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Orders of the Day — Housing and Town Planning (Scotland) Bill.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 5th May 1919.

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Photo of Mr Donald Maclean Mr Donald Maclean , Peebles and Southern

We are very much indebted to the Secretary for Scotland not only for the very lucid and comparatively brief manner in which he has opened a very difficult subject, but also for the note of warm human sympathy which ran through the whole of his remarks, and which, we trust, may not only find an echo but an abiding place in those local authorities which in Scotland will have the power and duty of administering this Bill, which we hope will shortly become an Act. Without that, the finest Act in the world will be of little or no avail to meet a problem which goes deep to the roots of the whole thing, not only in Scotland, but in the whole of the United Kingdom. I therefore gladly welcome the recognition which my right hon. Friend has paid to the work of the Royal Commision. As he has said, the chairman and secretary of that Commission are personal friends of both he and I, and while recognising the work of all the other members of the Commission, I most gladly join with the right hon. Gentleman in recognition of their long, arduous, unselfish, and, we hope, successful labours. The question in Scotland is of special acuteness. We heard a great deal, when the English Bill was going through the House, of the conditions which obtain in English rural and urban areas, and also in great English cities, but there are no conditions in England and Wales which do not at present exist in Scotland in a more intensified form. Scotland is far behind England and Wales in the matter of houses. I need only supplement what my right hon. Friend has already said by one or two statistics. In England there is assumed to be overcrowding where there are more than two people in one room. The Report assumes that there is overcrowding in Scotland where there are more than three people in one room. Taking that standard, very nearly one-quarter of the whole population of Scotland is living in overcrowded conditions, but if you take the English standard of more than two people in one room very nearly half the total population of Scotland is living in overcrowded conditions to-day. The condition of things which obtained when the Census was taken in 1911 is worse to-day, and particularly in Scotland, for this special reason: From no part of the United Kingdom, except Ireland, was emigration so widespread and so numerous before the War as from Scotland, and latterly it almost approached the dimensions of emigration from Ireland. That has been, stopped during the War, and, taking the existing conditions combined with the fact that there has been no emigration, the need for houses in Scotland to-day is far more intense than it would have been if there had been no war. That is the situation with which we have to deal. Under a good housing scheme the density of population is supposed to be not more than sixty to an acre. In certain congested areas in Edinburgh it rises to 667 per acre, in Dundee to 664, and in Glasgow to 700. At the risk of wearying the House, I am going to read one or two statements from the Report showing what overcrowding means in a large area like that of Glasgow and in a small area, almost a rural area, and I shall give one instance of what happens in a seasonal trade: Of all the children who die in Glasgow before they complete their fifth year, 32 per cent. die in houses of one apartment and not 2 per cent. in houses of five apartments and upwards. There they die— say the. Commissioners, quoting from the Medical Officer of Health of that city— and their little bodies are laid on the table or on the dresser so as to be somewhat out of the way of their brothers and sisters who play and eat in their ghastly company. From the beginning to the end their short lives are a continual tragedy. Take the evidence given before the Royal Commission of the general inadequacy of one-roomed houses. Dr. Huskie, speaking from a long experience of medical practice in a small town in a rural area—overcrowding is not confined to the big cities—gave it as his view that the one-roomed house was altogether hopeless. This is his statement: You sometimes find in the case of two rooms that there is a lack of decency, and repeatedly in the case of one room, when you have a case of confinement. It is very awkward. You have either to put the people out on to the street in the middle of the night or you have to get a screen drawn and separate it from the rest of the room as well as you can. Well, it is not a very nice thing, and it is bad morally. Sometimes there are lodgers in the same room. The worst case that I had was a case of one room where there was a widow with a son and daughter and a lodger. The daughter was being confined. The two beds were head to foot; in the one bed the lodger and son slept, and my assistant was attending the daughter in the next bed. This was all in a little bit of a room. Then apart from confinement work, how can they dress? One is dressing and another is dodging back and forward, and there is no chance of decency. It is a hopeless state of things. Then the Commission go on to add: The circumstances here detailed must be repeated, with variations, thousands of times a year in the one-room houses of Scotland. They serve to bring into striking relief the inconveniences, discomforts and indecencies that are normally inevitable where over-crowding occurs. I will just give one more quotation with regard to the difficulties in a seasonal trade. This is what the sanitary inspector of Blairgowrie found in July, 1913, in one house in a terrace: I visited a place at midnight and found in a two-roomed house twenty men and two women in the living room and twenty-three women in the adjoining room. They were all lying on the floor, with the exception of two women, who were cooking food in the living room, and three young women who could find no floor space to lie on, and were seated on a box in the centre of the room. Some of the men had their boots off; none of the men or women had their clothes off. This document to which my right hon. Friend referred is a marvellous Report in its wide sweep of survey of the history of housing in Scotland, in its wonderful draft of the legal aspect of the case, and in the accuracy with which it sets out its facts. But the most striking thing about it is the official revelation that tens of thousands of people in Scotland are living under conditions which no farmer who has any respect for his cattle would keep them in even for a single day. What a condemnation of our civilisation! But there the fact is, that here we are at the end of the War, just beginning in a modest way to realise what the condition of the people is. I do not wonder at the outbreaks of labour unrest. What I wonder is at the patience of the people, at how they have stood it for so long. That is the marvel. They are now awakening to those conditions. If they did not awake, who is going to be awakened? The Government and the public authorities only awake when they see the red light. The red light is shining to-day, and it is accompanied, I am glad to say, by awakened human sympathy. Fear is no real instrument of reform. It is not only fear that has actuated the Government to-day. It is, I hope and believe, a genuine understanding of the needs of the nation. The one point I want to make especially with regard to this Bill is this—the need of something being done quickly. It will not be of the slightest good setting up a lot of new Government Departments, unless through them swift action can be taken. I do not think existing conditions will be tolerated for more than a limited period; something must be done, and done very quickly.

Let me turn for a moment or two to the Bill itself. I welcome the clear exposition by my right hon. Friend of this Bill, to which, in so far as it goes, I give for what it may be worth my most hearty support. Anything we can do to assist my right hon. Friend in response to his appeal will certainly be done. I am sure he will agree, however, that we are entitled to exercise to the full any criticism which we can honestly tender to mate the measure better and stronger than it is in its present form. I welcome the mandatory Clauses of the Bill. It is no good saying the local authorities may do this or that. They have simply got to do it, and unless there is a strong driving force at the centre, you will never get the high standard of local administration which is necessary to carry such a Bill as this into anything like effective operation. One knows the difficulties of the small authorities. I have a good deal of sympathy with them. But unless there is this compelling power we shall get very little done. I hope that as soon as this Bill is on the Statute Book my right hon. Friend will get the law codified. There is no reason why that should not be done. If such codification is necessary in any legal system, may I with all the respect that comes from the fact that I have an English law training, suggest it is more necessary in Scotland than anywhere. One of the reasons why Scottish lawyers have done so well at the English Bar is that once they get over the difficulties of Scottish law everything else must be easy to them. I am quite sure it would be really useful. There are advocates in Parliament House who would undertake to deal with it promptly and efficiently as soon as this Act appears on the Statute Book, and we can have the law codified, so that it may be placed within a small compass, and be readily understood by the ordinary man, as well as by competent and experienced lawyers.

Let me ask my right hon. Friend this question while I have the matter in my mind. There is in connection with this question of housing, the question of water supply. Is there any Bill already before the House, or is there any Bill in contemplation which deals with this question of the conservation and proper parcelling out of the great water-sheds? If you are going to give to the smaller country areas these great powers, they must have a proper water supply. What is happening now is, that you give great authorities, like Edinburgh or Glasgow, where they have the money and the brains, general powers to secure a grip on the national watersheds of the country. At the same time you are placing on these smaller authorities the duty of providing housing. But what is the good of having houses unless there is a proper water supply? We know that the smaller authorities have to fight it out with the greater authorities, and that in the end the long purse wins. Is it in my right hon. Friend's mind to take some steps to back up the smaller authorities in their reasonable demands upon these greater authorities? Of course, I understand Glasgow and Edinburgh authorities say, "We do not know how big we are going to be years hence." But the fact remains that what the smaller authorities can get, they only get at the point of the bayonet. I think the central authority, through the Government, ought to have this clearly in mind, as, a matter that is of real importance in dealing with this important question of housing.

There is another point which my right hon. Friend mentioned, and that is the difficulty arising from the restrictive covenants in feu charters. There is no power in this Bill to wipe these restrictive covenants out. There ought to be. Many of them were put in twenty-five or thirty years ago, and they are utterly out of sympathy with modern conditions. Why should the parsimony, selfishness and meanness of the dead retain their paralysing hand on the living community to-day? I do not see any reason for it, and when these restrictive covenants are right against the public interest, let the public sweep them out of the way. If my right hon. Friend would take, his courage in both hands, and deal with them in the way the Royal Commission recommends, I can promise that we will support him. Then, again, there is the question of finance and payment; that is wrapped up with another Bill. What is the position of that other Bill? Here we have land, as in Scotland, as in England, Wales and Ireland, the interest in which have been subsidised for the necessities of the War. The price and value of the land has gone up. We heard from the Chancellor of the Exchequer the other day that what the Government propose to do is to sweep on one side all the work that has been done in regard to land valuation under the Budget of 1910. I do not know how far the process of valuation has gone in Scotland, but at present the land has much increased in value owing to the War, and it is going to be taken at market value. I say again for the third time, and I shall repeat that as often as may be necessary, "it will not do." The people of this country are not going to pay the value of the land for necessary communal decent existence. The Government had better make up its mind to that. The land will have to be acquired. It will be acquired sooner or later, but it will have to be acquired at a proper and reasonable value for public purposes, and that can be done by finding out what the Inland Revenue authorities value it at, or what the landlord values it at for purposes of rent. It is upon that simple basis that, it must be acquired. Nobody wants confiscation. We will give the value, whatever it is, on some such basis as that.

5.0 P.M.

There is another matter which at present stands in a thoroughly unsatisfactory position, and it will have to be cleared up, otherwise we shall find difficulties. We are told that nothing more than a penny rate is involved. That sounds all right. But who is going to find the money? The ratepayers and taxpayers of the locality will really have to find their share of the money. Some people seem to imagine that these subventions are going to fall down from heaven in no unrestrained manner on the just and the unjust alike. But when we come down to the tax-collector, he does not talk about the State; he wants the money of the individual. Therefore we shall have to see that the land taken for these purposes is secured on a reasonable basis, because the public authorities must know quite well that the balance over and above the penny rate will have to come out of the pockets of the individual ratepayer, and if the State taxation becomes too heavy, the ratepayers will not be able to pay the ordinary rate. It is all within a vicious circle. There is a tremendous out cry for Government and individual economy all round. It is the individual who has to pay sooner or later. Call it by the State or anything else as you like, that is the only way it can be done. The welcome which we give from these benches to this Bill is a hearty one. Anything we can do to further its progress or to improve or strengthen its provisions will be most heartily done. If I remember aright, John Bright finely said that a nation does not dwell in great mansions or princely palaces; the nation dwells in humble cottages. Unless we can make our statesmanship reflected in these cottages and in the lives of the people who live in them, we have yet to learn the first principles of that great art.