§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
My Lords, this Bill is simple enough in itself, but it raises issues which I am afraid are not so simple. When we debated this question of housing a few months ago, I think your Lordships were particularly concerned with the bad housing conditions and overcrowding prevailing in many parts of the country, and also with the absence of alternative Accommodation at rents which these unfortunate people could afford to pay. Some of your Lordships also felt that the stimulation of building to meet this demand would relieve unemployment in the building trade; and, as your Lordships are aware, these different points have been much developed in the public Press of late. As I ventured to point out, the Government were entirely in agreement with the general trend of your Lordships' conclusions. We did, and do, entirely agree that although unpre- 43 cedented efforts have been made to furnish new houses since the War—some where in the neighbourhood of 2,000,000 houses have been built since the War—there is still a great shortage of low rented houses. This is, indeed, one of the principal problems confronting the Ministry to-day. How are we to provide these people, to whom your Lordships made such eloquent reference, with better housing at rents which they can afford to pay?
It is a problem on which we have been given much advice, and advice which is not always consistent. On the one hand, we are told we must reduce taxation, we must lighten the burdens on industry, and restore prosperity, and so enable a larger number of these unfortunate people to afford better housing; and, on the other hand, it is represented that the need for these houses is so urgent and immediate that we must produce them whether it is an economic proposition to do so or not. Although I am aware that there is considerable controversy going on to-day as to what might be called an economic proposition, nevertheless we do still find some difficulty in saving and spending simultaneously. Naturally, in this Bill we are not asking your Lordships to support either of these schools of thought. The only principle which arises in this Bill is one with which I am sure all your Lordships will agree— namely, that if we do spend money that money should be spent as effectively as possible.
The Ministry are authorized to spend money under two principal Acts of Parliament. There is the Wheatley Act of 1924, which has since been incorporated in the general Act of 1925, and there is the Greenwood Act of 1930—the Slum Clearance Act. These are both Socialist Acts of Parliament, and we can view them equally dispassionately. Your Lordships are aware that the Wheatley subsidies stand at the rate of £7 10s. in a non-agricultural parish and £11 in an agricultural parish per annum for houses built to let under certain conditions. At one time the subsidy stood at a higher figure. This Act has done great work. Since it was introduced in 1924, 454,630 houses have been built to let through its agency, and many thousands of artisans and moderately paid workmen have been relieved from what would otherwise have been, for them, a very awkward situation.
44 After nine years of operation two facts emerge in regard to this Act. The first is that whatever its triumphs may have been in the past in other directions, the Wheatley Act has not solved, and is not solving, the slum problem. The Rent Restrictions Committee, presided over by my noble friend Lord Marley, in 1931, drew public attention to the fact that the needs of the poorer classes were not being adequately met by the housing schemes of local authorities. That is a matter to which your Lordships have often referred in housing debates. In other words, it has been found difficult to prevent the subsidy getting into hands other than those which the Government consider need it most. Although the Ministry have in recent months made great efforts to concentrate the subsidy on the building of smaller houses, we do not see signs of any diminution in the unhealthy conditions through the agency of this Act. The second fact that emerges is this. When the Wheatley Act was introduced the subsidy was given on the rough estimate that with its aid the local authorities could build houses to let at a weekly rent of 7s. 9d. Since that time rates of interest and building costs have, come down to such a figure that it is now possible to build and let the same houses at the same rent without any subsidy at all. I can give your Lordships the exact figures if you so desire, but they are all given authoritatively in the Ray Report. The only alteration in circumstances since the publication of that Report is that building costs have come down still further. If, therefore, Wheatley houses are being let to a type of tenant who in the changed conditions of to-day can really afford to pay for the house without State assistance, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the subsidy is no longer necessary.
Your Lordships will understand that in asking for permission to abolish the subsidy we are not suggesting that the housing problem has been solved. What we do say is that this particular Act is an expensive and obsolete weapon for dealing with the particular problem that we are faced with to-day. What we say in effect is that this particular problem can be better solved by greater activity under the Act of 1930 than by a continuation of the 1924 Act. It is not entirely in the interests of economy that we arrive at this conclusion. It has been asked: 45 Why should the slum dwellers in the middle of a great city have to assist, through the rates, the housing in much better conditions of dwellers on the outskirts of those towns who are in a much better financial position than the slum dwellers themselves? There is another question, that of housing costs. I admit that it is not a question in which proof positive can be claimed, but our experience in the past has been that housing costs are definitely affected by subsidies; in fact, that they go up and down together. When the Addison subsidies were discontinued costs went down. In 1923 when the Chamberlain subsidies were introduced costs rose. When the Wheatley subsidy was introduced in 1924 costs rose again. When the Chamberlain subsidy was taken off costs fell.
I am not suggesting that there is any mathematical ratio between the two, only that the tendency appears to be in that direction, and if housing costs can be reduced still further—and they are still considerably above pre-War, although other commodities, as your Lordships are aware, are down to pre-War levels—it will be the most valuable service that we could perform. Your Lordships will remember that £50 off the capital cost of the house means a reduction of 1s a week in the rent. I must point out that the costs of housing vary in different parts of the country to-day. I can give your Lordships the names of twenty-two local authorities whose costs in relation to their latest housing schemes have not been more than £260 per house—that is, exclusive of land. If we can bring them down even to the level prevailing in the cheapest parts of the country we shall perform a great service.
In spite of these arguments, your Lordships will no doubt be concerned with the general effect of the withdrawal of this subsidy. No doubt many of your Lordships are interested in the arguments for what is called expansion that are being put forward to-day and will be wondering whether the effect of the Government's proposal, though fully justified in some respects, will not be to diminish the total volume of houses. It is an important matter, and I hope your Lordships will allow me to say a word or two of explanation as to why we believe the withdrawal of this subsidy will promote more building rather than diminish the 46 total output. In the first place, as I shall show in a minute or two, we believe that one of the results of the withdrawal of the Wheatley subsidy will be considerably to increase the activities under the Act of 1930. In the second place, we believe that when private enterprise is no longer affected by municipal competition in regard to the Wheatley type of house, all the initiative and energy of private enterprise will be concentrated on this problem.
As I mentioned in the last housing debate, when we restricted by circular the operations of the Wheatley Act to small houses there was some doubt as to whether private enterprise would fill the gap left by the removal of these subsidies. I think I was able to show that actually the number of moderately-sized houses—that is, with a rateable value under £105 in London and under £78 in the provinces—built without subsidy constituted last year a record. That process is going on and we believe it will continue. Certainly we have the testimony of some building federations—the National Association of House Builders for one—that once municipal competition is out of the way they will be very glad to supplement their building programs with this cheaper type of house. In addition to that we have made special provision to try to ensure that the general rate of house building shall be increased.
Clause 2, as your Lordships will see, embodies an agreement with the building societies. Of all forms of private enterprise which concern themselves with housing, building societies have far the greatest resources and far the greatest experience in financing the building of houses. I think that out of two million houses constructed since the War no fewer than one million have been constructed through the agency of these building societies. Their income from investors and depositors and from mortgages fallen in runs into many million pounds each year and their experience in financing building operations is unrivalled. What they have undertaken to do is to extend the amount of their loans from 70 per cent. to 90 per cent. on condition that this extra 20 per cent. is guaranteed in part by the Government and by the local authorities. As your Lordships are well aware a, building society is a sort of finance corporation which borrows short-term money to lend 47 on long term. It is quite obvious that with the fall of interest rates building societies are mostly energetically engaged in looking for safe long-term investments because they have to meet their obligations to their depositors and investors. The demand for higher-priced houses having considerably slackened, this guarantee gives them a comparatively good security in another direction and a direction in which their experience and knowledge render them peculiarly suitable—namely, that of financing the lower-priced houses.
Your Lordships will appreciate that the Government's guarantee applies to houses for letting purposes. In the judgment of the Ministry the lack of other scope, if nothing else, will induce them to invest their funds in this way. It has been agreed by negotiations that this guarantee will only be extended in regard to schemes approved by the Ministry and by the local authorities. In that way we keep check over the standard of the houses erected. It has been further agreed that the rate of interest charged will not exceed 4 per cent. in the provinces and 4½per cent. in London and the Home Counties. Moreover, the building societies have agreed to extend the period of their loans from twenty to thirty years, which, of course, enables an appreciably lower rent to be charged. It is a highly technical matter, but we do believe that with the builders on the one hand seeking fresh scope for their activities and the building societies seeking fresh scope for their finances, private enterprise will receive a very powerful encouragement to continue the building of the class of house from which the Government have now decided to remove the subsidy. We do not pretend to think that private enterprise is going to step in immediately and construct really low-rented houses which we all wish to see built, but we think the tendency will gradually be in that direction. Your Lordships will appreciate the difficulty of giving estimates of what private enterprise is likely to do in years to come, but we believe—and I must tell your Lordships that it is not an assurance lightly given—that private enterprise will step into the gap and will build the type of house from which the Government are now withdrawing their subsidy.
48 I would also point out, as I know that you are anxious about the immediate future, that the number of municipal houses being built this year will, in the belief of the Minister, exceed the number built last year. The number of houses built under all forms of subsidy will exceed the number of subsided houses built last year. That is an important point because a number of houses approved will not be finished for some considerable time. I might express it in this way. The Government have a threefold object. They desire, firstly, to apply themselves more directly to the re-housing of the poor people by the acceleration of the 1930 Act. Secondly, they desire to relieve the taxpayer and the ratepayer in regard to those tenants whom they believe can afford to pay for their own houses at present prices. Thirdly, they believe that housing costs will be still further reduced and private enterprise will be able gradually to concern itself with a class of client for whom it has not yet been found possible to cater. It is a peculiarly suitable time for the extension of schemes of private enterprise. But even if we are wrong in these assumptions—and I quite agree that we must be prepared in such an important matter to be found wrong when we are talking about the future—if private enterprise does not step in, if building societies do not carry out their present. intentions, yet we have still this safeguard, that the local authorities can, under the Act of 1925, build houses without subsidy, and even without subsidy they can now build and let at exactly the same rent as they could have done with the full subsidy three years ago.
I now turn to another aspect of this Bill. Coming at such a time as this, when the public is very interested in what is called expansion, this Bill is frequently criticised from the point of view of what it does not do. Instead of being regarded as an administrative step in the direction of greater efficiency, it has been viewed as a general housing measure embracing the entire housing policy of the Government. It is obvious that there are certain aspects of housing which this Bill does not profess to touch. There is, for instance, the question of reconditioning in urban areas which my noble friend the Marquess of Salisbury has often spoken about. Your Lordships will 49 observe that my right honourable friend has been so impressed by the various arguments that he has set up a strong Committee to consider the subject of reconditioning in urban areas. Then there is the question of public utility societies in which I think the noble Lord., Lord Balfour of Burleigh has shown particular interest, and that has been referred to the same Committee.
A form of State activity which is greatly affected by this Bill is that of slum clearance. We believe that a considerable expansion of effort under the Act of 1930 is possible. Your Lordships will have noticed the many appeals from all directions urging the acceleration of slum clearance and we are often criticized at the slowness with which it is proceeding. I think sometimes there is some confusion of mind among those who might be called the "expansionists"—those who believe that a great drive forward in slum clearance would solve an age-long problem. I should like to reassure the House as to the attitude of the Government. The machinery for shun clearance and re-housing remains the same as it was when the Act was first introduced, with the only difference that as the cost of housing has come down so has the value of the subsidy increased. There is no limitation whatever placed by the Ministry on the rate of expansion under this Act of Parliament, though many critics of the Government who really ought to know better have suggested that there is. We all realise that if we are going to keep to the principles of justice we cannot expect to advance very rapidly in the first stages in connection with slum clearance schemes. The reports of medical officers and surveyors, the assessment of compensation, the preparation of plans—all those things cannot be done in a few weeks or even in a few months. The Minister must of course have some figure on which to base his estimates to the Exchequer. The figure of 12,000 was mentioned, but it represents only an estimate for the first year. If local authorities can so accelerate as to double or treble that number my right honourable friend will be delighted and the finance will be provided.
We hope very much that, freed from the complications of the Wheatley Act, local authorities may devote their energies to slum clearance with greater vigour. There is always the human 50 element to take into consideration even with regard to officials. We see it stated very frequently, in criticism of the volume of legislation in recent years, that we are piling work on to the officials of local authorities. Well, the Wheatley Act is less troublesome to operate than the Slum Clearance Act and we believe that we can effect a considerable advance in slum clearance in the next few years. Nobody has ever pretended, and least of all my right honourable friend the Minister, that slum clearance can be made a profitable proposition, and that is why the subsidy is there being retained. I think my right honourable friend would be very glad if your Lordships could use your great influence in many parts of the country to promote new scheme's and to accelerate existing schemes of slum clearance. Your Lordships will notice that, in spite of the fact that the Ray Committee recommended that the subsidy should be reduced by one-half, the Minister is so impressed by the necessity for acceleration that he has retained the subsidy at its existing level.
Let me remind your Lordships again that the Act of 1930 can be applied not only to urban, but to rural houses. Many of your Lordships are interested in rural housing and have often deplored that more use is not made of the Act for reconditioning rural cottages. Indeed, a very interesting table furnished by the Minister in answer to Lord Strachie showed a considerable diversity in the degree to which this Act had been utilized by the various local authorities. Under the Act of 1930 individual rural cottages which are in sanitary can be destroyed and their inhabitants re-housed, and with the regrettable but undoubted decline in the rural population we feel it is more important to furnish better houses in the villages rather than to provide new houses.
In conclusion, I submit this Bill to your Lordships, not as a curtailment, but as a redirection of Government activities. It may not embody all the ideas which your Lordships may have as to the better housing of the people, but it is a Bill which directs itself to certain particular problems and it does not profess to be comprehensive. It is a change in policy which the Government, who have continually to strike a balance between municipal enterprise on the one hand and private enterprise on the other, consider 51 appropriate to the change of circumstances. When one considers that since 1924 1,600,000 houses of all kinds have been built, and that costs are now down by between 30 and 40 per cent., it would indeed be very surprising if no change of policy were necessary. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(Viscount Gage.)
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
My Lords, the noble Viscount is like a supremely skilful lawyer, who makes even the worst case seem plausible. With his usual ability he has placed before your Lordships the case in favour of the present Bill, and before I put the opposite case on behalf of the Opposition I should like to ask the noble Viscount a question, which perhaps he would be good enough to answer at the close of the debate. I was a little surprised that he did not touch on the topic during the course of his speech. What is the attitude of the Government towards the formation of a national housing corporation? Is the Government in favour of such a project, and if so, what would the functions of this body be? There can be little, doubt that whatever effects this Bill may have, the cause of housing throughout the country would be stimulated if the Government, even now, were to give a guarantee for the raising of a substantial loan by such a body, if the money were to be used expressly for the purpose of housing the poorer members of the working classes.
I hope your Lordships will excuse me if, before actually criticizing the text of the Bill, I outline, very briefly indeed, the actual state of the housing problem, and besides, the steps that have been taken during the eventful years since the Great War to cope with the demand for new, better and more houses. There is little doubt that, after the problem of unemployment, that of housing is the most urgent domestic problem of the present day, and that it troubles the public conscience of the twentieth century in the way that the problem of poverty troubled and vexed the conscience of the preceding century. The very great urgency and immediacy of the need for more houses and better houses for members of the working class has been voiced frequently in your Lordships' House, and notably by the right.
52 rev. Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, to whom we owe a debt of the deepest gratitude for his persistence in keeping alive the public conscience in this matter, and whom we hope to hear again this evening.
§ LORD JESSEL
He is not the only housing reformer who has raised the question in this House, though I admit that he is a prominent one.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
I used the word "notably," and I hope that that satisfies the noble Lord. This subject has been so often brought to your Lordships' attention that I would only give one or two illustrations which show the extreme urgency of the matter. In a survey of social conditions in East London, produced quite recently by some sociologists, it was pointed out that the acutest overcrowding in that part of this great City had actually increased in the last ten years, and that there were now more districts in which there were at least three or more inhabitants to each room, than there had been in the years which immediately followed the War. It pointed out, besides, that in many boroughs quite half the children under fourteen were living in overcrowded conditions, and that there were at least 100,000 people who inhabited underground basements, condemned to lead the life of troglodytes in the twentieth century. The actual number of houses required—as the noble Viscount has pointed out, urgently required—is somewhere in the neighborhood of a million. I think that figure, and the few facts adduced to illustrate the need for a really big move in the direction of the provision of, more houses, will suffice to stress the urgency and immediacy of the problem.
What steps have been taken during the past ten or fifteen years in order to meet this great domestic problem? The noble Viscount has pointed out that altogether about two million houses have been built, that of this number somewhere around 1,100,000 were assisted by the State subsidy, and that the remaining 900,000 were the product of independent private enterprise. On the other hand—and this I think is the absolutely essential point—not more than about one-quarter of these houses were suitable for use by those members of the working class who had been living in overcrowded or slum 53 conditions. Put in another way, the Class A house, which is the habitation of the rich man or the comparatively well-to-do man, and the Class B house, in which the shopkeeper and best-paid artisan live, had increased by 60 per cent., while the Class C house, which is the class of house that is imperatively demanded, and the kind of house whose necessity is infinitely greater than either of the other two classes, has increased only by 13 per cent.
The conclusion that we are entitled to draw is that private or municipal enterprise, working for profit and assisted sometimes by subside, given without regard for the means of the occupants of the new houses, has failed completely to satisfy the paramount national need for houses to relieve the congestion of slum and overcrowded areas. The whole of our post-War housing effort has been in fact misdirected, neglecting the fundamental human demand for adequate protection and shelter against the Elements, for one place at least hallowed by the intimacy of family life—for a home—in order to flatter the desires of those sufficiently prosperous to divert attention from the truly needy to themselves. We are entitled, I think, to conclude our survey of the present situation in regard to housing by a certain knowledge that the problem is as acute to-day as it ever was in the past. This, I think, would be admitted and agreed upon by all parties and by all impartial observers of the facts.
Now, what are the actual effects of the present Bill? How will it alter the official policy of the Government, and how will it affect the activity of municipal enterprise and of private builders throughout the country? Clause 1, as the noble Viscount has pointed out, does in fact discontinue entirely—not partially, but entirely—the State subsidy under the 1923 and 1924 Acts. The result of this is to hand over to private profit-making enterprise the whole cost of providing houses for the working class, with the trifling exception—and I say trifling because I think the noble Viscount was inclined to make rather much of the one concession given by the Government—with the trifling exception of the continuance of the subsidy for slum clearance under the Greenwood Act of 1930. The right honourable 54 gentleman the Minister of Health stated in another place that the continuance of this subsidy would probably provide about 12,000 houses a year. If the Government is not going to help to bridge the gap of a million by more than 12,000 it is not taking us very far.
May I interrupt the noble Earl? I do not think the Minister said that the Greenwood Act was going to supply 12,000 houses a year. I think he mentioned 12,000 houses for this year as a reasonable estimate. We anticipate a considerable acceleration of the schemes under the 1930 Act after next year.
§ TEE EARL OF LISTOWEL
I am very grateful to the noble Viscount for his remarks, because I had certainly misinterpreted the statement of the Minister of Health, and I am delighted to hear that the speed in future years will be more rapid, although, even then, I think that no one would be satisfied that the Government is doing all it might do to bridge this enormous gap of a million houses.
Now, the really crucial problem, as it will strike your Lordships, is: Can private enterprise possibly undertake this enormous responsibility of providing decent houses for the poorer members of the community? The Minister of Health has shown very convincingly that, owing to the drop in prices and interest rates, working class houses can now be built at an economic rent; that is to say, for a rent that leaves a margin of profit to the entrepreneurs. There can be no doubt of the figures adduced in favour of this statement. But there is no guarantee whatever that private builders will actually set to work where the prospect of remuneration to them is so small. It is obvious that this particular type of house is the very last that any profit-making enterprise with other people's money invested in it would care to undertake. Besides, we have the experience of the past to tell us that when materials have been cheap and the rate of interest has been tow the private builder has spread his shoddy dwellings all over the country and actually created the slums that now disfigure our great industrial areas. I am not suggesting for a moment that the same kind of house could possibly be built again at the present day; but what guarantee have we under the Bill that the standard of housing will 55 not deteriorate, that houses will not be crowded together on a smaller area and deprived of the amenities indispensable for a healthy and self-respecting life? We have no guarantee under this Bill either that private enterprise will fill the gap or that the standard of housing will not deteriorate.
If the Government had really desired to encourage and stimulate housing, and not to save money, it would at least have arranged with the local authorities to continue the subsidies so long as private enterprise was not forthcoming; and further, in order that public money should not be wasted, as has so often happened in the past, it would have insisted on municipalities receiving only the poorest families in the houses they could construct in return for the help of the public purse. All parties, I think, would admit that the subsidy has been misused, and that it has not achieved its end, but we would desire a reform of the subsidy which would guarantee that it would be used for its true purpose, that it would be used only on houses that would be occupied by people at present dwelling in slums or in ever crowded areas; and we do not agree with the Government in supposing that the cause of housing can be furthered by suddenly cutting off the subsidy altogether. It looks as though the removal of the State subsidy for the housing of the poorest members of the working class, which was itself introduced because private enterprise, working only for private profit, had been shown incapable of satisfying the demand of those whose need was most acute, it looks as though this move was simply a return to the days of anarchic free competition between conflicting pecuniary interests—the days that have left as their legacy all the great social problems of the present century, the problem of unemployment, the problem of housing, the problem of poverty.
If I may draw your Lordships' attention to Clause 2, it aims at encouraging the building societies to erect the Class C house, the working-class house, in return for a certain amount of Government guarantee. It really seems impossible to maintain that the poorest section of the community will benefit at all, or to any considerable extents, by the building societies' reduction of the rate of interest on their loans, because the minimum exclusive economic rent of such houses has been calculated to amount to 10s. 1d. 56 which is 1s. 4d. above the average sum—and this average was taken quite a short time ago—that those who are living in unhealthy or overcrowded dwellings can possibly afford. I think the actual sum was an exclusive rent, that is to say, a rent exclusive of rates, of 7s. 9d., and the new houses that the building societies will finance are going to be let for the exclusive rent of 10s. 1d.
§ THE MARQUESS or SALISBURY
May I ask the noble Earl what figures he is quoting? I did not gather what his authority was.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
I think the 7s. 9d. was quoted by the right honourable gentleman the Minister of Health in another place, and I imagine that he would be relying on some official source at any rate for the figures that he quoted. I submit, my Lords, that this Bill is not really a Housing Bill but an Economy Bill; that it is not inspired by our common hope to see all our fellow-countrymen decently housed, but that it is dictated by a desire to Economise, and reduce Government expenditure, and that it is, in view of the facts, as inhuman as it is economically unsound; and, further, that it is bound to slow down the rate of progress in the provision of working-class houses, and to detract seriously from the miserable standard of housing considered suitable for the poorest members of our community.
The opponents of the present measure are not by any means drawn from one Party or from one class. They include such a staunch, patriotic, and disinterested public servant and Conservative as Sir Austen Chamberlain, who made an eloquent plea in another place for the continuance of the subsidy for reconditioning. They include many Liberals, such as Mr. Maynard Keynes and Sir Ernest Simon, the latter of whom christened this measure in an article in an important periodical "The Anti-Housing Bill." They include a distinguished architect, Sir Raymond Unwin, and they include, besides, housing experts and local authorities in many parts of the country. We believe with the leading economists of the present day that this is a time, not for saving, but for spending productively, not for reducing the social services, but for a bold expansion of productive public works that would stimulate trade, reduce unemploy- 57 ment, increase the national dividend and thereby the return on taxation, and at the same time diminish the very heavy burden of the "dole." It is because we consider, both from the humanitarian and the economic standpoint, that this is a moment for the State to lead a real crusade against a crying reproach to any civilized people, and the time for a bold expansionist policy that would indeed assist trade revival, that we find ourselves in unqualified opposition to the measure which your Lordships are considering this evening.
THR LORD BISHOP OF WINCHESTER
My Lords, the two very interesting speeches which we have heard from opposite sides of the House have, I think, made two matters perfectly plain. We are all agreed that this problem of housing is one of the greatest and most difficult that we have to face, and we are also agreed that the great housing program which has been carried out since the War, though it has provided decent houses for a large number of people who otherwise would be living in overcrowded conditions, has failed completely to help the laborer with a small wage and a large family. Therefore any Bill which is brought forward in connection with housing must be tested, I think, by these two questions: Will it encourage the building of houses, which can be let at a small rent? And, will it hasten the abolition of the slums?
It has been argued by the noble Viscount in support of this Bill that if this Bill is passed, through the removal of subsidized competition it will be possible for private enterprise to provide the necessary houses at a small rent. It is quite essential that the rent should be small, and I think it is generally assumed that the maximum rent which can be paid by the unskilled labourer—the maximum inclusive rent—is Ws. That figure is, I think, reached in the following way. It is held that a laborer should not pay more than one-fifth of his total income on rent, and as a very large number of unskilled labourers are receiving 50s. a. week it is thought that 10s. a week should be the maximum rent which might be fixed, though I would remind your Lordships that there are, of course, large numbers who are receiving, much less than 50s. a week. I know, for instance, cases in some of the districts in South London where when a man is in full work he is not re- 58 ceiving more than 43s., and we have also to remember that there are large numbers who are on the so-called "dole"—a man, wire, and three children only receiving 29s. a week.
Ten shillings a week, therefore, is the maximum, and the test which we must apply to this policy is this: Is it possible for private enterprise, without a subsidy, to build houses that can be let at an inclusive rent of 10s. a week? The Minister of Health and the noble Viscount who introduced the Bill have told us quite rightly that the cost of building has gone down greatly, and the rates of interest have also gone down. It is therefore possible to build houses on an average for £300; that is, a house of the standard size, 760 superficial feet; and that at 4 per cent. interest means a. rent of 8s. 2d. The Minister of Health went on to say that the rates would mean an additional 2s. and therefore private enterprise without subsidy would be able to let the house at 10s. 2d. Undoubtedly, houses can be built for £360, including the sites, in a great many parts of the country; but the flaw in the argument is this, and it is a flaw which has never been explained, that in the great industrial centers where housing is required most of all the rates are not 2s. a week on these houses, but they are 4s. and sometimes even more.
I do not want to trouble the House with figures; but in Manchester, for instance, the rates on a house of this value would be between 4s. and 5s. a week, and therefore it means that when these houses are built without a subsidy, if they are to be let to the working classes, the rent charged will not be 10s.; it will have to be something between 12s. and 13s. a week, and that amount is perfectly impossible for the ordinary unskilled labourer to pay. It means that these houses will be occupied by those who are in a much better position, and your policy in this respect will once again be a failure. I am not going to ask the noble Lord to explain this discrepancy, because I believe it is perfectly impossible to explain it; it is simply a matter of facts and figures. Turn to the great centre of population and you will find that the rates there are not 2s. a week on houses of this type but between 4s. and 5s., and if that is the case you cannot let these houses for 10s. a week. They will have to be let, with- 59 out. a subsidy, at 12s. or 13s. a week. That is why I am afraid this policy of building houses which can be let, at a small rent will not pay in the provinces.
If you turn to London the position is very much worse. The London authorities have had to face quite exceptional difficulties. They have built an enormous number of houses, but as fast as they have built these houses crowds have poured into London in the hope of finding work there. The difficulties in London are due not only to the fact that rates are high, but also to the fact that the cost of building, owing to the cost of sites, is much higher than it is in the provinces. Some time ago the housing finance committee of the London County Council made a comparison between the cost of cottage houses at Becontree and St. Helier with the cost of such houses in a town like Nottingham, and they found that the cost of such a house at Becontree was £54 more than it would be at Nottingham, and that the cost of the house at St. Helier was £80 more than it would be at Nottingham. But that is not all. These are houses on the outskirts, built at places where sites can be bought at a comparatively low price. But in places like London, if the housing problem is to be solved, great tenements, however much we may dislike them, must, be built near men's work, and the cost of the sites in these central positions is very large indeed. I have made some inquiries lately about the cost of these sites. I am told they cost about £3,000 an acre, and I am also told, though I give this figure with considerable reserve, that when the site has been prepared and drainage and water and so on arranged for, the cost of the site may be anything between £5,000 and £6,000.
It is agreed that the capital cost of building a room in a central position is anything between £200 and £165. Take the lower figure of £165 a room. My authority for that is a public statement made by the Chairman of the London County Council housing committee. We have been saying that in the provinces it is possible to build a non-par lour three-roomed house at a cost of £360. A similar non-parlour, three-roomed dwelling in the central places of London would cost £600. Add to that the rates and you are nowhere near your 10s. You cannot get near your 10s. The rents of those houses, without a subsidy, will be 14s., 60 15s. or 16s. a week. I wish I could feel that there was some flaw In my argument, but I am afraid the appeal to figures shows that it Is impossible to build houses which can be let in London at anything like a rent of 10s. a week, unless of course you lower the whole standard of building. In that case you will be creating slums and forming another problem which will have to be dealt with again in a few years time.
I turn to the other main argument which is advanced in support of this measure—namely, that when the municipalities and local authorities are free from the kind of building in which they have been engaged in the past, they will be able to concentrate on the 1930 Act. I think a much stronger case can be made for that argument. I think the 1930 Act was a good Act, and I am perfectly certain, from what the noble Viscount has said and from what the Minister of Health has said, the Government mean to do their utmost to use this Act as an effective weapon in abolishing the slums. But until the noble Viscount's speech to-day I was not a little concerned at the statement which had been made by the Minister of Health on the Second Reading, that the maximum which is practicable is a maximum of 12,000 houses a year. Let the Horse observe this in regard to the maximum to which it has been suggested we should work. It has been pointed out by Sir Ernest Simon, who is one of our greatest authorities on housing, that the proportion of houses which they would have in Manchester from the 12,000 would be 300 a year, while they want 90,000 houses if they are effectively to deal with the slums and the semi-slums in that City and in its surroundings. I think, however, the statement has been modified by the Minister subsequently, and the noble Viscount who has spoken to-day has made it quite plain that the Minister of Health would rejoice if two, three or four times the number of houses he stated were built. He has added a most important statement that the necessary finance would be found. If that is the case, I believe that very effective action may be taken towards the clearance of slums under the 1930 Act.
But that Act is only concerned with a certain number of people who are dwelling in the slums. It leaves untouched the greater evil of overcrowding. 61 A slum is in a sense the symptom of a disease, a very painful symptom and a very dangerous symptom. The real disease is overcrowding. A slum is not something which is stationary. A slum is progressively formed, very largely through overcrowding, and I am so afraid that if the Government concentrate all their attention on the slums, upon this slum here and that one there, and at the same time new houses are not built so as to relieve the pressure of overcrowding, as fast as they have destroyed a slum in one direction another slum will spring up elsewhere. It is a hydra-headed monster. You cannot solve the slum problem merely by a direct attack on the slums. There must be in existence a large number of houses elsewhere which can be obtained at a small rent, and so people will be drawn off from the slums and the places of overcrowding will be spared. I know how great the evil of slum districts is, but I could take you again and again to districts that you could not describe as slums where the houses are substantial and strong, and where the overcrowding is quite appalling. After a certain number of years those houses are bound under that pressure to deteriorate into slums.
If I thought that this Bill was the full statement of the Government's policy towards housing I should be filled with despair, but I do not for a moment believe that is the case. I believe the Government are genuinely anxious to make a real contribution towards a solution of this great problem. I am only anxious to emphasise that if they rely on this Bill and this Bill alone their attempts to solve the problem will fail. If, however, they take action in that direction—I know they have made up their mind about the subsidy—they may be able to do a great deal towards the removal of what has been for so long a very great evil. I hope, as I have already said, that they will use to the utmost the 1930 Act. The Minister of Health has, I think, made it quite plain that he intends to do that, but I hope they will use it also in connection with the improvement areas. If, for instance, they interpret the clauses dealing with them very liberally and encourage the local authorities to remove families from improvement areas and with the help of the subsidy build houses for them elsewhere, a very large number of houses 62 can be supplied at a very low rent. I hope, therefore, that the improvement areas clauses will be used as well as the slum clearance clauses. I hope also that they will encourage local authorities to examine very carefully the kind of tenants who are now in the houses built by subsidy. Many of these tenants when they went into the houses could not possibly afford a higher rent. Their children have now grown up and the total income of the family may justify their removal to a larger house at a larger rent. Of course only moral suasion can be used in those cases, but I hope the Minister of Health will do his utmost to encourage the local authorities to take action in that direction.
I hope also that efforts will be made to encourage the reconditioning of houses. I am not thinking merely of putting on a tile here or putting in a pane of glass there. I mean something much more like reconstruction of houses. I am not going to say more about that subject because there are two noble Lords here, the Marques of Salisbury and Lord Balfour of Burleigh, who have done very great work in connection with it. I would only add one word of warning. Reconditioning by itself will not solve the problem. It will help, and help materially, but there are some houses which cannot he reconditioned. There are districts which have been reconditioned before the War and which are now condemned as unhealthy areas. Reconditioning very often means a reduction in the amount of accommodation which can be afforded. For instance, when dealing with back-to-back houses, you may have to destroy one house in every three in order to let in light and air. But with these limitations I am quite certain that reconditioning can help us enormously at the present juncture, and I hope the Government will give all the practical encouragement they can to schemes such as those which have been mentioned here and elsewhere.
Then I hope the Government will deal most favourably with the suggestions which have been made from so many quarters in regard to a national housing corporation. But a national housing corporation for its success will depend, to a large extent, on the Government giving some kind of guarantee. If the Government will give some kind of guarantee a national housing corporation might become a great organising and co- 63 ordinating centre to take action where local authorities have been unable to build. We all know that the Government at the present time are pressed with every kind of problem. It is difficult for an individual to concentrate on more than one problem and in the case of a Government it must be almost impossible for its members to concentrate on the large number of problems which are pressed upon their attention. I am sometimes afraid that a problem like this, which may seem only domestic compared with the vast problems of war and peace, may seem comparatively small and therefore not receive the full attention to which it is entitled. I do hope that while this particular measure may fail—I hope it will not fail, but I am afraid it may—the Government will in other directions press forward with all energy and enthusiasm to find some permanent practical solution of this great problem.
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My Lords, after the speech made by the right rev. Prelate it becomes unnecessary for me to enter into a detailed discussion of a subject of which he is a far greater master than I am, but I desire to emphasise and support as strongly as I can the plea put forward by the noble Earl who spoke on the Opposition side as well as by the right rev. Prelate for some better elucidation than has been given to-day of what the Government have in mind for the future. I am not for a moment suggesting any blame or criticism of the noble Viscount, who gave us obviously after much thought and study his views on behalf of the Government in respect of these matters, but some points were left untouched. If this Bill were meant to represent all that the Government have in mind it would be a lamentable confession of failure on the part of the Government, but there is evidently something more in the mind of Ministers. Perhaps we may even get some comfort from what has been said by the noble Viscount to-day as to the future.
What I desire to emphasise as forcibly as I can is that the country is awaiting some wider vision on the part of the Government, some larger scheme, some bolder enterprise, for the purpose of dealing with the evils which I need only mention because there are members of your Lordships' House far better qualified 64 to speak with authority upon them, members like the right rev. Prelate who has just spoken, the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, who has taken such an interest in reconditioning, the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, and others. The difficulty is to find the plans upon which these proposals can be carried out. What I desire to know from the noble Viscount—I think the question was put by the noble Earl in Opposition and certainly by the right rev. Prelate—is the Government's answer to the proposal for a national housing corporation, for some body which could devote its time to this problem, and which would be entrusted with the duty of carrying out the work of slum clearance, of remedying overcrowding and of dealing with all the matters which have been discussed to-day. What is in the Government's mind? Nothing has been said upon that to-clay. We are awaiting an answer.
Perhaps it would save a certain amount of misunderstanding if I were allowed to intervene at once to say that this is one of the subjects which have been submitted, together with other matters like the general question of public utility societies, to the Committee presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Moyne.
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I am glad to hear that has been done, but we must bear in mind—as I think the Government must have already realised—that it is useless to put forward such a scheme unless the Government are prepared to give financial assistance. We heard a good deal from the noble Viscount—quite rightly, if he will permit me to say so—about private enterprise and how it must be looked to for the erection of these smaller houses, but the problem will hardly be touched, if touched at all, by the present scheme of guaranteeing the 90 per cent. advance. Private enterprise will never be able to do it so far as I can judge unless it is supported in some form by Government financial assistance. I would venture to press on the Government that they should not be too niggardly in this respect because we are really dealing with productive enterprise. Even if it costs some money, I would rather that the Government did it than that they should simply say that in these days we will not incur any risk. I cannot but be con- 65 vinced that in the long run it would be for the advantage of this country to remedy a condition of things which we all deplore, and, moreover, that in the present day there is a golden opportunity for such a venture opening up doors of employment all round and helping in every possible way.
I will not go into a financial discussion about it because that would take too long and is not really relevant to the matter at present before us. My anxiety is to get the Government to take the country into their confidence, to be bolder regarding these matters, and to come forward with some scheme, letting us understand that they will be prepared to support it and prepared even to take some risk in order to carry it out. I hope that even if the noble Viscount is unable to give any satisfactory assurance to-day, he will at least indicate that these matters are not merely occupying the attention of the Government—that attention is concentrated not upon whether they should be carried out, but upon how best they should be carried out. I know full well that the Government are occupied with many intricate and difficult problems, and I sometimes wonder whether they are not just a little unaware of the demand which the country is constantly making in this matter and unresponsive in support of what is being put forward—not, I am sure, through any intention of being careless, but because they are so much taken up with other considerations. It is largely because of that that I feel they would be helped if they could have some outside body or corporation which could devote all its time to this matter instead of the Government being, perhaps, able to give only occasional consideration to it. My one desire in speaking in this debate is to emphasise what has already been said and what fell so well from the right rev. Prelate. We want to show to the Government our anxiety and the desire we have to support them in everything they may bring forward for the purpose of dealing with slum clearances and overcrowding, and in the largest possible way.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I hope you will allow me one or two words upon the subject before the House. I have listened with great care to the debate and perhaps the most notable feature of it was revealed at the last moment because, in response to an 66 observation of the noble and learned Marquess, my noble friend in charge of the Bill interposed and explained that a large part of this subject is under the consideration of Lord Moyne's Committee, and until that Committee has reported it is evident we are not in full possession of all the circumstances of the case and of the intentions of the Government. The Bill is none the less an important one and I desire to deal with it as it stands, remembering all the time that upon the question of the possibility of a public utility company and upon many other issues we must await the Report of Lord Moyne's Committee before we can form a, final judgment.
Taking the Bill as we find it, the leading circumstance is the complete failure of housing policy up till now, a circumstance which I venture to think the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, did not really appreciate. He made, if I may say so, an extremely useful and thoughtful speech, although I cannot pretend that I altogether agreed with it. But he did not seem to realise the total failure of housing policy in providing houses for the poorer members of the working classes. The noble Earl assents and I am obliged to him. But will he remember that for a large part of the housing policy of this country his own friends are responsible? It is not a case of the mismanagement of the Tory Party. The Labour Party have been responsible for, I think, two Housing Bills in the last few years and therefore the responsibility for the failure to provide houses for the poorer members of the working classes lies quite as much at the door of the Labour Party as anybody else's door. It is a general failure to meet the situation. My right honorable friend in another place used the phrase, I think, that the problem of slums has hardly been scratched. That was a very emphatic phrase. There has been a total failure up till now.
I proceed from that point of view and welcome the Bill. I listened with the greatest care to the speech of my noble friend in charge of the Bill and I thought he made out a very good case. The noble and learned Marquess, as far as I could make out, seemed to think that there was nothing in his speech. But what did my noble friend say? He said that the Government had received an assurance from people in the building industry that 67 upon the conditions set forth in the Bill they will be able to provide a large number of this very class of house which we want—the cheap house fit for the working classes; and one of the reasons why the building societies, as I understood my noble friend, are able to do this is that they have a large amount of money in their hands which they cannot invest, and are most anxious to invest, and see an opportunity offered to them by the policy of the Government and by the Bill which is before your Lordships this afternoon. That is a very considerable matter. Here you have this enormously wealthy body of societies, possessing millions of money, who are anxious to come into the arena and to help to produce these houses, and they say they can do it on the sort of conditions set forth in Clause 2 of the Bill—that is to say, of course, with a certain Government guarantee which I need not go into, as your Lordships have already heard it explained in full detail. So that is the situation. They can produce these houses—I agree there arises the question whether they can produce them cheaply enough—but at any rate there is this offer.
On the question whether they can produce them cheaply enough, I agree that the present attitude of the Government is open to a certain amount of criticism. I listened, of course, as I and other members of this House always do, with the greatest attention to the speech of the right rev. Prelate, upon a subject of which he is a master, and he pointed out that the houses were likely to be too dear. I agree that they are too dear upon the figures which we have got hitherto, although I will venture to say, greatly daring, that I thought that the right rev. Prelate exaggerated his point. My right honorable friend the Minister of Health, in another place, said, as your Lordships have been reminded, that he looked forward to the production of houses at an inclusive rent—that is, rent inclusive of rates—of 12s. per week. The right rev. Prelate pointed out that the basis upon which those figures had been calculated was rather doubtful. I agree with him. I think 2s. a week for rates is an understatement, in many places a very grave understatement, and those figures will hardly hold water, as it were, if I may use the phrase, so far as they go.
68 But then I lose my way a little in trying to follow the right rev. Prelate. I am not quite sure at what price he calculated a small house could be built. My right honourable friend, in another place, used the figure £360, and I think that very likely Lord Gage did so tonight. I am surprised at that figure. I believe that houses can be produced at a much lower price than that. I know that prices differ in accordance with the place in which the house is being built; that is to say, that building costs in London are far higher than they are in the country; but I think it would be perfectly possible—in order to give a standard take the deep country—I think it would be perfectly possible to produce a house, in all respects fit, and indeed comfortable, for the working classes, for £230 to £250. I need not tell your Lordships that I am speaking of something about which I know. I believe it could be done, and if you are going to start upon the figure of £250 it is easy to see that the rent and rates will not run to anything like 12s. a week, upon a reasonable basis of the value of money—let us say 6 per cent. Your Lordships are all familiar with this question, of course. For building purposes you have to reckon the rate of interest much higher than you do the ordinary price of money.
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Will the noble Marquess forgive me if I ask one question, in order to follow his argument 4 Is that £250 the price of building houses in towns?
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I thought I made that clear. It is the price at which a house, as I know, can be built in the deep country. Indeed I am not sure that £250 is not an overstatement. It can be done for £230. I think you must calculate at a higher price for the towns, but the difference is not so much as the difference between £230 and £360. That would be an enormous contrast. If £360 is the price which is quoted, then somebody is getting more money than he ought to get, and that somebody ought to come down in price. It is not just that what can be built in the deep country for £230 should cost £360 in the town. Somebody is making more money than he is entitled to make out of the bargain, and therefore I do not despair of a much greater reduction in the price of building than is indicated 69 by the speeches to which we have listened. But, of course, it is of vital importance to make these houses as cheap as possible. Lord Listowel did not think so. He was afraid of what he called the standard of houses being reduced.
I am certain that we must make up our minds one way or another if we intend to produce sufficient houses as soon as possible for the working classes. We must make them as cheap as we can, consistently with efficiency. I mean healthy and comfortable houses, but, having that broad character, they must be as cheap as possible. That is where I begin, if I may say so, a little element of criticism of the policy of the Government. It is for the reason that I have just stated, of making housing as cheap as possible, that I and others, more important persons than myself, have advocated reconditioning. Reconditioning an old house, or a house of some standing, is not as good, of course, as providing a new house, but it is much cheaper. You can produce a very adequate house—a house which is healthy and comfortable and which the occupiers like—by reconditioning. You cannot produce so good a house as building a completely new one, but it is much cheaper. I should say the cost of a reconditioned house is something between one-fourth and one-third of the price of a new house of the same standard.
I am not going to discuss reconditioning more than that, although the right rev. Prelate was good enough to mention my name in connection with this subject, and for this reason. Reconditioning is one of the principal subjects which Lord Moyne's Committee is considering, and it does not seem to me that we can fundamentally discuss it until we know what the Report of that Committee may be, because, cheap though reconditioning is, I do not pretend to your Lordships that it is possible for private enterprise to recondition without some amount of loss, if they have to rely entirely upon their own resources. If an owner is called upon to recondition, and cannot raise the rent, and does not get any subsidy or any guarantee of reduced interest from a public authority, I do not believe he can do it without losing money. Therefore there must be some modification of the law in one direction or the other if you mean to attract the adhesion of private enterprise to that particular method of 70 producing relief of the housing problem. It is, however, in the direction of cheapness.
Now let us look at the Bill. It is here that I venture to make a criticism, and I hope my noble friend will not mind it. I do not see that indication which I should wish, that the Government are quite persuaded of the necessity of cheapness, provided it can be done without interfering with the health or reasonable comfort of the people. Will your Lordships look at the paragraphs at the end of page 2 of the Bill? If you look at paragraph (b) you will see that there is a limitation put in as to the number of houses to the acre. This is an illustration of what I venture to urge upon your Lordships, that the Government have not made up their minds to look this problem bang in the face, and say that they must make this thing as cheap as possible if they mean it to succeed. There are housing experts everywhere, and housing experts are nearly always extravagant. There are housing experts in the Ministry, and in the House of Commons, and, I dare say, in this House, and they are all in favour of a little more expenditure here and a little more expenditure there, without any reference to the economic results.
It is said in this paragraph (b) that there are not to be more than twelve houses to the acre. Why is that limitation put in? I have built a great many houses, and I do not suppose I have ever built them more closely together than twelve to the acre, so it has nothing to do with my own personal experience. But I know quite well that very good housing can be put up at twenty houses to the acre. Why not? There is lots of room. You can have semi-detached houses standing quite properly surrounded by open ground at the rate of twenty houses to the acre. And it makes an enormous difference. Why, we listened to the right rev. Prelate just now and he told your Lordships what the cost of the sites was. Enormous figures he gave. I do not want to go into enormous figures, but take a very moderate figure. Take the figure of £500 an acre. A great deal of housing has to be put up upon sites as expensive as that. The difference between twenty houses to the acre and twelve houses to the acre is a matter of £15 a house. You must nth, despise £15 when you are deal- 71 ing with houses costing £360 or £250. It makes all the difference.
And then go on. Read a little further:Except where otherwise approved by the Minister on the recommendation of the local authority, every house to which this section applies shall be provided with a fixed bath.Really, I can hardly speak with patience of a provision such as that. There was one honourable gentleman in another place who actually committed himself to the observation that having a fixed bath was the national standard of a civilized home. Can there be anything so ludicrous as that? In my own recollection there were no fixed baths, or hardly any, in the kind of houses in which your Lordships lived. I think there was one fixed bath in Hatfield House when I first remember it; there may have been two, there certainly were not more. Am I to believe that Hatfield House was outside "the national standard of a civilized home "1 In another house which I owned, and which I remember very well, there was no fixed bath. Language of that kind is ludicrously exaggerated. I wish your Lordships would realise the sort of spirit in which some people approach this housing question. I agree, of course, that a fixed bath in a cottage is an amenity—an amenity of considerable value. I believe that in my Liverpool property, when I asked the people whether they wanted a bath, I put one in for them in this reconditioning work. Of course, you have to charge a little extra rent. It is not reconditioning at all, it is an addition, and against the extra rent you will not find any demand to speak of for baths. Of course, it is not a popular demand at all except in certain districts.
Well now, what does that come to? I do not suppose you could put in a bath for less than £15. Taking the two things together—your twelve houses to the acre and your bath—there is £30 gone. But if you are dealing with houses of which the total cost is going to be £250, and you add £30, your Lordships will all see how utterly disproportionate that is. Of course, if you want to solve this question you must study cheapness. I mean good cheapness, defensible cheapness; you must study that. And you can only solve the problem on those lines, wonder whether any of your Lordships are thinking that the result of such a 72 policy as I am urging would be to produce something so hideous that we should all be offended. If that is in the mind of any noble Lord let him reassure himself. The beauty of these houses does not depend upon their dearness at all it is a question of proportion. It is not a question of money. If the houses are built in proper proportion then all your Lordships will think them very becoming in the countryside. I think that in this policy precautions might be taken that some of the awful examples of ugliness we see around us should not be repeated. I think that is perfectly sound, and I should be very glad to see some provision in the Bill that no house should be erected under its provisions until it had been approved by some recognised architect, whether in the employment of the building society or of the local authority. But upon that point I hope your Lordships will be reassured. That is quite sound. In regard to all the rest let us always remember that if we mean to do business we must do it on business lines, and that if the Government, if Parliament, would be good enough to approach the subject in that spirit, I believe the housing difficulty could be solved.
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May I say in reference to a matter mentioned by the noble Viscount, and also referred to by the noble Marquess in dealing with the Moyne's Committee, that I understand that in the reference to Lord Moyne's Committee it is directed to make an inquiry without the question of any charge or guarantee by the Government. I hope the noble Viscount will tell me if that is right, because, if so, it takes away the effect of the answer that he gave and of the observation made by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, just now. If I am correct in that view, which I am told quite definitely is so, it is hopeless to ask us to wait for the Report of the Moyne's Committee when we are asking that there should be a corporation set up with the idea of assistance, either by guarantee or otherwise, by the Government.
MLORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH
My Lords, I cannot help thinking that it is fortunate that the rules of debate in your Lordships' House are fairly wide, because in this Bill it is quite clear that we have presented to us only a small portion of the Government's housing 73 policy, and it is quite impossible adequately to criticise or discuss this Bill by itself. It would be quite unfair to the Government to criticise this Bill as being the whole of their housing policy. My noble friend in introducing the Bill was I thought a good deal less optimistic, less enthusiastic about the Government's housing policy than the Minister has been in another place and in the country, and I hope, and I feel sure, that we may regard the real object and policy of the Government as that which has been announced more than once by the Minister. Only yesterday or the day before the Minister said:The slums are our most crying social evil. Their removal is our chief social need,And he went on to say, after surveying the whole field:We undertake that the whole driving force of the Government, both financial and administrative, shall he behind the movement, to see it through to a conclusion.That is what I like to think is the housing policy of the Government and, accepting that, Ls I do wholeheartedly, as the Government's policy in the war on the slums and on bad housing, I think we are entitled to look for a moment at the Government's policy as a whole and see what it is and how far it is likely to carry out that object.
As I understand it, the Government's housing policy is contained in this Bill, the Rents Bill, the prosecution of matters under the 1930 Act, and lastly, as we have heard to-day, anything further that may be produced by the Committee sitting under the chairmanship of Lord Moyne's. After what has fallen from the speakers to-day, notably from the right rev. Prelate, it would be quite a waste of time to emphasise what the problem consists of. Your Lordships know very well what the slum problem consists of, and I will not waste time by referring to it to-day. I would just like to say that, apart from the clearance of slums, an enormous section of the problem is overcrowding. Overcrowding is, perhaps, to-day even a greater branch of the problem than the mere clearance of slums and replacement by decent properties. According to the 1931 Census, 25 per cent. of the whole population of London are living two or more to a room. In Finsbury the proportion is as high as 40.8 per cent. In Kensington, including South Kensington and 74 North Kensington, the proportion living two or more to a room is 41 per cent. If you think what that means in North Kensington alone you will realise that the proportion is tremendous. It is a terrific proportion of the population; and of course, these conditions are accompanied by very high rents.
These are the circumstances which we have got to attack, and the real problem apart from the clearance of the slums—and I am sure the Government mean to attack the whole thing—is the creation of far more dwellings at low rents which the poorer-paid working-class people can afford. Figures have been given this afternoon, and I frankly admit I am more familiar with the figures for London, particularly Kensington, which I know, than with the figures for the rest of the country; but I am sure they are characteristic. The class I mean when I say the poorer-paid working classes is represented by the ordinary unskilled labourer who is getting from £2 to £3 per week; I mean such people as the ordinary workman employed by borough councils, the municipal labourer. Many people have an idea that municipal labourers are highly paid. I have heard it said that every dustman who takes away house refuse gets £4 a week. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have here typical figures showing the wages paid under the Joint Industrial Council for local authorities (non-trading section). They are divided into grades. Grade A includes sweepers and watchmen; the weekly wage and bonus is £2 13s., and the net weekly wage, after deduction of superannuation, health and unemployment insurance, is 12s. 2d. bearing down to £2 9s. 7d. Grade B includes dustmen; they are paid a net wage between £2 15s. 4d. and £2 12s. 6d. Under the Public Works Conciliation Board, labourers get £2 13s. down to £2 Ns. 6d. In the building trades, labourers get a net wage of £2 13s. 8d. General labourers get £2 10s. 8d., and in the engineering trades in the London district labourers get for a 47-hour week £2 3s. 8½d.
These are figures which I think justify my statement that the unskilled labourer is getting from £2 to £3 a week, and the rent he can afford on the ordinary basis of one-fifth of the family income for rates and rent is, therefore, for a three 75 or four-roomed house not more than Os. to 12s. a week—roughly speaking 3s. a room, inclusive of rates. The ordinary municipal rent in London is vastly more than that. It is interesting to compare the ordinary municipal rent with the wages of the ordinary municipal employee. The London County Council rents at Becontree, which is a long way out and from where fares have to be paid, are inclusive about 17s. 6d. a week for a four-roomed flat, but in London, in the inner circle, where the people are nearer their work as a rule, a four-roomed house costs about £1 a week, that is 5s. a room. When you consider a man with a wage of from £2 to £3 a week, and you consider these municipal rents, you see what a great disparity there is and how great is the need for a vast increase in the number of low-rented houses.
The need was illustrated by the Minister's figures in respect of Class C houses over which control is to be kept and in respect of which the average increase of rent was 85 per cent. The pressure therefore is very great. These people, unskilled labourers, are living to-day either in the slums or under conditions of overcrowding which amount to slums in another form. The cure for that is something on a large scale—large-scale building, large-scale ownership and management—and there is no room for any profit. It is quite impossible for that need to be met with a margin of profit. That demand for low-rented houses can only be met if capital can be raised at a low rate of interest, and if the property can be managed merely to pay a return on the capital without anything over for profit. I think it illustrates the utter impossibility of expecting private enterprise to fulfil that need. I am talking of London, but I believe it applies to the country districts as well.
That is the need—a large increase in these really low-rented houses, and what we have to inquire is, how does the Government's policy fit in with that need? What hope have we that we shall see something really substantial achieved? Let me take first the Rents Bill, a very important part of the Government's programme. The Rents Bill, which your Lordships have not yet seen but which is in another place, I welcome heartily as far as it goes. The Rents Bill will keep Lord Balfour of Burleigh. 76 control, to a large extent, on these low-rented houses, but it will do nothing to increase the number of low-rented houses. All that it does is to arrest the diminution of the "pool" of small cheaply-rented houses. This Bill under Clause 1 cancels the Wheatley subsidy. The Wheatley subsidy is the subsidy which has been most used for the provision of these low-rented houses, and I myself am prepared to accept the discontinuance: if the Wheatley subsidy for one of two reasons, either frankly as a measure of economy because we cannot afford it, or because some other substitute is going to be proposed which will as efficiently fill the bill and produce the houses which were formerly produced under the Wheatley Act. The Government do not say it is a measure of economy entirely. In a way I wish they had more frankly said so, because I cannot believe that Clause 2 of the Bill, with its proposals for guarantee, is going in any way to provide the houses which we need.
The building societies are bodies working for profit. They have to pay a substantial return to their depositors, and it is stated that they are going to reduce their rate of interest to 4 per cent. in the provinces and 4½ per cent. in London repayable in thirty years. The building societies when they lend at 4 per cent. are, in fact, lending at a higher rate of interest owing to the terms of repayment. The whole sum is lent to begin with, and it is repaid by installments over the term, with the result that the actual rate of interest is higher than the nominal. And when you couple that rate of interest with what is the term of repayment—namely, thirty years—I do not believe that it is going to produce the cheap houses that we want. I do not want to prophesy—the Government have not prophesied—how many houses this measure is going to produce. The Government have been cautious, and I will be as cautious, but I am not at all optimistic. While it may produce something in the country, I think it is demonstrable and self-evident it cannot produce anything in the towns where the site value is high.
It is beside the point to talk about a house being built for £250 in the depths of the country. I know houses are being built now in the Isle of Wight for £220, but in London you have to build not twelve to the acre but sixty and eighty 77 to the acre, and the cost is not £220 a house but, as the right rev. Prelate said, it is 2500 a house. The London County Council building costs worked out, as the chairman of the housing committee said, at £165 a room, and with the greatest reduction of building costs—I have been into the matter carefully—I do not think it is possible to build lower than at £400 a flat in the boroughs of London where the lower-rented houses are urgently wanted. In London you have to pay, as the right rev. Prelate said, perhaps £3,000 an acre for your site on the top of the building costs. The £2 to £3 a week man cannot possibly be provided for under Clause 2 of the Bill in London.
There remains then the Government's programme of speeding up work under the 1930 Act. We are going to have pressure on the local authorities. They are going to be told to make surveys. We have had all that before. Previous Governments have put pressure on local authorities. Local authorities have made surveys. I sincerely hope that the pressure of this Government will be more successful than the pressure of former Governments. I hope and believe it will. I believe there will be an increase in output of houses under the 1930 Act. I am not concerned whether it is 12,000 or more. I am concerned to point out, however, that building under the 1930 Act will not add one to the number of low-rented dwellings available for these people. It will improve the quality of the house. You will be re-housing people in a good house who are now living in the slums. It is useful to have, but it will not increase the number of low-rented dwellings available by one single house. Therefore, there is no remedy for overcrowding there.
If the 1930 Act does not give us relief for overcrowding we have nothing left now except what we may hope for from the. Moyne's Committee. I would like to reinforce the question put to the Government as to what are the instructions to the Committee sitting under Lord Moyne's. If, as has been said, they are precluded from recommending a measure which will involve a Government guarantee, then the position is absolutely hopeless. It is quite hopeless to expect a constructive policy from this Committee, but if, on the other hand, the Committee are prepared to consider 78 schemes under which a Government guarantee can be given to a national housing board, then the position is very far from being hopeless. I would like to outline to your Lordships very briefly the sort of scheme which I believe to be practicable. I believe now is the opportunity. I would join in the plea of the noble Marquess opposite for a, large vision at this moment. There is a chance now, with the low building costs and the low cost of money, of producing something which will bring help not only to people in the country, but to the low-paid worker in the town who has to live near his work and who is at present not provided for. There is one objection to the Government guarantee which is now entirely removed. A year or two ago any suggestion of a Government guarantee was rightly met with the answer that it would make more difficult the conversion of the 5 per cent. War Loan. That 5 per cent. War Loan was a millstone hanging round the neck of this country. Owing to the exertions of this Government—and too much credit could not possibly be given to them for that—that incubus is removed. Government credit is now firmly established on a 3½ per cent. basis.
A Government guarantee, I believe, given to a national housing board could be protected in such a way that there would be no real risk of a live burden on the Exchequer. It would be done in this way. Before explaining precisely what I mean, let me remind your Lordships of the difference in rent which is made by the cost of interest on the capital employed in housing. A £300 building, if the finance is on the basis of 6 per cent., involves a rent of 12s. 7d. a week. If the finance is on the basis of 5 per cent. the rent need not be any higher than 10s. 11d. If it is on a 3½ per cent. basis the rent would be 8s. 6½d. a. week. If this corporation, therefore, could secure a Government guarantee of some kind or another it would enable it to raise money at something in the neighborhood of 3¾per cent., and the rent could be on a basis of several shillings a week less than if the money had to be paid for at commercial rates of 5 or 6 per cent.
My suggestion to such a corporation would be that it would work hand in hand with the local authorities. It would be in no sense competing with local authorities, but it would have the 79 advantage, with its own property, that it could undertake a great deal of reconditioning which would bring in something in the nature of 5 or 6 per cent. These figures are not theoretical. There is in London a housing trust with which I am connected which has carried out work to the extent of about £80,000 in the last four years. It has given an average yield of round about 3¾per cent. That could be extended indefinitely over the country if the Government would approve a scheme for a national housing board working through local utility societies. When you consider the saving to the Exchequer which would take place through the diminution in unemployment benefit and provided, with proper safeguards, the guarantee did not involve a live charge on the Exchequer, it does seem to me that the project is worthy of the most serious consideration by the Government. The noble Marquess opposite referred to public opinion in this matter. I would like to reinforce what he said. I feel convinced that public opinion in this country is stirred on the question of housing. I believe the Government have now an opportunity, and if they grasp it with both hands this Government will go down in history as deserving of the gratitude of the poorer people of the country.
My Lords, we have had a very interesting debate on this matter and a few questions have been asked that I will do my best to answer. The first question was put by my noble friend Lord Listowel, about the housing corporation that has been referred to by the noble Lord who has just sat down. One of the difficulties in dealing with a national housing corporation is that at present I do not believe there is very much unanimity as to what a national housing corporation is. Various schools of thought have different opinions as to what form a national housing corporation should take. An important question has arisen out of that in regard to the terms of reference to the Moyne's Committee, and in answer to the noble Marquess, Lord Reading, I must state that he is quite right on the question of the public charge, but it is understood that advocates of a national housing board are basing their confidence on the view that a guarantee such as they seek will not involve a public charge. Accordingly the 80 Committee are fully empowered to consider the case that these advocates desire to present. In any case, of course, the Government are free to act on the Report of the Moyne Committee in any direction that they please. I think the noble Lord said something also about standards. Your Lordships will remember that when the Town Planning Bill was introduced he welcomed it with so much enthusiasm that my noble friend Lord Banbury was almost tempted to vote against the Government. We do place a great deal of reliance on the Town Planning Act and it will be remembered that that Act applies to built-up areas as well as rural areas.
The right rev. Prelate, in one of those very informed and eloquent speeches which he makes on this subject, said that the rents of privately built houses would be too high. It is probably my fault, but I did not quite understand to whom he meant the rents would be too high. If he meant they would be too high to the slum dwellers to whom he often refers in his speeches, we entirely agree, but the point is, can the individuals to whom I thought he was referring be helped by the Wheatley Act in any case, particularly the class of people in London who, as he so often insists, must be housed somewhere near their work? The noble Marquess, Lord Reading, made several observations which will be considered closely by the Government, but I must point out to him and to other members of your Lordships' House that we have to consider something more than the mere granting of subsidies. We have to consider whether more subsidised housing may not mean less private-enterprise housing. That is a point we must consider closely, because if the result of more subsidised housing is less housing provided by private enterprise we are really not solving the problem we set out to solve.
The noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, made a number of interesting observations, some of which I think I might describe as Committee points. He attacked the bath. I think the answer to that is that the House of Commons showed a sentiment for the bath. I do not know whether your Lordships' House will support them in that. On the more important question of density I would point out that that is subject to the 81 Minister's discretion. It is not laid down definitely that no houses may be built except at that density. These words occur in paragraph (b) of the proviso in Clause 2:… except in so far as the Minister may in any particular case dispense with the requirements of this particular paragraph. …I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, for mentioning the Rent Restrictions Bill because we do hope that the pool of small houses retained will help forward the Government's policy. The question of interest on loans, which I think involves the guarantee only, would appear according to the information I have received, and which I read to your Lordships, to come within the schemes that would be submitted to the Committee.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
May I ask my noble friend a question arising out of the answers he has just given to questions, one of which was mine? I am not quite clear about his statement on the terms of reference to the Moyne's Committee. If I interpret his words rightly the question of a public charge is excluded from the agenda. How is it possible to have a Government guarantee without the possibility of a public charge? Suppose the guarantee was given, and suppose certain housing schemes under the guarantee were not successful, then the public Exchequer would have to pay the deficit. I simply want to ask my noble friend if he would make quite clear how it is that the exclusion of a public charge does not also exclude a guarantee?
The advocates of a national housing corporation allege that the question of the guarantee will not involve the Government in any actual expenditure. That may be so or not, but if they allege that then I think it becomes a suitable subject for inclusion in the agenda.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.