Rising BISF House build costs and slow progress angers Ministers in 1947 debate.
Apparently, all was not going well during the early stages of BISF House production in the UK. Many Ministers expressed deep concern over slow rates of progression, increasing costs and the direct and indirect links between the house and members of British Iron & Steel Federation and British Steel Houses Ltd. The latter company being the true provider of these houses in the UK.
HC Deb 24 January 1947 vol 432 cc547-76 547
Motion made, and Question proposed, “That this House do now adjourn”. [Mr. Michael Stewart.]
Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)I wish today to raise the question of the supply of British Iron and Steel Federation houses.
I am sorry that that part of the House which normally contains the greater proportion of Members interested in the Iron and Steel Federation seems to be so empty, but as I develop my argument perhaps the reason for that will become apparent.
The first question which I would like to address to the Parliamentary Secretary is, who is, in fact, responsible for these houses?
At one time, practically every commercial concern was claiming the credit for them; but now, in some strange way, it seems that nobody is responsible.
Hon. Members may think that as these houses are described as British Iron and Steel Federation houses, the British Iron and Steel Federation may be in some way involved, but that, apparently, is not so. I will read a letter which I have received from a firm called Steel Houses Limited. The general manager writes:
I think I should make it clear, in the first place, that the British Iron and Steel Federation are not directly concerned in the provision of British Iron and Steel Federation houses. They produced designs for the house which were handed over to my company on its formation, and not at any time have the Federation taken part in the provision of the houses.
I happen to notice on the note paper, ” I suppose by one of those commercial coincidences”that the telephone number of British Steel Houses Limited appears to be the same as that of the British Iron and Steel Federation.
I am glad to see that the Senior Member for the City of London (Sir A. Duncan) is here, because I know that it is also his telephone number. But whatever the connection between the British Iron and Steel Federation and British Steel Houses Limited, which everyone appears to want to slur over, may be that does not rest purely on the question of identity of telephone numbers.
It is true there are ten members of this company and it is true only one of them is in the British Iron and Steel Federation. But if one looks more closely at the Articles of Association, one sees this rather remarkable provision:
548In the case of a poll, each of the contractor members (That is, each of the other nine members) shall be entitled to one vote, and the steel members (There is only one) shall be collectively entitled to such a number of votes as is equivalent to the total votes of the contractor members for the time being.
The House will realise that, however many contractor members there may happen to be at any time in this firm, there can never be any possible chance for them to outvote the British Iron and Steel Federation.
It just happens also that the articles provide that this year, at any rate, the chairman of the company shall be nominated by the British Iron and Steel Federation. I make these points because I know, that the Senior Member for the City of London is very interested, personally, in the supply of houses, and because I feel that if he realised the degree of control which his Federation have over the…I am so sorry, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I believe I have been addressing the wrong Member entirely. “If the Senior Member for the City of London were here,” is what I should have said. But one can understand if the affairs of the British Iron and Steel Federation are in the confusion of those of Steel Houses, Limited, he would be fully occupied elsewhere.
In order that we may see the degree of muddle, confusion and incompetence which has marred the programme of the production of this company, let us look at what has been said by the British Iron and Steel Federation about their houses, and compare it with what has, in fact, taken place.
I have a copy of a document which the Federation were kind enough to send to all hon. Members. It is entitled, “The Battle of Steel.”
In one chapter, entitled “Mulberries and Houses” they say:The British Iron and Steel Federation has for some time been carrying out research on the construction of permanent steel housesas opposed to the temporary structures sponsored by the Government as a stop-gap measure. The industry is not, however, concerned only to show that an all-steel house can be pleasant to look at, comfortable to live in and permanent, but rather to make the maximum contribution to solving the problem of rapid, sound construction, with the minimum of skilled building labour.
Then they go on to explain exactly how they propose to do that. They say:The use of steel-frame construction has been general practice in most large buildings for some years. It can be applied with advantage to houses, and will allow the use of any kind of material for walls and roofs. By enabling the roof to be put on early in the proceedings, it makes possible under-cover work almost throughout”an important point in the British climate.
That was the promise. Let us look at the performance. I will take as an example my own constituency, because I believe that it is typical of most housing sites on which steel houses are being erected.
Early in May, my local authority, the Hornchurch Urban District Council, ordered 200 of these houses. On 1st July, they had ready the first site, for 50 houses. At the end of August they handed over two other sites, one for 50 houses and one for 100 houses. It will be seen, therefore, that the first site for 50 houses has been available for seven months and that the other two sites for the remaining 150 houses have been available for five months.
Up to date, 22 houses out of 200 have roofs.
That does not seem to carry out the suggestion in the Federation’s booklet that roofs can be put on early in the proceedings. I am very sorry that the Senior Member for the City of London is not here, because I would have liked to hear from him what he would describe as “late in the proceedings.” It seems a strange way of carrying out in practice the policy of rapid construction.
I thought I was right to get into touch with British Steel Houses, Limited, to ask them for an explanation. I suggested rather forcibly that it may have been due to a lack of materials. They replied to me, and I think I ought to quote from their letter.
Your statement that the Federation and my Company have lamentably failed to supply components is not correct. As mentioned previously, the Federation have no part in the matter.
Though they have no part in the matter, they do appoint the chairman and have 50 per cent voting representation. With that proviso, I accept that statement. The letter goes on:
The supply of materials has not, in any way, been responsible for lack of progress. The progress has been entirely dependent upon (a) access to sites, (b) lack of labour.
Perhaps it will give some idea of the commercial competence of British Steel Houses, Limited, and of their controller, the British Iron and Steel Federation, if one just analyses those two items.
First, with regard to access to sites. They have had one site for seven months and the other two sites for five months. That fact may have been what influenced the Company subconsciously and I am not making any suggestion of an attempt to deceive the House, since the Company knew that I was going to use their letter in the Debate to make a mistake in their own favour of two weeks in the case of the first two sites and just under four months in the case of the larger site for 100 houses, In regard to the dates they give for access.
I am sure that the mistake is not at all deliberate since they must have known that they were delivering materials to the sites prior to the dates which they give me as the dates on which they had access.
I ought perhaps to explain the way in which this business works.
British Steel Houses, Limited, are the central organisation, as I understand it…..I know the Minister will correct me if I am wrong” and the local authority chooses the contractor. But they have to choose a contractor nominated by British Steel Houses, Limited. It is a very reasonable arrangement, because British Steel Houses chooses a contractor who is thoroughly conversant with the work. In the case of the Hornchurch sites, British Steel Houses chose, and I make no complaint about it, one of their own shareholders, a very able firm. I make no complaint about it at all; I give it merely as an example of how matters are dealt with.
In order to present a really true picture to the House, let me say that British Steel Houses said to me, in regard to the large site in my constituency about which I am most anxious:
Work commenced on excavation for foundations on 10th December, 1946.
I went down on 27th December in order to see the foundations. It is true that work had commenced on excavation for foundations, but the firm omitted to say what foundations. The foundations of which excavation had then commenced were for a temporary hut for the use of the general foreman when he arrived on the job.
In describing the part which the steel industry, and here again is why I am so sorry that there does not seem to be any representative of the industry present here plays in this matter, the pamphlet’ to which I have referred says:
The British steel industry believes that in the postwar years its contribution to the advancement of the people’s material welfare must be as vital as the part it has taken in securing Britain’s survival against Axis aggression.
It seems to me that British Steel Houses, Ltd., who must be in the forefront of this struggle, this life and death struggle for houses, are a little careless about dates.
Let me look at their further excuse about shortage of labour. They said, in regard to my own sites:
At present, ‘apparently they refer to 12th December’ , “the total number of men available for these three sites is 47, which you will agree is quite inadequate for building 200 houses. Internal work for completion of the houses is entirely dependent on tradesmen, carpenters, plumbers, etc.I was doubtful and puzzled about their choice of date. I looked the matter up, and found the three sites all endorsed for that date:Acute frost and thick fog.However, I consulted the allotted contractor” -their shareholder”who wrote:
With reference to your remark on the telephone regarding the number of men stated by British Steel Houses to be on these sites, so far as our own men are concerned”,Sub-contractor’s men are omitted”on the Beltinge Road siteThat is one of the smallest”the figure on the average for that week, taking into account absenteeism, is 74, and we therefore presume that some error has been made in giving you the figure of 47.
This does not seem to me a particularly strong argument and it does not show a particular grasp of business affairs to take the foggiest, coldest day of the year, to ignore sub-contractor’s men, to choose one site only from three when giving the figures, to give an arbitrary figure for absenteeism and finally to reverse the digits. It would have been much better if they had subtracted the number they first thought of because after all they got the figure wrong. It perhaps did not occur to them that I should have had a labour return for the site in question showing the figure as 115. In case anybody thinks it was exceptional and that the men were crowding along because it was a foggy day, let me say that it is not unusual, because a month later the figure was 106. That figure included 39 carpenters with a foreman carpenter, four bricklayers, nine plasterers and painters and eight other tradesmen. These were for 50 houses of which only half have roofs.
As a policy for making the minimum use of skilled building labour, that seems to be interesting. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us how we make the maximum use of it.
The reason for the lower figure is simple. The allotted contractors were standing off the steel erectors. I inquired why. The reason was simple. British Steel Houses provided all the steel cladding needed but the only thing they forgot was that, in order to fix it, it was necessary to have some form of nut and bolt.
That deals with the argument that the supply of materialshas not in any way been responsible for lack of progress.
Here is another example, it appears that it is usual for British Steel Houses to forget to supply nuts and bolts. I am informed when the contractors came to erect the steel framework in the first place they found that British Steel Houses had forgotten to supply any nuts or bolts by which these could be attached to the steel roofs. I am not a technical man but a little practice at Meccano leads one to understand that, if one is fixing a piece of steel to another, one needs a mechanical contrivance of that sort. It is a deplorable thing that the British Iron and Steel Federation have not yet reached that conclusion.
I do not want to weary the Parliamentary Secretary with the many details of the delay and incompetence which has marked the career of these houses,”it would take too long” but I will give one or two examples.
The arrangement is for a lavatory upstairs with an overflow pipe from the tank in which there is a ball-cock, which is the usual arrangement, but apparently it did not occur to those who constructed the house that the best place for the water to flow was outside the house rather than inside.
When the assembly arrived it was found that no pipe was provided to take the overflow outside. In dealing with the prefabricated house, that is a serious matter because a hole has to be drilled in the outer cladding and a glass wool partition has to be fixed; that could not be done and the phasing of the job was thrown out. Glass quilting arrived”more than sufficient for the site ”but the only difficulty was that it came with an instruction from British Steel Houses saying that it was only to be fixed with a special flat-topped nail and washer but those nails and washers were not sent.
I am sorry that we have not more representatives of the iron and steel trade on the other side of the House today because we ought to impress on them what all this delay in the erection of houses means in terms of human misery.
I have been looking through my local housing list and have picked out one or two cases.
One is of a man and wife with three children over 14 who have no separate accommodation at all and have to live in three rooms with four other people. Another is of a war widow with five young children, four of whom she has to send to an institution. She lives with one in a small ill-lit and completely unheated room. Up and down the country there are families deprived of homes and any chance of a decent and ordinary life by the bureaucratic inefficiency, incompetence and muddling of the British Iron and Steel Federation and its creature, British Steel Houses Limited.
The only parallel is the Crimean War and the supply method then adopted. There were great quantities of boots in the Crimea but they were all for the left foot. So closely to my mind do British Steel Houses Limited follow the pattern of the Crimean War supply methods that one wonders whether the right hon. Gentleman and his associates on the British Iron and Steel Federation are not waging a private war of nerves against the Soviet Union.
My suggestion here is that in order to succeed with these houses, I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with this matter, the job ought to be properly phased and the only method by which prefabricated houses can be erected is to have a group of men who are expert on a particular job and go from one job to another. In order to do that one must have a steady supply of material. One cannot get a steady supply unless there is a central depot of which there is in charge someone a little more competent than whoever it was who composed the letter to me and who knows, for example, that if one sends out a number of steel frames one must send out so many steel bolts to fix it.
I have said sufficient to be able to say that when one compares the record of the British Iron and Steel Federation in this matter with their performance it is possible to say, ‘what a record of incompetence’ and when one looks at their promises ‘what a record of conceit’.
I hope the House will therefore excuse me if I take a moment longer to follow the strategical plan of the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) and say a word or so about tyranny.
The British Steel Houses Ltd. concluded their letter to me with the following observation which I commend to the Parliamentary Secretary. It says:
I feel therefore that your question might be devoted towards obtaining the necessary labour for these houses and I can assure you that when this is forthcoming, the builder will rapidly produce finished houses.
I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary how many people they require for these houses. They have 115 and are standing off men now. How many do they need?
Leaving that aside, it is of course true that everywhere in the country there are grave problems of labour and how labour and materials can best be used.
I thought the best thing I could do in carrying out this idea was to have some sort of conference in my constituency where we could meet together, all the organisations, to discuss housing, and this very question of labour. But I was up against one difficulty, and this is where I again work my way round the Federation. It happened that the only hall available in my constituency was a British Restaurant and it has the misfortune to be built on the ground of a firm very well known to hon. Members of this House because its product, at any rate indirectly, is responsible for about two-thirds of our correspondence. They manufacture a duplicating machine. Roneo, Ltd., is the name of the firm, and it is controlled by a group. One member of the group is actually supplying parts to these houses, and another member is represented on the Iron and Steel Federation.
I thought that from them I should have sympathetic treatment. But what happens in practice when one tries to carry out the advice that these great magnates give one? I have been informed by the Chairman of Roneo, Ltd., and I think it is right that I should give the House his name, it is Mr. G. S. Maginness, that if I dare to apply to the Hornchurch Urban District Council for the use of the British Restaurant to hold the meeting there on the subject that the British Iron and Steel Federation suggests I should discuss, he will step in as ground landlord and get the council to ban the meeting.
Let me make absolutely clear what Labour Members are up against. I sent him a copy of what I was going to say, and he wrote as follows:
You have been good enough to send me a copy of the report you propose to submit for discussion at your meeting on 14th February, but I think you will agree that it would not be feasible to expect me to undertake to examine such documents on each occasion before the hall is let for a meeting, and that is what would have to happen if we departed from our practice. In these circumstances, I am very sorry that my company cannot see its way to depart from its previous practice.
And what was the previous practice? I have checked up, and on no occasion which I can discover was the Tory candidate in the General Election refused the use of the hall. I have put this matter to Mr. Maginness and he has assured me that the fact that the ban was imposed at the time when I became a Member of Parliament is purely and entirely a coincidence.
We are to have our meeting. A youth organisation has long planned a social entertainment but is prepared to give it up. I have quoted the instance to show how ready one industrialist is to sabotage the other, how little interest these great men in the steel and associated industries really have in the welfare of the ordinary man, and how particularly ill-fitted they are to deal with any task which affects’ the ordinary man’s welfare.
May I emphasise this again? I am holding a meeting for everybody, there are even Conservatives on the conference arrangements committee, to consider matters which affect the housing of the very work people of the man concerned. What happened is that it is left to working class boys and girls to give up their own scant leisure and entertainment so that a hall built with public money can stand idle and untenanted as a tribute to his powers as ground landlord. There we have tyranny open and unashamed.
I have taken too long already. Let me sum up finally the two questions I wish to put to the Parliamentary Secretary. They sum up all I want to say.
First, how on earth were the Ministry naive enough to be taken in by the promise of the British Iron and Steel Federation?
Second, now that he has had”as he no doubt will have had from other hon. Members, an account of how they are carrying out their work, does he suppose that there is any reason to believe that either the British Iron and Steel Federation or their creature, British Steel Houses Limited, have either the confidence, the drive, or the good will to assist in the housing of the ordinary men and women of this country?
Mrs. Castle (Blackburn)
I am very glad indeed that the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) has raised this matter. It is certainly true, as he himself has suggested, that this problem is not merely one which has arisen in his constituency. In fact, up and down the length and breadth of this land this steel house is protruding its ugly nose upon the landscape. In my constituency we have 80 of them at present in course of construction. As we have gained experience of these houses, certain aspects of the problem have arisen which are slightly different from those which my hon. Friend has outlined but which, I think, are also of importance not only to the local citizen but to the national taxpayer.
The housing authority in my area, driven by the desperation of the housing position of so many of its people, placed an order for 80 of these houses. As they go up we have begun to see just what is involved in the proposition. We think that the steel house is a pretty poor bargain indeed. We do not like its design, we do not like its appearance, we have serious doubts about its durability, and we are outraged by its price.
As my hon. Friend has said, we are wondering a little how it came about that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health was ever inveigled into lending his support to the scheme for the production and issue to local authorities of large numbers of these houses. As we come to inquire into the facts of the situation, we begin to realise just what has happened: namely, that these super industrialists came along to the Ministry of Health and said, with all the power of their experience and status behind them, “Just give private enterprise a chance and the houses will come rolling off the production line in their thousands.”
A figure of something like 30,000 of these steel houses was guaranteed to be produced, like rabbits out of the hat, in order to relieve the desperate position of this country. I think obviously the Minister responsible thought that if some of the most reputable firms in the country were given a Ministerial go ahead, then 30,000 houses would be produced.
I can hardly blame my right hon. Friend”in view of the fact that rapid performance was promised, and a guarantee given of the immediate availability of the materials and components required, for having said, “All other considerations are overruled by this consideration of speed.” But what has been the result? We have had some very animated gibes from Opposition Members about the housing targets of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health. I should like to point out that against the 30,000 houses promised by these giants of private enterprise, the housing return today of steel houses completed in this country is nil.
I am prompted from behind that the number is now 10, so that something must have happened in the last week to speed up the delivery of bolts and nuts. But that is against the figure of thousands which was the basis of the offer originally made and on which we proceeded.
The biggest recommendation of these steel houses was that they were to be had so to speak, “off the peg,” and, therefore, there has not been, quite understandably, the meticulous argument about their design, cost and other factors that there otherwise would have been. If this offer now proves to have been a “phoney” one these other considerations become of increasing importance In my own area. We have had a chance to see these houses going up, and we are concerned about three factors which will arise more and more as the propaganda atmosphere of housing gives way to the more solid assessment of what we have achieved in the way of housing.
These steel houses are inferior in size, inferior in design and inferior in our opinion in durability. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary is not going to tell me this afternoon that the Dudley Committee approved of the design of these houses and that that is sufficient guarantee of their quality. I do not care if 100 committees have passed the design. We still think it is inferior.
These houses are what we call ring-of-roses houses. There is the central chimney stack and around that there are grouped three rooms and a hall, all with interconnecting doors. By joining hands, it would be quite easy for the family to play ring-of-roses round the central chimney stack if the doors were left open and, in view of the size of these houses, it would not be necessary to have very many members in the family to form the ring. Instead of the traditional English fireside there is a hearth which is only comfortable on one side and the poor wretch who sits on the right side, against the door leading into the dining recess, is in the full line of the domestic traffic as well as of the draughts.
More serious than that is the question of size.
This is only an 880 square feet house. It is true it has got some outbuildings which add another 100 square feet, but those outbuildings were only added as a kind of afterthought. They are of lighter and cheaper construction than those in the traditional brick house.
It is a three bedroomed house, yet how does it compare with the traditional type of three bedroomed house?
The steel house has an area of 880 square feet plus outbuildings against 1,059 square feet for the traditional house. So even if we take the outbuildings into consideration we have got 80 square feet less in area: a matter of serious consideration in a small house when there is a family. But, and this is a point which gives us considerable concern, what are we paying for this house with its diminished area and inferior design? I am informed that the cost to my local authority is going to be £1,307 “above the slab,” and yet we are building brick houses in Lancashire of the three bedroomed type, the area of which is considerably greater, for £1,170. So for the smaller steel house we are paying £137 more. The cost per square foot works out considerably higher.
Frankly I cannot see where the money is going to, and I do hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us some kind of indication, by breaking down these figures, of how this cost is reached. It is no good his saying that the additional burden will not fall upon the local authority because, after all, what the ratepayers do not pay, the taxpayers will have to pay, and it all comes out of the same pocket in the end.
This house is supposed to have a 60-year life, but we are not particularly clear on what basis that is argued. The Burt Committee have given their scientific consideration to the merits of this house under the different headings, and I must say that, after reading their report with some care, they do not seem to me to be wildly enthusiastic about it. They point out, and this concerns us in Lancashire where we have very inclement weather to contend with, that the avoidance of corrosion will be an important factor in the durability of the house. They go on to suggest that, for protection against corrosion, certain types of paint will have to be selected and applied and, in conclusion, they say:
Although the degree of maintenance necessary in the latter part of the life of the buildings cannot be foreseen, this type of house is considered suitable for a 6o-year loan, provided that satisfactory precautions are taken against corrosion of the frames and claddings.
In other words, if we are to have any kind of durability for the house, we have got to add on to this initial high cost an unknown factor of maintenance which may work out at a tremendous figure and add, accordingly, to the total cost.
Having seen these houses recently in one of the finest rainstorms that Lancashire can produce, with all the elements battering their fury against the steel walls no thicker than a motorcar body, I must say that I share the doubts of my own local housing officials as to the 6o-year life of this house, even with all the paint in the world put upon it for its protection.
Yet apparently, even the initial cost of this house has not yet been settled, and this is a point on which I wish to be enlightened this afternoon. With the question of maintenance still in the dark hereafter, the constructional price of this house has, apparently, yet to be settled. The cost is to be reviewed after the completion of the first 10,000, in order to find out whether the figure that has been quoted is likely to prove sufficient or not.
I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether, when this review of the price takes place, there is any likelihood of that review being in an upward direction. Are we likely to go into even more astronomical spheres in reaching the price of this 880 square feet steel box? After all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch has been explaining, this has not proved a smooth process of construction. All sorts of difficulties and delays 560 have occurred on the site. Are those difficulties and delays going to be taken into consideration in reassessing the cost, and are the taxpayers to carry the burden of the breakdown in the efficiency of the British Iron and Steel Federation’s plans? Secondly, if the cost is revised, will it be revised retrospectively, and shall we find that, the first 10,000 having been erected under a guarantee of swift and efficient performance which has not been fulfilled, there will be a retrospective additional payment?
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is aware that, on the different sites up and down the country where this house is now being erected, all kinds of additional touches are having to be put to it. This is the outcome of testing out the construction in the light of practical experience, and the local officials, or maybe the contractors themselves, have found that they have had to add a bit here and there. In my own area, for example, the Borough Engineer, on his own responsibility, has painted with bitumastic paint the interior walls of certain parts of the building to protect them against the condensation we fear will occur. That is not included in the £1,307 which is supposed to be the total cost of the house.
I want, in my final word, to suggest to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that the principle on which we are basing prices for these prefabricated houses is quite wrong. Apparently, what happens at present is this: the inventor or potential manufacturer of the prefabricated house submits his priced bills of quantities to the Ministry, and these bills of quantities are examined and approved by an expert committee; and on that total sum the price is based. That, of course, must mean that one tends to get a higher price for a prefabricated house than one would get for a brick house. Surely, it means that we are getting all the disadvantages of prefabrication without any of the advantages.
Let me give an example in relation to the steel house. It is a steel framed house, to which steel cladding is applied externally. The very construction of the steel frame adds £137 to the cost of the house. We know it is bound to do that, because the frame gives us a duplication of the function of the wall. In the brick house, the wall does the job of keeping the house together, of keeping out the cold and so on.
When there is a steel frame, plus steel cladding, there is duplication of function, which does add to the cost. But to offset that we ought to be having two advantages, less man hours taken on the site for construction of the house, and, also, the advantage of the saving in skilled labour of various kinds. But are these advantages being reflected in the present costing system on which the price is being based?
We are getting increasingly alarmed at the high price of these prefabricated houses that are supposed to have all the merits of mass production and all the merits of scientific knowledge behind them. But what is happening? These merits are merely being reflected in rising prices, of which, possibly, we have not yet seen the ceiling. Therefore, I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary if any scientific analysis of the building process in the construction of the prefabricated houses is being considered, and whether we are likely to see a rather more balanced and rigorous method of costing applied to these houses in the future.
I suggest to the House that in the lesson of the B.I.S.F. house, we have a classic example of private enterprise being given its head, a super edition of private enterprise at that. We often hear the Minister of Health taunted because he does not give private enterprise its head. It is said on the benches opposite that if only it were, houses would spring up like mushrooms, and all the homeless would be under a roof tomorrow. Here is an example of some of the most reputable private firms in the country having staked their reputations on a rapid, smooth flow of production of houses, cost no bar. Well, we were prepared to pay the cost, but they have not produced the goods, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will learn from this lesson not to trust private enterprise again.
Mr. George Ward (Worcester)
I want to intervene only very briefly in this Debate because the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing), in a speech which Members opposite evidently found more amusing than instructive, have made certain accusations against the British Iron and Steel Federation; and purely out of fairness to them I should like to tell the House a little of what I know of the position of the Federation in this matter. I should like to make quite clear that I have no personal interest whatever in the Iron and Steel Federation, nor in British Steel Houses, and I intervene only out of fairness, and because I happen to know a little bit about their position. Naturally, I do not know what the difficulties in Hornchurch and in Blackburn are with B.I.S.F. houses, but I do know that in my own constituency, Worcester, our experience has been very different.
In order to show the position of the Iron and Steel Federation in this matter, it is necessary very briefly to trace the history of British Steel Houses and show how and why the company was originally formed.
In 1943, when the Government Departments concerned were examining the possibility of building houses by methods other than the traditional ones, many technical difficulties immediately became apparent. For example, most of the materials available for cladding were non-load-bearing, and they could only be used if the roof and floor loads were taken by either steel or concrete or some other load-bearing material. Therefore, the steel industry was asked to consider the possibility of a steel framework to take the load of the roof and floor in order that non-load-bearing cladding could be used in conjunction with the steel framework.
After some preliminary work had been done it became obvious that if a wholly satisfactory design was to be produced an independent and very intensive study of all the many complex problems of non-traditional housing would have to be made. As no Government Department was at that time in a position to carry out this investigation, the whole matter was referred by the Government to the British Iron and Steel Federation.
Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)Which Government was that?
The Coalition Government. The Federation were asked to take on responsibility for these investigations for the country as a whole. They took them on and engaged a very eminent architect and a consulting engineer with their respective staffs, and the eventual outcome of the research was the first of the experimental houses erected at Northolt at the request of the Ministry of Works in order that their Scientific Department could keep in close touch with the progress of the work being done. The final designs of the experimental steel house were approved by the Scientific Department of the Ministry of Works, and that I think answers the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) who was wondering who approved the original designs for these houses. The answer is the Ministry of Works. Incidentally, they also received the approval of the architectural and building Press.
Next came the problem of how best to make the resulting information available to the country as a whole. The steel industry was very naturally only concerned with providing the steel components as and when they were required, but it was realised that unless a large number of these houses were ordered the benefits of mass-producing the components could not be made available to the public. Therefore, a group of the largest building contractors in the country were consulted on how best to get this information over. After careful examination of the new houses these nine large building contractors agreed to sponsor their construction, and it was for this reason that a company was formed in 1946 called British Steel Houses, Limited, for the purpose of negotiation and for coordinating the work for which the nine building contractors would be responsible.
The Federation could take no part in this work at all, but an executive committee was formed by the new company consisting of four contractor members, and four persons with specialised knowledge of those sections of the steel industry which would be called upon to supply the steel components, that is the framework, windows and steel sheeting. This arrangement enabled the British Steel Houses, Ltd., to enter into negotiations with the Ministry of Health on behalf of the building contractors.
I am sure that the hon. Member wants to be fair. Surely the position on the executive committee was that there were four members, nominated by the British Iron and Steel Federation, and they were also entitled to appoint the chairman, and four representatives of the contractors?
That is not my information.
Mr. S. Silverman
From where does the hon. Member get his information?
There were originally four contractor members, and to them were added people who had specialised knowledge of those sections of the steel industry which were to supply these components, which was a very natural thing. The mere fact that one of these four steel members happened to be the chairman is what apparently annoys the hon. Member.
The actual passage in the article of association is that:The steel members of the Company for the time being”and the hon. Member will agree that the only steel member is the British Iron and Steel Federation”may nominate and appoint four persons to be members of the committee.That gives them four votes, and the contractors have four votes. Under the next article a member of the Iron and Steel Federation is nominated as chairman, and so he would have the casting vote.
I am sure that the hon. Member will not wish me to enter into a discussion on that, as I have not got a copy with me. These arrangements enabled the company to enter into negotiations with the Minister of Health, on behalf of the building contractors for a large bulk order, permitting the manufacture of components to be undertaken on a mass-production basis.
Mr. S. Silverman
The hon. Member is giving the House a very detailed account of a very complicated and technical matter. He began his speech by saying that he was not connected with it in any way. Would he care to tell the House from where he derives the information he is now giving?
It is available.
But where did the hon. Member get it from?
From literature provided by the Iron and Steel Federation. Anyone can get it.
Lieut.-Commander Gurney Braithwaite (Holderness)
If the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) had been interested in housing, he would have obtained it a long time ago.
It was agreed that the Ministry should be responsible for securing collaboration of local authorities and the allocation of sites against the total bulk requirements of the Ministry, it being understood that the contracts would be drawn up between the individual local authority and the individual building contractor nominated by the company for the particular area. It was agreed that the steel components should be ordered in bulk, and the services of the British Iron and Steel Federation were obtained to help in this way.
The Corporation act merely as agents for the company, and the steel members of the executive committee give their services completely free in a purely advisory capacity. They are not in any way responsible to the Federation, which plays no part whatever in the conduct of the company’s affairs. As I said before, I have no knowledge of the difficulties in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hornchurch, but I have no doubt that the Parliamentary Secretary will deal admirably with the points he raised. All I am concerned about is to see a little fair play. I could not allow the hon. Member to make the accusations he did against the Federation without seeking to show that they have no direct responsibility at all for the provision of houses.
Mr. Henry Usborne (Birmingham, Acock’s Green)
I am sure that the House is extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) for raising this important issue, but before we draw the inevitable conclusion that this venture is a bad thing I think we ought to try and study why it has failed. I believe there are some characteristics of this kind of thing which are good, and others which are profoundly bad, and it is because the bad parts outweigh the good that the net result is almost always disastrous. Since there is some good in it, I believe, when houses are required as urgently as they are today, the idea of getting a standardised design, and processing it by a company whose job it is to see that the parts are manufactured and sent to the site on schedule, has a good deal in it in principle.
Why then did this particular venture fail? At what point did it fail?
The first lesson we must draw is that it failed primarily because British Steel Houses, the firm responsible for progressing the manufacture and supply of the parts were more or less obliged”and I say “more or less” advisedly”to acquire the parts that were required from a limited number of firms. I have no doubt that it will be said in defence that that was not so, that the firm could go outside the ring and buy parts from other firms. But, in practice, they do not do so. Almost invariably, the firm is obliged to obtain the parts it requires from a limited number of contractors, which insist on being associated with the organisation which places the orders. It is precisely because the progressing firm is in this predicament that certain parts, nuts and bolts, for example, tend to fall short on schedule, and thereby hold up the whole outfit. Since British Steel Houses would obviously want to get the parts on to the sites complete, as they were no doubt anxious to sell the houses, why is it that they could not get the nuts and bolts as quickly as they should have got them?
Why is it that they could not plug up the gap? Why could not they go to small firms outside the ring, and get the parts made quickly?
I think the answer is that the small firms are normally used for this sort of job when the big firms cannot produce the goods. I come from Birmingham, where there are 11,000 firms of this kind. We are extremely reluctant to have anything to do with a firm such as British Steel Houses, for they know perfectly well that, whenever there is a contract going, the good part of it will always go to the big people in the ring, and only the awkward parts of the contract, which involve a great deal of difficulty and loss, will be handed out to them. In fact, it is always “the dirty end of the stick” that is offered to us, and we are therefore reluctant to accept it. I speak as a small manufacturer in the engineering business and it is a pity, from the point of view of the public who want these houses. What then is the cure?
It seems to me that there are two points we must meet in order to overcome these difficulties. The first is that the organisation responsible for the progressing of the production”in this case British Steel Houses”must be (a) an organisation which does not make profits and (b) an organisation on which none of the “big boys” are directly represented. Even if it appears on paper that it makes no profits, if the big firms in the cartels are on its board, the little people will not believe what they read on the paper. So we may as well face it; an organisation 567 for progressing a standardised house, British Steel Houses in this case, ought to be a nationally-owned, non-profit-making corporation and must not have representatives of the big firms on its board. You cannot get away from it, if you want the small engineering firms to help you out.
Mr. G. Ward
May I interrupt the hon. Member? British Steel Houses Limited is a non-profit-making concern.
Usborne The hon. Gentleman is illustrating the very point I was making. We will not believe that. It may be perfectly true; but as long as there are representatives of the big people on the board we argue”and we also are business men”that their profits can be got in two or three or four different ways.
Mr. S. Silverman
And they are in the majority.
I am reminded that those representatives are in the majority. However, the point I was making was that not only must the organisation be nonprofit-making on paper, but it must not have upon its board representatives of the big firms who are, in fact, getting most of the business. If that is done, and made quite clear, you will get not only the help of the big firms, but also of the small firms who will be willing to help to block up the gaps wherever supplies suddenly fall short.
There is one other absolutely essential factor. The organisation which progresses’ the standardised house or, for that matter standardised equipment of any kind, must in no way be directly connected with the manufacturing side. It must be known that the progressing firm has to place every one of its orders outside its own organisation. Otherwise, I repeat, the little people called in to help will always have the feeling, derived from years of experience, that they are only called in when there is the dirty end of the stick to be dealt with. If, however, it is known that the organisation during the progressing has to place out all its orders for the equipment required, little firms will know perfectly well that they will have a fair deal.
If the Ministry can think in terms of that sort of progressing organisation, setting it up outside Whitehall altogether, 568 having it non-profit-making, with no representatives on its management of the big firms or of any of the firms with which it will deal, we will get what we want. The question may then be asked: “What does that leave? Whom can you put on the board?” When you set up an organisation, like British Steel Houses, you know the types of firms with whom it will deal and you should get business men if you must have them from other types of firms with whom you are not going to deal. That should not be difficult. Having got that kind of progressing organisation I think it becomes possible for the Minister to pass through its demands for a certain number of standardised houses. This organisation will progress the job on modern scientific lines, and through it it will be possible to get the right materials on the right sites at the right times. When that is done efficiently, we will get the right houses at the right price.
Major Haughton (Antrim)
I must, in the first place, congratulate my countryman the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) on the brilliant wit with which he entertained his friends on the other side of the House. I have seldom heard so much laughter and merriment about a serious subject, but apparently his audience was very easily amused. I was glad that, towards the end of his speech, he showed his feelings about the tragedy of the fact that these houses are not finished.
The main burden of his speech was an attack on the Iron and Steel Federation. Those of us who were in the House yesterday will recall the answers given to a series of Questions by the President of the Board of Trade and by the Minister of Fuel and Power, and I think that we shall be interested, after all that has been said in what seems to me very confused and muddled argument, to use the hon. Member’s own words, to hear the exact extent of the responsibility which the Parliamentary Secretary will place on the Federation, and the responsibility which his own Ministry must bear.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Key)
First, I think I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) on his speech, not only for the knowledge 569 of the subject which he displayed, but also because of the brilliant way in which he presented his case to the House. I have listened to many speeches on Adjournment Debates in this House, and I do not remember one more brilliant than that to which we have just listened. I shall not be expected, I hope, to deal with all the points which have been raised during this Debate. I want to give a short history of this steel house from the point of view of the Ministry to show what it is up against at the present moment. We felt that because of the lack of ordinary traditional building material, and because of the lack of skilled building labour, we should adopt all possible, satisfactory methods of supplementing the traditional house by other means of house production; and quite a number of non-traditional types were, therefore, submitted to an expert committee and passed by them.
They selected those which they considered gave the most promise of success. The B.I.S.F house was one of the types selected, and it appeared to us to be a very good type of steel house, because no special factory equipment would be required for the fabrication of its component parts and also because there would be a demand for less skilled labour. Let it not be supposed that no skilled labour is required in prefabricated houses, but less skilled labour is required than in the construction of conventional houses.
The British Iron and Steel Federation were the original sponsors of this house, and in conjunction with nine of the largest building and civil engineering contractors in the country, who had been closely associated with the Mulberry Harbour scheme, they formed this special company. British Steel Houses, Limited, to develop and build the houses.
That was an added reason for our going forward with the B.I.S.F. house, because it meant that there was immediately available a large organisation for the carrying out of this scheme. We, therefore, decided to arrange for a programme of 30,000 of these houses to supplement the traditional building programme. These 30,000 houses, according to the statement made to us, would be completed by the 31st December, 1946. That was the programme in front of us.
The history of this house is a very good example of the sort of thing which needs to be studied by those who are everlastingly asking for 570 large figures to be given as to the possible number of houses to be produced for this or that programme. It was easy to say “30,000 by 31st December, 1946.” But, when they got started on the scheme, it was quite obvious that there were a large number of difficulties, and very soon modifications were needed in the programme. So, on 17th June, 1946, it was agreed that the 30,000 programme was far too large and it was reduced to 15,000 to be completed by 31st December and the whole programme completion was put off until May, 1947. Then, when we got to September, 1946, even the proposals of June were being proved to be impossible of realisation because of the other difficulties which were being met and the number was reduced to 10,000 to be completed by December, 1946. A month later it was reduced to 5,200. When we came to total up the absolute completion of the programme on 2nd January this year we found that the number completed was 70. That is the history of the great programme that was put forward for the building of this house.
The point about all this is that it is so easy to manufacture figures, but so difficult to get the component parts to manufacture houses, and those difficulties have not been taken into account. Probably the most important factor was the failure of the British Iron and Steel Federation to live up to any of their steel programme and their inability in phasing and coordinating the programme of the various parts.
Could the Minister explain what some of those difficulties were? He must have had representations from the Federation. Was it shortage of raw materials based on material supplied by the Minister of Fuel and Power, or what was it?
As is natural, people begin to get a little impatient when the weaknesses of these schemes are revealed.
But it was the hon. Member’s Department.
Yes, I can always understand that it is always our Department which is thought about, particularly when it happens to be their political views at any one particular time. We are very thankful for the very kind consideration that is given to us by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite.
The difficulties and shortages were, first of all, in complete sets of steel and then, when that was overcome, as my hon. Friend has said, it was found that they failed to produce the necessary foundation bolts at the right time when the bolts were wanted. The programme has not been so arranged as to fit in and phase. When that was done, there were other shortages of other fixing bolts in other parts of the structure. So we can go on, step by step. [AN HON. MEMBER: “The Ministry of Supply”] We then found that the other equipment was falling behind, and so on.
We felt that if this was to be made a successful programme at all, and the maximum speed and economy was to be realised in the carrying out of the scheme, the normal methods of dealing with it, in relation to the local authorities, would not be appropriate. Therefore, we decided to agree to a price being fixed centrally with British Steel Houses, Limited, for the production of the houses. In order to retain the maximum flexibility in the carrying out of the scheme it was agreed that the actual contracts for the erection of the houses should be made by the local authorities with individual contractors covering their areas. Therefore in effect, we had a scheme which approximated very nearly to the normal methods of building. The local authorities were saved a great deal of trouble in preparing plans and getting out bills of quantities and things of that sort.
When we came to go into the details, of course, it was discovered that the contemplated price would be rather higher than for the normal traditional house, but we felt, since we should thereby be getting houses rather more quickly than if we used the traditional methods, that we should be justified in paying a larger sum for the B.I.S.F. house We went very carefully, and so did our experts, into the constitution of the price. It was also agreed that when the first 5,000 of those houses had been completed the cost would be very carefully analysed and a new price would be arranged as a result of that investigation. That new price could not be made retrospective to the 5,000 houses that had already been completed
The local authorities were not to suffer in any way. We were using our powers under Section 17 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act in saying that a sum would be paid to the local authorities by way of compensating them for the difference between the cost price of the B.I.S.F. house and the normal type house. All that was explained to the local authorities, and because we felt that the house was peculiar in the way in which it was constructed and erected, we allocated the house only to the larger urban authorities who could provide sites for at least 50. Unfortunately, in the carrying of it through, difficulties with regard to manufacture and supply of steel made the programme go awry It was largely subject in the early stages to the shortage of steel of all types.
It being Four o’Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.” [Mr. Daines.]
This is particularly due to teething difficulties in the development of these new types of schemes when one comes to launch them on a large scale. I am bound to say in fairness that in addition to that there was unfortunately, because of the slowness of the temporary housing programme, an overlapping between that temporary housing programme, and the B.I.S.F. programme whereby the materials required for the B.I.S.F. house which it had been anticipated would be set free because of the completion of the earlier scheme were not set free so that there was a good deal of competition between both types of houses in such things as asbestos sheeting and so on. There was, therefore, a slowing-down so far as the B.I.S.F. programme was concerned.
This must be recognised because it applies generally to prefabricated constructions of other kinds in the country. There is an overall shortage of the necessary building labour. While it is true that the prefabricated type of house demands less skilled labour than the traditional house, it still requires a considerable amount of the normal building labour. Those difficulties are gradually being overcome. The supply of steel components during the latter part of 1946 considerably improved. The difficulty of the smaller parts whose production had not been adequately and properly phased in the early stages is gradually being overcome and I see no reason at all why we should despair now of a steady improvement in the production and erection of B.I.S.F. houses.
It must be admitted that they are rather less in superficial area than the standard houses but there are compensations for that in the outhouses which have been provided. I do not agree”and I do not see how I could agree”that they are inferior in design to a very large number of other prefabricated houses and to a considerable number of the traditional houses which are being erected.
I think I can conclude by giving a few details of the position of the programme at the present moment so far as these 30,000 houses are concerned.
On 16th January, 14,377 of them had been begun, taking the country as a whole.
The framework of 7,786 had been erected, roofs were on 4,236 and the clad walls had been put on 3,146.
That is a considerable step forward in the latter part of last year and we have every reason to believe that the programme will go forward and get to reasonable completion. So far as the composition of the body for the carrying out of the operation is concerned, it is not for me to enter into details as to how it is or should be constructed, but we have had other difficulties with other prefabricated types of houses, and while I think the case is clearly proved that there was a good deal of unjustified optimism on the part of British Steel Houses in regard to the programme put forward, I believe that a really good contribution to the housing problem will be made by the steel houses when they overcome the difficulty”
There is one point which puzzles a great many of us on this side of the House. The hon. Gentleman has referred to the shortage of building labour as one of the factors for this slow-up of the programme in general. Can he explain why it is that, month by month, there appear in the unemployment returns thousands of building trade operatives? What is the explanation there?
In an industry such as the building industry there must be at all times a good deal of movement from a completed scheme here to a new scheme started elsewhere. At any particular moment when the return is made that applies on the question of unemployed building operatives. Those operatives who are really in course of transmission, from one completed programme to the starting of another, are recorded on that day as being unemployed. But in a great number of cases it is only for a short period whilst in transmission from one occupation to another.
I am very much obliged. Does the hon. Gentleman recollect that when we sat on the Government benches and whenever that explanation was given it was greeted with jeers by hon. Members opposite?
Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)
I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to add to his very helpful and useful statement some information about our previous experience about steel houses. As he is aware”and I see the Joint Under-Secretary for Scotland is on the Front Bench with him”in the twenties in Scotland there were many hundreds of steel houses. They are still in being and are among the most comfortable houses we have. They were known as the Weir house or the Atholl house. As far as I can recollect, there was no difficulty in the construction of those houses. In fact, more were available than the local authorities in those days would take. Can the Parliamentary Secretary explain why in that previous Administration we had a superabundance of those houses and why he is not able to provide them today?
I am not prepared to take as a statement of fact what the hon. Gentleman has said in regard to the overabundance of houses, and so on. Quite understandably, there might have been a sort of hesitation on the part of local authorities to take such a thing as a steel house because a good deal of experience must be had before one can get people to trust such a new institution.
Sir W. Darling
But they are there now .They were erected 25 years ago.
Experience has shown that the steel house is a real contribution to the solution of this problem. If we can progress with the investigations we are carrying out in connection with the maintenance of the outside of the house, and deal with condensation inside the house, and prove to people that these difficulties are being overcome, I see no reason why the steel house should not become as popular as any type of house.
Adjourned accordingly at Nine Minutes past Four o’Clock.