HL Deb 26 April 1921 vol 45 cc11-5

VISCOUNT BURNHAM had given Notice to ask His Majesty's Government whether it is intended to continue in any form the power given to local authorities to prohibit building except under licence; and if not, when the present restrictions will be removed. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I have put this Question on the Paper with the wish and purpose of bringing to as speedy an end as possible the whole series of arbitrary and unequal restrictions upon building, as applied by the local authorities throughout the country, because I believe that they have been in restraint of trade. I am certain that they have lessened the efficiency of the building industry, and I believe that they have already led to wide unemployment, and will soon lead to much more.

I have had an opportunity of seeing something of the building trade, because for the last two or three years I have acted as Chairman of the Building Trades Employment Committee in this part of England. We all know that the building trades, to a certain extent, have always been regulated by local authorities. The old adage of the law that "Nobody may build to his neighbour's injury," has been applied in many Statutes. The London Building Acts control the London builders, who have had to submit to minute Regulations, but these Regulations arc of a different kind. They definitely give the local authorities the power, almost the instruction, to stop certain classes of buildings, and to distinguish between different classes of buildings.

In 1919 they were, I believe, what is termed, in the slang of to-day, a kind of "popularity stunt." They were suggested first of all by the Bricklayers' Union to the Ministry of Health. I am not certain that the bricklayers were looking only for popularity, but these local authorities were instructed, or enabled, to apply these restrictions. The idea was, of course, that at a time when great masses of the working people had no sufficient accommodation and were crowded into insanitary houses, and when immense numbers of men were returning from the Services and it was necessary to provide for them, it was not fit or proper that we should have lordly pleasure houses erected all over the country, to the scandal of the public. The truth was that there was not much risk of lordly pleasure houses being erected, but what was aimed at particularly was the building of cinema theatres. It would have been far better to prohibit altogether the erection of cinemas than to have Regulations which have disorganised the whole of the building trade.

I will explain what has happened in the South of England. In the South of England the big building firms such as Mowlem's never did any cottage building. They had their own particular class of structure, and had a highly expensive and expert staff for that purpose. Cottage building was left throughout the country to the smaller men, and although it had not been done to any large extent for some few years before the war, it was neither economical nor advisable to turn the bigger firms from their own class of work and to displace the smaller builders. More than that, the bigger firms were employing men at high rates of salary, which increased the expense of cottage building and made it reach the fabulous sum which it has reached in many districts. I believe in the London district it is as high as £1,100 a cottage.

It would have been far better to have allowed things to go on in the natural course of trade; but the principal reason why I wish to see these Regulations now brought to an end is that they are causing great unemployment. When you meddle with a trade in this mischievous way you very often fail to consider the intricate and injurious effects which such meddling may have. It is true that the Regulations gave employment to bricklayers to such an extent that at the present time there is not a bricklayer unemployed in England, and they refuse to admit anything but a limited. number of trainees into their ranks. On the other hand, plumbers, decorators, hot-water fitters, and all sorts of subordinate classes connected with the building trades are at the present moment, as I know from our register in Tavistock-street, out of employment in large numbers, and there are likely to be more. These Regulations have had the effect of making unemployment worse and, as the bigger buildings arc now being put up in diminishing numbers, it may become a serious feature in the labour market.

It is no doubt true that large firms are engaged to sonic extent in putting up the old sort of structure, but a curious thing has been a consequence of it. The London County Council are now taking a wide view of the building question and giving licences for any sort of building so long as you do not use bricks. You have to use concrete blocks. The bricklayer was equal to that. He said that if you had to build with concrete blocks none but a bricklayer should handle them, and so every one who handles them from the beginning to the end has to be a bricklayer and a member of the Bricklayers' Union. There is no advantage to gain from any point of view in providing that there should be more bricklayers for cottage building, while the loss to trade in general has been considerable. I cannot imagine that His Majesty's Government wish to continue unemployment, or to increase it by artificial means. They are now bringing forward an Act to amend the existing law. It seems to me that it would be an admirable time, though it is almost too late to have full effect, to abrogate these Regulations, which are not valued by the local authorities, which puzzled them in the first instance, and which are now totally inapplicable.

I do not deal with the whole effect of the housing scheme I do know, however, that there are houses to let now in many parts of the country, because, where the sanitary by-laws are not enforced by local authorities, workmen, especially with the reduction that is now going on in the rate of wages, are unwilling, and sometimes unable, to pay the high, rents which are being asked by local authorities for the houses as they bring them info public use. There is no further purpose to be served by these restrictions. They were ill-advised, though I have no doubt well meant. It was hoped by them to gain considerable popularity, because it was thought that to devote the whole of the energies of the great trade for the purpose of putting up cottages for the people would commend itself to the national conscience. Surely we have now had enough of this sort of make-believe, and if we find that the restrictions do not work to public advantage they ought to be brought to an end.

So far as I know the building trade—both the masters and the employees— are all of one mind, and are most anxious to see the restrictions disappear. I have never heard any one connected with the trade defend them; yet they have now been enacted and enforced for more than two years. I venture to put this Question in the real desire that something may be done, because at a time like this I cannot imagine why we should neglect any means of increasing employment among the people. We ought to prevent the problem, which is so difficult to deal with, becoming even worse than it is.


My Lords, the Question which the noble Viscount has put to me is as regards Section '5 of the Housing (Additional Powers) Act, 1919. That section was introduced because at the time very great difficulty was experienced in obtaining labour for housing schemes, and because that difficulty was due to a large extent to the competition of other forms of labour. The noble Viscount has referred to picture palaces, and it is true that there was considerable dissatisfaction in the country that the construction of such luxury buildings, as they were called, should be proceeding while housing schemes were held up for lack of labour. The power which was given in this Act of prohibiting luxury buildings has no doubt assisted in easing the shortage of skilled labour for housing schemes.




That is the view of His Majesty's Government. I should like to say, and it is right that it should be said, that there is no evidence that local authorities have used their powers unreasonably. As your Lordships are aware, the operation of this section will continue in force for two years only from the passing of the Additional Powers Act —that is to say, until December next. The operation of the scheme for employing ex-Service men in the building industry will no doubt increase the supply of labour available for housing schemes, and will render recourse to this power of prohibition less necessary during the time intervening between now and next December.


May I interrupt the noble Earl? I understand that the dilution scheme is dependent upon the abolition of the restrictions; otherwise, it will not work.


The noble Viscount referred in his speech to the Housing Bill which is now before Parliament, and suggested that an opportunity might present itself in the discussion of that Bill for considering the future of these restrictions. I should like to assure the noble Viscount that if an Amendment be proposed to it to abrogate the restrictions from the date of the passing of the new Act, it would receive the most sympathetic consideration from the Ministry of Health. I think that will answer the noble Viscount's Question.


Would the noble Earl be in a position to make a statement in the near future as to the position of the dilution policy?


I am afraid I shall have to ask the noble Marquess to give me notice of that Question.