HC Deb 16 June 1961 vol 642 cc899-904

3.42 p.m.

Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)

I beg to move, That this House, while recognising that the provision of suitable housing and the redevelopment of obsolescent streets and buildings in large built-up areas cannot in many cases be achieved without a displacement of population, is of opinion that this can only be achieved satisfactorily if those moving into reception areas have convenient jobs and proper social services, and urges Her Majesty's Government to take a great initiative in bringing together the departments and local authorities involved in order to work out a planned and balanced programme. Put shortly, the Motion calls for a co-ordination of the various services, both national and local, which come together to perform a successful operation of rehousing and re-accommodating what is generally known as overspill.

It is often thought that there is a divergence of interest between those who believe in building on the internal sites of a town and building upwards and in dense development on the one hand and, on the other hand, those who believe in decentralising population by means of planned overspill. That is not correct. These are not rival but complementary methods, because if people are to be adequately housed in the centre of towns, and if adequate roads for traffic in the centre of towns and adequate public buildings and schools are to be provided, it can rarely be true that the resulting displaced population will be rehoused in the same area. Therefore, in almost any redevelopment inside large towns, there must be a problem of rehousing a substantial number of people outside the town.

That is one aspect of the problem, but it goes wider than that, because one of the questions to be decided is what may be termed the regional planning of population. It is not enough to take the large conurbations and say that we have a displaced population of so many to be rehoused within the area. The other problem is how and where we are to have our industries and our population. One of the most disquieting features of the post-war years has been that, in spite of the Barlow Report and efforts made to deal with the location of industry, there has been a continued steady drift of population southwards. There can be no doubt that, except where some conscious effort is made to relocate industry, the tendency is for industry to move and for population to follow it.

From the point of view of the waste of social capital, one gets the extraordinary situation that while in the North-West there is under-employment and a waste of skill, if one comes South one finds that in London there is not only a growth of population but a growth of employment. The Herbert Committee reported that in Greater London the growth of employment was greater than the growth of population. There is a continuing pull of people to the South because of the opportunities of employment.

The problem which faces the Government is not just one of finding areas in which to build houses. The Government must ensure that in the areas in which the houses are built there are adequate roads, health services and education facilities. All these are an integral part of the same operation and cannot be regarded separately. The Government must also ensure that industry moves to the area where it is required. Unless these things work together, we will not solve the problem of overspill.

Taking the most charitable view, one can only describe the Government's achievements as lamentable. There is no other sphere of Government policy in which they are so complacent. Everybody, irrespective of party, in the local authorities and in the areas where these problems occur, considers that the Government are lamentably failing to tackle the problem.

The first chosen instrument to deal with it is that of the new towns. Apart from Skelmersdale, which is under inquiry, there has been a tremendous waste of time over the provision of new towns.

The second chosen instrument is the expansion of existing towns. There is an extremely impertinent remark in the White Paper on Housing in England and Wales. The hon. Gentleman is familiar with this quotation because it has been used many times in debates on the Housing Bill in Committee upstairs. The Minister of Housing and Local Government said rather primly: The London County Council have achieved good co-operation wth a number of receiving authorities. This is less true of the provinces, where town development schemes do not always seem to have been so persuasively and effectively pursued by the exporting local authority. The London County Council is a large, wealthy authority, with tremendous resources of skilled technical advisers, yet one reads of the London County Council having to go from town to town trying to get people to take the overspill, while the Minister sits primly on the touchline awarding prizes. It is not unnatural that other local authorities which have not the resources of the London County Council have not the ability to do this.

The task ought to be performed by the central Government and not by local authorities, because the answers to these questions are entirely in the hands of the central Government. An obvious one is the case of the highways. The criticism has been made in the Herbert Report that the highways of London are inadequate. Whose fault is that? It is the fault of the central Government, who have failed to allocate sufficient capital resources for the development of highway communications, especially for the proper deployment of industry, and the places where people are to live.

Education is a local authority service, but last year the Minister of Education cut down the education estimates of the Lancashire County Council. Those estimates are linked closely to the need to provide schools for overspill populations. The county education authority in a reception area is always in a dilemma. It has a limited amount of capital to spend on schools and is therefore torn between two alternatives. Does it spend the money on the existing residents in the county the ratepayers of old standing—or earmark it for use for the accommodation of overspill from the great towns? The final answer to that question must be given by the Government, because they control capital investment in schools.

Finally, there is the question of employment. I give the Government full marks for having persuaded the motor car industry to go to Merseyside, from London and Birmingham. That is a tremendous asset for south-west Lancashire. But nobody yet knows from where that operation will draw its labour, and whether places like my own constituency, which has been zoned as a reception area for years and years, will have the responsibility of rehousing the people, or whether they will go to Skelmersdale—a new town—under the other limb of Government policy. The final answer to these questions can be given only by the central Government.

I do not want to monopolise all the time, although I am only about a quarter of the way through what I wanted to say. I can sum up by saying that the Government are adopting an utterly irresponsible attitude. They, and they alone, hold the key to these questions. They alone, through the Board of Trade, are responsible for the relocation of industry and for the way our development areas should progress, and so on. They control the amount of capital to be spent on building schools. They control the provision of roads. They even control the building of the main drainage services—essentially a local government matter through loan sanctions. Unless people know what the Government will do about these things they cannot answer all the questions, and cannot solve the problems.

It is wrong for the Government to hold back on these matters and to try to pretend that they are nothing to do with them, and that they are matters for local authorities to settle amongst themselves. The Government are running away from criticism and the acceptance of their responsibilities. We will not get any further towards a solution of the desperate problems of the conurbations of London, Liverpool and Manchester unless the Government take a more immediate responsibility for what is going on and carry out their duty to bring together not only the different local authorities—the county authorities, the district authorities and the county boroughs—but also the hidden forces which are not brought out in the open, such as the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Education. We require someone to take responsibility to bring these together into a centralised body.

3.55 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) has courteously given me something like four minutes in which to deal with his Motion. I should like to start by saying straight away that the Government recognise their responsibility for making sure that by one means or another there shall be enough sites for the rehousing of those members of the population in the big cities who are at present living under bad conditions. The Government have accepted that responsibility. My right hon. Friend has said categorically on several occasions that the Government do not intend that rehousing shall falter for lack of land, and, of course, there is the greatest collaboration between the various Departments of the Government in securing this. If all the Departments concerned were to be merged together, there would be one titanic bureaucracy which would not be nearly as effective as the present system of close collaboration between all Departments concerned stimulated by my right hon. Friend and his contacts with the local authorities.

I agreed very much with the hon. Gentleman when he stressed that overspill alone is not the answer to this problem of the lack of sites in some of the cities that have the worst housing conditions. Of course, there have to be a number of solutions. We have to depend to some extent upon private overspill, that is, the moving of families independently to the areas where housing is permitted under the development plan outside the crowded cities, and this is accounting for more and more of the satisfactory rehousing of the population today.

Then there is the planned overspill to which the hon. Gentleman referred and with which I will deal in a moment. There is also the building upwards in suitable places in the big cities which is more and more coming to be accepted as more suitable for this day and age. And then there is the use systematically of the sites unused or derelict at the moment. As far as planned overspill goes, there are the two main sources of contribution—new towns and expanded towns. I deny that the Government have ignored the contribution which can be made by new towns. Not only has my right hon. Friend helped in the project of a new town for Liverpool, at Skelmersdale, but he has also announced his scheme to find a suitable place for a new town to serve the Birmingham area.

The hon. Member poured scorn on the expanded towns programme. It depends on persuasion between the exporting and the importing local authorities. The Government cannot force co-operation between communities. They must encourage co-operation, but ultimately it is a matter of persuasion. Under the expanded towns programme at the moment no less than 70,000 houses have been provided or agreed to be provided for overspill purposes and a further 50,000 are being negotiated. That is 120,000 houses in expanded towns to house well over one-third of a million people.

The expanded town programme has only got under way since 1957. It is true that the legislation was passed in 1952, but there were financial difficulties for the first few years. The fact is that the expanded towns programme has grown in the last few years and great benefit will come from it. But it depends on persuasion, and the hon. Gentleman is quite unfair in expecting the Government to step in and insist on local authorities agreeing whether they want to or not.

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.