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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 James Brown Mr James Brown , South Ayrshire

If he will allow me, I would like to congratulate the hon. Member who has just sat down on his very excellent contribution to the Debate, and I am going to try to take the advice of another hon. Member who spoke, the hon. Member for East Fife (Sir A. Sprot), who gave us such sound advice. I should not have chosen to be born in a bad house, and if I am able I will try and take his advice and build those houses which he thinks everyone ought to build in order that they may know the expenses of the upkeep of a house. The task on my party to-night is very considerably lightened because everybody who has spoken has blessed this Bill, and they have condemned the existing state of housing in Scotland. The right hon. Gentleman characterised the Scottish Royal Commission Housing Report as being very impressive. I think he gave several adjectives, but to my mind none of them was equal to the occasion, and it was only when the hon. and gallant Member for Shettlestone (Rear-Admiral Adair) used a particular word that I felt happy. He said it was a damning indictment, and it is the only word that is applicable to the state of housing in Scotland. The people, and especially the working classes, are blamed by many for living in bad houses. Indeed, I have a report here of a very large county district committee in which it says that the working classes do not desire houses of three or four apartments. There never was such a lie uttered, and if one or two here and there have no desire for better conditions, that is not to say that the great mass of the working classes are not very desirous of getting better houses, so that, as His Majesty has declared in a speech recently, they can be made into homes. For after all we have not had homes. The working classes have only had some places in which they could breathe, and hardly breathe at that, and we welcome the Bill, and will do everything in our power to help its becoming an Act, with, of course, due reservations and with that constructive criticism that the right hon. Gentleman desires.

I am not going to say very much regarding the condition of the working class houses in Scotland. The Report stands for itself and I think no Scot can read that Report without a sense of shame, and I think it ought to stir every one of us to try to get as speedily as possible better conditions in our country. It is on that side that I should like to say a word or two—the urgency of the case, the desire expressed by everybody for better housing, and the danger that will result if this scheme is too long delayed. The right hon. Gentleman who spoke after the Secretary for Scotland (Sir D. Maclean) spoke very warmly to-night, and I could almost have congratulated him on being a convert to our party. He knows the conditions, in Scotland, and he also, if I remember rightly, said that Governments seldom acted until they saw the red light. The red light is being flashed now, because I do not know anything in this country that will bring about a revolution, that everybody desires to see very far away from our shores, so much as this lack of houses amongst our working classes. It does not matter where you go. I speak chiefly of the conditions that I know best, the condition of the great mining communities. I think I know as well as anybody in this House the conditions under which the miners of Scotland are housed. It was my painful duty to take part in the investigation over a very large area of Scotland in preparing the Report for that Royal Commission, and I know the conditions, and I know that not only is the quality of the houses very bad indeed, but the lack of housing accommodation is one of the greatest sources of discontent that I know of in Scotland to-day. As I said it does not matter whether you go into a miners' district or into the rural hamlets, or visit the fishing villages, you will find the very same thing and the same discontent and the same despairing cry, "When is the Government going to move to give us houses in which we are able to live?" I know numbers of families in almost every village in my Constituency with sons who have come home from the War, who have been compelled to take their wives and families into the houses of their parents. I thought that that existed only in the mining districts, but I discover as I go on that it exists everywhere. I was in a very pretty little village on Friday night last, addressing my Constituents, and I discovered that the same thing existed there, more than half-a-dozen families having to take in their sons and their wives, and in some cases two or three of the children, in order to prevent them being thrown into the street. How can we prevent discontent? And how is the Government going to prevent the working classes from demanding very angrily when this sort of thing is going to cease?

In spite of all the urgency, in spite of all the danger that I see ahead—and I trust that every hon. and right hon. Gentleman here appreciates the very grave danger indeed that will arise if housing is too long delayed—in spite of everything that we can say, we have our great district authorities refusing to move, or, at least, when they are compelled to move, only moving part of the way. In this Report you have not in any single instance in one big district—and I take it it is a reflection of all other districts in Scotland—you have not one parish getting the half of their demands. They asked for 100 houses, and they get something like twenty-five. In one district they asked for 400, and they are offered 150. In another district, they asked for fifty, and they were told that, because they had no drainage scheme, they could not get a single house at all. I should have thought that the very lack of drainage, the very lack of sanitation necessary for the upkeep of life, should have proved to these people that better housing was needed. I do not blame most of these men, because I know most of them, and individually they are gentlemen whom anyone could trust, but whenever they seem to get together, and it is a case of a sum of money being required, they refuse to do their obvious duty. I do not understand how any Member of this House can make expense the excuse of keeping back any great housing scheme. In the time of need, did not the nation give gladly everything—trade union conditions, everything that was dear to the working man—nay, give up their sons and themselves—in order that this country would be able to face the enemy on the field? I am not claiming a monopoly for the working class in that respect, but they at least did their share, and whenever expenditure is asked in order to carry out any scheme of reform under which the lives of the working classes would be improved, the expense stares them in the face. Though we spent for some years something like £7,000,000 or £7,500,000 a day on the War, are we to refuse to face housing schemes when an expenditure which a month of war would have incurred would easily give us a great scheme for our country of Scotland?

I trust that the Government in carrying through this measure will not only accept helpful criticism, as the right hon. Gentleman has already said he will, but that they will strengthen the Bill so that there will be no loophole for local authorities to escape. We know what has happened in the past with local authorities, and again I say I do not blame them altogether; but we know we have had legislation in plenty. Laws have been made in this House, but those laws were, not administered in the country, and what we are trying to impress upon the Government is that this Bill shall emerge in such a way that there will be no loophole for local authorities to escape, but that they will be compelled to go on with their housing scheme, and to build the houses which are necessary to the health of the community. The Report which I hold in my hand is not an old one. It is for March of this year. I only enumerate one or two districts, but it was the same all over. They were refused even a half of what the parish councils want. Houses were condemned years ago, but, from the exigencies of the War, were allowed to stand in the hope that so soon as the War was over, or even during the course of the War, something would be done. Many people thought the Report of the Royal Commission on Scottish Housing was exaggerated and overdrawn. There could be no exaggeration. No one could have overdrawn or overstated the state of things that was found in that country. Here was a Report given on 18th of March last: Plaster work broken; plastered on the hard inside affected with dampness; floors mostly of flooring tiles laid on the ground surface, defective and affected with dampness; window sashes un-hung, defective and time-worn and let in rain-water; the woodwork, doors, windows, facings defective and time-worn; roofs defective, allowing rain-water to percolate on to the ceilings; most of the rhones are a wanting. The drainage at the rows is by open channels, defective and foul, discharge into cesspools, thence to an open ditch at the lower end of the rows; privies and ashpits foul, insanitary and defective construction and inadequate; court-yards defective, foul, unpaved; no wash-house accommodation, except a few erections provided by the tenants. The houses No. 36 to 83 are in an advanced state of disrepair, and the sanitary inspector recommends that this lot be closed against human habitation. This sort of thing could be multiplied, and I do beseech the Secretary for Scotland to see to it that the people who are in charge—the men and women who have been appointed by the ratepayers to carry through this necessary work—shall be compelled to carry it through, or that else very drastic action will be taken and all the machinery that is provided in the Bill will be put into operation, and even strengthened, so that this necessary work may be done. Allusion has been made to the land. I trust that the Government will have no qualms in getting sufficient land for building purposes. We are blamed as a party for wanting to confiscate the land. I do not know that anyone of our party wants anything of the kind, but we do not want landlords to enrich themselves by the necessities of the poor. We want land to be taken at a fair valuation, but whether the land is at a fair valuation or not, land must be given by the people who own it to the nation for the nation's purposes. You damn your Housing Bill at once if you are going to make the rent such as people cannot pay.

I want again to warn the Secretary for Scotland regarding some erections that have already been put up by the Local Government Board. A great many houses have been erected at a place called Glengarnock, in Ayrshire. Even employers of labour say those houses have been flimsily built. They are cold in winter and inadequate for the purpose desired. These unsuitable, cold houses are rented at £27 10s. a year, which is a prohibitive rent for most of our working classes. I am glad to be able to say that some of our working-class houses are decent, and many of our employers are anxious to do the best they can, and when opportunity has offered they have done it; but even those people do not ask half the rent that is under the sanction of the Local Government Board. I do, therefore, utter this note of warning. I do trust that this Bill will not only be carried, but that, after due constructive criticism and Amendments that I am sure many hon. Members will be anxious to make, it will be carried through, and that it will be the beginning of better times for the working people in Scotland. The working-classes have never had the chance they ought to have had. I do not say our people are immoral, but I do say they have never had very much opportunity to be anything else, and it is due to the inherent virtue of our people that they are what they are to-day. For God's sake, let us see that our people get a chance of sweet surroundings, and do not fall into the idea that, because the man is a miner or a ploughman, or a mason, he does not desire a good house, for he does, and he wishes to do the best for the children he is bringing up. Without a good house you are very seldom able to bring up a child that will be a benefit to the State and the pride of the home. I ask the Secretary for Scotland to do everything he can to urge on the local authorities the desirability of pressing on these housing schemes, and I ask him to take no excuse that will be offered, but to force them, and, if necessary, to take the work in hand themselves, and make the local authorities bear the expense.