw labour from housing work, and that will be a crime. I do not want to go into a lot of illustrations, which we could all give. What my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North has said is quite true.

The tragedies which exist in London just now are appalling, in spite of the fact that large numbers of houses have been built in the London area since the end of the war. The fact that the London County Council urgent and priority list is well over 70,000 is proof of the tremendous need for getting on with house building as fast as we can and doing nothing which would in any way reduce the speed of that building.

If this work on office building in the City of London starts it will act as a magnet which will draw all the best skilled operatives from house building work. As one who has spent a lifetime in the industry, either as a worker or as a trade union official, I know that if a big rebuilding job starts in the City it will be regarded generally as good-class work, and the men know that they will be offered more money to go to it. That will also have the effect of drawing them from other work.

Men can express their skill more fully in work of this kind, and that will mean that thousands of skilled operatives— bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers, plasterers and tilers—will be drawn off work which they are now doing, because none of them is out of work in the London area and the London suburbs. It is a crime that the Minister of Works should have suddenly announced in the House, quite off the cuff, that he will permit £10 million worth of work to be done in respect of the rebuilding of offices in and near the City of London. He cannot do that without seriously interfering with the flow of housing production by all the housing authorities in the London area.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will have another look at this question, take the hints that have been thrown at him by my hon. Friend, and change his mind about this. There is no immediate urgency for office accommodation. All the work has been done. It may not be in the best of conditions, but if we have to balance that against the tremendous housing shortage in the London boroughs, the needs of the people on the waiting lists must come first and we should not allow such an enormous slice of the materials and labour which this proposal will involve to be drawn off the housing work which is being done.

If the Minister carries out this proposal he will deserve the censure of every elector in London, and he will earn the contempt of the thousands of people on the waiting lists, whose opportunity to be properly housed will be postponed for years. With all the best will in the world, it will take London another five or six years to rehouse only its urgent cases, assuming that no more are added to the list. If that work is to be hampered by labour being withdrawn to other work and by the creation of a shortage of materials of all kinds, the opportunity to rehouse those people will be postponed for a few more years.

I am glad my hon. Friend raised this matter and I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that he has changed his mind and that he will give those on the waiting list of London a little brighter hope than they have at the moment.

12.51 p.m.

The Minister of Works (Mr. David Eccles)

I am glad of the opportunity to say something about the building programme in Central London. May I thank the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) for giving me notice of one or two questions which he would like to have answered? I will try to give him the answers.

First, however, may I make one or two comments about the building situation as a whole? New building is going very well and, if we take the aggregate of all kinds of building in the country, we find that the volume of new construction has been expanding steadily over the last year.

We want to maintain the rhythm of expansion in step with the increasing supplies of building materials, and in that connection the Ministry of Works have a part to play in managing the flow of licences. We divide each region into zones which are based on the distance from their homes which the majority if building workers can be expected to travel to and from their jobs. That gives us the basis of a zone. We look at each zone all the time and try to feed in new work, sufficient to replace the jobs which are coming to an end.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson) raised the point of the labour statistics, for it simply is not good enough to look only at the latest statistics in the Ministry of Labour Gazette for this purpose. That, I am afraid, is how my predecessors always tried to work the building programme. They would have done very much better if they had listened to what the industry itself could tell them about the situation six or 12 months ahead.

That is what we do, and the reason is that it takes a long time for the architects to prepare the drawings and the civil engineers to get the sites ready, and if we are not looking forward all the time, and if it is a fact, as it is in London, that the big jobs are coming to an end—they are all getting near the stage of completion—we shall be in very great trouble next autumn and winter.

May I give the figures? The average amount of work fed into London in 1950 was £17,500,000 a month. It is now running at only £12,500,000 a month, which is a drop of £60 million a year. This £10 million will, therefore, be seen not to be a very large sum.

Mr. K. Robinson

Do not the figures suggest that, whatever success the Conservative Government's housing drive may be having elsewhere, it is clearly running down in the London area?

Mr. Eccles

If the hon. Member will await the figures he will see that he is entirely wrong. I will deal with London housing in a minute. The decision to hold down the rate of building, other than houses, in London was deliberately taken to free men to travel to the outskirts of London where housing estates were being built. That was the decision taken before my time and it was quite sensible, but it is a policy which cannot be pursued beyond a certain point, and it has now been pursued beyond a sensible point.

One quarter of the building workers in the country live in London. That is a formidable army—over 250,000. I cannot follow the figures of the hon. Member for Clapham, which suggest that only 36,000 men are in work.

Mr. Gibson

I did not say that. I said that 29,469 were placed in vacancies during the four weeks ending 14th January.

Mr. Eccles

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon.

The total number is approaching 300,000. We can see that there will not be enough work in London in midsummer and autumn. What extra work should be fed in? This is the point of difference between the two sides of the House. For obvious reasons, there is no defence work in London; we cannot put airfields or camps or storage depots in such a vulnerable place as London. There is very little industrial building, for it has been the policy of all Governments to steer factories away from Central London.

We come now to social service building, if that is the right expression, including housing. In London, the programme has been expanding at least as fast as in the country as a whole and, in fact, a little faster than in the country as a whole; and I think the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North might give me some credit for having done so much better in this matter of housing than Socialist Ministers have ever done. Let me give the figures. In 1952, 27,500 flats or houses were completed in the London area. Of course, most of them had been started under a Labour Administration. To-day, 40,000 flats or houses are under construction in the same area—an increase which is greater than the average increase for the country.

Mr. Robinson

The right hon. Gentleman is not comparing like with like. Large numbers of these are flats, which take very much more than a year to construct. He has given figures of buildings under construction and compared them with figures of buildings which were completed.

Mr. Eccles

No doubt the average time of completion could be worked out. We will see what the number of completions is. I believe that we shall get very nearly 40,000.

I do not believe that there is an area in the country where it is more difficult to find and prepare sites for houses or flats than it is in London. The borough which the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North represents is rather fortunate in that respect. If the hon. Member does not think so, I can tell him that the rest of London is in a much worse position; there are more sites in the hon. Member's borough. As he knows, however, they take time to prepare, bearing in mind the demolition work and all the other work which has to be done. These difficulties are bound to increase in London and, with the best will in the world—and although this is not our main reason for building offices—we do not think that we can spend £10 million as quickly in housing as we could elsewhere. But that is not our main reason.

For reasons which the House knows, repair work in London has been falling off. In spite of the big increase in housing which we have achieved, the total volume of work in London is steadily declining and the position of the main contracts —their average life before they reach completion—is becoming less favourable to employment. I need only cite the work on the Coronation. If we were not doing that work, a considerable number of craftsmen would be out of work today. All that work is coming to an end. Much more formidable than that is the fact that the large buildings in London are nearing completion, because very few licences have been issued since the ban, to which the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North referred, was imposed over two years ago.

Hon. Members are aware that the blitzed city procedure was applied to all blitzed cities except London. Since 1949 the other blitzed cities have had a special allocation of licences which is running at about £4½ million a year, or something like that. London was excluded from the blitzed city procedure. I am not quite sure for what reason. It cannot have been simply that in the case of houses against offices houses were preferred, because if that had been the principle applied it could have been applied quite as much in Bristol as in London.

I imagine that the reason was that the headquarters of the great City companies in London were not really looked on with much favour by the Socialist Party. They had their rules of snobbery as other people do, and they felt that they did not wish to see those great buildings go up again. Be that as it may, I think that to exclude London from the blitzed city procedure was a very bad decision, because the offices of those great companies play a most important part in the balance of payments.

Mr. Gibson

So do houses.

Mr. Eccles

One must keep these things in perspective. A £ earned in the overseas business of bankers or merchants or insurance brokers or shippers is just as good, when it comes to paying for food and raw materials, as a £ earned by visible exports.

Mr. Robinson

But we do not have to build palatial offices to earn it.

Mr. Eccles

We know this will help. I will come to that in a moment.

When I reached the conclusion that we ought to take steps now to increase the building work in Central London the Government applied a criterion, which was something that the hon. Gentleman asked about. Our criterion was that those buildings should strengthen the national economy. We applied this criterion on a wide basis. I was asked about the buildings within the £10 million. It is quite true that there are only about 30 buildings. Among them are the Baltic Exchange, two bank buildings—one the Bank of England building—two insurance offices, the headquarters of a coal exporting firm, new headquarters for the Federation of British Industries.

Further, as hon. Gentlemen opposite will be glad to know, new headquarters for the Trades Union Congress, new headquarters for the diamond trade, and a number of university extensions connected with laboratories where chemistry can be taught. I think the House will agree that these are buildings of a nature to assist the vigour of our economy. About three-quarters of the £10 million is being spent within the boundaries of the City itself.

I was asked several specific questions about licences. Licences are issued as soon as the architects are ready to start. I do not believe in the system of instalments, of which my predecessors were very fond. It is not efficient to give part of the licence for a building this year, and say, "Come back again later and get the rest." We are giving the licences for the whole of the building. I suppose that it will take three years at least to spend this £10 million, which, after all, is not a really great amount when we are short by £5 million of work a month compared with what was being put into the London area in 1950.

Six licences have already been issued: two are about to be. Naturally, the starting dates follow automatically. The whole point of this operation is to get some more work going in London on picked projects as soon as we can.

Mr. Gibson

At the expense of housing.

Mr. Eccles

We need more large building projects for precisely the reason the hon. Gentleman referred to and rejected, namely, that this is the kind of work necessary to keep the skilled craftsmen employed and on which to provide training of apprentices. This point has been represented to me by the leaders of the building trade unions, to whom I refer the hon. Gentleman for further information. Let me give one instance. It is absolutely necessary to put in more work for stonemasons, and the T.U.C. themselves have come forward with a building project that is to provide quite a lot of work for London stonemasons. That is a very good thing.

How many skilled men would be employed at the peak of this programme? At the outside 1,500, I think, but it is very difficult to give an accurate estimate because I really do not know what amount of the £10 million will be spent over any period. The labour situation, put shortly, is that unless we start more work of this kind either skilled craftsmen will leave London or leave the industry, and we wish neither of those things to happen.

Those are the economic reasons for what we have done. There is another consideration. I am sure that the pride of a great many people is wounded when, eight years after the war, the City of London still shows all those ugly scars and shapeless ruins.

Mr. Gibson

It is more important to house the people.

Mr. Eccles

I believe that any hon. Member who takes a walk around St. Paul's, past all those bombed sites, must feel shame at all the ragged, toothless gaps in an area which has been and will be for many years the centre and home of the greatest financial and trading community in the world. It is our view, on this side of the House, that it is our duty to heal those scars. What can we use those bombed sites in the City for except offices, and offices selected with a view to increasing the earning power of the country? It would be quite wrong to put factories there. It would be a waste of space to put up houses or flats there.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

Blocks of flats?

Mr. Eccles

We are carefully picking out the sites suitable for the work to be done. It is in our national interest—and here I firmly disagree with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Clapham— to have a programme of balanced expansion going on all the time. When the Russians recaptured Stalingrad they refused to allow a single house to be built until all the factories and offices had been rebuilt. We are not going to take the exactly opposite view. We take the view that it would be wrong to put all our eggs into the housing basket, to give it, as I was asked to give it, absolute priority.

We have done so much better than the last Government in housing that I think that at least we are entitled to see that some of this expansion in the total of new construction which we have brought about should be used for other purposes. We are going to push on to reach 300,000 houses a year—far more than the Labour Party would ever dream of doing.

Mr. Gibson

Just a dream.

Mr. Eccles

Wait and see whether it comes true.

If the hon. Member really thinks that we ought to give absolute priority to housing let him ask himself what happens if one lives in a fine house but cannot earn the money to pay the rent, or cannot afford to pay for the articles necessary for a good breakfast. That would be our problem if we neglected the all-round expansion of the buildings and assets which earn for us our income in the world. Therefore, we have decided to give these licences for offices and for other large buildings in Central London for three reasons: because the employment prospect calls for more work, because the buildings selected will help our national economy, and because we have a debt of honour to pay to our capital city. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman the Member for St. Pancras, North is convinced that what we are doing on a modest scale is right.

Forward to