HC Deb 13 March 1891 vol 351 cc900-11

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

*(3.10.) MR. GAINSFORD BRUCE (Finsbury, Holborn)

I beg to move "That the Bill be read a second time this day six months." The Bill is a Provisional Order Bill, and it seeks to modify to a serious and mischievous extent a scheme for the improvement of an unhealthy area in the district of St. Giles made under the Artisans' Dwellings Act and confirmed by an Act of Parliament in 1887. The London County Council are now the body charged with carrying out this improvement scheme; but they have done nothing since they have been in existence to carry it out, and they now come here to ask the House to relieve them of their obligations. The scheme of 1887 to which I refer was not a heroic scheme; it did nothing more than was absolutely necessary for the health of a particular area, and I trust that the House will insist upon the scheme being carried out. When I remind the House that a very large number of the working people of London find employment in St. Giles, and are compelled to reside near their employment, hon. Members will see that anything that affects the sanitary requirements of the district is not unworthy of the serious attention of the House. I oppose this Bill because I believe that, if passed, it will aggravate and perpetuate some, of the worst evils of an unhealthy district, will operate with grievous injustice to the working classes of St. Giles, and will sanction an instance of trafficking in land on the part of a Public Body, which, if it were allowed to become general, would give rise to grave public inconvenience. In 1883 representation was made by the medical officer connected with the district respecting the area now known as the Shelton Street area. The representation stated that disease had become prevalent in the locality, which was reasonably to be attributed to the closeness, narrowness, and bad arrangements of the streets and houses. At that time the Metropolitan Board of Works was the body entrusted with the carrying out of schemes under the Artisan's Dwellings Act. But the Board refused to take any action upon the representation made by the medical officer of St. Giles District Board. Having refused to take action, they were obliged to send their reasons to the Home Office, and the Secretary of State ordered inquiry. An inquiry was accordingly held by Mr. Cubitt Nicolls, at which the parties were heard and witnesses were examined. Mr. Cubitt Nicolls came to the conclusion that the St. Giles Local Board were right in requiring that the area should be dealt with under Cross's Act. Thereupon the Metropolitan Board were directed to proceed under Cross's Act. Proceedings were then commenced de novo; a fresh representation was made by the medical officer of St. Giles; and in November, 1886, a scheme was prepared and sent to the Home Office. The Home Office on receiving the scheme thought it right to hold another public inquiry in order to consider the details of the scheme. Mr. Cubitt Nicolls thereupon held a second public inquiry, at which the proposed scheme was carefully investigated, with the result that Mr. Cubitt Nicolls reported in favour of the scheme, and the Home Office proceeded to frame a Provisional Order for the carrying out of the scheme, which Provisional Order was confirmed by Act of Parliament which received the Royal Assenton the 12th of July, 1887. I have been careful to detail the slow and laborious steps by which the scheme was put forward, considered, matured, and finally adopted. There was no haste. The proceedings began in 1883, and did not receive the sanction of Parliament till 1887. There was nothing done in secret; there were two public inquiries, and the case was carried out at the instance of the St. Giles District Board of Works—the Local Authority—familiar with the locality, knowing all about the wants of the district, and whose medical officers were in constant contact with the unfortunate people who suffered from the insanitary condition of the neighbourhood. My opinion now is that that scheme ought to be carried out. The area in question is the area east of Drury Lane, and in the middle of it runs a narrow street known as Shelton Street. The main feature of the scheme was simply to widen Shelton Street so that light and air might be let in. When at last Parliament approved the scheme, the St. Giles Local Board thought that at least it might be carried out. They had for years waged a contest with the Metropolitan Board of Works, and at last having vanquished the Metropolitan Board they found that they had to encounter a new foe in the London County Council. The County Council now ask Parliament to reverse its decision in 1887, they ask to be relieved from the obligation of widening Shelton Street, and they actually ask to be allowed to put bricks and mortar upon the area of Shelton Street, and thus render the district close and unwholesome as it is now, still more close and unwholesome. One small detail of the new proposals of the County Council illustrate in a striking way the antipathy with which the County Council appear to regard the admission of light and air. The stopping up of the greater part of Shelton Street renders it necessary for the purposes of traffic to make between Shelton Street and Parker Street an opening 30 yards long and 20 feet wide. They dignify this miserable passage by the name of a new street. According to the provisions of the Metropolitan Building Act no new street is allowed to be made of a less width than 40 feet, because no street can be healthy that is of less width. But the London County Council, having a dispensing power are privileged to exercise the patent and peculiar privilege allowed to no one else of creating a new slum. Another part of the case relates to the re-housing of the working classes. 1,208 persons have been displaced; and in the scheme of 1887 provision was made for the re-housing of 660 persons of the working class. The County Council now propose not to re-house 660 persons, but 608 only, and of these 608 persons but a very small portion are to be of the working class. The 1,208 persons displaced were divided into two classes; 861 belonged to the working class, and 347 did not belong to the working class, but belonged to that wandering casual class who find their refuge in the common lodging-house. Now, while the County Council have taken under their special protection the bulk of the 347 persons of the common lodging-house class, they treat with very scanty consideration indeed the 861 persons of the working class. They propose to bring together in one vast barrack of a building some 320 persons of the common lodging-house class for their mutual edification and improvement. Now, who are those who frequent the common lodging house? Mr. Cubitt Nicolls says that the occupants of the common lodging houses in this district consisted of board carriers, a few costermongers, and porters; but that the majority were cadgers, beggars, and thieves; and he adds that of the females nine out of ten were prostitutes. I should be sorry to think that the cadger, the thief, and the prostitute are beyond the reach of human sympathy, but I am not prepared to endow the County Council with the power to carry on a great missionary enterprise at the expense of the pockets of the ratepayers. I would say to the County Council— This faith has many a nobler priest And many an abler voice than thou. This is an artisans' dwellings scheme. The land has been obtained for the purpose of providing houses for the working class; and it is unreasonable to make provision for 320 persons in a common lodging house, while you only provide for the re-housing of less than 300 of the working class. The scheme of the County Council, if eventually carried out, will permanently displace 573 of the working class, whilst it will provide for collecting together at the public expense nearly the whole of the cadgers, beggars, and thieves, who formerly found refuge in this district. Bat the County Council have laid out their new scheme so badly that a considerable portion of the land purchased under the scheme of 1887 cannot, they say, be utilised, and they seek leave to sell about 28 per cent. of the land available for artisans' dwellings. Now, I regard it as a most dangerous thing when land is purchased for the purpose of erecting artisans' dwellings to allow the County Council to realise a profit by selling it. I therefore trust that the House will insist upon the London County Council carrying out the scheme of 1887. There is one other matter I should like to mention. Hon. Members will notice that on the back of the Bill are the names of the Home Secretary and the Under Secretary for the Home Department. I have no wish to appear to be in any way hostile to that Department; but it seems to me that the Home Office, in adopting the scheme, have acted in a purely Ministerial capacity. I can understand how difficult it is for the Home Secretary to attempt to stem the great torrent of the benevolence of the London County Council. If he had refused his formal sanction to the scheme he would have given a final decision, which might have been the occasion of a considerable amount of friction, and the County Council would have said, "You have prevented us from obtaining the decision of Parliament." I would ask the House to consider the cost to which the Local Board of St. Giles have already been put. They have expended hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds in local inquiries, and why are we to compel them to incur further expense? I hope the House will reject the Bill, and I beg to move that it be read a second time on this day six months.

SIR J. SWINBURNE (Stafford, Lichfield)

I beg to second the Amendment.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question, to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. Gainsford Bruce.)

Question proposed," That the word 'now' stand part of the Question"

*(3.35.) EARL COMPTON (York, W.R., Barnsley)

I think that if the House only heard the speech of the hon. Member who has just sat down hon. Members might arrive at a unanimous decision that the Second Reading of the Bill ought not to be passed. But there is another side to the question which has not been placed before the House, and I ask for attention while I bring it forward. The hon. Member alluded to the action of the Home Secretary, but I do not think the Home Office will be prepared to say that they have passed lightly over the matter. On the contrary, they have sanctioned the scheme of the London County Council, because they believe it to be a good scheme. And there are certain omissions in the speech of the hon. Member. First of all, the scheme is not the scheme of the County Council, but of the Metropolitan Board of Works. We inherited it, and it has been a most inconvenient legacy. The space of ground affected by the scheme, called the Shelton Street area, is an oblong with a narrow street at the north, a narrow street intersecting it, and other narrow streets on the south, east, and west. It was originally covered with a variety of buildings—a hall called the Middlesex Music Hall, a carriage factory, various workshops, public houses, and a skittle alley, besides a large number of insanitary houses. The insanitary property was alone scheduled under Cross's Act in consequence of its insanitary condition, and the County Council have now inherited this oblong piece of land, covered with the above-mentioned premises, and only partially cleared. Shelton Street—a street about 18 feet wide—intersects the whole of this oblong, and the chief difficulty of the London County Council, against whom the Motion of the hon. Member is directed, has been the re-housing of the people whom the scheme will displace. No provision was made for them when they were removed from the area, and no provision has been made for them since. There were, in fact, 1,208 persons belonging to the working classes to be removed from the area with absolutely no provision having been made for them in any shape. Their displacement took place five years ago, and nothing has been done for them since. The Metropolitan Board of Works, under the Provisional Order of 1886–7, reduced their obligation in reference to re-housing to 660. That was what we found when we came to deal with the question; the area was covered with a number of buildings, and there was a necessity for re-housing 660 persons. We have done our best to meet the difficulty, but the question is whether it is possible to carry out the whole of the scheme of the Metropolitan Board, and re-house 660 persons. The London County Council, acting on the advice of their officials, have come to the conclusion that it would be absolutely impossible to re-house 660 of the working classes within this area, and that the only way in which it could be accomplished would be by erecting a very high building, which would be contrary to the County Council's regulations. We intend to carry out re-housing as far as we can. But under the present scheme we shall not erect a building for the working classes more than three storeys in height. By doing this we shall be able to re-house 608, which is really four above the limit required by the Home Secretary, namely, provision for the re-housing of one-half of the persons displaced. If we had carried out the wishes of the hon. Member and provided a wider new street we should have been prevented from finding accommodation for as many as 600 persons. The details of the scheme are complicated, and in my opinion are much more fitted for the consideration of a Committee than for this House. We propose to take a strip of land between Shelton Street and Parker Street for the purpose of erecting artizans' dwellings with a new street 20 feet wide, which is two feet wider than Parker Street at the present moment.


Was the matter gone into by Mr. Cubitt Nicolls?


I believe not; but it has been gone into by others, who are satisfied.


What evidence was given, and by whom, that Mr. Cubitt Nicolls' original plan was impossible?


That is a question which will have to be threshed out in the House of Commons. The scheme has received the sanction of the County Council, and I presume of the Home Secretary also. Another objection urged by the hon. Member is that if we do away with Shelton Street and close it we shall cover the whole of the area with buildings and increase its insanitary state. Now the chief object of the County Council is to leave a large air space in connection with any buildings they undertake to provide. If there is any question as to the want of air space the County Council will at once give way. As regards the new street, it is 20 feet wide, and as there are two exits from the music hall which we cannot close, we are obliged to make a new street. We do not wish to leave a cul de sac, and therefore we propose to make a small street which is to be 60 feet long. There will not be a single window looking into it; it will be 20 feet wide, and the buildings on each side will be 30 feet high. It is to be made absolutely for no other purpose than to help the exits from the Middlesex Music Hall. The hon. Member says the Local Management Act requires that no new street shall be made that is not 40 feet wide; but we have a discretionary power, and as the street is not to be used as a means of entry into houses, I do not think the House would be wise to reject the scheme on that account. If we were to make the new street 40 feet wide the result would be to diminish the accommodation we propose to provide for the working classes who are displaced. That would be to defeat the object of the hon. Member, who desires to make provision for as many of the working classes as is possible. I gather from the Petition of the District Board that they ask us to acquire the whole or a very large portion of the site. If that had been done originally a great deal of trouble would have been saved. There is in the middle of it a carriage factory belonging to Mr. Corben.


Has any offer ever been made to Mr. Corben?


We have approached that gentleman, but have failed to come to any arrangement, because his terms are too high.


What did the County Council offer?


I have only stated the absolute and literal truth. We have attempted to negotiate with Mr. Corben, but his terms are so high that we have failed; and this very Mr. Corben is a member of the District Board of Works, now petitioning Parliament to require us compulsorily to acquire his property. Some objection has been raised to the London County Council erecting a lodging house, but an Act of Parliament was passed many years ago by Lord Shaftesbury to provide that lodging houses should be built in London. In Glasgow the municipality has built a lodging house, and has made it a thoroughgoing commercial concern, bringing in a good profit. In my opinion, you could not benefit London more than by allowing the municipality to build respectable lodging houses. By so doing we should set a good example, which, I think, is sadly needed. Twelve registered lodging houses have been swept away from this area, in which were housed something like 350 persons. We propose to erect a lodging house which will re-house something like 320 persons. If we were to adopt the scheme of the hon. Member we should only be able to find lodging house accommodation for 150 persons. We think that the scheme is the best we can carry out in the interests of the working classes. I hope the discussion which is taking place will do some good in bringing prominently to the front a point which is too often overlooked, namely, that schemes are constantly passed by which a large number of the working classes are cleared off without any provision having been made beforehand for re-housing them. In this instance, five years after 1,200 persons have been swept off, we have a discussion raised as to whether we should re-house 660 or 604. I hope the House will assent to the Second Reading of the Bill.

*(4.0.) SIR JULIAN GOLDSMID (St. Pancras, S.)

I have carefully examined the site which is proposed to be dealt with by the Bill, and I confess that I see considerable objections both to the old scheme and to the new one. I have even gone further; and as it is quite impossible for the House to enter fully into the question, I have fortified myself with the opinion of a skilled person. There was a good deal to be said in favour of the original scheme, and a good deal also against it. So also there is a good deal to be said against the County Council's scheme, and a good deal for it. But all these are matters which had better be discussed by a Committee upstairs, seeing that they are technical and professional, and that they require a large amount of local knowledge. I think that my hon. Friend opposite has done good service in calling attention to the manner in which these schemes are promoted. This scheme was originally promoted in 1883, and it has only been brought to a nominal conclusion in 1891. The unfortunate people who dwelt there were cleared out before any definite plan was ready for adoption. I trust that in future such schemes may be carefully prepared beforehand, and that after they have been submitted to the Home Office, they will be carried to a conclusion within a reasonable time, which has certainly not been the case in this instance. I would advise the hon. Member for Holborn (Mr. Gainsford Bruce) not to press his Motion.


I have a good deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend who has moved the rejection of the Bill, and in nothing I have to say shall I find fault with the natural and proper solicitude he has displayed for the particular district in which it is proposed to carry out this scheme. But we have to consider what the circumstances are. In the first place, it is not a very large scheme: secondly, it is a very old scheme; and, thirdly, it was never a very good scheme. As my hon. Friend (Mr. Gainsford Bruce) has referred to the action of the advisers of the Home Office, it is only right that I should say that those advisers, in reporting upon the scheme, have expressed regret that the original plan was not a wider one, because in that event it would have included a larger area of insanitary property. We have now to consider whether at the present day, many years after the original scheme was propounded, the plan now submitted is the best way of dealing with this particular area. My hon. Friend is right in saying that, in regard to a certain class of cases where the accommodation for re-housing the working classes is proposed to be reduced below a certain limit, the authority of the Secretary of State is absolute, and he has power to make modifications, even in a scheme which may have received the approval of Parliament. At the same time, there are other such cases, such as the present case, which cannot be finally decided by the Secretary of State, but which have, according to the apparent intentions of the Legislature, to be considered by a Select Committee. The Secretary of State being applied to by a great representative body like the London County Council did not think it behoved him to step in at a preliminary stage of the proceedings and entirely close the door to the consideration by such a Committee of a scheme which, at all events, is intended bonâ fide to do the best that can be done to settle a difficult question which they have inherited. The words "common lodging house" have been used, but such houses, and the lodging house which the London County Council now propose to erect, signify two totally different things. My hon. Friend in his description of a lodging house has proceeded on the assumption that the persons by which it is inhabited are always of the same class. It is, therefore, necessary I should remind the House that in the application which the London County Council are making here to-day they are seeking to exercise powers which were conferred on their predecessors 40 years ago in Lord Shaftesbury's Act, and confirmed in the Consolidation Act of last year; and if the present scheme is adopted, they do not propose to build a "common lodging house "in the ordinary acceptation of that term. The class of building which the County Council is empowered to erect is described in the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890 as "lodging houses for the working classes," who are totally distinct from the kind of population who are driven by necessity to metropolitan common lodging houses under the Common Lodging Houses Acts of 1851 and 1853. The latter class of houses could not be erected by the Local Authority. They are the outcome of the speculation of private individuals, and, in view of the class of persons they accommodate, Parliament has placed them under the control of the Commissioner of Police. Thus the House will see that between the two classes of lodging houses there exists the widest possible distinction. The area which the County Council now seeks to deal with is a peculiar one. It is only an acre and a half in extent. The portion traversed by the length of Shelton Street which it is proposed to close is in no part more than 70 yards wide, and in one place as little as 50 yards; and I would suggest, with all respect to the House, that the detailed questions as to how the land should be built on and laid out will be best decided by a Committee—whether there should be a new street 20 feet wide; whether it should be bounded on each side by houses three storeys high or five storeys high; whether Mr. Corben's premises should be acquired, and whether provision possibly can be made for re-housing more than one-half of the persons displaced. This is the only instance in which the London County Council or any other Public Body has sought to give effect to the powers conferred by the Shaftesbury Act of 40 years ago, and I hope the House will pause before rejecting a scheme which promises to have such beneficial results.

*(4.12.) LORD H. BRUCE (Wilts, Chippenham)

complained that the County Council had not carried out the original scheme of re-housing 660 of the displaced persons.


Perhaps I may be allowed to remind the noble Lord that the original scheme was prepared by the Metropolitan Board of Works, and not by the London County Council.


My argument is that upwards of 1,200 of the working classes have been cleared off or evicted. Originally it was proposed to re-house 660 of them, and now the scheme has been so whittled down that accommodation is only proposed for 608.

*(4.15.) MR. THEOBALD (Essex; Romford)

The London County Council, having become possessed of this property, appear to be animated by the desire which generally animates other owners of property, namely, to make as much out of it as they can. They are not going, as they compel others to do, to widen the roadway. I think they ought to be required to observe themselves the same rule which they lay down for others. I shall certainly vote for the Amendment.

Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

(4.16.) The House divided:—Ayes 168; Noes 84.—(Div. List, No. 86.)

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed.

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