HC Deb 30 November 1959 vol 614 cc950-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Gibson-Watt.]

7.32 p.m.

Mr. Victor Yates (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I am glad tonight to have the opportunity of raising a matter which is of vital importance to Birmingham and. I believe, of considerable interest to the country generally. I refer to the continued existence of houses in the City of Birmingham which are unfit for human habitation.

For over thirty years, I have been associated with a constituency in Birmingham in which there has been a very large number of back-to-back, unfit-to-live-in houses. It has been my hope and dream that, within my lifetime, these houses would be demolished and that new estates arise to take their place. In some places this has occurred, and, although my remarks tonight may imply some criticism of the local authority, I am, nevertheless, grateful for the work which has been done by the City Council of Birmingham through its redevelopment schemes and its rehousing of very many people.

According to official records and a statement by the Minister in answer to a Question, there are 45,000 unfit houses in Birmingham today. I very much regret that it seems that these houses will not be entirely removed within ten or thirteen years. The housing problem of Birmingham is still very far from solution.

I wish to deal now with a special problem which arises in connection with some of these very bad houses. I previously told the local authority and the Minister of the added danger of very considerable fire risk in these houses. I have, for that reason, looked at the houses in a somewhat different light. I am informed by the Minister that there are, in Ladywood, 3,000 houses similar to the seven which I have particularly in mind. If that were right, I could only express my great alarm that such a situation could exist in Birmingham; but I could not, of course, accept that there are 3,000 houses as dangerous as the houses to which I am specifically calling attention.

In May last, in the vicinity of one courtyard in Birmingham, a few yards from the houses, there was a fire in a factory which caused the deaths of four people. Naturally, people there were horrified when they realised that there could be a fire so near to their homes and that the risk to them was very great because of their inability to have access to the street from their houses. They put their complaints before their local councillor, Councillor Raybone, and he put all the facts before the housing manager. He was, however, unable to obtain special consideration for these particular families because the housing manager considered that there were so many more similar cases.

Since it appeared, Mr. Speaker, that I should not be able to put an Oral Question to the Minister before Christmas, I thought it right to take the alternative of raising the matter in the House. Therefore, I put the matter to the Minister for him to investigate.

When the housing manager was asked about this matter, he made two statements. First, he said that the fire risk is no greater, and it is possibly less, than in many other central area houses located in similar circumstances. That, of course, is one of the things which I am questioning. He went on to say that four of the families in these seven houses were accommodated as a result of their becoming homeless and they had no entitlement to a transfer at the present time.

Thus, it appears that in the seven houses to which I am calling attention there were four families who had gone there as a result of having been put out on to the street. It is a horrifying thought to me that a family with no roof over their heads could be placed in a house in which it seems possible that they could very easily be burned to death. If that was the best arrangement that Birmingham could make for homeless families, it leaves very much to be desired.

I question the housing department's view that these houses are no more dangerous than many thousands in the city. In a letter to the Minister dated 17th August, to which I had a reply in two months—I suppose that as the General Election came during that period it probably is not so bad, but it is enough time for the Ministry to make inquiries—I said: If the fire had occurred at the front of 26 Great Hampton Street"— that is, the street in which these houses are situated— instead of at the rear all the lives of the tenants would have been gravely in danger. The passage leading to the street is so narrow that a successful attempt to get the people away in an emergency would be in considerable doubt. I have not seen property so dangerous in Birmingham and cannot accept the Housing Manager's assertion in a letter dated 20th July as follows: 'I am satisfied that the fire risk here is no greater than it is in many Central Area houses'. My colleagues in the House and outside will know that I have had considerable experience in this matter. I am not a Member of Parliament who is absent from his constituency very much. I have my eyes fixed on all the dangers and difficulties that beset the people. I am trying, and I am prepared to go on trying, to find houses in the City of Birmingham which are in such a dangerous conditions as those to which I am referring.

Let me tell the House the condition of these houses. I think that I can best explain the matter by quoting from a letter sent by the medical officer of health for Birmingham, Dr. Burn, to the housing manager, Mr. J. P. Macey, on 16th June, after this fire had occurred. I call the Minister's attention to this paragraph: The houses are in such condition, so situated and so arranged, internally and externally, that had they been in private ownership I should have recommended their early demolition under Section 16 of the Housing Act, 1957. As it is, although they are the last remaining houses on an industrial block, I understand that they come within Phases 16 to 19 of the Redevelopment Scheme and therefore have an expected life of 10 to 13 years. A contract for their repair has been placed and the work is now in hand. He must have been misinformed about the last point, because I do not think that those repairs have been put in hand. The medical officer went on: The houses are, of course, unfit for human habitation. Naturally, I asked the Minister to inquire into this matter, and he did so. He wrote a letter to me explaining the great programme of redevelopment and slum clearance in Birmingham, saying that he had given his approval to the reconditioning of houses. He was kind enough to send me a letter which he had received from the town clerk of Birmingham. I was, therefore, able to see what the town clerk had to say. I think that he was quite inaccurate certainly in one of the points in his letter to the Minister. This is what the letter stated: … there are still 45,000 unfit houses in the City and a very large proportion of these are in courtyards with no direct access from the street. In such cases it is possible for the occupants, if they cannot escape via their own normal tunnel entry to the street, to gain access into adjoining courtyards or other premises and thus to find alternative means of escape if the necessity arises. That does not apply to the houses about which I am talking, because there is no means of escape to other places.

The town clerk goes on to say that the houses are blocked in by walls. I was astonished to read these words: As both walls are in perfect condition it is unlikely that a fire in either factory would spread to the houses or endanger people in the open yard. Occupants of all houses should be able to leave and walk down the tunnel into Great Hampton Street in safety. I went to the scene to see whether this was correct. I found that the large wall to which the town clerk referred was in a dangerous condition, with bricks falling off the top. Even the cats at night knock the bricks off. In fact, the families inform me that they fear that these bricks may fall upon children.

Did an officer of the health department or housing department examine this wall? Have officials of the Birmingham Corporation seen this wall, which is in such a dangerous condition? A number of families are boxed in by high walls. Not only is this unhealthy, shuts out the light, and causes a lack of air, but there is in their minds the terrible danger that now arises as a result of the severe fire which took place on the other side of this wall, in which four people were killed. Smoke could come through the wall. How can the town clerk say that these walls are in perfect condition? It just is not true. I should like to ask the Minister whether someone could go to see that wall.

The town clerk states: No difficulty should be experienced by the occupants of any house in making their way to the open yard. Once there they are in comparative safety". But he goes on to establish the point that I have tried to make on a number of occasions. I quote: As fire might well involve the tunnel leading to Great Hampton Street this route could be blocked, and although persons in the yard would be in no immediate danger their removal, whilst not impossible, might be difficult. I ask the Minister to imagine houses blocked in by a wall, with a tunnel 34 in. wide, a polishing shop on one side of the tunnel, stores on the other and over the top and the houses only 15 ft. from the wall.

If fire escapes or escape hatches were put in the houses the people might have to go one way or the other through each house to get to the ground. When they reach the ground they realise the enormous danger. I would like the Minister to see a photograph of the tunnel which was printed in the Birmingham Evening Despatch. It shows this narrow tunnel through which the people are expected to go. If it were a question only of the unfit houses, I should not have to say that they were vastly different from many of the other houses. There is, however, the added fact that the people have become conscious that they are in danger. In these circumstances, I have the greatest sympathy for them.

The tenants, I understand, have refused to have the fire escape hatches put in. I advised them to have them installed. It is not wise not to take every precaution. The people's fear, however, is not the houses themselves, but that the tunnel puts them into the trap. They feel that they are in a death trap and it is natural that they should ask to be taken from it. We have, therefore, established special circumstances.

It is said that there are 3,000 people in my constituency and several thousand in the City of Birmingham who are in this danger. I have never seen anything like it. Can the Parliamentary Secretary tell me how many courtyards there are in the City of Birmingham which are no wider than 34 in.? The answer is that he cannot say and neither can the housing manager.

Even to put in escape hatches and to recondition these houses at a cost of £795 is not satisfactory. In the circumstances, it is a waste of money. It is wasting the ratepayers' and taxpayers' money to put these houses into a condition in which danger still might occur at any time and which, when it happens, would lead to a far greater cost. There is, therefore, a case for early demolition of these house, and the sooner the better. When the medical officer himself states that if the houses were in private enterprise ownership he would recommend their early demolition, we should not be content to sit by and allow houses which belong to the corporation to remain in this condition for another ten or thirteen years, causing danger to the people.

That is my case; I appreciate that much has been done to rehouse the families from unfit accommodation in Birmingham. If it takes all these years to remove more people from the slums, it will be an extremely serious matter. Can the Minister tell us of any way in which he can assist to get these houses demolished earlier? He has turned down a number of suggestions for possible developments that might produce more houses, but the city finds it extremely difficult to extend its boundaries. It has very little land—we appreciate the difficulties—but are we to wait all this time and to wait even for houses of this nature, which not only are unfit for human habitation, but which, even when reconditioned, still lack light?

People complain daily about the fumes and the noise from the factories which are bang up against the houses. This should never be allowed. I cannot believe that there are worse conditions than these. I therefore appeal to the Minister to give further consideration to this matter. I ask him to have an inquiry into it. Let us go into it fully so that we may get justice for these people but, above all, so that we might remove their ever-present nightmare. They are conscious of this tremendous nightmare that overshadows them.

I hope that the Minister will say something tonight that will enable us to go to the Birmingham City Council and say, "You have done extremely well, but why not look at this problem again? Why not examine it again on the spot to see whether these conditions are so dangerous that the people should be removed?" Homeless families should not be taken from the streets and put into conditions of this kind. I trust that the Minister has made careful note of what I have said and that we shall have from him tonight something that gives light and hope to the people concerned.

7.58 p.m.

Mr. W. E. Wheeldon (Birmingham, Small Heath)

As one who has spent many years in Birmingham, who was, for many years, a member of the Birmingham City Council, and who, today, represents a constituency which has many thousands of unfit houses in it, I should like to add a few words to what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) has said.

Towards the end of his speech, my hon. Friend said that there was a strong case for the early demolition of what we in Birmingham call back-to-back houses. I certainly agree. There is a very strong case. At the same time, we should keep in mind what has already been done in Birmingham, so that we may get the matter in perspective. I shall return presently to the question of the unhealthy houses. First, I want to point out some of the things that have been done in this connection in the past few years.

In Birmingham, the post-war slum-clearance programme started in 1947. In June of that year, we got from the Ministry an order which allowed us to get on with the job.

The city council started the job by taking under review five redevelopment areas comprising about 30,000 houses most of which were unfit for human habitation, and those houses occupied an acreage of about 1,000. By the end of 1953 practically the whole of those houses were vested with the corporation. At the same time, while that process was in being, the corporation built approximately 18,000 houses. Despite that background there are, of course, as my hon. Friend said, very many unfit houses in Birmingham. I think the present-day figure is about 45,000.

The most distressing thing about these houses is, I think, that they have been there for so many years. It was only this weekend that I received from the medical officer of health for Birmingham a copy of his report for 1958, and I should like to quote a short paragraph from that report. Our present medical officer refers to the fact that in 1918 one of our most eminent medical officers of health, Sir John Robertson, penned these words in his annual report for that year. He was speaking of the back-to-back house and he said: Its chief defect, in addition to its lack of size, its dampness and its dilapidation, is that it is not self-contained. There is no water supply inside the house, no adequate provision for discharging slop water, and the only sanitary convenience is often some distance from the house and usually common to two or more houses. This convenience is frequently in a revolting condition because of its common user. There is no bath or means of taking a bath in many of the houses. The whole outlook from these houses is sullied by soot besmirched in a soot-laden atmosphere. Sir John Robertson went on to say: It is impossible to imagine a rising generation of young people being able to improve in health or self-respect even even if the best of educational facilities are provided when everything they come into contact with is sullied by dirtiness and squalor. In my opinion there is only one remedy—the replacement of these slums by decent houses in a pleasant environment. Now for a significant comment. Although that attack on our slums in Birmingham was made in 1918, nevertheless, as our present medical officer of health pointed out in his report, published only last week: Many of those houses referred to are not only occupied today but are likely in many cases to remain so for up to another twenty-five years. Surely that is a damning indictment of whoever has been responsible for housing legislation in this country.

Many of those houses, I am sorry to say, are in my constituency. They are houses from which men went out more than forty years ago to fight in the 1914–1918 war. They were told that they were to have homes for heroes, yet the sons of those men went out from the same houses in 1939 to fight for their country, and many of those houses are still standing today.

I come back to the question of demolition mentioned by my hon. Friend. If demolition were the only Cling it would be comparatively easy to do, but, unfortunately, it is not. We have to rehouse those people, and that is one of the most serious aspects of the problem of unfit houses in Birmingham today, as, indeed, I suppose it is in other large cities. I can illustrate that by figures for 1958. In Birmingham, the total number of new dwellings provided was 3,526, but the total demolitions were 1,578, so that the net increase in housing accommodation was only 1,948 dwellings.

It has to be remembered that the number of demolitions, if the medical officer could have his way and if the corporation could have its way, would be even greater than the number I mentioned a moment ago, but they cannot proceed at a greater rate of demolition because they know that they cannot build the houses to accommodate the people who are displaced We must keep these figures in mind when we are talking about the problem of unfit houses.

Birmingham, as I said at the beginning of my remarks, has already done a great deal towards solving this problem. I notice that last year—these are the latest figures available, I understand—96 clearance areas were represented by the city council and those areas comprised 4,322 houses. In addition—this refers to houses taken aver by the corporation, under their redevelopment schemes—it renovated over 2,000 of them and spent on the average about £250 in repairing those houses. So it has done a considerable amount of work to make conditions of life generally better for the people who are compelled to stay there for, perhaps, another five, ten, fifteen or, in some cases, even twenty years.

One other figure which will help to put this matter in perspective is that for ordinary house inspections undertaken by the health department. I notice that last year there were over 93,000 house inspections made by the public health inspectors and that over 10,000 statutory notices were served on the landlords of those houses.

That is the background, but it does seem to me that the key to the solution of the problem submitted to us by my hon. Friend is that we must have an increasing number of municipal houses. I say "municipal houses" advisedly. That brings me to the point also mentioned in the speech of my hon. Friend, that, here, the Minister himself must take a considerable measure of blame for this condition in Birmingham. We have approached him on a number of occasions, and so has the city council, in the attempt to get him to agree that there should be a new town for Birmingham. This is not a problem of hundreds of people; it is a problem of thousands of people who want accommodation and want it urgently.

We have at present a waiting list of well over 70,000 people, many of whom are living in these unhealthy back-to-back houses, yet the Minister, in my opinion very stubbornly and without good reason, turned down the question of a new town for Birmingham

There is one other thing for which the Minister is responsible and that is the question of the ability of the corporation to develop land outside the city boundaries for housing purposes. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us—I know he has had no notice of this—what is happening to the application made by the city council in July this year for additional land outside the borough boundaries. I am speaking from memory, but the inquiry was, I think, concluded in July, four months ago. So far as I know, word has not yet come from the Ministry. It is a matter of very great urgency. One sits week by week listening to the complaints and stories of people who are living in intolerable conditions. Something—indeed, everything—ought to be done, and as quickly as possible.

All these things have been with us for very many years. They were the legacy of private enterprise landordism which failed to repair houses even when the landlords had the money to do it, so the Birmingham Corporation, as the councils in other cities have had to do, has had to step in. I believe that we shall not solve the problem, although we can, here and there, make things a little better, till Birmingham Corporation, as well as other corporations, are given the right to take over the whole of this working-class housing accommodation. Only in that way can we solve the problem.

8.10 p.m.

Mr. John Stonehouse (Wednesbury)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) on his initiative in raising this question on the Adjournment. Lady-wood is very well served by its representative in this House, and his initiative in raising this subject will be valued not only by those constituents who are deeply and directly affected by this case, but also by all his other constituents.

The position in Birmingham, to which he has referred, is shared by the surrounding constituencies. The problem of our unfit housing is one not only for Birmingham, but for Wednesbury, which lies on the outskirts of that city—or perhaps I ought to say that Birmingham lies on the outskirts of Wednesbury. The problem of very bad housing in industrial conurbations is one that we think the Minister should take special pains to correct. We owe a very deep debt to those who live in our industrial areas. They have created the prosperity which is enjoyed by people in other parts of the country, who certainly could not enjoy it unless, in the industrial areas, the hard, grinding work was carried on.

These people have to live in unhealthy and in many cases squalid surroundings, because in the days of the Industrial Revolution heed was not paid to the social conditions of the people. Heed was paid only to the profits to be made by the adventurers who set up factories in the Black Country and elsewhere. The people who live there have had to pay the price—not only the people of those days, but their children and grandchildren. They have all had to pay the price of living in miserable, squalid houses, because the guts were taken out of a very healthy and pleasant part of Britain in the interests of the Industrial Revolution.

The whole country owes a debt to these areas, and I hope that the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary will be pressing their priority on their colleagues. We recognise the abilities of the Parliamentary Secretary, and we congratulate him upon his appointment. We know that he has a very progressive outlook and that he wants to make a mark in the field to which he has been appointed. One of the ways in which he can do so is to use his influence among his colleagues to see that greater priority is given to the very serious question of housing. People cannot have a healthy family life or a better cultural outlook unless they have decent homes to live in. In the industrial conurbations of the West Midlands we want more and more better houses. That means that we must help the local councils to solve the problem.

I am very fortunate in having, in my constituency, three authorities which have all done a good job in helping to solve the problem. In particular, the Wednesbury Borough Council has been able to build many attractive council estates, and is now engaged upon a very fine slum clearance programme. But that council, like many others, is severely embarrassed by the restrictions placed upon it by the Government. We appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to use his influence to get these restrictions removed so that the Wednesbury Borough Council and other local authorities can engage not only in slum clearance programmes, but also in building for general needs.

Many of the filthy and squalid houses should be torn down. In the twentieth century it is a disgrace that these houses should continue to be lived in, with the occupants having no prospects of obtaining new accommodation in the foreseeable future. Like my hon. Friends, I have my attention drawn almost weekly to cases of really severe housing hardship. I have been to many homes which are absolutely deplorable. A few months ago I went into one where I found an old lady sleeping in a bed, almost unable to get up because she was so sick, but having to have her bed moved because there was a hole in the ceiling through which the rain came. A pail had to be put by her bed to catch the water coming through the roof.

I have also been into homes in which there were young children, where the damp, on wet days like today, gradually climbs up the walls until it reaches the height of a man. It can be felt if the hand is placed on the wall. These homes are, unfortunately, to be found in their hundreds, or even thousands, in the Black Country, and I hope that the councils in that area, as elsewhere, will be assisted by the Government to deal with this very urgent problem. We beseech the Parliamentary Secretary to use his endeavours to influence his colleagues to give greater priority to its solution.

8.16 p.m.

Mr. Edward Short (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)

I support my hon. Friends the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) and Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse). The city a part of which I represent is facing one of the worst housing situations in the whole country, and I make no apology for intervening in a debate on Birmingham's housing problem to talk about housing conditions in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. At the moment, in a city of 280,000 people, there is a waiting list of 10,000, not including all those living in unfit houses. Many people living in slum areas are not included in the corporation's waiting list.

The slums of Newcastle and many of our great cities are a reproach to a Christian community, and I do not think that we should tolerate their continuance very much longer. My constituency is probably one of the worst housed in the country. People there are living in squalid, dilapidated hovels, which are not fit for human beings to live in. One house which I recently visited—No. 1 Cambridge Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne—is the worst house that I have ever been in. It has five or six rooms, and two attics. The landlord collects between £6 and £7 a week in rent, but no self-respecting farmer would keep his animals in it.

There is no light of any kind on the stairway or in the passages. There is no glass in the windows on the stairway. The front door will not shut. The rooms have to be seen to be believed. There is one tap on a landing without a proper sink, and if the tap runs and nothing is placed underneath it the water soaks through to the room below. The toilet is disgusting. It is not fit to use. Nevertheless, the house contains five or six families, including young children. In the two attics, which have only dormer windows, two old men live, each in a separate room, in the most appalling conditions.

It is quite common in my constituency for seven, eight, nine, ten or even fifteen families to share one toilet. The House of Commons ought to be told about these matters. In the second half of the twentieth century no fewer than fifteen families have to share one toilet. In some cases there is no toilet, and the occupants of the house must go along the street to their neighbours. In others the toilets are so broken down that they cannot be used. I should be failing the people who sent me here if I did not intervene in the debate to say a word on their behalf.

During the General Election, in one of our political broadcasts, we spotlighted a street in Newcastle called Elswick East Terrace. One of our Conservative friends from Newcastle said that it was despicable to make political capital out of housing difficulties. I make no apology for doing so. I shall continue speaking about Elswick East Terrace in this House and in my own city until the wretched place is demolished.

In that street, 36 families are living in conditions that have to be seen to be believed. I went into one house—I think that it was No. 23—where a woman was lying ill in bed in a room smaller than the one described by my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse). The walls were so damp that the wetness could be seen on them. This, of course, is the picture throughout the whole of my constituency. It is a vivid illustration of the failure of landlordism. In the days when the rents were adequate they spent nothing whatever on these streets. They took the rent from those houses year after year until the property decayed and has now become unfit for human habitation, but they still collect the rent.

In May, 1958, we had for the first time in Newcastle a housing committee which really began to make an assault on the slums and plan their clearance. It has had to go to certain people living in the slum area and tell them that their turn for houses will not come for ten years. Imagine going to people living in the conditions I have described and saying, "Your turn will not come for ten years, seven years, or five years. You may have got to stick it for another decade."

Our greatest difficulty—this is why I have intervened, as I suspect the hon. Gentleman knows—is the shortage of land. We have used up, or are using up, every inch of building land within the city. Almost all our building since the war has been outside the city boundaries. Recently, we submitted a compulsory purchase order for one of the few remaining open spaces outside the city boundaries, and three weeks ago the Minister turned it down in favour of private building. This was a terrible disappointment to us. I wrote to the Minister immediately and told him how terribly disappointed we were. I hope that as we submit compulsory purchase orders for slum clearance the Minister will as he has promised me, try to reduce the time by at least half the normal period to help us keep up the impetus of our slum clearance.

This shortage of land means that the Corporation of Newcastle-upon-Tyne cannot give a house to anyone unless it can get the land on which the old house was built. That, together with the Government's withdrawal of subsidy for non-slum clearance houses, means that anyone who does not live in a slum clearance house cannot have a house. It is virtually impossible to give anyone a house in Newcastle unless he is living in a slum clearance area. We have reached a point—I wish that the hon. Gentleman's Ministry and officials would realise this, but they do not—at which we cannot give anyone a house unless we can get the land on which the old house was built. Because of this, many people, even in the slums, will have to wait ten years.

I support the closing remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury, because I believe that the Government's present housing policy is quite inadequate to deal with the older industrial towns. They must look at it again. Towns of this kind should have more consideration than they are getting. The Government's policy may be adequate for some areas, but it is not adequate for Birmingham, the Black Country and Newcastle, and I do not believe that it is adequate for Leeds. I hope that the Government will reconsider their policy on housing and see if something extra cannot be done for these old industrial towns where we are faced with such tremendous problems.

8.25 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Sir Keith Joseph)

The debate, very understandably, has widened a little from the Birmingham area with which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) started. I should like to apologise to the last two speakers, the hon. Members for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Wheeldon) and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short), for saying that—although they had no obligation at all under the circumstances to give me notice—I cannot give a detailed reply to what they have said.

The subjects which they have raised are enormously important. In all the areas to which the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central referred there is a desperate shortage of land, but extremely vigorous local authorities, to whom hon. Members have all paid tribute, are trying to tackle this problem.

There is, as the House knows, a choice of weapons which can be used together. There is the building in central areas at a higher density, the policy of seeking Yelp from neighbouring areas by expanding towns and the policy of improvement grants which the Government have pioneered and supported so strongly, but when all this has been said it remains true that there are areas where the problems of urban renewal, as the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central has said, are vitally important and deserve the most careful thought.

I was sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse) refer to restrictions. I do not know of any. If his own local authority wants to propose the building of more houses I know that my right hon. Friend will consider any proposal sympathetically.

Mr. Stonehouse

Will the hon. Gentleman also press for a reduction in interest rates to enable council housebuilding to go ahead?

Sir K. Joseph

Interest rates rise and fall. Local authorities are borrowers over a long period of time, which evens interest rates out, and many local authorities by applying differential rent schemes are spreading the burden among all their tenants. I should like to look with much more care into the case which the hon. Gentleman makes.

Coming to the problem raised by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Lady-wood, I can try to answer him in more detail. I was glad that his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath, saved me from setting out the background to the tragic fire, which originated this Adjournment debate. As we all know, Birmingham has a very large housing problem and is tackling it in a way which deserves the tributes voiced by the two hon. Gentlemen. I was asked what had happened to the application of July, 1959. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot answer as there is now an appeal before my right hon. Friend. We are trying to speed up decisions wherever possible and I am sure that will be true of this case as well.

I wish now to come on to the subject of the back-to-back and courtyard houses and the fire risk involved. I must say emphatically that, although deeply interested in matters of housing, my right hon. Friend has absolutely no status whatsoever in those circumstances. It is entirely a local authority matter. Anything I say now is really a quotation from the local authority representatives. I shall cover the subject of the fire risk, but I cannot cover the questions about the four families resident in four of the seven houses to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Nor can I cover the question of the quality of the walls adjoining the houses. These are matters for the local authority and I can do no other than rely on what has been said by the local authority.

The hon. Gentleman has an understandable concern in this matter. He is absolutely right to concern himself carefully regarding the danger to his constituents. But I am sure he is equally aware that it would not serve them well if he exaggerated in any way their understandable fears which have been set at rest by the reassurances of highly responsible technical officials, the chief fire officer, the town clerk and the housing manager, whose job it is to be, and whose future reputation depends on their being, right in these matters.

Of course, the fire in Great Hampton Street was a tragic occurrence. It is completely understandable that the residents in the houses concerned were extremely frightened at the time. It is all very well for me to say now that it appears that they were in no real danger. But I am not for a moment denying that had I been in that situation I, too, would have been very frightened. However, the fact is that the chief fire officer says that when the fire occurred they were in no danger, and they would have been in no real danger if the fire had occurred at 26, Great Hampton Street, which adjoins their houses.

We have heard something of the size of the housing problem in Birmingham, and it has become necessary for the authority to seek the approval of my right hon. Friend, which has been given, to retain a large number of its unfit dwellings for a number of years and to patch them so as to make them tolerable to live in meanwhile. There was a quotation by the hon. Member for Lady-wood from the medical officer of health that if these seven houses had been in private occupation, he would have condemned them. The fact is that a private landlord is not entitled to keep an unfit house standing. But Parliament has given power to local authorities to keep unfit houses standing, provided that the authority patches them; and, as the hon. Member knows, it is the intention of the Birmingham authority to patch these houses which it is proposed shall remain in occupation for at least ten years.

As both the hon. Members representing Birmingham constituencies have said, there are too many back-to-back and blind-back houses in Birmingham and everyone would like to see them wiped away overnight. I know that those of my hon. Friends who represent Birmingham constituencies and who are listening to this debate share that wish as ardently as anyone. But it is utterly impracticable to demolish these houses without denying new housing to other constituents of the hon. Gentleman's who are equally deserving. If a house is dealt with out of order, it can happen only at the expense of another house, because there is a limit to the amount of housing which may be done even by so large a local authority as Birmingham. Therefore, we return to the question of fire risk. Is it such that these houses ought to be given priority treatment?—and here, of course, my right hon. Friend and I can only rest upon the technical view of the chief fire officer.

He has gone on record, or he is quoted by the town clerk in a letter of 6th October, 1958, as being of opinion that there is no strong case for regarding these houses as subject to abnormal fire risk such as would make it imperative to rehouse the families—

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

I venture to intervene only because I have some experience of back-to-back housing. It may well be that there is no greater danger of these houses being set on fire, but usually they are premises with one room up and one down and there is only one exit and entrance. A fire usually starts in the bottom room and, assuming that the people upstairs are in bed when it starts, they have no exit whatever. It is obvious, therefore, that there is a greater fire risk in this type of house, and I cannot see the point of quoting the opinion even of a chief fire officer when the physical nature of the building is such that it presents a greater fire risk.

Sir K. Joseph

I am grateful for the intervention from the hon. Gentleman. That is the point I am coming to, and I am glad to have his co-operation. The really dangerous feature of these houses is the fact that they consist of one room up and one down with a blind back. Anybody who is trapped on the top floor can, therefore, descend only through the flames. That is the main risk. It is not necessarily the presence of a tunnel at all. Because there is this risk the Birmingham authority has made an offer to the tenants of such houses of the free installation of an alarm bell, which rings when the temperature of a room reaches a danger point, and hatches giving horizontal communication to the house next door. Already 6,000 of these hatches and 7,000 alarm bells have been fitted, and the residents of these seven houses have been offered hatches and alarm bells, as was made clear by the hon. Member for Ladywood.

Mr. V. Yates

The letter which has been mentioned contains points which I have said are inaccurate. Do I understand that in such cases the Minister has no status whatever even to inquire into whether facts are correct? I was referring to the wall in this case, which is in a dangerous condition. Will the Minister tell me whether he can inquire into this matter?

Sir K. Joseph

There would be certain circumstances, I believe, if I may reply without notice of the question, in which it would be possible to inquire, but those circumstances certainly do not exist here.

The hon. Member threw doubt upon two passages in the town clerk's letter. He said that the walls are not perfect. It may be that a brick or many bricks at the top of the wall are insecure, but the town clerk is talking about whether they are solid enough to stop the spread of fire, and the hon. Member has given me no evidence this evening that the walls are not solid for their main height.

Mr. Yates

During my speech I said that smoke could come through certain parts of the wall. People have complained about this. To go and to see the wall is to say that it is not perfect. The town clerk says that it is perfect. I challenge him, and I challenge the Minister, to prove that it is perfect.

Sir K. Joseph

The hon. Member has done service to his constituents if that is so, because I am sure that the Birmingham officials will read the report of this debate. We can only rely upon their judgment. I have here a letter saying that for the purpose of preventing the spread of fire, the walls are perfect. No doubt the officials concerned will read the report of the debate and take any action that they think fit.

As the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) said, the risk in the back-to-back and blind-back houses is that of being trapped upstairs and having to jump or to come down through the flames. Consequently, I very much regret that the residents in these houses in Birmingham have refused the hatches which so many thousands of their fellow citizens in Birmingham have already accepted. It may well be that they feel that in some way they would commit themselves to a permanent occupation of the houses if they accepted these installations.

I was glad to note that the hon. Member himself tried to persuade them to accept them. I am sure that they would be most misguided not to accept this help. After all, it is the only thing which the chief fire officer says is necessary in their situation, and 6,000 of their fellow citizens have already accepted these hatches. It is only proper for me to say here that there is no evidence known to me that the local authority has any intention to demolish their houses earlier or to move them sooner according to whether they accept these hatches. They cannot alter their prospects of rehousing by refusing to accept these hatches, and I very much hope that they will accept them.

I am afraid that I must leave the matter there. Despite all the interest in the world which my right hon. Friend has in housing as a whole, this is a local authority concern. It is true that there are circumstances, where houses are three storeys high, with an upper floor more than 20 ft. above the street, and where the dwellings are let in tenements, in which certain fire precautions can be required, but that is not so in these houses, because they are not let in tenements. We are not entitled on an Adjournment debate to discuss any amendment to legislation.

I have noted most carefully all the comments which hon. Members have made on the general housing need. If I may say so with respect to them, they are not new; they are known and deeply felt by my right hon. Friend and are being most vigorously studied. Apparently the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West mocks at the word "study", but as the problem of urban rehousing becomes acute, it becomes a field for study. My right hon. Friend and his Government have a great record in rehousing many millions of people in this country, but as the easier parts of the housing problem are dealt with, the remaining problem becomes harder, and it is not to be sneered at if I say that this matter is given the most concentrated study.

I repeat that the fire which led to this debate was a tragedy. I very much hope that the residents in these houses will take the advice of the chief fire officer, accept the installation of these hatches and live in tranquillity.

Mr. Short

Before the hon. Member sits down will he reply to the specific point which I made, that it would be a great help to us in our slum clearance programmes if the Ministry could halve the time which it is taking over compulsory purchase order procedure at the moment?

Sir K. Joseph

I apologise to the hon. Member. I had a note of that. If I may reply with the permission of the House, it is one of my right hon. Friend's main intentions to shorten the time in which either planning or C.P.O. applications are decided.

8.43 p.m.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

The Minister said that housing development in certain areas is becoming easier. At the same time, we have to accept a statement from him that the only possible solution to the rehousing of slum tenants—and that is the issue with which we are dealing this evening—is through the local authority, not merely in the City of Birmingham, but in every town and city in the country. Gloucestershire, West is a three-part type of constituency—industrial, dormitory and rural area. In all those three parts we have precisely the same problem.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

Order. The hon. Member is not out of order in broadening the debate, but the Minister was given notice only that Birmingham would be discussed, and it is a little hard to raise instances of other towns when the Minister is not briefed to reply.

Mr. Loughlin

I must bow to your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker.

In the City of Birmingham—

Mr. Short

On a point of order. Would you not make it clear, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that my hon. Friend was not debarred from discussing Gloucestershire. It may be hard on the Minister—and I am sure that my hon. Friend is sorry about that—but under the rules of procedure my hon. Friend is entitled to talk about Gloucestershire if he wishes to do so.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

What the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short) has said is absolutely correct. I do not think that in my intervention I suggested that it would be out of order. It is only that if the Minister has not been warned that the subject is to be raised on the Adjournment, it is in vain to expect a satisfactory and fully briefed reply.

Mr. Loughlin

I had not intended to develop the argument about the position in West Gloucestershire or in rural areas. I was about to deal with the Parliamentary Secretary's statement that housing development has become easier in some areas. That was the statement which he made. I was pointing out to the Parliamentary Secretary that in a constituency such as I represent, with industrial, dormitory and rural areas, we have precisely the same problem as cities and towns. I do not know just what the Parliamentary Secretary means by saying that the housing situation has become easier in some areas.

I was going on to say that the only possible solution to rehousing from slum clearance areas is under the local authority. If I am not mistaken, we were told in the House only a few days ago that the number of houses built by local authorities had decreased, although the number of houses built by private builders had increased. There is no salvation for those people in slum property to have the number of houses built by private speculators going up. The Government should take urgent action.

I say "the Government" very sincerely, because I was being literal when I said to the Minister that I had had experience of back-to-back houses. Some of my family have lived in back-to-back houses. It is only by living in them that one knows their true evils. I have stayed with some of my relatives living in back-to-back houses. I have risen in the morning and had to walk half-way down the street in the most atrocious weather to perform the most ordinary functions of nature, for which, no doubt, the Minister has facilities in his own home.

There are 60,000 back-to-back houses in the City of Leeds, a figure duplicated in the City of Birmingham. We cannot piously talk about improvements having been made, because the problem is duplicated in every town and city of Britain. Speaking in terms of human beings, it is something for which any Government worthy of their name would institute a real wartime programme. We can utilise the whole resources of the nation when war comes along. It is of equal importance to utilise the resources of the nation to rid the country of its slums and provide decent housing for ordinary men and women. They cannot afford to pay the inflated prices of private speculators and then be faced with repairing their houses because of the shoddy nature of a great deal of speculative building going on today. They cannot afford to pay those prices, and unless the Government direct their policy of rehousing on the lines of municipal building, and as the curve is going down on municipal building—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. I am becoming a little disturbed at the course of the debate. The hon. Member will realise that the Minister has already exhausted his right to speak and he cannot, therefore, give a reply. It is not satisfactory to speak when a Minister is not available to reply to what the hon. Member is saying.

Mr. Loughlin

I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, because I am rather inexperienced on these benches.

Mr. Yates

On a point of order. What you are now ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, is entirely new. It has always been the practice that in an Adjournment debate hon. Members may continue to speak until 10.30 p.m. if necessary. It is unfortunate if the Minister is not present, or if he is not prepared to sit and listen, but it does not prevent an hon. Member discussing the whole field of housing—not that I wish to do that. If the Minister is there and is listening, is it not perfectly in order for my hon. Friend to make a speech even over the whole field of housing tonight, if necessary?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

What the hon. Member says is perfectly correct. The debate can go on until 10.30 p.m. It is usual in Adjournment debates to make speeches before the Minister rises to reply, and then the Minister can give an answer. What has happened tonight—I am in the recollection of all hon. Members who were present—is that, after the Minister made a full reply and resumed his seat, having exhausted his right to reply, the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) rose to make this fresh speech. That is leading us to a situation which I think is to be deprecated, but certainly it is not out of order.

Mr. Yates

Is it not within the rules of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for a Minister to be able to make a second speech in a debate with the permission of the House?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I do not think that that happens very often in an Adjournment debate, and I do not think that what has happened tonight makes for the general convenience. The Minister rose and gave a full reply. No hon. Member intervened. The Minister having resumed his seat, off we go again on a different subject which was not mentioned in the original notice for the Adjournment debate. It is not out of order, and I have not ruled it out of order. I have endeavoured to point out that it leads to an unsatisfactory course of debate.

Mr. Loughlin

Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I shall respect your Ruling—

Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)

On a point of order. When an hon. Member speaks, even in circumstances such as those, can he not rightly assume that the Minister concerned will read his speech and that, if not able to give a reply in the House, the Minister will give a written reply to the points that have been made? On this basis, although it is understood that the Minister may not reply on the spot, my hon. Friend is not wasting his time in making his contribution, knowing that what he says will be studied and that probably a satisfactory answer will be given at a later date.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Again, what the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) says is quite in order, technically, but it seems to me to outrage the sense of fair play that ensures that each side should be heard in debate. It means, in fact, that only the side complaining is heard, and that the side replying to the complaint is debarred from replying. Although it might not be out of order, it does not seem to me to be a convenient or satisfactory way for an Adjournment debate to be carried on.

Mr. Stonehouse

With great respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, while fully agreeing with your last point, may I say that the Minister said that he could not reply to the general points on housing that have been raised? Therefore, my hon. Friend is merely asking that the hon. Gentleman should make a note of the points he is making so that the Minister concerned may consider them at some future date. But may we, for the benefit of the House, have a Ruling from you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that when a Minister has spoken in an Adjournment debate it is perfectly in order for hon. Members to continue the debate until half-past ten?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I hoped that I had made it clear that it was not out of order. Nothing has happened that is out of order. What I said related only to the general convenience of the House in conducting Adjournment debates.

Mr. Yates

It will be within your recollection, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that we have had Adjournment debates that have lasted for a considerable time even when there has not been a Minister present. Although I raised a specific matter in connection with Birmingham's housing, hon. Members have been able to raise other points. Surely, if the Minister is present and is willing, with the permission of the House, to reply to the matters put forward, he may do so: or even say to hon. Members that he will give consideration to those points, and write a reply later. I think that he is entitled to do that, with the permission of the House, in an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If a Minister asks the House for permission to speak again, it is for the House to decide whether or not that permission is granted If it is granted, the Minister can, of course, speak again. I have tried to be very clear in not ruling anything out of order. I have studied to maintain what I believe is best for the general convenience in conducting debates on the Adjournment. Mr. Loughlin.

Mr. Loughlin


Sir K. Joseph

With the permission of the House, I may say that I will, of course, take very careful note of anything that is said, and will try to send a reply on any specific points raised.

Mr. Loughlin

It seems, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that my second baptism is one of hot water. I must make it clear that I appreciate the way in which you are trying to conduct the debate, and I apologise to you. I shall not be awkward in any way. To some extent, I had made up my mind not to say anything in the debate, but the Minister provoked me by his remarks. I shall terminate my remarks within a matter of seconds.

I was speaking about the necessity to mobilise the nation's resources to resolve a problem which results in an enormous number of people not only having to drag out their lives in squalid housing conditions but, more important, to bring up children in those conditions. I think that the Minister was wrong in his attitude of sheer complacency. When we have literally hundreds of thousands of people living in slum conditions in our industrial centres and rural areas, simply to say that things are going well, that something is being done—when it is recognised that rehousing is not keeping pace with the increasing number of slums—is itself an indictment of the Minister's approach to the problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Nine o'clock.