HC Deb 12 May 1865 vol 179 cc206-11

, in rising to put to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Tite) certain Questions of which he had given notice, said, that he felt convinced that notwithstanding what had taken place between the hon. Member and himself some years ago, the hon. Gentleman would give him credit for bringing no Motion forward in a feeling of personal hostility, and for asking no questions which were not dictated by an honest desire to obtain information. He wished to ask the hon. Member, who was Chairman of the Westminster Improvement Commission, for information relative to the intended destruction of a very large number of houses in Westminster exclusively inhabited by the poorer class of the population. A Bill was passed in 1861, which seemed to be a Bill for allowing certain affairs of the association to be wound up, though Clause 29 gave them the power of purchasing in certain cases, to enable them to carry out the instructions of the Act. He could not, however, feel at all satisfied with the progress that the Westminster Improvement Commission had made since the year 1861. The Commissioners had two duties intrusted to them by Act of Parliament. One was to sell the property which was invested in their hands, and the other was to purchase a good deal of property adjacent to their own, the purchase of which would make their own property more valuable and more saleable. As regarded their duty relating to the sale of the property, nothing could, of course, be more easy, because the property was not only very valuable in 1861, but had actually doubled in value since that period, in addition to which there was, he believed, the greatest desire for its possession exhibited on the part of the public. He was afraid, however, that the question of buying property was a more difficult matter, because at that time the Commission did not possess one shilling in the shape of credit or sixpence in ready money. He would ask the hon. Member whether it was usual for the House of Commons to give to a private company compulsory powers to purchase land and houses for the advantage of property which they previously possessed, and that without being furnished with any estimate, or the company being required to make any deposit. He regretted exceedingly the proposed depopulation which the Commission had thought it necessary to seek powers for in the other House. An hon. Friend of his estimated that the houses to be pulled down and poor people to be ejected by the Commission would be as numerous as in the case of the new Courts of Justice Bill in Carey Street. When he remembered also the furious destruction about to be committed in the same locality by the Metropolitan Railway, it appeared to him almost as if there was a general exodus of the poor of the metropolis, not accompanied—unfortunately—by any promised land for their reception. The Commissioners had, in reality, begun to imitate one of the worst features in the conduct of the old Westminster Commission. They had been making clearances without being sure of the means with which they were to cover these clearances with new buildings. He could not deny that much good had been done, and he hoped that previous to the next Session much more might be effected. He believed, therefore, that the full discussion of the question might be left to those hon. Members who would outlive the ensuing equinoctial gales. He thought that improvements which were public should be carried out by the Metropolitan Board of Works, and that the Improvement Commission, which he feared possessed neither capital nor credit, should not attempt to deal in any way with the streets of the metropolis. He would conclude by moving for a Return of all the expenditure of the Westminster Improvement Commission, including the expenses attending the passing of their Act in 1861.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "there be laid before this House, Returns relative to the expenditure and working of the Westminster Improvement Commission,"—(Sir William Gallwey,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, he begged to thank the hon. Baronet for the courteous tone of his remarks. He had on a previous occasion stated the duties of the Commission of 1861, which came to the rescue of a very large property. The former Commissioners having spent all their money and contracted debts to the extent of £300,000, secured by mortgages, and £700,000 in addition in debentures—were in a position of complete insolvency, and in 1861 an Act was passed appointing a new Commission, consisting of six gentlemen—one being a Member of the old Commission, two representing the bondholders, two others representing the mortgagees, and himself nominated by the Government as Chairman. Although he had been all his life engaged in business he could safely say that a more onerous duty had never been undertaken by him, the affairs being most complicated in their nature. All the moneys received by the Commission were paid into the Court of Chancery for division among the mortgagees. The expenses were extremely moderate, and the allowance to the Commissioners was only £700 a year. They were authorized to borrow £10,000 in order to pay the bills of the lawyers and the surveyors, but they had no intention of embarking upon any speculation. During the last winter, by the co-operation of some corporations interested in property lying near Victoria Street, they were encouraged to carry out an improvement in Orchard Street, and by the co-operation of a large firm—Elliott and Co.—they were enabled to make great improvements at the other end of the street without borrowing or spending a single shilling of public money. Their object was to obtain something for the bondholders, and their solicitor had advised them that it would be necessary to apply to Parliament for additional powers. A benevolent gentleman—Mr. Gibbs—who had spent £40,000 in providing accommodation for the working classes, was willing to assist them in making further improvements. The House must remember that the houses in the neighbourhood were not occupied by working people, but consisted to a large extent of some of the lowest brothels to be found in London. It was desirable to make an improved access from the Park by means of a short street, and toward effecting that object the co-operation of the Metropolitan Board of Works and the parishes might be expected. It was also desirable to open Stanhope Street, and to improve the entrance to the Horseferry Road, which, though a long and important thoroughfare, ending at present in a very narrow street. For those purposes compulsory powers were necessary. The Commissioners had, therefore, directed their solicitor to prepare a Bill for Parliament, and thus had arisen the extensive scheduling to which the hon. Baronet had referred. Some remarks had been made upon the fact that the Bill was sent to the House of Lords, but that had been done by the Chairman of Committees, and not by the wish of the Commissioners, or from any desire to smuggle it through. An opposition was raised upon Standing Orders by one parish, and the result was that with two small exceptions the powers granted were simply permissive, not compulsory. Terms had since been made with the opposing parish, which was now anxious to restore the Bill to its original shape. Laud in the neighbourhood had doubled in value during the last four years, and he believed that if the Commission had power to retain it for seven years longer it would again be doubled in value. They had realized £135,000, which had been paid into the Court of Chancery, and the improvement that had taken place in the property within three years was patent to every one. With respect to the Return asked for, he should not object to it; on the contrary, he should wish every publicity to be given to the proceedings: but as the terms of the Motion were not very definite, he would suggest to the hon. Baronet to withdraw his Motion, and he (Mr. Tite) would arrange with the hon. Baronet to furnish any information that might be desirable.


said, he was glad that full information was to be given, as it appeared that Parliament was about to be called upon to grant further powers to the Commissioners. The Bill introduced by the Commission contemplated the destruction of 500 houses, a larger number than would be removed for the Courts of Justice. He hoped when the Bill came before the House that a clause would be inserted requiring the Commission to provide accommodation for the people whose dwellings they sought power to destroy. He believed that the Metropolitan Railway would also come into the neighbourhood and displace many other residents at the back of the Westminster Palace Hotel. He hoped also that a com- plete debtor and creditor account of the liabilities of the Commission would be laid before the House before it was asked to give them the fresh powers asked for which would amount to a prolongation of their existence for some twenty years longer. He saw no reason why there should be three or four different bodies in the metropolis for carrying out these metropolitan improvements, and it would be far better that these powers should be transferred to the Metropolitan Board of Works.


said, that they were discussing a Bill which was not before the House, and it would be time enough to discuss it when it was before them. They had nothing to do with the improvements made by the Marquess of Westminster or Mr. Gibbs. Speaking from his practical knowledge of the property, he could say that no property had so much improved during the last twenty years as that property had. The working of the Commission had been most beneficial to the property, and he felt bound to say that he thought all those interested in the property were greatly indebted to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Tite).


said, that he also could bear testimony to the change for the better which, owing to the labours of the hon. Member (Mr. Tite), had come over the property during the last four years. There would be plenty of opportunity for discussing the Bill when it came before them.


said, there were several charities in Westminster which were highly indebted to the Commission, for the lands which they held there, from being waste and profitless, had by the operations of the Commission become saleable to the great advantage of their funds and powers of doing good. In all the transactions which he had had with the Commissioners he had always found them anxious to do what was most for the public good. He was sorry to see an attempt made to get up a prejudice against the Commissioners in reference to this Bill. When it came before the House, it would be found that, so far from pulling down 500 houses, it only took compulsory powers with reference to some twenty or thirty houses. AB to the rest permissive powers only were asked for.


said, the hon. Member for Bath deserved great credit for having extricated the property from such con- fusion, and he was quite sure his hon. Friend would be the last man to propose to destroy the houses of the working-classes without making some provision for them. The lodging-house built by Mr. Gibbs was not a speculation. He went into the venture wholly and solely to benefit the working classes, without caring in the least whether it would repay him. He certainly hoped that it would.


said, it was a mistake to suppose that these Westminster Improvements had been any benefit to the poorer classes, though they might have benefited another class. He knew of his own personal knowledge that that was not the case. The classes who had been displaced were not the classes which inhabited Mr. Gibbs's lodging-house. They had disappeared altogether. There certainly was no part of London where greater injustice had been done to the working classes by the removal and the destruction of their dwellings.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.