HL Deb 20 February 1940 vol 115 cc565-76

3.55 p.m.

LORD FARINGDON rose to ask His Majesty's Government what is their policy for rural housing; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, if I put this question to His Majesty's Government to-day it is because it seems to me there are somewhat contradictory indications of what the Government's policy as to rural housing may be. On the one hand, the local authorities have, I understand, received a circular from the Ministry of Health discouraging them from going on with schemes for the improvement of rural housing on the grounds of lack of supplies and of the undesirability of making loans for this purpose at present. As a result many local authorities have, in fact, closed down on schemes which had already been approved. On the other hand, we find that materials for agricultural purposes are given a very considerable priority. In fact, I understand, they come immediately after military and A.R.P. requirements. Also, I hear, the Lands Improvement Company have been informed that they may again make loans for rural housing.

These three points seem to me to be mutually contradictory. In the first place, if there are no materials, it is curious that agricultural requirements should be given such a high priority; and, secondly, if loans must not be raised for this purpose, it seems to me that the raising of loans by the Lands Improvement Company will have very much the same effect as the raising of loans by local authorities. I did not know when I put down this Motion that, curiously enough, it would follow on to some extent the discussion on the Bill to which your Lordships have just been listening. Probably all of us would approve of the holding up of public works at the present time if that were combined, as the noble Earl, Lord Crawford, has pointed out, with a detailed, well-thought-out scheme, or series of schemes, for putting these suspended plans into action immediately after the war in the hope of holding off or mitigating the inevitable unemployment which must follow the war in the slump, but I submit that in this matter of rural housing the position is somewhat different because rural housing seems to me to partake of a dual character. It is not merely a public work, however desirable public works may be, it is in addition a social service.

The countryside should be a reservoir of strong and healthful stock on which our people can always draw, and in so far as the countryside has in the past failed to fulfil that purpose, it is, I believe, very largely the fault of the present condition of rural housing throughout England. Another result of this inadequate and poor housing in the countryside has been that decline of the rural population which we on this side of the House have so often deplored along with the decline in the productivity of our land, for which we are now paying in our inability to produce the foodstuffs we require in wartime. I am convinced that no one cause—not even low wages—is as responsible for that flow of population from the land as is the lack of amenities, and, above all, the poor quality of rural housing.

There is, in addition, if I may put it so, a particular war-time reason why, I submit, the encouragement of rural housing should not be suspended along with other public works. It is, I understand—we were discussing it in this House a fortnight ago—the intention of the Government not to abandon their evacuation policy. In so far as that policy has failed, its failure is, I believe, more than to anything else due to the conditions in the countryside which were found by the evacuees. The town dwellers were horrified by lack of electricity, of running water, and of sanitation. They found their lives so unbearably uncomfortable that they were easily persuaded to return to their homes in the towns. The Government are, we understand, going on with the evacuation scheme. I believe, as a result of my own experience, that it will be found that the most satisfactory form of such a scheme, certainly so far as the children are concerned, is one which groups the children in fairly large groups, presumably in country houses or in towns. But there is another point to which I would draw your Lordships' attention in this connection. It is that if, as we all feel, we may within the course of the next few months have the bitter experience of aerial bombardment, there will be a different kind of evacuation, what one may call an involuntary evacuation. This evacuation can only be accommodated in the cottages of the countryside.

I think it must have already occurred to those who have had anything to do with evacuation—I know in my own neighbourhood it caused considerable anxiety—that water supplies would be totally inadequate for an enormously increased population in the small towns and villages. In the event of such an involuntary evacuation, I believe that this problem would become really pressing, and if disease broke out, I think that the situation of the countryside, lacking proper water supplies and sanitary arrangements, would make the proper care and cure of such ills incredibly difficult. I am told by scientific friends of mine that there is reason to believe that in the next year we may be visited again with the influenza scourge. Those of your Lordships who have recollections of the scourge in 1918—quite apart, incidentally, from the natural dangers of disease caused by evacuation—will, I am sure, agree with me that it is infinitely desirable, if such a possibility even exists, that conditions in the countryside should be improved as far as possible in order that its toll may be less serious than it otherwise would be.

I have not put these points at any great length, partly because I, too, have been suffering from influenza, and I am afraid my voice might give out, but I think I have put my points fairly clearly. We on this side of the House will not be suspected for a minute, I think, of any great enthusiasm for any of the Government's past schemes for the improvement and increase of rural housing. We have criticised those schemes both for their extent and their quality. The one we find inadequate and the other unsatisfactory, but we would far rather that something were done than nothing at all. We believe, and I believe, and I am quite certain that many of your Lordships on the other side of the House who live in the country will agree with me, that it is extremely undesirable that the improvement of housing conditions in our countryside should be abandoned. I beg to move.

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad the noble Lord opposite has raised this question. It is a long time since we had a debate on housing, and I think that has been very largely due to the fact that many of us were satisfied with the progress which had been made in the campaign both against overcrowding and against slums. Then the war came and, almost inevitably at first, all the housing schemes were suspended on account of the cost, on account of the difficulty of getting material, on account of the heavy burdens placed on the housing authorities, and also certainly as far as the urban districts are concerned, on account of uncertainty as to what may happen in the future. Many of these reasons applied at any rate at the time to the rural districts. But I think recently it has become plain that there is a new problem, or rather an old problem in a new form arising in the rural districts. I am approaching the matter from a somewhat different angle in this respect to the noble Lord who has just spoken. We all realise that it is quite essential that we should produce much more food. We are anxious to see an immediate revival of agriculture. We are told that it is necessary that a very large number of acres—I think the number given was two million acres—must be brought under cultivation, but the difficulty is that you have to find people to work on the land. We are hearing a great deal about the Land Army of girls and women who have volunteered for this kind of work, but I am not certain if it is always realised that it would be at the present time extremely difficult to find any accommodation for them. It is one thing to have a great army of volunteers ready to work on the land, it is quite a different thing to find any accommodation for them in many parts of England anywhere near their work.

Let me just remind the House of the position before the war. I had the honour to preside over a small sub-committee appointed by the Minister of Health to report on the subject of rural housing. We had evidence from all parts of the country, and some of our members went round as a kind of small commission to various districts. We came to the unanimous conclusion that there was a serious shortage of houses then, and that a large number of the houses of the country were quite unsuitable for modern needs. Perhaps I may just quote an extract from our Report: Witnesses were unanimously of the opinion, however, that the provisions of the existing Acts are not sufficient to meet the whole of the housing need in many areas and that, even after the maximum number of houses has been built under these Acts, a serious shortage, which in their view can only have a most unfortunate effect on the well-being and contentment of the rural population and on the efficiency of agriculture, will still remain in the majority of districts. Then we went on to point out that there was a shortage of the right type of cottage and said: The cumulative effect of all these causes shows itself in a marked shortage in certain parts of the country of cottages suitable for young workers, and it was represented to us that this lack of adequate housing accommodation was a material factor in driving young workers into the towns, notwithstanding the unsatisfied demand in many areas for competent agricultural labour. That was a report made barely three years ago.

The Government acted on the recommendations of the Report. The Housing (Rural Workers) Acts were renewed and pressed with great vigour, and an Act was passed giving a much larger subsidy to make it possible to build a larger number of houses. All that has been interrupted by the war. But the point I want to make is that if there were a shortage of houses three years ago the shortage has lately been intensified. It has been intensified, I will not say everywhere but in many districts, from these causes: Partly because of the evacuation a large number of houses are now unable to take lodgers, and a large number of houses have been bought by people who wish to move into areas which they regard as safer. Nor is that all. I know from experience that the villages which are near camps and near the large aerodromes which are springing into existence in almost every direction, are crowded. It is impossible to find accommodation in them at the present time. If then you are going to have, as you must have, a great army of land workers, where is the accommodation for them to be found? That is the problem I want to put to the Government. I fully recognise the tremendous difficulties—shortage of material, cost of material and so on—but I think some solution to this problem must be found, and I venture to hope that it will not be merely a temporary solution, the putting up of some buildings which will decay in a year or two. I hope not only that something will be done to meet a temporary emergency, but that something will be done to provide houses for the large number of people who, we hope, after the war, will move from the unhealthy overcrowded districts of the towns into the more healthy districts of the country.

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, I also would thank the noble Lord for raising this question and I should like to be permitted as a mere rustic member of your Lordships' House to add a very few observations. The underlying assumption of the noble Lord, as I gathered it, was that the Government have abandoned the policy of rural housing and that they are wrong in doing so, although their policy, in the view of the noble Lord, left very much to be desired. I confess that that attitude of strong criticism reminds me a little of an incident that happened to me in the year 1926. As your Lordships will no doubt remember, there was a coal strike and a General Strike in that year. It fell to me, on a Sunday morning, to be compelled to go to the county infirmary to see a valued servant who was dangerously sick. I found on the roads that Sunday morning a number of casuals whom the local casual ward had been unable to retain for the usual week-end. They had been sent on their way because the ward was overcrowded. I selected a suitable companion for my journey and we conversed by the way. I asked him how things were viewed in his circle. "Well," he said, "if you sits quiet you hears all sorts of opinions and it is very interesting." I said, "Well, what do they say about it?" He said, "Some blames the masters and some blames the men, but most blames the Government." I confess that it seemed to me that in that attitude—of course in no other respect—the noble Lord very much resembles the majority disputants in those casual wards.

Actually there is, apart from that criticism or assertion, no evidence whatever that the Government have abandoned any policy in this matter. I hope we shall hear that from the noble Duke who will speak for the Government. But I think it must be appreciated that certain great difficulties have arisen and that there is of necessity for essential purposes a slowing up of the execution of any such desirable policy. May I just give your Lordships an illustration of what I mean by those difficulties? I am a trustee of a charity which owns land and recently the trustees proposed to build some houses for rural workers under the last Act. We were minded, notwithstanding the war, to go on if possible with that building. We could not lay our hands upon our hearts and say that it was essential that they should be built, but it was certainly desirable. The situation is this. Before the war a pair of houses, built in the style required, would have cost about £900. After September 1, they would have cost at the lowest, £1,250 to £1,300. Why? Because wages have gone up, freights have gone up and all costs have gone up. But that is not the end of it. Timber for building purposes, as your Lordships know, mainly comes from the countries surrounding the Baltic. Your Lordships know and the noble Lord himself knows, what is happening now, owing to the action of Germany and Russia, in connection with the export of timber. Of necessity, timber for new construction is not permissible at the present time. I do not want to go too narrowly into this matter. One hopes that that state of things will be remedied in the future, but at present it is impossible, as I understand it, for the Government to make timber available for new construction of that kind.

I would only make one observation on what has fallen from the right reverend Prelate and it is this. There is a shortage of houses for rural workers in some cases, but not in all. There are mitigating circumstances, even now, if they may be so called. In the neighbourhood which I know best, there has been a great mortality of old people. One beneficial effect of the Old Age Pensions Act is that old people, thank God, do not now go into the workhouse, but a less beneficial result is that none of them care to live with their children. They generally occupy houses themselves and very often the surviving spouse occupies quite a good house himself or herself. You have only to look at the obituary notices in The Times to see on some days as many as ten people dying over ninety years of age, to realise what is happening in the villages. In the village I know best, quite a number of good houses are available for the Land Army or evacuees if their delicacy would permit them to occupy them for any pur- pose whatever. The position is not universally as acute as might be imagined. No doubt there are places where it may be. As I see it we must concentrate our efforts, first of all, on winning this war and making ourselves ready to use all materials as they become available, and, most of all, we must see that that is done with despatch and skill so soon as our purpose can be bent to reconstruction rather than to defeating the attack upon all possible reconstruction.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, I should not for a moment dispute the argument which the noble and learned Lord put forward with regard to the shortage of timber, which I believe is the main reason why house building cannot go on at the present time. But that being so, it remains the fact that we must not blind ourselves to the position that the complete cessation of building is bringing in its train very undesirable consequences. I have no doubt the noble Duke who is going to reply for the Government is quite aware of that. Many small building contractors are finding themselves in very great difficulty, and indeed I think many of them will have to bring their businesses to an end. The architectural profession, also, is in very great difficulty. If many architects and many small builders do go out of business, it will be very much more difficult to resume building when we want to do so. I shall be very much interested to know from the noble Duke whether it is really shortage of timber, almost alone, which is holding up building. I believe there are alternative methods of building so far as materials are concerned, which would be available, although of course you must have a certain amount of timber in house building. I know very great concern is being felt about this in the ranks of the small builders and the architects, and therefore I shall be very glad to know from the noble Duke if it is shortage of timber only which is holding things up or whether, if fortunately timber should become available, it would be considered possible to do something about house building which is of the very first importance.

4.22 p.m.


My Lords, I think your Lordships will be grateful to the noble Lord opposite for having raised this very important subject, and I can safely say that my right honourable friend the Minister of Health is very grateful to him for having given me the opportunity of saying something about the Government's policy regarding rural housing. To get a true picture of the position, it is necessary to go back to the conditions prevailing on the outbreak of the war, in September last. The view then almost universally taken—fortunately it was a mistaken view; let us all hope it may continue to be a mistaken view—was that the resources of the local authorities would be concentrated to a very large extent on repairing the damage done in the country by enemy action from the air. It was known also that timber supplies would necessarily be restricted as a result of the war, a state of affairs to which my noble friend behind me has just referred, and it was thought that there would be very much heavier demands than have occurred on those building supplies which remained available. On September 8, therefore, the Government sent out a circular (Circular No. 1866) to which the noble Lord opposite referred, urging local authorities to curtail all expenditure which was not definitely connected with the waging of the war. Houses in an advanced state of construction were to be completed, but the construction of new houses was to be postponed for the time being.


Might I ask the noble Duke if he could say anything about reconditioning at the same time?


Yes; I was coming to that in due course. There were also provisions about the construction of houses for purposes connected with the war which obviously would have priority. That was the position on September 8. Since then, the policy has been modified to some extent, in that it has been recognised that agricultural work is quite definitely war work, and arrangements have been made to give the utmost priority possible to the construction of agricultural dwelling-houses. Limitations necessarily exist. My noble friend behind me asked whether the shortage of timber was the only reason for the curtailment of building programmes. It is not, I think, the only reason, but it is a governing reason. Another reason is the shortage of finance, which is quite obviously a factor which has to be taken carefully into account. Shortage of timber is a very serious governing factor.

The policy now is that all houses which were already under construction when war broke out are to be completed; that is to say, the Government will give every facility in the way of subsidy and in the way of priority of materials for the completion of houses which were already under construction. As regards new houses, the Ministry will give the same facilities for the construction of any houses the construction of which is recommended by the Ministry of Agriculture; that is to say, if the Ministry of Agriculture gives its certificate that these houses are necessary for its agricultural programme, then, without further question, the Ministry of Health will give all the facilities which lie within its power. Where such a certificate is not forthcoming from the Ministry of Agriculture, the question of a subsidy or the grant of priorities will be considered on its merits, but where a certificate is given then automatically the Ministry of Health will do all that lies within its power.

I now come to reconditioning. It may be within the knowledge of some of your Lordships that if the war had not unhappily intervened, it was the intention of the Ministry to embark this autumn on a drive with regard to rural housing, and, in particular, with regard to securing the wider operation of what I have always thought a very excellent measure (it was described at the time as much too modest) the Housing (Rural Workers) Act, which provided for the reconditioning of rural houses. That Act has been operated to a very considerable extent by some counties, to a limited extent by others, and to no extent at all by quite a substantial number—which I think is a very regrettable fact. It was the intention of the Ministry to embark on a real drive to see whether that Act, which, I believe, had great potentialities for good—this will be of interest to my right reverend friend who spoke just now—could not be put into wider operation. There were various objections taken by the local authorities, but it was hoped that we should get the Act more widely applied.

The war has clearly made any kind of a drive of that kind impossible; but the position as it is now is that where agricultural houses in the country are occupied by agricultural workers, the fullest facilities for reconditioning as provided under that Act will be allowed, and they will be particularly encouraged where the reconditioning provides additional accommodation; and the Ministry had in mind particularly the question of additional rural workers, to which my right reverend friend referred, when it made that provision. The figures are not so impressive as I should like them to be, but a very great deal of work is proceeding at this moment. Between July and November some 2,600 rural houses had been completed and out of 5,810 houses which were under construction, 4,878 have reached an advanced stage and are receiving the subsidy and facilities, and all proposals which have been received since then for the completion of the balance have been approved by the Minister. There are the limiting factors to which I referred: the shortage of labour, which remains a serious factor, and the question of finance.

The question raised by my noble friend behind me, Lord Balfour, of the disastrous effect of a cessation of building on small firms—and especially small firms in outlying districts—has been very, very fully present in my right honourable friend's mind, and it is his object to provide, so far as he can, for small builders in agricultural districts who are unlikely, owing to the nature of things, to benefit from the armament programme and the Government orders which are going in some quarters. My right honourable friend does intend in some respects to prevent these firms being overtaken by idleness and ruin, and as far as possible under the limitations necessarily imposed by the war to continue with the programme of improving the standard, the quality and the quantity of rural housing. I hope I have dealt with the various points which have been raised. Put very briefly, the position is that the policy of the Government is, as I said, that agricultural work is war work, and so far as possible, subject to the limitations imposed by the war, it is the policy of the Government to give the largest amount of facilities and the highest priority to material which can possibly be arranged.

4.31 p.m.


My Lords, I think the right reverend Prelate and the other noble Lords who, like myself, were exercised about this matter of rural housing will have drawn a good deal of comfort from the noble Duke's review. I was very glad to hear Lord Balfour of Burleigh make the point about the unemployment amongst small builders in the countryside. I would remind the noble Duke that it is those small builders who are particularly affected by reconditioning, as that is the kind of work which they do. The larger schemes fall to the bigger contractors as a general rule. As regards reconditioning, I am not entirely clear what the Government's policy would be. I am sure that other noble Lords who have had experience of reconditioning will have found, as I have found, that very often the best way of reconditioning is to make two inadequate cottages into one. Would that be considered by the Government as an increase of accommodation? It is, of course, an increase of accommodation in one cottage, but it is making two cottages into one. All reconditioning, therefore, is bound up with new construction, which it is necessary to have in order to be able to decant the population. I do not know what the Government's attitude would be to that. I hope they would regard the increased size of the cottage as an increase of accommodation, treating it as one cottage and not as a reduction in the total number of cottages. I think we may all be thankful for what has been said. We hope that the supplies will become sufficient to carry on the work to the full extent that the Government can allow. I thank the noble Duke for his reply and I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.