HL Deb 26 October 1943 vol 129 cc327-42

LORD BARNBY had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government whether they are now prepared to consider a programme of dwellings for agricultural workers of demountable prefabricated character being superimposed on to the already agreed upon but disappointingly insufficient programme; and also move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is natural and right that agricultural questions should be debated in your Lordships' House and a great part of the present sitting has been taken up by agricultural questions. I am not going to make any apology for passing from this debate on an elevated plane of scientific analysis and long-range research—not entirely free, as the noble Duke said, from controversial and theoretical aspects —to something which is of immediate and practical importance, that is the provision of more housing facilities for agricultural workers. It is a subject which has been debated in your Lordships' House several times before and I recollect that on previous occasions there was aggressive support from the noble Lord who is now Lord Privy Seal. The fact that he is now in the Government robs me of what I am sure would otherwise have been stout support.

The Motion which stands in my name is so worded that it has brought a suggestion from the Manchester Guardian that I intended it to be a joke in basic English. I cannot take credit for such humour. My intention was simply to put into as few words as possible what I desire to urge this afternoon. The subject is properly one for the Minister of Agriculture and I had hoped that we should have a reply from the noble Duke, or, if not from him, from the Minister of Works. I understand, however, that the reply will be given by my noble friend Lord Snell, on behalf of the Ministry of Health. That gives me an opportunity of bringing into relief the difficulties with regard to building that appear to result from diversity of responsibility. The present position is that the Government have decided that a programme of 3,000 cottages is the maximum which other considerations of the war effort will permit. But there have been instances in the past where the Government having taken a definite attitude have receded from it, and I think that many will take the view that circumstances justify such a recession in this case. This question seems to concern the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Works, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Planning, the Ministry of Labour and the Treasury. That is six Departments, to say nothing of the Minister in charge of reconstruction who must be interested in matters affecting building. It is a pretty disquieting picture, and I think that it cannot be disguised that there is widespread anxiety at the absence of harmony between different Departments.

There is another aspect of this question which ought not to be overlooked. The Ministries concerned are hampered by local by-laws. In support of that I would like to quote a letter received from the rural district council of Stratford-on-Avon. They stated that they have no opportunity of considering any other type of construction, as they were permitted by the Ministry of Health to consider the erection of houses to one or two alternative plans only. I do suggest that there is need for revision of the building by-laws. With regard to the Ministry of Health, on whose behalf the reply is to be given, it seems to me that they have ringed themselves around with an outer defence of pillboxes in the shape of innumerable Committees. These protect the Minister from attack from any direction, because he can always answer that this or that Committee is considering a particular point and in due course will report. In that way he avoids responsibility. For my own part I must say that in dealing with his Ministry I have received nothing but courtesy, and the officials have shown complete forth-comingness.

The grounds on which I urge the importance of this—to quote the terms of the Motion—"programme of dwellings for agricultural workers of demountable pro-fabricated character" are briefly as follows: If shipping is a. basic problem of the war then the reduction of imports, to whatever extent it can be carried, must make a substantial contribution to the war effort. If what I have suggested now is right in connexion with our armament production, then on similar lines of reasoning there is justification for the erection of temporary dwellings for agricultural workers provided that the net saving to shipping is equal in both cases. In substantiation of that I would urge that production can be increased if you have additional accommodation for the workers.

I have before me now a letter from one of the largest agriculturists in this country who gives me some actual facts. He states that on a total acreage of 3,248 acres, of which the approximate pre-war arable was 2,402 acres, and the approximate arable at the present time 2,900 acres, there are only twenty-one cottages. He says further that these farms ought to be producing two or three crops each year but that it is impossible to do this owing to the shortage of houses for labour. He goes on to say that in Lincolnshire they grow 12,000 acres of potatoes of which acreage 400 acres at least ought to have been planted with broccoli and spring cabbage. The labour for this planting, however, is non-existent owing to the lack of housing accommodation. That is what a practical agriculturist says. He indicates clearly that there could be a saving of imported foodstuffs if more could be produced at home and that that in turn rests on the provision of more housing. This is an industrial problem, and in this connexion I quote from an article which appeared recently in the Daily Telegraph: This is an engineers' war, and we shall have to look to engineers if we hope to cope with the immediate and tremendous demand for houses at a reasonable price. Mechanized building, by factory prefabrication and site erection is the obvious way of husbanding our resources and overcoming post-war shortages of materials and labour. But it is more than a production problem. It proposes a marked saving of craftsman hours both in production and erection. There is a natural prejudice against prefabricated houses on the ground of their anticipated uniformity. They retain scope for artistry. I have spoken to Ministers who, without any reflection or investigation, say, instantly: "Oh we don't want anything to do with prefabrication; it is nasty." I make this appeal to your Lordships. Reflect how after the last war, or even before the last war, it was customary in the case of automobile bodies to have them custom-built. As we know all objections to these bodies on the ground of any lack of aesthetic appeal have been removed, and a very high standard has been reached in the mass production of such bodies. Then take clothing. Before the war good clothing was mostly made to order. We all remember the late Mr. Mallaby Deeley and his factory-made suits. Surely just as it is customary now, let us say, to have ready made overcoats without sacrificing appearance or comfort, we might have dwellings made on the prefabricated basis. I merely quote clothing and automobile bodies as illustrations to show how public opinion changes, how it breaks away from a conservative tradition. There is no need in the case of prefabricated houses to fear that they will lack aesthetic appeal. There is ample scope in their design for architects to exercise their talents.

At this stage I would like to say in regard to the subject of building erection how much I regret the absence of the Minister of Works from this House at this moment. I have always found him most receptive, and he has always been both approachable and co-operative. I am, as a matter of fact, asked by him to express his regret at not being here now. He was here earlier and he considerately expressed his regret at having to keep another engagement. Let me dwell for a moment on the types of prefabricated house which can be built. I was told by an eminent architect the other day that there are six hundred different types of prefabricated house known to exist in Sweden, the United States, Canada and so on. Only a small proportion of them are of a demountable type, but they are all prefabricated. It would take too long to go into details regarding their composition, their life, their amenities, their cost, their speed of erection and so on, and I say that to forestall any criticism which my noble friend may level. I would, however, make this one comment. I am urging no particular type, but I have in mind one which I have seen erected in large volume. I have the authority of an eminent architect for saying that plastic-bonded plywood, weight for weight, is stronger than steel both in tension and in compression.

I have been interested to learn that taking one type of prefabricated house alone, and measuring the roof units supplied in the last twelve months, the total area supplied, leaving aside anything in process of manufacture, is over 3,600,000 square feet. It is interesting to calculate that on the basis of the standard agricultural house provided by the Ministry of Health, the discouraging amenities of which can be seen by studying the plan supplied by the Ministry, being 900 square feet, the area of prefabricated demountable structures erected is equivalent to 4,000 such houses. I am given to understand that the cost is not likely to exceed two-thirds of the cost of the orthodox type, but the craftsmen-hours both in fabrication and erection and the speed of erection give them manifold advantages over the orthodox type. I have seen these methods used for buildings large enough to supply meals to 3,000 people, and for hospitals, and I have now had the privilege of seeing a two-storey type which gives a clear indication that this form of prefabricated demountable dwelling has a very definite place in the national picture. I urge that these buildings should be, supplementary to the programme of orthodox houses now decided upon. I agree that where they would be erected there should be a covenant that they could if desired within a reasonable time be replaced by buildings of a permanent type. That should be regarded as an ordinary war expense, in the same way as our armaments.

I would draw attention to a message in the Press which comes to us from the United States and deals with the town of Vanport, the second largest city in Oregon, which did not exist before the war and will not exist for long after the war ends. Everything that goes to make up a city—shops, cinemas, public buildings and so on—is temporary. The town has been put up by the National Housing Agency for workers in the Kaiser shipyards. I draw particular attention to that, because I am under no illusion that anything is likely to be achieved at one attempt. The task will be as difficult as that of those who in the early days of the war urged that tanks should be welded instead of riveted. I have already referred to the fact that the area of buildings of a prefabricated type already put up here is equal to 4,000 houses. That does not seem to be in agreement with a letter from the Ministry of Agriculture in which it is stated that the Minister has not received any reports upon prefabricated types for agricultural workers, and in any event understands that the type referred to has not been in production during recent months. That letter was written in spite of the fact that at that period in a large area prefabricated structures were being erected throughout the country and provided by the Ministry of Works.

I understand that the United States of America have over here at present Commissions which are dealing with questions relating to food, medical services and housing and that they are studying the way in which we are dealing with our building problems. It is satisfactory to know that Mr. Alfred Bossom, who is a Member of Parliament, is now in the United States on a mission from the Ministry of Health, and he is reported to have said that England must build after the war between five and ten million homes in ten or twelve years, and that these would be largely of prefabricated or assembled type. I mention this because I claim that in this way it is possible to make a preparation for the long-range housing situation. Moreover, if factories making aircraft parts can be converted to making prefabricated houses, it will make a great contribution to the problem of employment and to the speed with which housing can be furnished for ex-Service men and others who will need it as quickly as possible after the war, and for which orthodox methods will not suffice.

I want for a moment to paint the picture of agricultural housing. I do not need to remind your Lordships of the backwardness of housing in agricultural areas or the fact that the outward appearance of the house has often been regarded as of more importance than its internal amenities. We all know the rose-covered cottage so alluring to visitors from overseas, but what of its amenities? There is no running water, which the tenants have to go down the village street to get from a pump, and there is only a soil closet at the bottom of the garden. In winter the houses are damp inside, there is smoke from the fire, steam from the copper, and probably the dishes are washed in an enamelled bowl for the whole family on the table. Well, those are agricultural conditions that we want to see changed.

I emphasize that I have no expectation of receiving much encouragement from my noble friend who is going to reply, or of achieving much on this first recommendation of a novel type of construction. I am reminded that in the matter of civil aviation six debates in this House were necessary before the Government were persuaded to appoint a Minister in charge of it with a definite programme. But I urge upon my noble friend who will reply that he should dispose authoritatively, if he can, of any suggestion that there is a conflict between different Ministries, and, if he cannot, I would recommend that this whole question should be put in the hands of a single Minister, who has time to co-ordinate conflicting interests and achieve progress in this matter, which is so vital for agricultural production, as well as for the general housing programme. The recommendation I make is justified by the saving of shipping that would be effected by increasing agricultural production. Though I realize that labour conditions have been advanced for the limitation of the present programme to 3,000 houses, it will be admitted that that is insufficient. I beg to move.


My Lords, we have heard a very interesting speech from my noble friend and I am sure that your Lordships will sympathize with the desire that he has for an increase in the number of houses under construction, especially houses for agricultural purposes. But of course your Lordships will realize that to start a strong drive for houses at a time when every hand is required for the making of munitions presents rather a difficult problem. That, however, does not necessarily preclude every possible preparation for a comprehensive scheme of housing as soon as the war is over, when material will be released and labour forth- coming. After the last war I happened to be Civil Lord of the Admiralty, and I was Chairman of the Committee which was entrusted with the disposal of surplus material. We found that in the dockyards there was a great deal of surplus material lying rusting, and lying in the harbour were ships which were no longer necessary. At the same time there was great unemployment, and it was my duty to visit harbours and dockyards and see whether there was any possibility of assisting with material the labour which was crying out for employment. I remember going to Portsmouth and seeing a lot of ships lying in the harbour that were no longer wanted, while there was great unemployment in the town. I met the Mayor and the Council, but the difficulty was that there was no outlet for the material which was waiting there idle. It was the same at Plymouth and at Chatham, and especially at Chatham, where the quantity of gun mountings and other things lying idle was deplorable. But there was no means of using up that iron scrap.

Later on I went to the Ministry of Health as Parliamentary Secretary, and we were then employed on the housing question. I need not detail the difficulties that were encountered. But a few years later, during the lifetime of the first Labour Government of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, a scheme for the construction of portable iron dwellings was brought forward by Lord Weir. I do not think it caught on very well in the South of England, but I believe that in the North of England great use was made of this type of dwelling-house. I was very much interested in these houses. I had occasion to construct a couple of cottages on my estate near Guildford, and I built two of these steel houses. I thought it might perhaps be of value to give your Lordships some account of the experience I have had with those two cottages. As Lord Barnby said, they are perhaps not beautiful, but it is not beauty that is studied when we are thinking of recovering after the war. At the same time I would not say they are actually ugly, they are quite inoffensive.

They are of bungalow type on one floor, with three rooms, kitchen, offices, bathroom and all the rest of it, and they are extremely convenient. I thought they were very comfortable houses. That was eighteen years ago. I have had a report made on the condition of these houses. There has never been any difficulty about them. They have been inhabited for eighteen years continuously, and there has been no complaint from the tenant farmer on whose farm they are. I went there myself yesterday and had a look round. They have just been done up for a new tenant, who told me he was quite satisfied with the accommodation. I remember that the time they took to build was very short, although the pieces of material had to come from Scotland. They were put up by local labour, though I think one or two people came to direct. It seems to me that much greater use might be made of such material for the purpose for which my noble friend appeals. After the war many factories and foundries, now busily engaged on the making of war material, will no longer be needed for that purpose, the scrap iron will be available, and the machinery we have could be turned over in the very minimum of time from the construction of things for the war to the construction of steel houses. They are not temporary houses, I may say, because I have had these two houses for eighteen years and they are as good as new now. I have had no complaints from the tenants as to inconvenience or discomfort from heat or cold.

I may recall that the last time I saw Marshal Foch in London he asked me to dinner, and he was talking about the question of preparation for war. He said that the people who would have the great advantage would be those who were prepared to switch over from making bicycles and pianos to making weapons of war. It is the same principle to-day. The great advantage you will gain will be that you will be ready to switch over your war factory to peace purposes. If this principle of building steel houses were adopted, you would get immediate results, and you would be able to use hundreds of war factories which are already in being with very little alteration for the purpose of peace. I therefore ask my noble friend Lord Snell if he will be so good as to consider that point. I recognize that there may be objections, though I fail to see where they come in. I am not suggesting that we can do very much in this respect to-day, when the war is on and when iron is wanted for war purposes, but if the principle is adopted there will be plenty of iron set free and available for the construction of houses when the war ends.


My Lords, I do not propose to take more than two minutes. I live in an area where there is an immense movement of industrial population owing to the early disappearance of the colliery industry in the Forest of Dean. In my county there is a vast planning programme which will involve the erection as soon as possible after the war of a very large number of houses— in some cases a thousand houses—in an area where few, if any, houses stand today. Therefore this question of prefabricated houses for the working population is a matter of very grave importance in such areas as that in which I live. My noble friend Lord Barnby has referred to the Government's initial provision of cottages in rural areas. The mountain has laboured with a good deal of departmental advertisement and has produced a miserable little mouse after the lapse of something like twelve months. The tardiness in this regard on the part of the Government has made people, particularly county planning authorities, a little apprehensive as to what is going to happen immediately after the war. In my judgment there may be something like a revolution after the war unless the enormous, widespread housing requirements of the people are attended to and provided for with the utmost celerity.

That brings us to the question of prefabricated houses. In certain parts of the country—it is no secret—there are plywood factories. These plywood factories are turning out material, particularly for Mosquito aeroplanes, in very large quantities to-day. They ought to have some use after the war. Valuable buildings have been put up, suitable machinery has been erected, a large amount of appropriate timber has been imported from other countries, and a good deal of beech-wood of sufficient diameter has been felled for this purpose in this country. I do not myself anticipate with any great enthusiasm living in an iron building, but if my noble friend Lord Onslow is able to tell me that the iron has been insulated or lined in some way to prevent violent changes of temperature, there may be a case to be made out for iron.


It is insulated.


What I want to point out is this. I was told a year ago by the very expert manager of one of the largest of these plywood factories that it was quite possible to prefabricate the internal requirements of a house and, in fact, to erect a cottage within a fortnight with prefabricated sections. The only drawback is that if it is made of wood, even plywood, and of the strength my noble friend has indicated—stronger in many cases than iron—there is a question whether it will stand up to the weather in our particular climate. In New Zealand most of the houses are made of timber, but here you have got to provide an outer shell. I am informed—and I put this to the Government—that you could perfectly well put up at very short notice, a comfortable workman's cottage with three good bedrooms in a matter of a fortnight or three weeks, but you will require a thin outside concrete shell. With a cavity wall filled with some of the superfluous straw of which we see too much in this country to-day, you could make an extremely comfortable cottage in this way which will maintain an equable temperature, as the best straw-thatched cottage does, in summer and winter. That is the only suggestion I want to add, but I do fear that unless something of this sort is arranged in good time with a view to putting it into effect the moment the war is over, you will have a tremendous outcry from the people coming back homeless from service overseas.


My Lords, let me say how much I sympathize with the noble Lord behind me in that, instead of the noble Duke answering his argument on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture, he has to put up with me representing the Ministry of Health. The situation, however, is not quite so bad as he assumes because what I am instructed to say has been prepared jointly by the three Departments concerned—the Ministry of Works, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of Health. The noble Lord and others who have spoken have a desire to see a vast number of prefabricated cottages erected and made habitable in a few hours or a few days. Let me say at once that, although this is evidence of their keen desire that cottages should be made available, it is not one that is likely to be realized now or in the immediate future. The Government readily admit that the scheme for 3,000 houses which has been mentioned is disappointingly small, and they know that that amount does very little to meet rural needs, but the Government have not misled the country on this matter. It was made quite clear that the factor which would determine the number of cottages to be erected was not the need, but the amount of labour and material available. The scheme of 3,000 cottages was undertaken for a specific purpose. That was the most that could be undertaken at that particular time. It was recently stated that for long-term needs the Ministries of Health and Agriculture want to see plans for at least 300,000 cottages in rural districts.

The rural housing problem is indeed serious and a substantial programme is required to be put into operation at the earliest possible moment. This was recognized before the war began when the terms of the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act of 1938 were framed. Problems have arisen which no Government could easily have overcome. The problems have been aggravated first of all by the stoppage of the normal amount of building, by the transfer of workers from one area to another, by the evacuation of the civil population and by the utilization of houses for non-domestic purposes. The need for rural cottages was shown and action was urged in the Scott Report and the Government are most anxious to begin extensive building as soon as possible. That, I hope, meets the plea of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, in his demand for the preparation of a comprehensive scheme. At this point let me say that I will see that the suggestions which he and Lord Bledisloe made are conveyed to the Department for serious consideration. The paramount necessity is that labour has to be employed on war purposes. The Government unfortunately had to make housing needs take second place to that which in their judgment, and I believe in the judgment of the country, is beyond all question. Our primary concern must be to win the war, and to win it in the shortest possible time. Either we want to win the war or we do not, and since beyond all question everybody does want to win the war without any delay, then we must put that task not in the second or the third place, but in the first place, and all other needs must be subordinate to it.

The Government are putting the war in the first place, and all our man and woman-power is being mobilized to that end. Let us understand that we cannot provide maximum aid to Russia unless our domestic needs are subordinated to the main purpose. We cannot have a successful and quick campaign in Italy without its having an effect on our building resources. Nor can we prepare for further military operations in Europe without drawing on our military resources. The resources of the building industry are at present fully drawn upon for active military services in the provision of camps, for the building and manning of aerodromes, and the erection of buildings of every kind that are required. After the immediate war requirements are met the remaining building labour is in one form or another engaged on housing work and on the maintenance of buildings needed for agricultural purposes. This permits of new houses only to the limited extent that I have announced. The full programme of building will have to wait, I fear, until other times. All forms of building, let it be understood, prefabricated or however fabricated, absorb labour and labour is not at present available. That is the cardinal fact of the situation.

My noble friend Lord Barnby wanted, to use his own words, these things done immediately. He seemed to assume that these houses could be erected with nothing more than a Government order, and that if such an order were given they would rise up like mushrooms in the night. He almost reminded me of Cowper's "Winter's Walk," in which he wrote: Slowly as a dream the fabric rose, No sound of hammer or of saw was there. I fear that in building houses there has to be delay and there has to be the noise of the hammer and the saw. The only building of new accommodation that is now permitted is that which will make more effective the use of man-power for all purposes. The present position is that ah mobile labour is already at work on land and so on, and it is housed in hostels and billets and camps which have to be built in many cases, especially in connexion with the Women's Land Army and prisoners of war. I think there is really not much more that I can say on this matter. For this last purpose use is also made of prefabricated units, but the Government recognize that this is not housing, it is the emergency accommoda- tion of personnel in the way which is both quickest and most economical to building labour.

In conclusion I may say that the advantages as well as the disadvantages of prefabricated and standardized huts for direct war purpose are appreciated. The Ministry of Works have full knowledge of the various types available and their advice is taken by other Departments concerned. There have been considerable developments during the war under the aegis of the Ministry of Works. Excluding the works that are common to the erection of any form of dwelling—namely, the preparation of site and the installation of services, etc.—the huts enable a saving in labour and cost sufficient to justify their adoption as a war-time expedient, but they are not intended to be a solution of the long-term housing problem. In a word, therefore, whilst the Government are ready to use prefabricated houses of any suitable type whenever they are needed for war purposes, there is unfortunately no prospect at present of building dwellings of whatever character to meet the permanent needs of the people.

The most that can be done, apart from making the maximum use of available accommodation, is to lay plans for new buildings which can be put into effect immediately room can be found in the building programme and labour can be made available. These plans are at present being laid. I am becoming experienced in the art of explaining to your Lordships why, in the opinion of the Government, things asked for by your Lordships cannot immediately be conceded, but in this case the explanation is both clear and, I believe, decisive. The necessary labour is not available and until it is available noble Lords must wait as patiently as they can.


My Lords, before my noble friend leaves this subject may I very respectfully ask him to correct a manifest technical error he made in his speech, which I think we all noticed? He said that the Government fully realized the necessity for more houses—not less than 3,000 in rural areas. I think that what he meant was 300,000 and I venture to ask him to put it right. It is apparent to all that the need is so great that if the number of 3,000 were given it would cause a storm which he might allay at once.


I certainly meant to say 300,000. I am ashamed if I mispronounced it.


My Lords, I appreciate the sympathetic way in which my noble friend replied to the debate but his reply certainly was not convincing. He has made, perhaps, the best of a bad job. I appreciate his refraining from disparaging the idea of prefabricated dwellings. My noble friend said he wished the spokesman of the Ministry of Agriculture had been given the task of replying to the debate, but I understand that the Ministry of Agriculture in this matter is entirely in the hands of the Ministry of Health. In answer to his appeal that we should recognize the winning of the war as the main aim to keep before us, I would point out—he appears to have overlooked it—that on the argument that food production saves shipping I make this plea and that reduces the objection about labour.

The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, asked for consideration of another type of building in steel. I naturally welcome any type provided it is supplementary to the orthodox type of building. As to the thermal properties of prefabricated houses, I have been informed that the Building Research Association has certified that the thermal qualities of the buildings to which I have referred, though they have walls of a relatively small thickness, equal the thermal qualities of the orthodox type of buildings with 9-inch brick walls. The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, made an eloquent appeal for the use of spare materials in these prefabricated houses and the blazing of the way for the later use of factories. I hope that point will be borne in mind by my noble friend. I was glad to hear the admission that 3,000 cottages was a disappointingly small number, but I would recommend that they might at least have been placed where most required. Only this afternoon a Scottish Peer told me he had several agricultural houses which were occupied by industrial workers and there was no need for the additional quota allotted to that area. These houses should be placed where they are wanted. There can be no doubt that even this meagre programme has been disappointingly slow in execution.

I would ask my noble friend to consider further the possioility of discord between the Ministries concerned. I would further express the hope, in the presence of the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, that steps of a more energetic character should be taken than are now being taken, and that following the precedent of civil aviation this question of housing, which is equally important, should receive the tribute of being put under the special care of a particular Minister to co-ordinate the six Departments now concerned. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.