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War Economy

Housing Construction Resources Switched to War Work

Housing Construction Resources Switched to War Work

Dwelling construction, a major part of the work of the building and construction industry, had been slow to recover from the effects of the depression of the 1930s. It was not until 1938 that the number of permits for new dwellings again reached its pre-depression level, and then only with the assistance of a substantial number of state-constructed dwellings. The Government had created a Housing Construction Branch in 19361 and the first state house construction had commenced in March 1937. From then onwards state construction was to play a significant part in determining the overall level of dwelling construction.

The war came before the state housing programme was properly under way. Four hundred state houses had been completed in 1937–38, and 2700 in 1938–39. A target of 5000 houses a year had been set in February 1938, but this level was not to be reached until after the war.

In spite of the increasing pressure of defence construction, permits for new state houses reached nearly 4400 in the financial year 1939–40, compared with 4100 in 1938–39, and 2200 in 1937–38. The pressure for defence works started to have its effect in 1940–41 and the number of new permits for state houses fell to 4000.

In 1942, with priorities drastically altered by the threat of Japanese invasion, the Housing Construction Branch diverted most of its resources to defence work. Its defence construction work was valued at £773,000 in 1942–43 and £1,754,000 in 1943–44, after which it was to fall away rapidly. State house construction fell to 2900 units in 1941–42 and to only 600 in 1942–43.

At the same time, the effect of labour and materials shortages in restricting private building was being reinforced by a concerted attempt by the controllers to divert into essential works building labour which could not be taken for the armed forces, and to debar the use of scarce materials for any but essential purposes.

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Permits for private dwellings, from well over 5000 in each of the first two years of war, fell back to 4900 in 1940–41 and to 4300 in 1941–42, then dropped to 1000 in 1942–43, which, as with state housing, was to be the lowest year.

Chart 51 shows changes in the number of permits issued for new dwellings.

chart of construction statistics

Chart 51

As defence construction work became less urgent, building resources tended to switch back to housing construction and other types of civilian work. Permits for state houses, which had been at around 600 in 1942–43, were 2200 in 1943–44, and 3300 in 1944–45. Total permits for new dwellings were at their lowest point in 1942–43, when there were 1600 permits. In 1943–44 there were 4900, and in 1944–45, 8700, still 1000 below 1938–39.

1 Initially a branch of the State Advances Corporation, but to become a branch of the Public Works Department in 1944.