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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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Mr. J. TAYLOR:

(Dumbarton Burghs)

As a representative of the local authorities I should like to contribute my quota to the discussion. I represent one of the most crowded constituencies in Scotland. It has been my good fortune to see that town grow. I have had the pleasure in presiding over the Dean of Guild Court when the plans passed for developing the town. In 1866 the population was 5,000. When the Census Returns were published for 1901 the population had risen to 10,000. In 1911 it was 18,000. The next figures were 37,000, and to-day we have a population of 50,000. I have had the honour of seeing all these houses that have been put up erected. When I entered the town council we had something like 1,000 houses. We have now over 10,000 houses. While these houses may not be all that could be desired they are the best that could be built under the regulations. Local authorities have been blamed for the type of house that has been put up by them. But they have been hampered. They had regulations to administer. Beyond these they could not go. We very often had great objection to the density of the population that was placed on the land. But we had no means of preventing these houses being built. We had great objection to the houses being erected four storeys high. We had no means of preventing that. These were the conditions under which we had to build the town, and the town has been built. Notwithstanding all that has been said about the tenement system we consider that we have had exceptionally good houses in the borough over which I have presided. In the Dean of Guild Court we wish to have drastic improvements. We wish to limit the number of houses per acre. We wish to limit the high buildings. We wish to increase the number of rooms in each house. All through the years we have persistently advocated a principle of that kind. It has been my privilege to be a member of the Executive of the Housing and Town Planning Committee in Scotland. Much has been said to-day as to what this Bill owes to the Report of the Scottish Housing Commission. I do not by a single word wish to underrate what has been said in regard to that Report. But the Housing and Town Planning Committee also have their proposals before the Secretary for Scotland, and before the President of the Local Government Board of England. Many of the proposals that were thrashed out by the Housing and Town Planning Committee are embodied in this Bill. It has, therefore, been my privilege to preside over a municipality and see the town grow up under the shadow of the Housing and Town Planning Committee. I have taken an active part in trying to shape the policy of housing in Scotland. And I welcome to-day this Bill as being the outcome of much spade work which has been done in the years that are past. The houses that were erected in the burgh over which I presided were all erected by private enterprise. Private enterprise, as long as things could be made to pay, did not object to build houses, but the time came when it was seen to be impossible to make houses pay, and then private enterprise stopped and no more houses were built. One of the firms in our district, to their great credit, when housing stopped in 1911, erected for their workmen a large number of houses, close to their own works, and let them not at an economic rent, but at a rent which the men were able to pay. The firm bore the loss, expecting to recoup themselves by the better health of the workmen, by their being nearer to their work, getting home to their meals, and not losing time. Local authorities have been blamed for not taking advantage of the previous Housing Acts, but that is not to be wondered at. In my district, about eighteen years ago, we erected, under the first Housing Act, some twenty-seven houses. We had to pay for the land and the houses in thirty years. The result was that, if we kept the rents at the same rate as other houses of the same nature, we were bound to lose, and all through those eighteen years we have lost from £100 to £150 a year. Therefore, there was no great inducement for a local authority to go on with a housing scheme. That was the reason why local authorities and town-planning committees advocated that the Government should come to the assistance of the local authorities and help to bear the burden. I welcome the provision in Clause 1 of the Bill, which makes it obligatory on local authorities to have a housing scheme, and which also lays down that if a local authority does not proceed with its housing scheme the Local Government Board themselves will come in and do the work. I do not think any local authority in Scotland that is at all responsible to public opinion will object to this Clause. As far as I know local authorities in Scotland, every one is willing to do its part and get on with housing as quickly as possible; and they have done so. Before this Bill was ever thought of, many local authorities in Scotland had housing schemes prepared. They had land secured, and if it had not been for the War they would have gone on with those schemes, expecting to get some return from the Government that was then in power, to recoup them for the loss. My own town had a housing scheme, and we had land provisionally fixed; we did not buy it, but we paid the feu duty on it from 1911 until to-day. We had the plans prepared and we were prepared to go on, but the War came in, and, of course, building was stopped. When the Local Government Board asked for plans we were able to state that that was our scheme, those were our plans, and we were prepared to go on with them at once if the Local Government Board would give us power to do so. Many other local authorities in Scotland are in exactly the same position. They have their schemes ready, and if there is any delay in the matter of going on with building it will not be on the part of the local authorities, and I hope it will not be owing to the Local Government Board putting obstacles in the way of local authorities going on with their schemes.

I also welcome Clause 5. The first proposals of the Local Government Board were that the Government was to pay 75 per cent. of the difference between the economic rent and the rent obtained—that is to say, 75 per cent. of the loss. The local authorities were to pay the other 25 per cent. The Local Government Board and the Secretary for Scotland have been blamed by some for altering those conditions, and I saw that during the discussion on the English Bill the same objection was taken. As one of the executive of the Housing and Town Planning Committee in Scotland, I remember that that was the proposal which we placed before the Secretary for Scotland, and the same proposal was also placed before the English Local Government Board. Local authorities wanted to know what was the utmost of their liability. They said that they were not willing to go on with a scheme that was going to cost them a penny, twopence, or threepence. I heard it said in Glasgow that if they went on with housing, and bore the loss, it would mean to Glasgow something like 1s. in the £. Other local authorities thought it might be twopence, threepence, fourpence, fivepence or sixpence. Therefore they said, "Let the Government say that they will bear the loss beyond a penny rate, and we are quite prepared to go on with the scheme as soon as our plans are approved of." I am glad that the penny rate is put in, and that the local authorities know the amount of their responsibilities. That provision, however, only applies to local authorities that have their plans lodged within a year and complete the buildings within two years. Speaking as one who has been connected with the building trade for the last forty years, I say that it is physically impossible to complete those schemes within one year. I know something about the preparation of plans. I know something of sending those plans to the Local Government Board, of the obstacles that are sometimes put in the way, and how the plans have to pass backwards and forwards. When the plans are accepted, estimates have to be sent out to tradesmen to draw up. When those estimates come back they have to be considered by the local authorities, and if they have to get the approval of the Local Government Board they have to go back to the Local Government Board for that. If all that procedure is to be gone through and it is not accelerated any more than it has been in the past, it will take months before a brick is laid or any work is done in connection with those housing schemes. We know what the climate is like in Scotland If that is the case the winter will be on us, and nothing will be done. I plead with the Secretary for Scotland that when the Bill goes upstairs he will alter that Clause and raise the time limit from two to three or even four years. I quite appreciate the motive, which is to give driving power to compel local authorities to erect those houses as quickly as possible, but it must be remembered that there is a scarcity of building material. We have heard from the Secretary for Scotland that he has made arrangements and has prices of building materials available, but even supposing there is all the building material in the world, you have not the men at the present moment to carry out the work within two years. I know of schemes at the present time which are being held up—the Secretary for Scotland knows them, and the officials of the Local Government Board know them—because there are not a sufficient number of men to carry out the work. Every effort has been made to get men, but they cannot be got. It is no use having bricks and mortar, wood and windows, if you have not men to erect them. Therefore I plead with the Secretary for Scotland to extend the time. In the Report of the Housing Commission seven years is given as the time to erect those houses, and that was really before there was any shortage due to the War. If it took seven years then, surely it is not going to take any less now. With regard to the question of costs, we have had a good deal of discussion about economic rents, and the reason has been given that the increase in the cost of building has been caused by the increase in wages. That is so. Wages have gone up to more than double what they were. The cost of material has doubled, and in some cases even trebled. But, in addition to that, houses that used to cost something like £350 are now costing—I am speaking now of a scheme which we have going on at the present time for a hundred houses of the same type which could have been built for £350—and I am quite certain that when we have finished the houses that are being built to-day they will not cost one penny less than £700. Now one thing that has not been touched upon in regard to the increase of rent is that before the War money could have been borrowed on those houses at 3½ per cent., but to-day, by the Government's own action in raising the rate of interest—I do not object to it—the interest has been increased be 5½per cent., and I do not think any local authority will be able to borrow money at less than 5½ per cent. to-day. That means, on that basis of £700, a difference in interest of something like £14 per house. That is the reason why the Government should come to the aid of local authorities, and help them to pay the difference between the economic rent and the ability rent of the workers in our midst. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Shettleston (Rear-Admiral Adair) when he said that the red light had compelled the Government to bring forward this Bill. It was their intention to do so long before the red light became so brilliant, and I am quite certain that if by the erection of these houses the red light can be extinguished we shall all be glad.

I welcome also the power given to help public utility societies, and I only wish that my right hon. Friend the Secretary for Scotland would extend that to building societies. In the burgh of Dumbarton something like 500 or 600 houses of the cottage type have been erected by building societies, and they are very anxious that the same privilege that has been given to public utility societies should be given to them. When the Bill goes into Committee I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will try and see if it is not possible to include building societies within the scope of the provision which the Bill now applies to public utility societies. I welcome also the acquisition of small dwellings, but here again I wish that the Secretary for Scotland, with the knowledge that he now has of the cost of building these houses, would raise the limit of £500 to something like £700. He can easily see from the figures which have been given, and from the figures which he himself has, that it is utterly impossible to get a house that a man would buy for anything like £500.

I hope that when the Bill goes upstairs the right hon. Gentleman will raise that figure to something like £700. There is another aspect of this question which has not been touched upon. I welcome the provision for the simplification of town-planning procedure. For many years I have been pleading and fighting for this simplification in Scotland. In 1911 we brought forward a town-planning scheme which passed its first and second stages, and then it was held up because another local authority came in with another town-planning scheme, with the result that ultimately a joint town-planning committee was formed, and my experience of that joint committee has caused me to alter my opinion altogether about joint committees. Town planning has been arranged on the outskirts of Glasgow, by a combination of the local authorities concerned, and it has been very successful. We have provided a plan showing a great arterial way, with subsidiary roads, and a drainage scheme for the whole area, with the necessary sewers and everything else connected therewith.

I am glad the Local Government Board, under the Secretary for Scotland, have agreed to the simplification of these schemes, because at first the scheme I have mentioned would have cost something like £16,000,but by fighting against the proposal to send down every detail of the plan, and by only providing a skeleton plan, we got the cost reduced to something like £2,000, and that will satisfy all our needs. As to who carries out these particular schemes is a matter of indifference. I welcome the simplification and the expediting of these plans by the Local Government Board. I congratulate the Secretary for Scotland upon the able way in which he introduced this Bill, and also upon the concilliatory way in Which he spoke of the Amendments, and if he follows the example which he set in regard to the Public Health Bill, I am quite sure he will see the reasonableness of these Amendments that may be proposed. They are not intended to condemn the Bill, but out of our own experience, we want your help to make this measure more workable and to build houses as quickly as possible. Scotland has gone a long way in the direction of preserving these provisions that there should be no houses with less than three apartments, and I hope that will not be the limit adopted by the Secretary of Scotland, but that three will be made the minimum, and that many of these will be houses of very much larger dimensions. I wish the Bill every success, and a speedy passage into law.