HL Deb 22 June 1955 vol 193 cc256-82

3.2 p.m.

LORD SILKIN rose to call attention to the housing situation; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is becoming almost platitudinous to begin a discussion on housing by saying that the two most human needs are food and, in this climate and country, homes. I think, therefore, that it is appropriate that at the earliest opportunity in this new Parliament my friends and I should have decided to initiate a debate on housing. It was an interesting phenomenon of the Election that little interest was, in fact, taken in the subject of housing, or, one might say, in any other subject; in the course of a fairly lengthy campaign I do not remember a single question being put to me or to anybody else on the question of housing. Nevertheless it is, as I hope to establish, a very important subject. At this early stage I should like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, who is in his place, that this is in no sense an attempt to anticipate the important debate which he proposes to initiate next week. I hope I shall not cover the ground that he intends to cover—certainly, if I do, I shall not do it intentionally.

In formulating a housing policy it is an essential prerequisite that we should make as reliable an estimate as possible of what are likely to be our housing requirements for some time ahead. I would commence by saying that I would define "housing requirements" as the provision of a separate, self-contained, modern home for every family in this country. Attempts have been made in the past to arrive at some figure of what the requirements are. I remember that the last one was made in 1944, in the days of the Coalition Government, and at that time it was asserted, I am sure with every good faith, that our requirements were three-quarters of a million new houses to meet the demand for additional families, and something like l½ million to deal with such things as slum clearance, overcrowding, obsolete houses and so on. As we all know, that was a hopeless underestimate, but it was based on such information as was then available.

Since then we have had the 1951 census and it has been possible to arrive at a much more reliable figure of what our requirements are. The Government have themselves published a document called Houses—the Next Step, which sets out in some measure what our housing requirements are like]) to be in the course of the next few years. I do not seriously challenge the figures contained in this document, although I think they are incomplete. I should like, if the House will have patience with me, to go through the various housing requirements, as I see them, and see what they really add up to. There are to-day something like 14 million houses in this country of which more than one-third are over 65 years of age, a time of life when some of us who have reached that pinnacle begin to feel that we are getting a little creaky and in need of careful attention. There are 2½ million houses that are over 100 years old. There are a large number of houses in this country that are lacking in separate baths, or bathrooms, where families are sharing W.Cs., kitchen sinks, cooking stoves or other necessary amenities of life. These are all set out in the document published by the Government in the last Parliament.

In addition to these things, there are many houses which suffer from acute congestion on the site or are otherwise insanitary or unhealthy. Some hundreds of thousands of these are definitely slums—we do not know how many at the moment, but we anticipate that by the end of this year, as a result of the survey which has been initiated by the Govern- ment, we may be in a position to know more accurately. But apart from existing slums, there are many others that are rapidly becoming slums and which ought to be demolished as quickly as possible. Of the remainder of these old houses, probably the majority have a life of not more than twenty years. Moreover, there is considerable overcrowding inside dwellinghouses Several families occupy a house which was originally designed for one family. In the County of London itself, two thirds of the population are living in houses of that kind—that is, sharing a house which ought to be occupied by one family alone. This, I understand, is the problem of a great many of the large towns.

Then I would ask the House to consider the effect of the rising standard of living which we have been promised and which we have every hope will be realised. One of its effects is bound to be to encourage families to spread themselves out, to occupy a little more space, to enjoy more privacy. This will have the effect of reducing the existing amount of sub-letting, and more separate houses will be required. I believe this point to be controversial, but consider that this same rising standing of living will, before very long, render out of date some of the houses which we are actually building to-day. I want to be quite frank with the House and say that I fully understand the reasons which have prompted Her Majesty's Government, and which prompted Mr. Dalton when he was Minister, to adopt a simplified type of house consisting of less space and a reduction in amenities. I appreciate that that has a balance of advantages; that more homes can be built with a given amount of labour by the simplification of housing designs than if one kept up the previous design. But these houses are very small indeed and in my view unsatisfactory, and probably will not be as acceptable to Eater generations as they are to-day. I believe that, to a great extent, these houses will have to be used for smaller families than were originally contemplated. The type of three-bedroomed house that we are building to-day—the simplified type—may be all right for a married couple with one child; they would not feel cramped. But I am convinced that it is much too cramped for a family of husband, wife and three children, and before very long we shall find ourselves in the position of having to build something better. The present houses have low ceilings, which I very much deplore, and small rooms.

Another factor which we must take into account and which is often overlooked is the contemplated increase in our population. If we assume (and I think it is an under-assumption) that the population increases by about a quarter of a million people every year, that, in itself, creates a need for something like 70,000 to 75,000 additional houses a year. So that nearly one-quarter of the number of houses which have been built during the last few years are merely catering for the increased population. Then we have to consider the special problem of the old people. Many of them are either living in very difficult conditions or are in houses which are too big for them; and with the increased proportion of old people to which we must look forward in the next few years we shall have to build an increasing number of special types of houses for the old folk. Finally, I want to draw the attention of the House to the need for much greater mobility. At the present time people are often inhibited from changing their jobs because by so doing they cannot get another home; if a man has one home he must stick to it, otherwise he cannot get another. That is not good for the productive life of the community. There should be much greater freedom of movement, and to enable this there ought to be a certain proportion of houses available—5 per cent., if you like. I do not mean there should be specific houses but a "slack" of something like 5 per cent. to enable mobility to take place, so that if a man gets a job in another part of the country he need have no fear of taking it up.

It is very difficult to assess each of these factors in making a total, and every noble Lord can come to his own conclusion; but my own estimate (and I have gone into this matter carefully) is that in the next twenty years there will be a need for some 6 million new houses; and even at the end of twenty years there will be an additional number of houses which will by then have qualified for demolition or other treatment but which to-day are perfectly all right. Now I agree that a number of these houses will be provided by private enterprise for sale, or very largely for sale, but we must face the fact that it is not open to the majority of people for whom these houses are needed to be built, to buy their own house. Their income would not permit of it nor does the necessary mobility in connection with their work permit them to do so. Nor, with all respect to the doctrine of ownership of houses, is it desirable that people should be too tied to a particular house, bought on mortgage for repayment over twenty or thirty years, and which they will be reluctant, or unable, to move out of because of the mortgage hanging over them. So, whatever our doctrinal views on that subject may be, I do not consider that the erection of any substantial number of houses by private enterprise for sale is going to meet this problem.

We have to face the fact that the vast majority of the 6 million houses that I have estimated as being required will have to be provided by public action. Obviously this means that for the next generation there will be a colossal task in building houses, a task on which we shall be unable to relax. But there is another point to which I want to make specific reference—it calls for long-term planning. We cannot go on from year to year, or look at this problem, as I am afraid we have done in the past, as a short-term one. The problem has to be regarded as one which will be with us for the whole of the next generation and longer, and we ought to deal with it on that basis. I want to ask the noble Earl, Lord Munster, who is going to reply to this debate, a rhetorical question: Are Her Majesty's Government really giving thought to this housing question on the basis of a long-term problem? It was very nice to set as one's target 300,000 houses in one year. The Government have achieved it, as I knew they would if they really wanted to, at the expense of many other things—




Yes. My Lords, I should have to make my speech longer than it otherwise would be to prove the point; but I am going to act with great restraint and not prove it. I am merely going to assert it; but it is so, I think. I am not necessarily condemning the Government even for that. It is a matter of balance, and if they, in their judgment, decided that housing must have the highest priority—well, it is a matter upon which one can disagree but not necessarily condemn. I want to emphasise the point, however, that it is not good enough today, with this vast problem confronting us, for Her Majesty's Government merely to say that they are going to build 300,000 houses a year and that is all, and not to treat this as a long-term programme. I want to ask the noble Earl seriously whether Her Majesty's Government recognise the magnitude of the problem. It is a fact that, since the war, we have built over 2 million new permanent houses, and yet the housing lists seem to be as long as ever.

I wonder whether the Government really intend to go on, even at the rate of 300,000 houses a year in the course of the present Parliament; because I see that the number of permanent dwellings under construction by local authorities, for instance, has declined and a number of local authorities have had their programmes cut down by the Ministry. Those of Bristol, Leeds and Exeter, among others, have had their programmes cut down. They had submitted figures of the number of houses they wanted to build in the present year, but the Ministry—no doubt for adequate reasons—cut them down. It looks as if there is a tendency to switch from houses built by local authorities to houses built for sale, because at the same lime as houses to be built by local authorities and the number of houses under construction are being restricted, private enterprise has been given the word that it can go ahead without any restriction. What we are finding is that private enterprise will be building increased numbers of houses, while, so far as one can judge, the number of houses to be built by local authorities will be decreased.

I have already referred to one of the reasons why the housing lists are as long as they are, in spite of the large numbers of houses that have been built since the war—namely, that the increase in population has absorbed a substantial proportion of these houses. But, in addition, we have tended to neglect repairs, and, consequently, considerable numbers of houses have fallen into decay and been lost to the community. The fact is that since May, 1949, the number of men engaged on repair work has been reduced to about half. The men engaged on repair work in May, 1949, totalled nearly 300,000; the last available statistics show that the figure is now about 150,000. I recognise that in the last Parliament Her Majesty's Government did face the question of the loss of housing caused by houses going into decay. But, in my view, having faced the problem they ran away from it—or, at any rate, took inadequate action. They introduced the Housing Repairs and Rents Act, but the effect on the problem has been negligible.

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Wolverton, is not here to-day. In his remarks on the gracious Speech he referred to the fact that this Act had failed to provide for owners of this type of house the necessary incentive to enable them to deal with repairs. We have toy face the fact—and I hope that the noble Earl will be able to say something on the subject—that this Act has largely failed in its purpose of encouraging landlords to carry out repairs in the future. Admittedly, it has rewarded landlords for having carried them out in the past. Though I make no complaint about that, that was not the purpose for which the Act was passed. Its purpose was to ensure that repairs should be carried out in the future. Nor has the response to the increased facilities provided by improvement grants been very encouraging. The Government have increased the size of the improvement grants, and have eased the conditions under which they become available, to encourage landlords nor merely to carry out repairs but to make necessary improvements such as installing baths, W.C.s and so on. Even in that connection the response seems to be very unsatisfactory. So unless more drastic action is taken, it looks to me as if we are going to lose a number of houses in the next few years from this cause.

The Government have considered the question of slum clearance, and, as I understand it, are proposing that each year accommodation should be provided for some 200,000 persons who will be cleared from slum areas. That will call for something like 60,000 dwellings, and I should like to ask the noble Earl whether these 60,000 dwellings are to come out of the normal allocation of houses to local authorities—that is to say, will it to that extent reduce the number of new houses that will be available for families on the waiting lists? I presume that that will be the case. To the extent that houses are diverted from the normal purposes to the special purpose of slum clearance, it will, of course, lengthen the time that people on the housing lists will have to wait for new accommodation. As it is, I am told that if you are about to get married, and you put your name down on a housing list, you stand a chance of getting a house by the time your eldest child is 21. Probably that age will be extended as the result of slum clearance operations. I ask if Her Majesty's Government realise the size of the task, and I think I have given some indication of my own view as to how big that task really is.

Next I Wish to ask the Government whether they appreciate what all this means in terms of money. We are subsidising housing at the present time to a very considerable extent. I wonder whether your Lordships appreciate the true extent to which we are subsidizing housing. The ordinary subsidy ranges from £29 8s. a year (that is the combined subsidy from the Exchequer and the local authorities), or something like 11s. or 12s. a week, in the case of the ordinary cottage or two-bedroomed or three bedroomed house, to £108 7s. a year in the case of flats built on expensive sites. This last means a contribution of over £2 out of public funds to the rent of flats built on expensive sites, such as, for instance, flats in Pimlico. Indeed, in many cases, it is worse than that, because some local authorities are making an additional contribution out of their rates, over and above the amounts required of them.

If we assume that the average combined subsidy is £50 a year on each dwelling (that is, taking houses and flats together; and I do not think it is an unfair assumption), then at the end of twenty years if we have built, say 5 million houses (and that is not an impossible assumption) we shall be paying out in subsidies each year £250 million. And that will be going on for the next forty years. Furthermore, it will be increased by any additional number of houses that are built after the period of twenty years. So, in those circumstances, we, or our successors, may look forward to a minimum subsidy towards housing out of public funds of something of the order of £250 million a year. I ask whether we, as a nation, can face this, and what are we doing about it. What are the Government doing about it? Do they realise what we are going to be confronted with?

As I have tried to pose this question, I suppose that I ought to give some headlines of the suggestions I can make for dealing with it, but I am conscious, especially after the observations that were made yesterday about the length of speeches, that I can deal with these suggestions only in brief outline. I want to emphasise that these suggestions are entirely my own. In this matter I think the issues are far too serious to endeavour to deal with them by dogmatic or doctrinal means. Indeed, it has always been a matter of regret to me that in a problem of this kind both sides should look at it too much from a Party point of view. Perhaps at this stage in the life of this Parliament we may be able to introduce some fresh objective thinking without the intervention of Party.

These are some of the things which I think should be done to reduce the burden on the community. First, I am sure that we ought to pursue more energetically the improving of our building methods. We all recognise that an enormous amount can be done in the way of improving these methods and we know that they are being improved in other countries, particularly in America, where the output per man-hour in the building industry is 50 per cent. higher than it is in this country. Surely the Government ought to give some encouragement and some inducement to the building industry to improve their methods.

Secondly, I think that a great deal can be done by prefabrication. By prefabrication I mean making houses in factories and assembling them on the site. When we talk of prefabrication, we talk very loosely and some people regard prefabrication as merely making door and window frames in a factory and delivering them on a site. I see no reason why a whole house should not be manufactured in the factory and delivered for assembly on the site. If your Lordships will forgive me, I should like to tell you of my own experience. I had a house of this kind built for myself in April of this year. The foundations had to be made, but the house was assembled in four days. It had the roof on in one day. I left for town on Monday morning and saw two lorries arriving with the house, and when I got back on Thursday evening the house was there, with all services and everything else. I am not trying to advertise this particular house. It was one that suited me. The fact is that it was made entirely in a factory and all that had to be done on the site was assembly. My family were living in it the week after.

One of the essentials of this kind of building, and one of the reasons why the policy for prefabricated temporary houses broke down, was that we never gave any factory a sufficiently long run to enable them to build houses by mass production methods. I know there were many difficulties about obtaining labour and materials. I am convinced that if we, as a nation, set ourselves the task of producing factory-built houses in sufficient numbers to make it worth while for a factory to engage in mass production, we should get a large number of houses at less cost and in quicker time. Just to complete my own story—I hope your Lordships will forgive me for talking from personal experience—I may say that the cost to me of this permanent house, which has been passed for land sanctions and subsidy, was less than the cost of a traditional house, and it is in every way as good, if not better. My point is that it is possible to embark on a programme of prefabrication, and I am sure the Government ought to give far more attention, and far more encouragement, to this method.

I want to be a little controversial. We have assumed all along that this great task of building nearly 6 million houses must be done by the normal method through the local authorities. We have 1,450 local authorities, every one of them with housing powers and the local responsibility of building houses. I should be the last person in the world to say anything against our local authorities. I spent a great part of my life with local authorities and I have happy recollections of them. But if we think of efficiency, is it necessarily the most efficient way to have houses built by local authorities? Some of them are mast efficient. Authorities like the London County Council, and the Corporations of Manchester and Birmingham and the other great cities are doing a magnificent job. They have great organisations and it would be a pity to interfere with them.

But, speaking of the smaller authorities all over the country, are they really the best means for prod icing houses in large numbers and in the speediest and most economical way? Without expressing any dogmatic view on the subject, I feel that this is a matter which ought to be considered afresh. The noble Viscount, Lord Woolton, has asked for fresh thinking on many subjects, and I approve very much of what he said. I think we ought to indulge in some fresh thinking on this subject as well. We ought not to assume that because rural district councils have been engaged in building houses for a long time—merely because we can find no other job for them, and if we took away housing from them they would just collapse—they ought necessarily to go on building houses. Perhaps when the time comes for the reorganisation of local government we may find a more efficient way of producing the houses we need.

We want to give much more thought to this policy of building on expensive land. Is it really economical to take a site costing £30,000, £40,000 or £50,000 an acre, build on it, and give a subsidy on it, the capitalised value of which over sixty years ranges from £2,059 to £2,572? I know it is not easy. We have to provide accommodation for people near their work; there is all the pressure against using good agricultural land—the conflict between agriculture and housing—and so on. Nevertheless, it would be definitely cheaper to take agricultural land at £25,000 an acre and build on it than to build on these expensive sites.


At what price?


At £25,000 an acre. Of course, we shall never have to pay that: I am taking a fantastic figure, to show that, from the point of view of the national economy, it, would be more worth while to pay £25,000 an acre for agricultural land and build on it than to buy this expensive land in the large cities and build flats on it. I seem not to have made my point clear.


No, it is not clear.


It is difficult to elaborate in a speech of this kind, but I would refer noble Lords to an article which has been written by Mr. E. J. Osborne, called "How Subsidies Disturb Housing Development." The noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, will be familiar with that article, or ought to be, because it was published in Lloyds Bank Review for April, 1955. This point is elaborated and, I think, made abundantly clear in that article. Mr. Osborne's solution is the new town and the greater use of the Town Development Act. I do not want to elaborate on that point now, but possibly the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, will do so next week when he comes to speak on the subject.

There is one other matter that I believe might be considered—and again this is very venturesome. Is it necessary to borrow the whole of our money for housing operations and to go on paying interest on it for sixty years? When I was Chairman of the Housing Committee of the London County Council I had an inquiry made as to what would be the effect if we paid for our houses, not out of capital, but out of revenue, as we went along. I found, as one might expect, that for the first ten years it would have imposed a heavy burden on the ratepayer, but that after ten years the saving in interest would have caught up; and the conclusion we came to was that thereafter it would have paid us handsomely to suffer in the first ten years in order thereafter to pay only for the houses we built each year. I have tried to do a quick piece of arithmetic to see what this would mean in terms of 300,000 houses a year, and I am bound to admit that it would be a heavy burden on the present taxpayer and ratepayer if we tried to do it all. But is it not possible to compromise and spend more out of revenue to-day, in the hope of saving a great deal in the future? I feel that that would be worth considering. Lastly, ought we not to do far more than we are doing? If necessary, should we not even admit that this Housing Repairs and Rents Act has not worked, and start all over again and see what we can do to stop the rapid deterioration of houses?

Time has not permitted me to deal with many other aspects of housing which I recognise are important. I would only mention, without going into detail, the question of the siting of houses, and the difficulty of securing sites in large built-up areas, which is of great importance. One other thing I would mention, and that is the design of houses. I am glad to find that the design of the modern house is an enormous improvement on that of the pre-war house. I feel that perhaps we have limited ourselves a little by restricting the size of houses, but even the smaller house to-day is an enormous improvement on the pre-war house. The pre-war house is something of which we might well feel ashamed, if we had any sense of shame in these matters, but I think we can look on the post-war house with a good deal of pride. In my view, it would bear comparison with similar houses in any other part of the world. The only drawback is that they do become a little monotonous. If something could be done to get greater variety, I believe we should have gone a long way towards solving the problem of design.

That is all I have to say. I have tried to be non-partisan in putting this survey before your Lordships, although I do not pretend that I have been uncontroversial: indeed, on a subject of this kind, unless one is controversial one does not generally make any contribution to the discussion. I recognise that I have put forward a number of controversial solutions, but the problem is so great that no solution ought to be ruled out, and certainly not for doctrinal reasons. As I have said, new thinking is becoming fashionable in all quarters, and there is no subject to which this new thinking could be more appropriately applied than to that of the housing of the people. I beg to move for Papers.

3.46 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, is able to speak on the subject of housing with unrivalled knowledge and experience, not only as a former Minister of the Crown but also as one who has devoted a great part of his life to the service of local government. It is always instructive to have the privilege of listening to the noble Lord and, if he will allow me to say so, I think he has succeeded in avoiding all the more controversial and vituperative allegations and epithets to which many of us became accustomed during the Election campaign last month. I was a little surprised to hear the noble Lord say that during his own part in the Election campaign he was never asked a single question about housing. I think the noble Lord must have been lucky—or perhaps potential hecklers were deterred by his authoritative and imposing appearance. My own impression during the Election was that some members of the noble Lord's Party were a little embarrassed by the not altogether accurate prediction of their leaders a few years before, that it was impossible to build more than 200,000 houses a year unless fewer schools and fewer factories were built. I believe that there were one or two Labour candidates who found it a little difficult to be always quite polite in their attempts to explain to the electors how it had come about that the Government had managed to create a record in all three.

I was a little disappointed to hear the noble Lord say that he thinks the modern, slightly smaller house—called, I think, the people's house—was too small to be satisfactory. I do not want to go into details of the question. It is true that, in the case of a three-bedroomed house, the former minimum of 900 square feet has been departed from, but I think I am right in saying that the dimensions of each individual room in the modern people's house do conform to the requirements laid down by the Housing Manual of 1949 which was issued by the Government of the noble Lord's Party.

My knowledge of the housing question is vastly inferior to that of the noble Lord, but I should like to follow his example for a few moments in trying to deal with the question in its broader aspects, and objectively, as I think he has done. Before the war, in Great Britain we were building houses at the rate of 450,000 a year; and in Scotland, at least, there was every prospect that the Scottish share in that figure would soon be substantially increased. At that time the cost of a four-apartment house was usually somewhere in the region of £400. It is not altogether an idle regret—indeed, on the contrary, I think it is a useful consideration—in trying to understand our present housing problem, that we should reflect on what would have happened in housing if the war had not taken place. In fact, since 1939, we have built in Great Britain barely 2 million new houses, of which about half have been built in the last three and a half years. If there had been no war, and if we had continued to build at the rate which we had reached in 1938—which might well have been increased—we should by now have built since 1939 not 2 million but 7 million new houses. In 1955 there would now probably have been no slums left in Great Britain; and overcrowding, as defined by the 1936 Act, would probably be fairly negligible.

The war has struck a very hard blow at housing progress in Great Britain and, of course, the deterioration in our position now, compared with 1938, cannot be measured by the difference between 7 million and 2 million houses. Unfortunately, it is far worse than that, for in the last sixteen years, except for the patching up of houses damaged by enemy action, very little has been spent on repairs. The slums, which were already condemned in 1939, are now much worse than they were then. New slums have came into being, and a great deal of house property which is still good property and capable of being saved is in danger, owing to inadequate expenditure on repairs, of degenerating into slum property.

The reason why we could not deal with this problem after the war was simply that it was vital to our national life that we should devote nearly the whole of such resources as we had to building new factories, increasing our industrial production and our export trade. That was absolutely necessary, in order to enable us to live; and nobody can be blamed for that circumstance. I have always deplored Party controversy on the housing problem. I do not think it has ever done much good, and I believe that it often does a good deal of harm, although I feel bound to say that a great deal of the Party controversy we have had was engendered, in the first place, by members of the noble Lord's Party in 1945, who promised that they were the only Party who could build houses. One of them even went so far as to say that they could easily build 4 million or 5 million houses in a very short time. When politicians on one side win an Election by promises of that kind, it is rather too much to expect politicians on the other side to keep entirely silent about it. But I think the post-war Labour Government were right in concentrating on our most vital economic needs, even though the necessary price of hat was that we all had to endure the agony of seeing our slums getting worse, and the queues of disappointed families who had nowhere to live getting longer and longer.

If we are going to refrain, as I most certainly refrain, from making any major attack on the housing policy of the Party opposite, then I think it is only fair that we should pay some tribute to the genius and labour of the present Foreign Secretary who was Minister of Housing until a short time ago. I think the successful application with which he addressed himself to an extremely difficult task is one of the most creditable examples of post-war statesmanship. Not only was the problem with which he had to deal a prodigious problem, but the opportunities for misjudgment and miscalculation were almost unlimited. How much of our precious resources in labour and materials could we devote to housing as a whole? How much could later be switched to reconditioning or to slum clearance, and so on? These questions did not always depend on us. To some extent they are outside our control, because it is necessary that we should import some of our most essential building materials from abroad, so that the terms of trade, which have the most unpredictable habit of going up and down, to the advantage of one Government and to the embarrassment of another, have an important bearing on our housing problem at home.

I believe that the White Paper of 1953 which was produced by Mr. Macmillan was undoubtedly the most courageous and statesmanlike exposition of this very difficult problem and of its remedies which we have had since the war, and on it the present policy of the Government is based. Its proposals fall into a number of different parts, all of which have to be carefully reconciled with each other. There is the question of building new houses, the question of reconditioning, the question of slum clearance and the question of temporarily patching up old slums, about which I should like to say one word, because it is an entirely new idea. This idea would have been unthinkable before the war and, naturally, a great many people have criticised it: the idea that time and money should be spent on temporarily improving this horrible old property, which ought to be demolished and swept away at the earliest possible moment, is repugnant to them.

I think the right way to look at the matter, however, is this. Unfortunately, we cannot get rid of all our slums within the next five years, partly because the magnitude of the problem has grown since before the war, and partly because we are poorer in economic resources than we were then. I believe that the only practicable objection to the Government's policy—I think it is called deferred demolition; that is to say, temporarily repairing condemned unfit property—is that by using up a certain amount of labour and materials it may defer the time when this property can be demolished and when the occupants can be rehoused. But if we consider a family living in a slum area who cannot be rehoused for more than five years, what are we to do? Are we to leave them in this unfit house, in conditions of the most acute squalor, let us say, for six years, and then give them a new house; or is it better to leave them for a year longer, say, for seven years, with a little more comfort, a little more decency, and a little more chance of domestic happiness? I think the answer can be given only by the local authority who have the duty of planning their slum clearance programmes and of deciding which clearance area shall have priority. I think the Government are right in giving the local authority the power, with the aid of the 50 per cent. Government grant, to say that in the case of areas which come near the bottom of the programme, even though it may mean a slight delay in the process of rehousing, they may improve for the time being the comfort and the decency of these unfit dwellings.

I do not want to say anything about reconditioning because this is a United Kingdom Motion and I do not want to introduce Scottish matters, but the problem is so different as between England and Scotland that one cannot allude to reconditioning without mentioning the difference. In England, much of our old house property was built under 99-year building leases. The people who built them usually built them of brick, and perhaps did not mean them to last for longer than the duration of the 99-year lease. Some of them are now good, and some are bad. In Scotland, on the other hand, where the feudal system has never been abolished, a great many old houses were built under a perpetual feu charter which lasts for ever, and the people who built them built them of stone, with walls two or three feet thick. Some are now bad and some are good. Those which are good are so durable that, if properly reconditioned, they will provide first-class homes which will last longer than many of the new houses now being built. In both countries, England and Scotland, not all the 7 million old houses privately owned are slums; not all are unfit. A great many of them, by careful reconditioning, could economically, at reasonable cost, be made into, not second-class but first-class homes which will last for a very long time. It would be folly not to devote a certain part of our resources, with proper Government grants, to carrying out that work.

Then with regard to slum clearance itself, although it may be said, "But think how much worse and how much more formidable our task is now than it was before the war," at least it is a very great advance that we can now contemplate a major drive against the slums considerably sooner than was thought possible a few years ago. It is necessary that this drive should be caried out, not only for the sake of the inhabitants of the slums but also for the sake of many of the great cities in which they are to be found. We cannot go on letting these cities sprawl out with new housing schemes to an indefinite distance, taking up agricultural land, far away from the work of the people who are put into them, while we leave this festering sore of slum property in the centre of the cities themselves.

I quite agree with the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, that cost may be a formidable obstacle. But, after all, even if one has to pay £25 an acre for agricultural land, we need the food; and for the sake of the civic life of our great cities, even if it costs a great deal of money, it is necessary that they should be decently and well developed in the centre. Not all the inhabitants can be housed on the same sites: some will have to go further out. A great many of them, however, can be housed in large blocks and apartments the disadvantages of which are at least partly outweighed by their proximity to the work of the inhabitants. I hope that the local authorities, in carrying out these rebuilding schemes, will be more ready than some of them are at present to employ first-class architects in designing their bigger housing schemes. I was glad that the noble Lord mentioned that point. The most beautiful housing schemes are by no means always the most expensive. If you employ a good architect, you will of course have to pay him a high fee; but the economies in design which may be worked out by a skilful architect will often repay the local authority many times over the amount of his fee.

There is one other point to which I want to allude—and I am lot quite sure at the moment how important or unimportant it is—in relation to the Government's policy as a whole. One of the things which the present Foreign Secretary, Mr. Macmillan, did before he left the Housing Ministry about a year ago was to inaugurate a financial scheme under which tenants of houses might purchase them, through the medium of the building societies, but with a larger loan than the building societies are accustomed to advance. As a rule, the building societies do not go beyond 80 per cent., but under the Macmillan scheme loans can be, in some cases, as high as 95 per cent., the difference being guaranteed jointly by the Government, the local authority and the building society. In a recent publication of the Building Societies' Association it is stated that during the first few months of this scheme, up to September, only £500,000 was issued in loans; during the second quarter, from September to December, the amount rose to £4 million; and during the most recent quarter, from January to March of this year, £7 million was advanced for this purpose. It is also stated that the present Minister of Housing and Local Government is considering whether the scheme can be extended.

I do not want to bother the noble Earl, Lord Munster, who is going to reply by asking him a lot about this matter now, because I know that he will have many other things to which to reply, but at some time or other I should very much like to know what kind of houses so far have been principally dealt with under this tripartite scheme—what type of people are buying them; is there any chance of the scheme being extended, and will anything be done to publicise it and give it the fullest advertisement?


If I may interrupt the noble Earl for one moment, in what sense is that scheme a tripartite scheme? Is it not the case that the guarantee is by the Government and by the local authority, and that the building society is almost completely secure?


The word "tripartite" is the word used by the Building Societies' Association, who assert (whether or not it is correct I do not know) that all three share in the guarantee. As I say, I do not know whether or not that is so. It seems to me that the Government guarantee is the essential part of it. That is what I should like to be told something more about. We are often told that the great majority of wage earners in this country do not want to own houses and would prefer to rent them. Of course, there are many people in all classes of the community who, for one reason or another, may not find it convenient to own a house and who would prefer to rent one. But there are also a great many in all classes who would like to own a house. I think there are a great many more who have never thought about the subject at all but who would think about it seriously if it were brought to their attention that they had an opportunity, with the aid of a Government credit, of becoming the owner of their house on favourable terms. If this could be done on a larger scale it would be to the advantage of everybody and to the disadvantage of no one.

From the point of view of the owners, when I have advocated a policy of this kind, as I have done sometimes in Scotland, I have sometimes been asked "Is it not a little unfair, is it not even a little sharp practice, that we should take advantage of the artificially depressed value of rent restricted property which is caused by the Rent Restrictions Act itself to encourage, by Government credit, by a Government-guaranteed credit scheme, the acquisition of these houses by the tenants at a considerably lower price than the owner would be able to get if he could sell in an open market with vacant possession?" I do not think it is unfair, because it is most unlikely, so far as we can foresee, that houses on lower classes of rents will be decontrolled for a very long time, if they ever are. Owners have great difficulty in keeping them in repair. Is it really likely that their selling value, as a whole, will ever increase? There are so many owners who find their house property more of a liability than of an asset. I am sure that there are a great many who would be only too glad to take a small price in order to get rid of it.

From the point of view of the tenants, I see that at page 7 of the Government White Paper of 1953 a typical example is quoted of a rent-controlled house with a rent of £15 a year, and it has been pointed out that the rent might be increased to £30 a year under the Housing Repairs and Rents Act, on condition, of course, that the balance is spent on repairs. My Lords, if a house is commanding a net rent of only £15 a year, its selling value can hardly be much more than £300, and the annual instalments which it would be necessary to pay to a building society would not be very much more than the rent that the tenant is now paying. He would, of course, have to pay the cost of his own repairs, but he may have to do that anyhow under the Housing Repairs and Rents Act. There are many tenants of rent-restricted houses who, if they are earning good wages, are now very much better off than the owners. Many of them would probably be eager to take advantage of Government credit to purchase their houses if they were properly informed of the opportunity. In the White Paper, we are told that out of the 13½ million houses in this country (it must now be about 14 million) fewer than 4 million are privately owned, about 2½ million are owned by local authorities and over 7 million are conducted on the landlord and tenant system. That is far too high a proportion of landlord and tenant houses, and far too low a proportion of owner-occupied houses.

It would also be of great advantage to the community if purchase by the occupier could be carried out on a larger scale. When a man becomes the owner of his house there is a great psychological change in his attitude. The resentment, which unfortunately is fairly widespread in many urban areas, on the part of tenants towards landlords general, immediately disappears when the tenant becomes his own landlord. He can usually be trusted on the one hand to carry out necessary repairs promptly and efficiently, and on the oilier hand not to waste his money on anything which he considers unnecessary. Therefore, it seems to me that, from the point of view of the community, we should preserve this national asset in the shape of our old housing property more economically and efficiently if a larger proportion of it were owned by the occupiers than is possible under the present not, very satisfactory landlord and tenant system.

I have been talking only of old rent-restricted houses, but I should like to see this principle applied to new houses, too. Of course in the case of a new house the cost is very mach greater, for the four-apartment house in England may cost £1,500 and perhaps rather more in Scotland, and the annual premiums necessary to purchase that house through a building society would often be beyond the means of the average wage-earner. But what are we doing now? We are spending in England a subsidy of £30 a year on a three-bedroomed house, and in Scotland a subsidy of £56 a year on a four-apartment house, with higher subsidies in cases of special expenditure. I think that if it could be arranged for this subsidy, which we have to pay anyhow, to be deducted from the annual premium which the purchaser would pay to the building society, then we should bring a large number of these houses within the means of a great many wage-earning families. I do not say that they would all want to own them, but a great many of them would, and we should gain a great deal in social contentment and also in the promotion of savings, for there is no kind of saving which is more beneficial to the country than the saving of a man who is trying to buy his own house.

Last Thursday I noticed that some of your Lordships were listening in another place to the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the debate on the Address, in which he hinted that the Treasury might accord some kind of favourable treatment to co-partnership and profit-sharing schemes in order to promote the Government's policy of establishing a property-owning democracy. What an excellent thing it is that a wage-earner should be helped to acquire this intangible asset in the shape of some direct financial interest in the business for which he is working! How much better it is that he should be helped and encouraged to acquire the most tangible piece of property which any human being can possess, which he can see and enjoy every day of his life—the home of his own family!

4.16 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the House has listened to the last two speeches with considerable interest. They were speeches which were full of matter for consideration, not only by the House but by the Government, and were speeches dealing, first, with the general situation, and secondly, with the position in Scotland. They were speeches which I am certain will be read, with very deep, interest indeed by many folk outside the walls of this House. It is not my province to speak this afternoon for very long, but I wish to pose to the Minister who is to reply to the debate one or two questions, which arise in ordinary day-to-day dealings with the housing situation in the country. Before I do that, I should like to endorse a point to which the mover of the Motion referred—namely, the importance and the vast coverage of the problem from a national point of view. Whilst we may be able to deal with the matter as at present, obviously it is one for long-term consideration, and we must think of the new generation which is arising. In the generation which is now passing and which has passed, housing conditions have been such that we have deplored them; but, whatever efforts may have been made to put them right, I think we must at this particular point, certainly after ten years of house building since the war ceased, turn our thoughts to the position which may exist in this country in the future.

It is quite possible that there may arise an era of irresponsible thought and action, and growing youthful dissatisfaction with everything and everybody may be approaching. We do not know whether this may happen; but it is a possibility. Therefore, at this stage I think we must take steps which appear appropriate to us to counteract such an evil if it should ever arise. Bad lives, bad thinking and a lack of parental discipline are apt to breed and to thrive where housing conditions and surroundings are themselves bad. Therefore, I think one aspect of the work of any Government must be to provide healthy, pleasant and attractive homes for the people. Self-satisfaction with our own blessings and a blind eye to the needs of others must inevitably lead to distrust, unrest and undesired trouble for us all. This we must avoid at all costs.

In the opening speech there was some reference to figures of the production of houses, but we should not be deluded by figures of progress. Surely this national house-building operation is not a competition in numbers. The only satisfaction that we can obtain is that, as a nation, by our efforts, we shall fully cater for the needs of the people; and we must build according to those needs. It has been said that we can increase the total of houses built by building houses of the wrong type or size or in other ways, but I hope Her Majesty's Government will realise that, as a nation, we have to attempt to plan building operations so that the needs of those who want houses are satisfied at the earliest possible moment. Reference has been made to England and Scotland, but at this stage I want to mention East Anglia. I am particularly anxious that those living on old aerodromes, in huts which are neither windproof nor weatherproof and are not really habitable, should be rehoused at the earliest possible moment. Those people are living in deplorable conditions. I cannot conceive that any of us in this House would think much of it had we been compelled to live under such conditions. I am certain that our reaction against society would be the same reaction that those people no doubt hold at the present time. Some of these huts are due for demolition and the people in them are due for rehousing, but difficulties have arisen in regard to the acquisition of land in neighbouring districts of which I have knowledge. Negotiations have been held up for an interminable length of time. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will take whatever action they can to hasten the acquisition of suitable land and to make arrangements for the rehousing of these people as early as possible.

As these are rural areas the question of the acquisition of agricultural land has arisen. Although an acre of agricultural land may play its part in the productive life of the nation, we must keep in our mind the fact that an acre of agricultural land will house at least thirty people, possibly more; and because houses have been built on that land and the gardens are cultivated the area will produce, perhaps, more than it would if it were in the occupation of a particular farmer.


Hear, hear!


That may sound a strange statement coming from myself, a member of the farming community, but I am most anxious that stress on the use of agricultural land should not retard the housing of those who are in need, because I cannot shut my eyes to the fact that there are many thousands of acres of land in this country which could be brought back into cultivation in order to counteract the loss of agricultural land which it may be necessary to acquire for housing purposes.

Another question which arises in regard to country housing is that of sewerage. I am biased in the view that in some cases Her Majesty's Government are not very helpful on the question of the provision by local authorities of sewerage systems for village houses. I believe it is a fact that sanction is given for sewerage systems to be brought into operation in regard to council houses, but except in very exceptional cases those sewerage systems cannot be extended to cover other houses either in close proximity or elsewhere in the villages. I believe it is a fact that there is in existence a circular, No. 54/52, which can be regarded as ambiguous. Her Majesty's Government should, I feel, give it a more liberal interpretation and allow local authorities to bring into operation sewerage systems for several villages. It is important to remember that people living in the countryside are entitled to the same amenities as are other people, and certainly water supplies and sewerage systems should now be operating fully in our countryside.

The Minister may be able to give information on a subject which I have met with on one or two occasions. It is a dual point. The first is the question of the transfer or allocation of houses in the case of an applicant who lives in one area and works in an adjoining area. If he wishes either to change his house or to obtain a house in an adjoining area he is debarred from doing so because, at this particular time, although he works in an area he lives outside that area. The second point relates to the transfer of council tenants from one area to another, or the "swopping" of houses. Might I ask the Minister one or two questions on future building allocations for local authorities? I believe that some local authorities at the present time are rather in the dark about the number of houses for which they are likely to receive building sanction, and also about how many will be in respect of slum clearance and how many will be for subsidised letting for the ordinary applicant on the waiting list. And, in regard to the last point, if no houses are allocated for subsidisation and none can, therefore, be used by the ordinary applicant who is on the waiting list and who is not in a position to take an ordinary rented house—that is an un-subsidised house—what is likely to be the position of that particular applicant? He, or she, may have waited many years, and if there is no allocation of subsidised houses in the local authority's quota, that applicant is in an extremely difficult position.

Another matter which affects the allocation of houses and which is detrimental to those who are in need of houses is the use of furnished houses, or parts of furnished houses, by newly married couples or others. These people are generally in furnished houses at high rents, rents which it may be beyond their means to pay. But whilst they are in furnished accommodation, it is extremely difficult for such applicants to obtain council houses. I know that they may appeal to the rent tribunal, but if an appeal is made to the rent tribunal, although the rent may be reduced, there is then the possibility that within a period of months a notice to quit may be received. Therefore the numbers appealing to the rent tribunals are comparatively small. But the fact remains that consideration should be given to people who are in that position.

The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, referred to the question of the building and the spread-over of cities. I am afraid that cannot speak with any great knowledge of city development, but I think that in dealing with our housing problems we should aim at arriving at what I like to think is a balanced community. We should not consider building entirely in the cities; we should try to spread our building operations according to needs, and, so far as possible, where we are able to do so, with a view to preserving in the small country towns and larger villages their rural character. We should strive not to bring to these small country places industrialisation, or matters of that sort, however attractive it may be from the point of view of reduction of rates or improvement of the capital value of the places concerned. We should endeavour to plan all building according to the circumstances of the particular city and the particular country area. I wish to finish by stressing once again—and this is the note on which I started—the immensity of the problem which is before the Government. We understand—and I agree with what has already been said on the point—that this is not a Party matter. So far as I am concerned, I say it is a matter upon which we should all agree and we should all seek to do our best to solve the problem in the course of the years ahead.