HL Deb 22 June 1955 vol 193 cc283-308

4.36 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, I almost feel that I should apologise for intervening in this debate, as it is such a long time since I last attempted to address your Lordships' House. But this question of housing happens to be one which interests me very deeply. I have been associated with it actively for between fifty and sixty years. Therefore many of the things that have been said in the discussion which has taken place here today on the relative merits of houses that we built many years ago and the houses that we build today were already known to me. There are more causes than one for the differences between these two kinds of houses. I myself, round about 1913–14, built houses with three bedrooms, a bathroom and hot and cold water, and sold them for £250 each. Of course our overheads at that time were not what they are today; and we had not what is known in these days as the Welfare State. But I venture to tell your Lordships that these houses, which I pass every day when I am at home, compare very favourably with the council houses that were built after the First World War. They are still there and they do not need a lot of repairing. What is more, I believe that one of the reasons for their not needing much repair is that nearly all of them are owned by the people who live in them, and who are quite able to carry out themselves such repairs as are needed. So it is nothing new for me to say that I agree entirely with the idea that a man should own his own house, and, for the future, so far as I am concerned, he would also have to build it—I do not propose to do it.

In my view, one of the great causes of the increased costs of housing is not so much that the men are not working as fast as they used to in my day. In the days of which I am speaking, I used to work with them from the time they started in the morning until they finished at night. Naturally, it was my business to get as much out of them as I possibly could. That was what practically every building employer did at that time, and we were very successful, as a consequence, in producing a good article and a cheap one. What is it that to-day prevents a lot of improvements from being carried out by private owners? It is the tremendous expense involved. I recently calculated that if an owner wants some slight repair done, such as two new slates on a roof, it will run him into quite substantial expense. A man is sent to have a look at the roof; he sees what length of ladder he wants; if he wants a creeper he will go back to get it. He will fetch two or three slates and a bit of lead to fasten them with, and he will get his labourer along to help him. When the job is finished it will be found that it has cost about £2 to put a couple of slates on a roof. And that is a very small job. It is all very well for people to say, "But the owners ought to pay for it." The fact is that the cost of repairs has increased so enormously that many of the people concerned simply cannot afford to carry out repairs.

All the costs of building generally have risen enormously. We know that we have millions of tons of the raw material needed for doing concreting. It is all in the hands of four firms. At one time you could get as much as you pleased for one shilling. Now, if you ask a number of firms to give a price, you get the same price from every inquiry, with not a penny difference. And, as your Lordships know, the waste material from blast furnaces—mountains of it—is available; yet to-day it costs an enormous amount of money. In regard to cement, I know of a firm which had the experience of getting a contract with a distributor under a little more favourable conditions titan usual, but after he had delivered one or two loads, the distributor received orders from the superior court, which is the ring, that he must cease at once or there would be no more supplies of cement. So that contract was torn up and was of no further avail. Then we have tar, which is used in foundations, in roads and footpaths—and here the local authorities also come in. The prices are exactly the same. The materials used in the foundations are completely controlled.

There is a nice story to be told in regard to bricks. Bricks cost about £6 10s. a thousand. I think this is a scandal which the Government ought to look into. Near many villages and small towns there are local brick works, near the spot where the clay is being hewn, yet local building contractors have to pay exactly the same price for the bricks made on their own doorstep as they would have to pay if they got them from Peterborough, many miles from the building site. But there is one thing about it; the brick makers do consider contractors a little. I know a man who asked a firm of brickmakers whether there would be any consideration if he placed an order for a few million bricks. The firm said, "Yes; 6d. a thousand." As bricks cost £6 10s. a thousand, that is slightly less than a penny in the £ to encourage the contactor to get on with the job. That is a lot worse than the "Co-op," but that is private enterprise at work—a penny in the discount, no matter how many tricks you order and no matter how you pay. If you ask them to send a pro forma invoice and pay straight away for half a million bricks, you still get a penny in the £ discount—a piece of encouragement to help you along the road and keep you out of the bankruptcy court!

The next item, steel windows, again is controlled. There are fixed price agreements among those who manufacture them: there is no competition there. Then there are tiles. I notice that Marley Tiles did very well this year and declared a greater profit than they have done for a very long time—I should say greater than they have ever done. Here again we have no remedy; we have to pay the price. Now I come to sewage pipes, which again are controlled, and again the general contractor has to pay the price asked, because he has not the slightest remedy. In the case of cast-iron goods, I am sure that many of your Lordships know that these prices are fixed. Lead and electric fittings are also controlled. Sanitary fittings and toilets are all price-controlled—and not only price-controlled; most contracts provide so much money for sanitary goods, which is at the disposal of the council's surveyor or engineer or architect. In regard to timber, I remember that a Minister in another place (perhaps I had better not say who he is), who I suppose, like myself, had good intentions, thought he was going to reduce the price of building materials. But one of the first things that happened was that the price of timber was raised £19 per standard. As it takes two standards to build a council house, that meant an increase of £38 in the price of the house for timber alone; and nothing whatever was done about it. That was when timber was supposed to be controlled. I have very grave doubts of the honesty of the control in some of these things.

Anyone who looks at building prices to-day is amazed at the size of them. A little house—what I would call a paltry cottage—costs £1,500 or £1,600. In my view, that is ridiculous, and I do not think there is anyone who would not admit that it is ridiculous. But what can the building contractor do? No matter where he is, how big he is, or who he is, the fact is that the prices are laid down; the only difference between one contractor and another is in efficiency; and I do not think that the difference in efficiency accounts for much. There is a little bit in the erection of a house. It may be that there is a saving by prefabrication, but most people in this country, believe me, my Lords, would prefer one of the old kind of houses, even though it costs a bit more money. Generally, there is nothing so good as a brick house in this country, though I agree that there may be a case for prefabricated houses in remote parts of the country, such as the areas owned by the Forestry Commission. I always thought the Government were slow in this matter. Having regard to the cost of transporting workpeople at the various stages of erecting a permanent type house and of transporting materials to remote places, there may be a case for erecting prefabricated houses in these places.

In regard to rural housing, which my noble friend Lord Wise has just mentioned, I would submit that in some districts they should exercise a little care about building these houses. I do not say that there are not in some places rotten old cottages that ought to be replaced, but I have in mind the experience of a friend of mine, a farmer, who, at his own expense, has built 160 houses. They are a real credit to him, for he has given them a bit of character. He has put a bit of stone under the windows or on the gables to make them fit in with the old village. I saw him a fortnight ago. He has fourteen of these houses to let, and they are houses that must have cost him at least £2,000 each. Why is that? It is because there are no labourers in the countryside to go into them. This man is an efficient farmer, who owns something like 8,000 to 10,000 acres; he is one of the best employers, and yet he has these houses standing empty because there are no labourers to go into them.

Of course, some of the labourers are being displaced by machinery, and how far machinery is likely to be used still further in agriculture, I cannot say; but this man has these fourteen surplus houses which he wants agricultural labourers to occupy. They are to let at 6s. a week, and they are far superior to any council houses that I have seen. Money did not seem to enter into the matter; all he wanted to do was to build a quality house so that he could attract the best kind of agricultural labourer. So far as the rural areas are concerned, I think the waiting lists should be brought up to date. I have seen one of these lists brought up to date, and it is obvious that people who previously had their names down for houses had found accommodation elsewhere. I feel that, in their present state, the lists are not always very reliable and that the number of houses said to be needed in some of these villages should be looked into. I believe that we should go a little slowly.

I am partly out of step with some of the things that have been said to-day about agricultural land and houses; on that aspect there is a conflict of opinion in this House. But there is no room for two opinions about this: that we must produce the maximum amount of agricultural produce possible for the people of this country. In my view, therefore, we should conserve as much of the agricultural land as we can. I do not mean to suggest that houses should be built so close together that there is scarcely room to breathe, but I have seen some cases in my own area where the amount of land—and it was some of the best agricultural land in the area—used to build a few houses was shameful. In some places, and particularly on low-lying land, the building of flats or flatlets of about three storeys would save land. They are very comfortable, and make a nice home—I happen to know that, because I have built some. If the ironstone is taken out, as has been done in Corby, I cannot see why flatlets should not be built, instead of houses that take good agricultural land. It is a great mistake, in my view, for authorities to go sprawling about for miles and putting in pipes for sewage disposal, gas, electricity and road making (all this adds to the cost), and building houses, as they do in some cases, six and eight to the acre.

What we need in this country, and what we shall continue to need, is a larger population to grow as much of the food required for our own consumption as we possibly can. All these things are important. There may be a conflict between the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Ministry of Agriculture, but there can be no gainsaying the fact that we should not waste an acre of our good agriculture land, which has been going out of cultivation at the rate of over 50,000 acres a year. The population is increasing, and I am pleased that they have sufficient wages to buy more food. But lightly to destroy the agricultural land by building houses on it is a shame, and in many cases it is a scandalous waste of the land. In several cases I know, land has been wasted in the type of roads built leading to the estate.

This matter is far more important than some of my fellow Peers seem to think. I was brought up on the land, and there were more than six -louses to the acre in our village. The only man who could afford a good house at that time was the fellow who could afford six acres to the house—never mind six houses to the acre. Some of the houses in these villages had low roofs; I could not walk upright in the one I was brought up in. I sometimes look at myself and think that under those conditions I have not done too badly. I can tell your Lordships that at one Election some supporters of mine went into a street of these houses and started condemning the houses. But they were little palaces inside; they had small rooms, and the ceilings were low, but they were sweet and clean and a real home. The women from those houses chased my supporters out of the street with clothes props, and they had to retire and leave the women in their little homes. A great many people like these little old homes, especially in the winter time.

I think it was the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, who spoke of some of the little homes. If they were properly repaired and had water supplied and a sewerage scheme—they are now getting gas in some of the little villages—some of these little houses would last a good deal longer than some of the improvised houses we have put up, especially what we call the, Portal house. In the Portal house if you raise your arms they are up to the ceiling, and you have to get down on your knees to take your shirt off. They should not be built so low, because houses of this type ought to be described as slums. They are new houses, and breathing space should be provided in them.

Finally, I hope the Government will not forget that the main reason why I have said a word or two is to deal with the price controls. It is nothing less than a scandal that for bricks and cement, and even slag that is on your own doorstep, you have to "pay through the nose." Ultimately it comes into the bill for the building of the house, and then it must appear in the rent. And it may be that, ultimately, some of those who are occupying those houses, if there is any financial stringency in this country, may be called upon to bear a greater proportion of the rent than they now pay.

5.0 p.m.


My Lords, I found it extremely refreshing to listen to my noble friend Lord Quibell, because one had the feeling that he was speaking from personal experience. But what occurred to me was this. While my own feeling is that he is quoting quite truthfully what is happening in connection with prices of building material, why is it that those committees who have sat in order to inquire into the costs of housing have not been able, so far, at any rate, to get prices reduced, in spite of the kind of evidence that a noble Lord like Lord Quibell could bring forward? One has the feeling that, although there is at the moment a tendency for prices to come down, those falls in prices are by no means satisfactory from the point of view of those who have to pay for the erection of houses.

I was interested, too, in what the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, said in the course of his remarks. None of us wants to be really controversial this afternoon—this subject is far too great and important. But I must admit that when, during the Election, I heard certain speeches and certain remarks, to the effect that some 300,000 houses had been built, there came into my mind this thought. Remembering the hundreds of thousands of pounds that are being paid in transport charges for the purpose of taking children from their houses to distant schools, when schools could have been at walking distances; and remembering the amount of money and time spent in travelling from places of residence to places of work, it seems to me that, in order to achieve that figure of 300,000 there has been some kind of neglect in the proportion of schools, hospitals and factories to the number of houses built. One feels that, for reasons which some of us can guess, there has been almost a distortion of the country's economy in order to get that kind of unbalance so that the boast could be made later that 300,000 houses had been built.

However, that is not the purpose of my rising this afternoon. It is rather because of what has been said about housing in general. Bad as are the conditions which have been described of English houses, I think they are even worse in houses in Scotland. The White Paper which the Government published in relation to housing in Scotland shows that 41 per cent. of the houses were built before 1880, and that only 12 per cent. of the 1,473,000 houses in Scotland were erected between 1945 and 1952. I am told that, despite the 255,000 or more houses built in Scotland, there still remains a need for some 470,000 houses, and that dilapidations are now taking place at something like 11,000 a year. In Glasgow, of 314,000 houses, 143,000, or 45 per cent., are still houses of one or two apartments—not one or two bedrooms, but one or two rooms for the whole house. That, obviously, is a condition which ought not to be tolerated in these days. One does not want to stress what we all know of the relationship between bad housing and bad health.

We know, too, as my noble friend Lord Silkin pointed out, that we are faced with an increasing population and less ground upon which to build houses. I know, for example, that in the case of full employment the labour force is immobile, and cannot be expected to shift up and down. We know that families are smaller and, therefore, the number of houses needed is larger than ever. We know about an ageing population who want, and rightly want, accommodation for themselves and not merely to be tolerated by their relations. When I think of all these problems, I confess that in my more pessimistic moments I begin to imagine that the problem is almost insoluble. I agree with what my noble friend Lord Quibell has said: that it is sacrilege, it is economically suicidal, to destroy good agricultural land in order to erect houses. I well remember how in Glasgow, a city that I know a little about, an area of good agricultural land, the size of Perth, was laid out, beautifully but, in the light of present-day requirements, wastefully, as a reaction to the very had conditions they were trying to remedy. Therefore, one comes to the conclusion that the dreams of the town planners in the immediate post-war years have now become the nightmares of local authorities, because local authorities are finding it extremely difficult to cope with this immense problem.

My purpose in rising this afternoon is to make one mild suggestion and to deal with another problem. The suggestion is this. In a large city such as Glasgow, where the authorities are doing their utmost to utilise every building site they can, and where they are proceeding with slum clearance as rapidly and as effectively as they can, I have the feeling—and this must apply equally to other large cities—that there must be large areas of land which are today almost sterilised for any use—I refer to land which was formerly part and parcel of, for example, the railway companies, which was used at one time for storage purposes, warehouse purposes, and so on, and which could be far better and far more cheaply utilised for the erection of houses. I believe that if a survey were made of land of that kind which is still available, it would to some extent prevent the necessity of trespassing on this much more valuable agricultural land.

The other point I wish to raise, which may be somewhat controversial, is this. The burden of interest which local authorities have to pay on the loans that they raise for housing purposes alone is becoming unbearable and, in my view, a definite hindrance to the continued building of houses. For example, of the £102 million of capital debt which Glasgow has piled up, £78 million has been borrowed for housing purposes alone. The rent received by the local authority for the 80,000-odd houses they own is actually less than the amount of interest payable upon the money borrowed for housing purposes. That is not an isolated case. It applies, I think, to all the four large cities in Scotland, and in any event appears to be a ruinous charge upon the local authorities.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, will not "jump" at me if I say that the question of finance nowadays, so far as internal finance is concerned, is largely a matter of bookkeeping; that the question of currency is largely a matter of the controlled output of the printing machine and that, therefore, there should not be so great a hesitation in considering ways and means whereby the finance required for housing purposes can be dealt with by a form of book-keeping different from the general kind of book-keeping for commercial and industrial purposes. In other words, if it were possible to provide local authorities with the capital necessary to cover the cost of erecting houses at either a nominal figure of interest or, if one wants to be extreme, completely free of interest, there seems to be no real reason—one knows of other reasons, of course—why that problem cannot be solved.

Indeed, there is a partial precedent in the Housing Repairs and Rents Act which was recently passed, because there, where local authorities are asked to pay for some of these older and dilapidated houses for the purpose of improving them sufficiently well to permit, say, of a life of five or ten years or so, the Government are prepared to cover half the loan charges for the period that the house is occupied. If they can do that for those houses for a period of five or ten years why cannot they do it for new houses being erected, instead of continuing the loan charges to the local authorities, as they now do, for a period of sixty years? One cannot but sympathise with members of local authorities who bitterly resent that a house costing the very high figure of £1,900, for example, should actually cost, over the sixty years, something like £5,000. While in ordinary business practice no one would suggest any kind of revolutionary treatment of interest charges of that kind, when it comes to a problem of this sort some measure other than the routine methods ought to be adopted in order to ease the burden placed upon local authorities and upon those who have to pay rates for these houses. I hope that these two suggestions will be considered by the Government, and that something may come out of them which will have the effect of relieving local authorities of the heavy burdens now placed upon them.

5.14 p.m.


My Lords, some of your Lordships, including the noble Earl opposite who will reply to the debate, will remember the debates we had on housing before the war. In those debates the speeches that will be remembered and not forgotten by those who heard them were not made from either Front Bench. They were the speeches of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York (who was then Lord Bishop of Winchester and who would be with us this afternoon if his health permitted) and of the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of I3urleigh, on the Back Benches from the opposite side of the House. We are all delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, in his place this afternoon. He is one of the few noble Lords who have listened to this debate from start to finish without leaving the House even once for a quick cup of tea, and that is most encouraging for the mere tyros in housing, wherever they may sit. What we learned from those debates before the war, and particularly from the speeches of the two noble Lords whom I have just mentioned, was the urgency and seriousness of the housing problem. At that time there was only one other social problem of the same magnitude—mass unemployment. That problem has been solved, we all hope for ever; but it is far from a comforting thought that to-day, twenty years later, we are still discussing the housing problem.

This is only partly explained, as the noble Earl, Lord Dundee pointed out, by the setback during the war years. I do not think that any of us can feel completely satisfied that everything possible has been done, in the years of peace before and since the war, to meet the housing need. It is indeed a confession of failure, of failure of the whole society in which we live, and we shall have remedied this failure only when housing is no longer a difficult and intractable social problem. The improvement in the general standard of housing since the war has emphasised, by contrast, the backwardness of housing in certain areas. The fact is that most of our people have a higher general standard of living. They are earning and spending in the twentieth century, but they are living and sleeping in the nineteenth century. Their homes have been left behind in the advance into modern times. They work by day in a steel and concrete factory, in a modern shop or store, but they go home at night to a dwelling that dates from the Victorian era, if not earlier, and which is steadily deteriorating, in most cases because the landlord cannot afford to do the repairs.

The success of the Government in increasing the number of new dwellings tends to obscure the extent of our present housing problem and the enormous amount that remains to be done before we have a satisfactory standard even for the majority of our people. Of course, it is not just an urban problem. We are all aware of the unsatisfactory conditions, often aggravated by lack of a piped water supply, in many of our towns and villages. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Wise, who was speaking from his own knowledge of East Anglia, pointed out many difficulties of this kind which he hoped the Government and the local authorities would be able to remedy.

Nor is it just a question of finding a cure in the towns for the old evils, slums and overcrowding. It is no less important to prevent old property from becoming new slums and to disperse the population of our overgrown conurbations. Slum clearance, relief of overcrowding, dispersal, reconditioning and rural housing all require fresh thought, as the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, pointed out, and a more vigorous drive. The Government should push forward simultaneously in all these directions. There is, I feel quite certain, no need to wait for public opinion. Every one would welcome a bolder and more comprehensive housing drive. I suggest—and perhaps the noble Earl opposite will ask his right honourable friend to consider it—that the Prime Minister should be invited to initiate such a policy by addressing a representative meeting of local authorities and the representatives of the building industry. This is surely the time, at the start of a new Parliament with a long programme of work in front of us, for such an act of imaginative statesmanship.

But the success of this new policy which we all hope to see initiated will dep,end on a reconsideration of certain features, and certain features only, of present housing policy. I fear that we shall not get the dwellings we all want without some change of emphasis on private building. No one denies that free enterprise can contribute usefully to the supply of houses and certainly to improvements in architectural design. We on this side of the House do not object to private building, or to the owning by people of their own homes. I thought that that point was made very clear by my noble friend Lord Quibell, to whose speech we all listened with great pleasure, based as it was on a lifetime of experience in the building industry. He brought out some extremely important and rather alarming points regarding the factors which keep up costs in the building industry. But however that may be, the fact is that private building still caters in the main for the lucky few who can afford to buy a house or pay an economic rent.

The main emphasis was placed on private building by Conservative Governments between the wars. More houses were built than ever before, but they were not occupied by people in housing need. The same misplaced emphasis may result in a similar misdirection of housing effort. Here, I would say how heartily I agree with my noble friend Lord Silkin, that we must get away from doctrinal prejudice on both sides and look at this problem purely from the point of view of expediency and of the best and most effective methods of forwarding the housing drive. It is quite true that the total number of new dwellings has increased from year to year, but (and this, I think, is somewhat alarming) the proportion of those provided by local authorities has fallen. It is misleading to measure progress by the number of new dwellings, flats or houses built every year. What really matters is not how many flats and houses go up, but whether they are built in the right place, at the right cost, for the right people. The only valid criterion is how much of our new building is contributing directly to housing need. I am not sure whether this criterion is accepted by the Government.

May I mention one respect in which they appear to disregard it? The Government favour the sale of houses by local authorities, the result of which is to take dwellings out of local housing pools and to lessen the number available for families in need. We believe that the main emphasis, for the present at any rate, until there is a much greater supply of houses, should be placed on municipal enterprise. It follows from this that the local authorities should be enabled to get the sites and other facilities they require to expand their housing effort. We regard housing as a social service which can be effective only if it is given priority over other demands on the resources of the building industry.

The other thing in the Government's attitude which, to my mind has been hampering progress, is unnecessary delay before policy is carried out. The lengthy procedures connected with slum clearance should be curtailed so as to remove these black spots more rapidly from our great urban centres. I hope the Government will initiate discussions for this purpose with the local authorities. An even more serious ground for complaint has been the dilatory and hesitating way in which the Government has dealt with town development. This matter will be discussed next week on the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, and I shall therefore touch upon it only lightly this afternoon. The expansion of small towns is so vital to the housing plans of our great cities that it could hardly be omitted completely from a debate of this character on housing policy. The fact is, as your Lordships know full well, that our largest centres of population are rapidly running out of housing sites within their own boundaries: they must go outside or stop building. The only alternative is to increase density on the central sites, and this, I think your Lordships will agree, is objectionable on social grounds, as well as encountering the obstacle of cost to which my noble friend Lord Silkin referred. Hence the really imperative need for new towns and expanded towns to take the surplus population of our conurbation.

Everyone welcomed the New Towns Act of my noble friend Lord Silkin. This was followed by the Town Development Act, 1952, and we in London certainly felt new hope for our own city and for other great cities in this country. But after that we were faced by inertia instead of by the lead that we had expected and hoped for from the Government. In the past three years little has been done to carry out the policy of expanding these small county and country towns, in spite of continuous pressure from the large urban authorities. The half-heartedness of the Government is clearly expressed in a statement referring to London made by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in April of last year. I hope your Lordships will allow me, as this is a ministerial Statement, to read the Minister's words. They are as follows (OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 526, col. 1391): In the expanded towns programme we intend to move only in a small way, so that we may see how it goes. Only a few schemes, probably not more than half a dozen, are expected to start within the next few years or so, and they will go ahead at a modest rate. Fortunately, this estimate of not more than six schemes for London has already been falsified. Schemes for ten towns to be enlarged from London are already approved, or likely to be approved, by the Minister. But the statement of the Parliamentary Secretary last year reveals pretty clearly the state of mind of the Government at that date. It shows, I think, why so many local authorities have been pressing without success for Government action for such a long period of time. I hope that the Minister's decision of April 26, to give more generous financial assistance to the receiving authorities, indicates a change of heart. But this decision might have been taken a year or more ago, in which case the preliminaries to new building in these small towns would have been well under way by now.

Let us not forget the importance of the time factor, the need for speedy action, the imperative urgency. Let us not forget that any unnecessary delay in getting on with the housing programmes of local authorities is paid for in preventable suffering. In the London County Council area alone we have a waiting list of 150,000, of whom some 50,000 have been suffering for a long period of time in mind or body as a result of the housing conditions in which they live. But at the present pace of our building programme not more than 30,000 of these desperately urgent cases will be rehoused by 1960. My Lords, the only hope for these unfortunate people is a speeding up of the arrangements for building in expanded towns. I have not mentioned the many thousands of families in slum clearance areas whose need is equally urgent. I am sure we should all welcome, if we could hear it from the noble Earl, Lord Munster, the assurance that there will be more vigorous and more urgent action by the Government to meet the pressing need for better housing.

5.28 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has seen fit to put down this Motion for discussion in your Lordships' House. As he and other noble Lords have rightly said, it is a very important subject indeed. It is, moreover, one with which he is well acquainted, and on which he is particularly competent to address your Lordships. The noble Lord and other noble Lords have been good enough to give me some information about the questions which they intended to ask, and I will certainly endeavour to do my best, in the shortest possible time, to reply to as many questions as I can.

At the beginning of my observations I should like to remind the House that at the conclusion of this last war the greatest task with which any Government was faced was that of providing as soon as possible an ample number of homes for the people to live in. The problem was made all the more urgent by the havoc and destruction which had been wrought during the war years and by the complete cessation of all building throughout those years. From the end of the war to October, 1951, the Labour Government built 979,000 houses. I do not wish to be controversial, but I must bring out this fact, in view of the observations which the noble Lord made in introducing his Motion. The House may recall that as far back as 1946 Mr. Bevan, who was then in the Labour Government the Minister responsible for housing, assured the electorate that by the next Election there would be no housing shortage so far as the mass of the British people were concerned. That was certainly not the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, to-day.


To be fair to Mr. Bevan, as I am sure the noble Earl would wish to be, he was basing his remarks as I well know, on the assumption that the estimate of three-quarters of a million more houses being needed to meet the shortage was correct. He had no reason to assume otherwise. The survey had only recently been made, and he felt that three-quarters of a million more houses could be built by the time of the next Election. That was the point of his statement.


I will not push or press the matter any further, but it still seems to me to be a very weird remark from the Minister who was responsible for housing in the Labour Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, now realises that this is a vast problem. I will not try to equal the estimate which he has made, but he suggests to your Lordships that over the next twenty years we shall require 6 million more houses in this country. The forecast which was made by the Labour Government of that time proved to be wrong, and noble Lords will recall that it was the Conservative Party who expressed great dissatisfaction with the rate of house building during the years immediately after the war. They announced that, if they were returned to power at the Election in 1951, they would aim at a target figure of 300,000 houses a year. From November, 1951, to April this year no fewer than 1,047,000 houses were completed; and in the years 1953 and 1954 the figure of 300,000 was reached and exceeded. It is perfectly obvious that, as a Government, we recognised the magnitude of this problem and quickly determined to do our best to meet it. Moreover there is every prospect that the number of houses which will be completed this year will be of the same order. I cannot give the House any reliable estimate of the number of people who have been rehoused since the end of the war, but I understand that a figure of 7 million is reasonably accurate. During the time that we were building these 300,000 houses a year, industrial buildings and schools were also being put up in increasing numbers, and it was only last year that we started again to build new hospitals in this country.

From 1951 onwards, the housing programme that we have followed can be divided into two distinct phases: first, the expansion of the building programme, about which I have given the House some figures; and secondly, the consolidation of that programme and the start of a campaign to repair, improve and modernise existing houses and to demolish the slums. During the first phase local authorities have been encouraged to enlarge and increase their housing programme, while the expansion of private enterprise house building was assisted by the relaxation of many licensing restrictions. At the same time, I think entirely through Government effort, the supplies of building materials increased and the best use was made of the resources available by the adoption of more economical designs in house building.

It is, I think, obvious to everyone that the predominant task which met the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and his Party after the war, and the predominant task which faces us today, is the provision of houses to rent to the people. Although there has been a continual rise in the number of houses for sale—that is to say, those built by private enterprise—last year, 257,000 houses were bulk for letting, a figure that is an all-time record. I feel sure that the noble Earl. Lord Listowel, will at once recognise that we are not dilatory but are a competent Government who are perfectly prepared to enter this matter with vigorous action. When we decided to expand private enterprise building we did it for the reason that we believe that in a property-owning democracy the more people who own their own homes the better.

In addition to removing these licensing controls, Her Majesty's Government have also taken steps to help those with limited means to buy their own homes. The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, asked me whether I had any figures which I could give him. This scheme of house purchase was produced in May of last year, and it enabled building societies to make loans in excess of the amount they would normally advance to would-be house purchasers. The scheme applies to those cases where local authorities have undertaken to guarantee the advance in association with the Exchequer and building societies, so that it is now possible to obtain a loan of 95 per cent. on houses whose value does not exceed £2,000. In May of this year it was stated that up to date 8,254 cases had been completed, involving a sum of £11,691,000. Nevertheless, it was suggested that the success of the scheme up to that date was only a beginning, and that as the scheme received further publicity there would be many more people who would endeavour to purchase their own house under this particular scheme.


Can the noble Earl say whether these figures are mostly in relation to new houses or to old ones? I was not quite clear from his statement.


I could not do so without notice.


But the figures include old houses?


I think that probably the majority would be new houses.

We now come to the second phase of the housing programme. In November, 1953, we published a White Paper, Houses, the Next Step, which has been mentioned this afternoon. Noble Lords will remember that at this time the housing plan which Her Majesty's Government had adopted had resulted in the building rate being increased to a figure of over 300,000 houses per annum completed, but in our opinion the time had come when attention should be paid to the state of many of the existing houses. Although I have no doubt that a considerable number of them, mostly owner-occupied, were in a good state of repair and suitable for occupation, some had undoubtedly been neglected; others were obsolescent, and many were unfit for habitation and ought to be demolished. Legislation was therefore introduced, and the Housing Repairs and Rents Bill, now the Act of 1954, amended the previous Housing Acts, carrying the whole story one stage further.

Without going into any detail I would briefly remind noble Lords of what that Act did. It directed local authorities to submit proposals for slum clearance to the Minister; it relaxed the statutory conditions for improvement grants, and it further enabled councils to fix reasonable rents for improved houses—that is to say, houses which have been repaired and improved under this particular Act. Part II of the Act enabled landlords to raise rents of rent-controlled property if the property was in good repair and if the landlord could produce satisfactory evidence of having spent money on repairs generally. It was, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, who asked me whether I could give him any figures. Unfortunately, I am not able to give the noble Lord any figures whatever, because the Act made no provision for records to be kept. Nevertheless, the information which has been given to me indicates that the number which have been repaired is probably substantial. The noble Lord will realise, in spite of his critical remarks upon this particular Act, that it has been operating for only nine month. It is far too early to jump to any conclusion, but I have reason to think that, as time goes on, and as landlords hear more about this particular Act, they will take fuller advantage of it.

As regards Part I of the Act, I think I can give the noble Lord some indication of what happened. As he will remember well, improvement grants have been available for this kind of work since 1949, but practically nothing was done under the Housing Act of that year because of the very difficult conditions which then prevailed. Indeed, from 1949 to the end of 1953 only 6,000 houses qualified for grants, but between September, 1954, and April of this year nearly 18,000 houses qualified for the grant. The figure is now running at the rate of 3,000 a month, and it may well be bettered as knowledge of the benefits continues to increase. I might add at this point that it is interesting to note, in passing, that half the number of grants which have been made have been for the improvement of houses in rural areas.

I turn from that matter to the question of slum property, about which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and other noble Lords asked me many questions. This is a matter, as Lord Silkin well knows, which has been before successive Governments for a great many years, and local authorities have long had statutory powers to deal with slums, though, naturally enough, they were unable to exercise these powers in the war and early post-war years. The 1954 Act added to local authorities' powers, and under its provisions they are required to submit to the Minister by the end of August this year the estimated number of slum houses in their areas and their proposals for dealing with them during the next five years. Every clearance and compulsory purchase order made under the Act requires the confirmation of the Minister before it can become operative. Slum clearance in prewar days was being undertaken on a fairly substantial scale by local authorities, although it took them some time to get into their stride. However, as I say, considerable progress was made, and some 244,000 houses have been demolished or closed as being unfit for habitation, and about 955,000 persons were displaced in the five years up to the beginning of the war. There has also been a very limited amount of slum clearance since the war, though the main effort, as we know, has been devoted to the building of new houses. Nevertheless, last year some 20,000 houses were demolished or closed, and the figure will increase as local authorities advance with their programmes.

Her Majesty's Government have announced that we now intend to remove 200,000 persons per annum from the slums in our effort to tackle the problem as a whole. This figure has been described, I think, by the noble Lord, as inadequate; and other derisory remarks have been made about it. But I think it is worth remembering that only 288,000 persons were displaced from slum property in the year immediately before the war, at a time when the normal housing programme was not so intense as it is to-day. That target which we have set ourselves, the removal of 200,000 persons from slums, is a target, not a ceiling. It is our firm intention to reach that figure as quickly as we can, and more will be done if opportunity permits. I think I ought to add that that estimate has been drawn up with great care and with the full realisation of some of the many difficulties which we know lie ahead. For instance, there is a shortage of sanitary inspectors, whose normal job it is to undertake the survey of slum areas. And, of course, the shortage is far more serious in big towns and cities than anywhere else. It must also be remembered that every scheme involves a large number of owners, occupiers and so on, and a considerable time is always involved in tracing people who must receive notice of the order which is being made by the local authorities. As a rule, I understand, it takes some six months before a scheme is sufficiently advanced for submission to the Minister. But with the knowledge that we possess of what obtained in prewar days, we believe that we ought to be able to accomplish the target which we have set ourselves, that of removing 200,000 persons from the slums, which will involve building something between 50,000 and 70,000 new houses a year. May I here say this to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin (I think the noble Lord, Lord Wise, also raised this point), with regard to allocations to local authorities? I think the noble Lord will see at once that, with this scheme coming before the Minister by the end of August, it is not possible for me at this moment to give noble Lords any indication of what allocations for local authorities will be.

The noble Lord raised the question of the erection of houses or flats on expensive sites. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, will be well aware that this is one of the most complicated and extremely controversial subjects that we could possibly be faced with in housing generally. But I should have thought that in the redevelopment of the old towns—that is to say, the moving of slums from the old towns—some flats to take the place of old houses are absolutely essential. I have been told that the centres of many of our older towns were developed with a density of from 40 to 60 houses to the acre, and if a large proportion of the people who live in those over-crowded areas are to be re-housed under slum clearance schemes, a number of flats will have to be built. In some cases, which the noble Lord, with his knowledge of this subject, can easily envisage, if many people are to be re-housed on a small portion of land in or near the centre of a town, the building of blocks of flats may be the only solution.

I am well aware—I think the noble Lord himself gave some figures—of the expense of this proposition. There are a number of housing experts who would agree with the noble Lord's views and who might even go further, but the advocates of the view he has expressed too often tend to ignore the full cost of developing a new town where in most instances all the necessary services have to be provided. It is extremely difficult to lay down a hard and fast rule that the provision of flats on expensive sites is either more, or less, economical than building small houses in new towns or on the outskirts of big cities, which in many cases would require a great deal of agricultural land. I shall certainly convey to my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government the views which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and other noble Lords have expressed on this controversial subject, but, as I have said, noble Lords wall be well aware that there are definitely two schools of thought.

I will do my best to answer as briefly as I can the other questions addressed to me. The noble Lord, Lord Wise, questioned me about expenditure on housing. The subsidies on houses which were built in pre-war and post-war days are now running at £47 millions in England and Wales for this financial year. This figure will increase as more council houses are built and we estimate that the figure may go up by a further £5 millions next year. That brings me to the cost of houses, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Quibell. Building costs have not increased during the last three years, though the number of houses built has been increasing and the costs of both materials and labour have risen. I think that the reason the costs of house building have not increased is the efficiency of house building generally, which has absorbed the rise in costs. But that is no reason whatever why we should not examine with great care the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, about the need to see if it is possible to produce other houses at a cheaper rate than we are doing to-day. He talked of our having fresh thoughts on this subject.

The noble Lord, Lord Quibell, asked me about price rings in the building trade. Of course, the observations he made are perfectly correct. On May 12 of this year my right honourable friend caused a circular to be sent to all housing authorities throughout the country, drawing their attention to the building industry restrictive practices. I can let the noble Lord have a copy of that letter, if he should so wish. I certainly hope it will have the effect which he and other noble Lords on both sides of the House are anxious to see.

I think I have answered the greater part of the questions which have been addressed to me, and in conclusion would add this. In our opinion, the building of houses by local authorities and private enterprise must be continued. We intend to maintain an output of at least 300,000 houses a year, a figure which, of course, will include the houses required under the new slum clearance programme, That is an enormous programme, but it is one which I believe we shall be able to follow during this present Parliament. I would not he brave enough to suggest to the House what might occur five or ten years hence, but for some years to come the figure of 300,000 houses, which we selected in the days of the last Government, is one to which we intend to cling. I trust that in three or four years' time we may have; added something considerable to the s elution of this very distressing problem.


My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, would he convey to the Minister concerned the question which I raised about rural sewerage?


I will most certainly ask my right honourable friend to look into that matter.

5.56 p.m.


My Lords, the speech I made in introducing this Motion did not lend itself to a detailed and immediate reply, and I am content that some of the things I said should be considered seriously hereafter. I believe that they will be, and if they are, then this debate will have achieved the purpose I had in mind. I certainly did not intend to make a political debate of it. I think the noble Earl rather anticipated that I would, and therefore fortified himself with figures indicating that this Government had done better than my Government. I never tried to compare the two.


No, not to-day.


I am sure that if we had sought to compare them, the mere statement of figures on both sides would not be the complete story. We have to take many other things into consideration. During the four or five years immediately following the war we were building up the organisation necessary to produce the houses. That was not quite the same as the period following, when all the spade work had been done, and all that the Party opposite had to do was to step in and take full advantage of all the efforts we had made. That was not the kind of speech I made, but I can well understand the noble Earl, thinking that that was the kind of speech I might make, therefore coming here and producing these figures, which would have been of value at Election time but are not really of much value here. I am sure the noble Earl will not mind my saying that. Except for that, the noble Earl has dealt as satisfactorily as possible with the points raised in the debate, and I am satisfied that it has served a useful purpose.

Since we have set up a Select Committee on attendance at the House, I should like to say that it is a little disappointing that the interest supposed to be shown in housing has not been manifested by any contribution from the other side except that of the noble Earl, Lord Dundee. I cannot believe that the amount of interest is reflected in the amount of speaking that has been done, or that we can measure the interest by the volume of speeches; but I should have thought that something could have been said from the other side apart from the speeches of the two noble Earls. I am a little disappointed that in a debate which is of the greatest importance, as noble Lords will agree, we should have had so little from the Benches opposite. After all, it is a subject on which so many people must be thinking, and they have a contribution to make; it cannot be possible that noble Lords have nothing to say on it. It is disappointing to me that we have not had a more effective debate than we have, although that is not at all the fault of the noble Earl who has replied.

There is one point on which I must take up the noble Earl, and that is the question of flats and houses. I did not take an extreme view about that matter. I am not one of those who say that you ought not to build flats. I quite understand the case for building fiats in large towns; indeed. I have been responsible, possibly, for building more, or certainly as many, flats in London as anybody else. That was not the case I was making. But I do feel that we should hesitate and see what the cost is, both socially and financially. The noble Earl may be right, and there may be nothing in it; but I think it was he who, when we had a debate on the new towns, pointed out that the new towns were on the verge of being self-supporting. I am convinced that the new towns will not be a burden on the community, and that they will all in the course of time repay to the community the whole of the cost incurred in building them, plus interest. That is a factor which one ought to bear in mind in comparing the two. I do not think that subject ought to be lightly dismissed. It is one that should be considered seriously, and it may well be worth while having a debate on that subject alone. Having said that, I feel that the purpose that we on this side had in mind in raising this matter has been achieved, and I believe that the various suggestions will be considered by Her Majesty's Government. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at three minutes past six o'clock.