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War Economy

Backlogs of Construction Work

page 562

Backlogs of Construction Work

For over a year, during the war, building and construction resources were switched almost entirely to defence construction work, and for most of the war, defence construction had a high priority. When private building was not being deliberately deferred to transfer resources to defence construction, it was under controls of varying intensity, designed to conserve scarce materials. Normal public works were cut back also.

A formidable backlog of deferred construction work resulted, much of it requiring urgent attention by the time the war finished.

The Ministry of Works report said in 1946:1

‘Six years' arrears of housebuilding, factory building, school-building, hydro-electric construction, bridge renewals, land development, highway maintenance, and many other forms of peacetime building and construction must now be made up before the physical capital of the Dominion can be properly related to her expanded and redistributed population.’

This was an exaggeration. Some private work and normal public works had been done during the war2 and a good deal of defence construction work could be turned to peacetime uses after the war.3 It is probable that two and a half years' arrears of normal building and construction work would be nearer the mark.4

A statement in the 1947 Budget also needs careful assessment:5

‘Moreover, it is estimated that about £150,000,000 is required to provide for the accumulated needs for capital goods necessarily postponed on account of war circumstances.’

This figure may have been intended to include producers' equipment6 and consumer durables as well as deferred building and construction work and maintenance work; but it would still be on the high side.7 Probably the war was taking too much of the blame for arrears of electricity generating capacity.8

1 Parliamentary Paper D–3, p. 3.

2 See for example Chart 51, p. 243, for housing construction, and p. 435 for electricity construction.

3 Hospital buildings, warehouses and the like particularly, but see also pp. 5212.

4 This is the author's assessment based on information in this volume. While rough, it gives a reasonably correct impression of the accumulation.

5 Parliamentary Paper B–6, Financial Statement, p. 28. Actually the figure is introduced in a paragraph dealing with importing, but the order of the deferred imports of capital goods would be very much smaller.

6 However, many factories had been kept well equipped for war purposes, and the equipment, unless highly specialised, could be put to peacetime uses. Farm tractors and other equipment had been imported under Lend-Lease.

7 The author would estimate all these at not more than £130 million.

8 See also Chapter 16.

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Two and a half years of deferred building and construction work was a formidable hurdle after the war, when building materials and equipment were still in short supply.

Shortages of materials forced the Government to maintain many wartime building controls for some years, so that high priority construction work would not be held up. Skilled tradesmen were also scarce. The 1948 Ministry of Works statement said:1

‘The excess of demand over the present potential of the works industry has necessitated a continuance of the Building Control Emergency Regulations beyond the special needs of war for which they were originally designed.’

Controls extended to commercial buildings as well as dwellings, and might restrict size and materials to be used, or debar construction altogether if it was not considered essential. Construction of private garages, for example, was not usually approved.

Supplies of timber, steel, and cement were all below requirements when the war ended, but, of all building materials, corrugated roofing iron caused the most problems. In 1948 the Building Controller wrote:2

‘The supply position in regard to galvanised iron is particularly bad, and on the latest information available it is apparent that there is little likelihood of any reasonable improvement being made in the position for the next year or so. Supplies in sight at present from all sources are less than 6,000 tons per annum, whilst the estimated annual demand is 25,000 tons.’

Timber shortages were largely overcome by 1948, but steel and cement shortages persisted for a few years longer.

Difficulties with corrugated iron continued, and not until June 1953 could it be used for roofing without a special permit. The removal, in August 1954, of other restrictions on the use of corrugated iron3 brought to an end the last of the wartime controls over building materials.

As materials became more freely available and controls slackened off, there was a dramatic rise in the building and construction labour force, which, between 1951 and 1956, increased by over 40 per cent.

1 Parliamentary Paper D–1, p. 1.

2 Memorandum of 20 May 1948 to Minister of Works. Copy on Ministry of Works file 36/1. The answers to a question in the 1961 population census revealed that 71 per cent of dwellings then had corrugated iron roofs. The proportion would have been higher in earlier years.

3 Building Construction Control Notice No. 35 of 2 August 1954.

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Chart 88 shows labour force changes since 1947.

chart of labour statistics

Chart 88

By 1956 some of the wartime backlogs of construction work had been overcome, and the industry settled down to a more normal rate of growth.

Controls over construction of the larger commercial buildings continued until 1956; from this year there were no building controls, except the normal requirement to obtain a building permit from a local authority.

Controls had been lifted as soon as the industry had sufficient capacity to cope with the demand for construction work. Building costs were helping to reduce demand. In the recovery years, pressure of demand on the restricted capacity of the industry had caused building costs to rise considerably faster than most other costs. They have tended to remain high up to 1964.

Building and construction and other capital formation was taking 22 or 23 per cent of the national output1 in the years 1952–53 to 1957–58. It had averaged 16 per cent in 1937–38 and 1938–39, which were at the time considered to be high years for public works expenditure and housing.

1 The gross national product is used as denominator.

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Much of the remaining arrears of capital works was overtaken by 1958,1 and the building and construction labour force settled down to a much more sedate rate of growth, which was soon less than the average rate for other industries. However, capital formation continued to take close to 22 per cent of the national output.

1 Though there was a surge in dwelling construction in the early 1960s, caused by the 1958 scheme for 3 per cent home-building loans and the 1959 scheme for capitalisation of the family benefit (which was mentioned on p. 545).