HC Deb 07 May 1879 vol 245 cc1936-43

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, explained that it was identical with one that had been accepted by the House in the year 1868. It provided for the demolition of houses that were unfit for habitation, and restored the clauses by which compensation was given to owners, and security provided for better dwellings being promptly built for the same class of occupants. The latter clauses had been struck out in 1868 by the House of Lords. The Bill passed without them, and the result was that it was comparatively inoperative. It was not just to lay the blame of this upon the vestries, many of which had done real good with the limited powers conferred upon them. In Holborn, 150 houses had from time to time been put into thorough repair, when denounced as unfit for habitation, under the Act of 1868, and threatened with demolition; 51 were actually pulled down, being found hopelessly decayed; 26 of these were in consequence re-built, several besides were closed, and still remained so. In the parish of St. Giles, 30 different groups, varying in size, but containing in all 160 houses, were condemned by the vestry; of which 99 were pulled down and 53 compulsorily put into thorough repair, 66 had been re-built, and the sites of the remainder would eventually, no doubt, be leased or sold for the same purpose. He could multiply instances of a similar kind elsewhere; and he referred to them as evidence that the parochial authorities were not indisposed to use the means of improvement which Parliament placed in their hands, meagre and insufficient though they wore. In truth, it seemed absurd to suppose that these bodies would not prefer to have new and sound rateable property in their respective districts, to ruinous and insolvent dwellings, or vacant sites. The sense of municipal self-interest in this respect was further stimulated by the wholesale dilapidations which frequently took place for street improvements, whereby hundreds of habitations were destroyed without any of them being replaced for years. The misery inflicted in this way was not more certain than the pecuniary loss to the rates. He dwelt upon the point, lest it should be once more said that to give increased powers to vestries and district boards would be of no use, because they had not hitherto used more indiscriminately the demolition powers they possessed. In his opinion—and he had looked long and attentively into the question—the vestries would have been stupid, reckless, and cruel, if they had, when Parliament had refused them power to compensate and re-build. Everyone knew the necessity of removing dwellings which were unfit for human habitation, and the importance of doing so in such a way as not to overcrowd other localities. The Act of 1875 was carried by the Home Secretary, because he said the rookeries must come down. But most of the rookeries still existed, and he might mention that in the district of Whitecross Street, in which houses covering 7½ acres were doomed to demolition, the population was nearly 10,000 souls. These 10,000 people were condemned to eviction without any other dwellings being provided for them. A certain space was cleared two years ago, and it still remained as bare as a graveyard, the dispossessed inhabitants being crowded into the houses that remained. It was one of the many districts he had himself visited in the course of the past winter, with a view to ascertain from personal observation the actual condition of things, and their condition as compared with what had existed 10 years ago. He must tell the House plainly that the change which had taken place was not for the better, but for the worse. He had gone without notice, and, for the most part, without being known, accompanied gene- rally by a medical friend acquainted with the district, or by one of the parochial clergy; and the impression made upon his mind by the scenes he had witnessed were ineffaceable, and beyond his power to depict as they ought to be painted. In one instance, he found in a room some 10 feet square the mother of the family alone; her mate, she said, was at his work, and the children out of doors; there had been five of them, and four remained. He asked what had become of the fifth? "There, Sir," she replied, pointing to a little coffin which occupied the only shelf in the room. She said the child had been dead a week, and they were gathering money enough to bury it. She did not seem to understand what had been the cause of death, but said she had no other place to keep it than the room in which they all lived by day and by night. The question invariably put by these unhappy people was, how soon the new buildings were to be commenced? That was the question he now desired to put to the House. He had accompanied a deputation on the subject to the Board of Works, and they were told that greater progress could not be made, because of the obstacles which existed under the Act of 1875 in dealing with property. A correspondence between the Home Office and the Board of Works upon this subject disclosed the fact that up to January last the Board had not been able to do more than come to an agreement as to the claims for compensation, and make the necessary contracts. Three years and a-half had been spent in pulling down one-fifth of the premises, without even beginning to re-build; and in negotiating about freeholds and leaseholds, while the plight of the wretched people was necessarily made worse than ever. At this rate of progress, nothing effectual would be done till Doomsday. What the parochial authorities asked for was power to carry out in detail the necessary improvements themselves, and charge their own rates to cover the expenses, seeing that the Board of Works was unable to do what was required. He trusted the House would not refuse their request. According to a Return which had been made last year, without any reference to this question, he found that from 1851 to 1871, during which time the Metropolitan Board of Works had been the central municipal authority, the population had risen from 2,300,000 to 3,200,000, while the house accommodation had only increased by one-fourth. At the same time, the rental of the area had increased from £11,500,000 to £23,700,000. The rent had therefore doubled, while the accommodation had relatively decreased. He did not rest his case upon any exaggerated notion of sanitary danger; but he contended that over-crowding was destructive of all sense of decency and morals. It was subversive of religion, provocative to anarchy, and antagonistic to civilization. As an illustration of what he meant, he might say that he knew of a case in which certain private employers who had erected houses for their workmen had been applied to for a two-roomed dwelling by one of the best men in their employment, whose family consisted of a son of over 20, and two daughters aged 16 and 17 respectively, all of whom, with their parents, were to sleep in the same room. This man was an exceptionally favourable specimen of his class, and yet he was quite unconscious that such a mode of living was in any way wrong. He (Mr. Torrens) desired to change the local authority from the Metropolitan Board to the vestry or the district board, in order to harmonize the Bill in this respect with the Act of 1868; but he would give a co-ordinate jurisdiction to the Metropolitan Board in case any of the authorities neglected their duty. Since the Bill had been printed, before Christmas, he had received communications from nearly all the local bodies exercising jurisdiction in the matter throughout the Metropolis, and they were unanimous in attesting the urgent need of some effectual measure to promote re-building without delay. From the wholesale dilapidation without re-building that was going on, things were getting worse and worse every year. In point of humanity it would be unpardonable, as a matter of policy it would be insane, to neglect or palter with the evil. He would conclude by moving the second reading of the Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. W. M. Torrens.)


, who had a Notice of Motion on the Paper that the Bill be read a second time that day six months, said, that if the measure had been confined to the Metropolis he would not have interfered with it. His objection to it was chiefly that it would clash with the Acts of 1868 and 1875. Some of the definitions also, and several other points, called for serious consideration. He had, however, arranged with his hon. Friend opposite to have various Amendments considered; and, this being so, he would withdraw his opposition to the Bill.


said, he was very glad to hear that his hon. Friend was willing to withdraw his opposition. The subject was one that, above all others, interested him, and he looked back with the greatest satisfaction to having been able to assist the Home Secretary in regard to the Act of 1875. No one could deny the necessity for action in the matter, and everyone must hail with satisfaction any measure which gave promise of some remedy for the present state of things. Those parts of the Bill of 1868 which made it operative were struck out in "another place," and that was the reason it had had so little effect. The local authorities had power to demolish, but were denied all power of compensation; and they, therefore, naturally hesitated to apply the Act. The present Bill would be specially useful in dealing with small nuisances, where the larger machinery provided by the Act of 1875 could not conveniently be set in motion. He entirely concurred in the attempt to supplement the defects of the Act of 1868. The present Bill, however, would require a good deal of care and attention in Committee. There were several points on which it would require considerable alteration, in order to make it harmonize with recent legislation. He was empowered to say, on behalf of his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, that he assented to the second reading, though he reserved the power of introducing Amendments in Committee. For his own part, he heartily wished that the Bill might become law.


said, he was glad to hear the speech of the Secretary to the Treasury, who had done so much to promote beneficial legislation on this subject. One object of the Bill which had not been pointed out was to enable improvements to be carried out in cases where there were a number of owners, and some of them refused consent. He hoped the Bill would quickly become an operative Act.


was sure it would be believed the Metropolitan Board of Works had done all they could to carry out the Act. Those critics who accused them of not having carried out the Act of 1875 as quickly as they might could have very little idea of the difficulties which had to be encountered. For one tiling, it was very difficult to let the land that had been cleared. In some cases it had been offered at half its commercial value, and even then it had remained unlet. He thought it was desirable to strengthen the hands of the vestries and the district boards for carrying out improvements which the Metropolitan Board could not execute under the Act of 1875. He cordially supported the propositions of his hon. Friend who had moved the second reading, and he was able to endorse all he had said with regard to the dreadful condition of the dwellings, and the necessity for an immediate remedy. He reserved the right to suggest Amendments in Committee; but he wished the measure hearty success.


said, the Act of 1868 was rather a Towns Improvement Act than an Artizan's Dwellings Act. He believed there was no case in which an artizan's dwelling had been erected under it. He thought the present Bill would be a good one, provided the compensation clauses were carefully considered. He would assist his hon. Friend in endeavouring to carry the Bill through Committee.


said, he hoped the provisions of the Bill would be extended to Ireland, where it was wanted, though not so much as in the large towns of England. As to the compensation to be given to the owners of many of the houses of the working class in some towns of Ireland, he observed that as the condition of those houses was contrary to all sanitary principles the owners would not be entitled to much compensation.


thanked the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Torrens) for bringing in this Bill, and he thought the discussion would show some of the reasons which had caused such delay in the re-construction of houses under the Artizans' Dwellings Act, 1875. The large vacant spaces described by the hon. Member for Finsbury were blots upon the Metropolis. The hon. and gallant Member for Truro (Sir James M'Garel-Hogg) said time was required for re-construction. No doubt; but he would point out to the hon. and gallant Member and his Colleagues that Parliament, in passing the Act of 1875, contemplated the sale, or letting, for the purposes intended by the Act, of the land cleared under its provisions. The proper course was to advertise the land thoroughly a first, a second, and perhaps a third time. If that were done, the condition of things would not be as at present—namely, land cleared of houses and working people placed in worse circumstances than they were in before they were removed; while it was impossible to say when houses would be built upon the vacant plots. There were vacant plots in Whitechapel, which were miserable spectacles. No purchasers could be secured, because the conditions of sale were so arbitrary and burdensome that nobody could touch them at any price. If this Bill became law, it would be useful in the case of small properties. Perhaps it would be better if, at the beginning, too much were not attempted. He hoped that in the clauses—especially those relating to compensation—some slight modifications would be made.


said, that the Home Secretary regretted he was unable to be present at the discussion on this Bill; but the right hon. Gentleman had desired him (Sir Matthew White Ridley) to say that he did not view with the least jealousy the introduction of the measure. There was plenty of room for the action of this Bill, and also of the Act which bore his name. It would be necessary in Committee to consider the various sections, which were not drawn so carefully as they might be. Various observations had been made as to the work done by the Metropolitan Board, and the obstructions met with under the Act of 1875. Unfortunately, great spaces had been cleared, and, at present, very few buildings had been erected to supply the places of the buildings that been taken down. He ventured to say, on behalf of his right hon. Friend, that he had been using every endeavour to promote the construction of houses on the sites. He was authorized to say on his behalf that, from the present state of the negotiations, he had every reason to expect that in three years every site cleared under the Act of 1875 by the Metropolitan Board of Works would be occupied by artizans' dwelling-houses.


agreed in the opinion that if this Bill passed into law there would be plenty of room for the action of it, as well as of the Act of 1875. He understood that in the Return which he moved for at the beginning of this Session there would be evidence of the action taken by the Secretary of State for the Home Department. He ventured to think that the Act of 1875 might have been carried out more vigorously, if so many opportunities of delay had not been afforded to local authorities; and he would suggest to the Government the expediency of amending the Act in that respect. He would also suggest the expediency of something being done in the Bill with reference to dwelling-houses in rural districts.


trusted that this Bill would lead to the simplification of previous Acts.

Motion agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Friday.

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