17 OCTOBER 1931, Page 8

Economy and the Building Industry By MURRAY LESLIE.

NO industry seems likely to go through a more lean time as a result of economy proposals than the building trade. In the last few weeks there has been a number of actual or projected postponements of municipal and other development schemes amounting to many millions of pounds. Among these may be mentioned the prospective £100,000 rebuilding of the Cambridge Guildhall ; the new £56,000 Sheffield aerodrome at Coal Aston ; the Brighton Corporation's scheme for a building to house salt-water baths, a rheumatic clinic and indoor recreational facilities. There has also been discussed in the London County Council the deferment of the Elephant and Castle improvement scheme which would have cost £1,950,000. The Glamorgan County Council is likely to modify a five-year programme of expenditure of £1,930,000, of which £800,000 was repre- sented by a three-years school-building programme.

Some of the foregoing plans, a few only of many, are what may be described as " luxury " schemes, but an index of a much more grave nature is that the rank and file of local authorities throughout the country have, in spite of a warning issued by the Minister of Health, displayed a tendency to shelve, at least temporarily, a number of plans for legitimate building development. In effect, there has been a response to the call for economy which will have a serious result upon the building industry, and upon the welfare of the tens of thousands of persons who do not appear upon its books but gain their living from it, unless these reductions of programme be under- taken with a keen appreciation of the meaning of economy.

The national urgency for normality (if nothing more) in building is only too well demonstrated by the fact that in the metropolis alone there are several firms of builders (names which are household words in the trade) and a score of sub-contracting businesses which have nothing in front but to close down when their present jobs are finished.

An economy which puts a stop to productive building and throws additional thousands out of employment cannot be, in any sense, a wise economy. The gravity of the position is better understood when it is realized that at the present moment 19.7 per cent. of the industry is unemployed as against 14.3 per cent. at this time last year. It is very clear, however, that savings in the direction of building are needed and must be made. In this, local authorities can play a large part. While it is essential that there should be no diminution in the total amount of building and constructive work going on, it is equally important, for the present, that development schemes only be set in motion which are based upon their public urgency and ability to show a return. In this connexion it is well to recall that on a par- with schemes which, when completed, actually bring in an income are those building works which would save money now being wasted through the faulty functioning of present arrangements. Greatest, perhaps, in importance is the need not to slacken the building, but to effect a saving in the cost, of municipal housing. A radical change is needed in the machinery by which municipal housing is produced. At the present moment there are nearly 1,100 local authorities pos- sessed of " housing " powers, each with its own staff, machinery, and own ideas for coping with the demand for accommodation. This overlapping of effort is one of the primary reasons for the high cost of housing.

It is certain that the building industry, if officially approached by the Government, could suggest and put into operation a solution of the problem. This would largely take the form of relieving council surveyors and engineers of their housing duties—which are really outside their province and which in many cases they would be heartily glad to be rid of—and allowing private architects and builders to cope with the demand by means of a co-ordinated and concentrated effort upon an economic basis. The immediate ideal, gradually and as the results of organization were achieved, would be the discontinu- ance of the Government subsidy. As at the present time this subsidy amounts to nearly £12,000,000, the saving would be enormous.

Great savings are possible, and long overdue, within the industry. Those who are acquainted with the building trade are aware that for years the industry has not been throwing its full weight into the collar. As much as anything the subsidy has been responsible for this, by creating an artificial level of housing cost and thus converting the trade into a sheltered industry. Output to-day is considerably below pre-War level. The average number of bricks laid per working hour by a bricklayer and labourer was, it has been stated, 80. By 1926 this figure had fallen to 45, and though now the number has risen to 65, there is still a considerable leeway to be made up.

Apart from the bigger schemes which the high cost of building is holding up, there is an almost unlimited amount of repair work urgently needed on private houses and property of all descriptions. Reduction of building cost through increased output would un- doubtedly have the effect of creating much additional employment in this direction alone.

In the reduction of costs generally, every section of the trade can play its part. Manufacturers of certain materials which prima fade appear too highly priced can look into their production costs. Operatives, remem- bering that the standard of wages to-day is 80-90 per cent. above pre-War level and the cost of living only 45 per cent., must strenuously make the effort to increase the output as a minimum to pre-War level. Architects, while affording opportunity for praise upon maintaining a high artistic standard, can help considerably by expressing their ideas simply and by cutting out all unnecessary tricks of design which run up the cost.

Builders must set about organizing the labour at their command, take every advantage of new building methods and give care to the planning out of a schedule of progress which would help in keeping work on the job up to time.

Probably more than any other industry the building trade may momentarily suffer from the Economy pro- posals which hang, like a Damoclean sword over its head. But if that sword be boldly seized and its edge turned to uses which, in the form of internal pruning, have long awaited, the industry may find good in evil and emerge strengthened from the ordeal which lies ahead,