HC Deb 10 December 1963 vol 686 cc226-30
The Minister of Public Building and Works (Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement on the establishment of a National Building Agency.

To fulfil the country's needs for new buildings of all kinds, the output of the building industry must increase by more than 50 per cent. in the next decade. Accordingly: the Government propose to set up a National Building Agency to further the industrialisation of building. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am today laying before the House a White Paper outlining the proposal. Copies are now available in the Vote Office.

The Agency will have two main functions. First, it will help to co-ordinate the requirements of those wishing to build into programmes which are large enough, and continuing enough, to make possible the economic use of industrialised methods.

Secondly, it will offer expert and technical advice about the newest methods. The Agency's services will be available both to public authorities and to the private sector.

The Agency will not itself actually undertake any building work, and its use will be voluntary. I expect that its services will be of particular value in the first instance to the smaller local authorities. It is intended to supplement and not to supersede the existing and developing consortia of local authorities.

The Agency will be an independent body, covering the whole of the United Kingdom. It will be managed by a board appointed by the Minister of Public Builiing and Works after consultation with the building industry and the local authorities. It will be supported in part by public funds, but will charge fees for its services.

Before the Agency is established I propose to hold formal consultations on the detailed arrangements with the appropriate organisations representing the construction industries, the associated professions and the local authorities.

Mr. C. Pannell

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept the congratulations of hon. Members on this side of the House on bringing forward now a proposal which has been in our last two General Election manifestos? For this measure of creeping Socialism, after 12 years, we give him thanks.

I want to ask one or two questions about the Agency. Why is the Minister so inhibited as to say that the Agency will not undertake any building work at all? Why does he need to put this proscription in at the beginning and thus rob himself of a powerful economic weapon?

When the right hon. Gentleman says that The Agency will be an independent body covering the whole of the United Kingdom how independent does he mean? Is it proposed that he will be in no way answerable for it in this House? How public will it be? What sort of body has he in mind to employ?

Further, how long does the right hon. Gentleman feel that it will be necessary for these deliberations to take place before he can make another statement to the House indicating rather more closely how this skeleton is to be clothed?

Mr. Rippon

The hon. Member will see from the White Paper the nature of the proposals in more detail, but I hope to be able to establish the Agency and appoint the board and officers in the early part of next year, after consultations have been completed. Hon. Members opposite cheered a little too quickly. There is no comparison between this Agency and the sort of body they would set up. Hon. Members on this side believe that we can achieve by voluntary co-operation what hon. Members opposite believe can be done only by direction and control.

This Agency is a logical extension of what has been taking place in the industry—first, the development of new systems and new techniques, secondly, the development of consortia of local authorities with whom we shall continue to work closely and not supplant by new bodies to do the building for them, and, thirdly, the function of my own Ministry and the progress that we have made so far on standardisation and dimensional co-ordination.

The Agencywill be a body independent of the Government. I envisage that it will be a company, limited by guarantee. In due course, once the body is established, we shall no doubt have to consider how Questions about its activities will be dealt with. In effect, it is the other side of the coin to the research and development organisations which the Government have established. It will be independent. Its use will be voluntary, but it will make available throughout the rest of the public and private sectors the schemes that we are bringing forward within our own Government building programme.

Mr. C. Pannell

Why does the Minister rob this Agency of the right to do a bit of building on its own account?

Mr. Rippon

It will exceptionally provide a full design service. It is not necessary for it to do the building. If it helps by advising people on what schemes they should adopt and how best they can meet their problems and co-ordinate their orders, the building can be done in the ordinary way by the building industry. If the clients co ordinate their demands in the right way, the industry has the resources, capacity and techniques to fulfil those demands.

Mr. Farr

In view of the fact that the standard of completion in many new houses today still leaves much to be desired, can my right hon. Friend tell me whether the Agency will be concerned with the finishing standard of new houses?

Mr. Rippon

As a result of this and the other measures that the Government have taken, we shall have not only quicker and, in the long run, cheaper building, but better building.

Mr. Woodburn

The Minister has said that this Agency's activities are to extend over the whole of the United Kingdom. Is he aware that there has been a Scottish Special Housing Association for about 20 years, which has been doing this kind of work? Can he explain what is to be the relationship between this new organisation and the Association?

Mr. Rippon

It will work closely with the local authorities, the new towns and the Scottish Special Housing Association, but at the moment the consortia arrangements in Scotland do not cover anything like the whole of the housing of Scottish local authorities. Only 16 out of 232 come into the arrangements which have so far been established. Thirty per cent. of housing in Scotland is still outside the consortium, which includes the Scottish Special Housing Association. In the case of education authorities, out of 35 in Scotland only two are in a consortium. There is, therefore, room—and this is recognised in Scotland—for an Agency of this kind.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Can my right hon. Friend say how much of this Agency's work will be devoted to training workers in the building industry in new skills, especially in view of the grave shortage of skilled men which exists, particularly among small builders?

Mr. Rippon

We have in mind that the Agency will be able to help in encouraging educational and other bodies, including any industrial training board, to provide more extensive facilities for training in the new techniques. This is one of the points covered in the White Paper.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the Minister aware that the Liberal Party welcomes the idea of leaving local authorities as the main agencies for the building programme? On the other hand, we do not think that the proposals contained in his statement go nearly far enough. One of the main difficulties of local authorities in embarking on comprehensive redevelopment programmes is not only in respect of the technical assistance they need to build themselves, but in respect of town planning and traffic engineers, and so on, who may not be available in a small local authority. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether this type of technical assistance will be available to local authorities through this Agency?

As the Minister has definitely decided that this Agency will not be responsible for giving any financial assistance to local authorities, may I ask him whether he is aware that the main difficulty facing local authorities who undertake comprehensive redevelopment programmes is that there is a long period during which these schemes constitute a severe burden on their rate income?

Mr. Rippon

I am glad to have that limited welcome from the Liberal Party, recognising that this is a good start. The Agency will not do everything at once, but it will help in giving local authorities advice and, over a period, help them to spend to far better advantage what money they are able to dig out of the Treasury and their ratepayers.

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