HC Deb 01 November 1909 vol 12 cc1548-59

Second Paragraph.—Provided that nothing in this Section—

  1. (a) shall prevent the erection or use of a house containing several tenements in which the tenements are placed back to back, if the medical officer of health for the district certifies that the several tenements are so constructed and arranged as to secure effective ventilation of all habitable rooms in every tenement; or

Lords Amendment: Leave out from "of" ["or use of a house containing"] to "placed" ["in which the tenements are placed"], and insert instead "houses."

Question proposed, "That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment."


This Amendment, placed to this Clause in the other House, was especially put in to deal with the special circumstances of Leeds. I know there is a great deal of prejudice, both in this House and in most other places, to back-to-back houses. In the original Bill there was no Clause dealing with the subject at all. It was put in upstairs and was altered this year by adding provisions (a) and (b). We had a special local Act to deal with back-to-back houses in 1872. We got powers again in 1903. In 1903 we were opposed both in this House and in the other House by the Local Government Board, and when we produced our evidence in both cases we got the powers given to us. On those powers we have been erecting back-to-back houses. The statistics which have been given with regard to back-to-back houses are based upon old houses. I do not think those old statistics have anything to do with the question before the House. There are old houses in Leeds and other places that nobody wants to see. We have in Leeds spent upwards of a million pounds in acquiring these bad back-to-back houses, and we want to go on clearing these houses out, but we have developed in a way which other towns have not developed, and have put up back-to-back houses which anybody who examines them will find are first-class houses, built at a reasonable cost, and which thoroughly satisfy the people in Leeds. They do not want, like as in many other towns, to live two families in a house. They prefer to have their own house to themselves. The difficulty about back-to-back houses—the chief objection to these houses—are the questions of ventilation and health. Now Leeds has come to be the second place in this country in regard to health statistics. It is second to London, and has been so for many years. Nothing therefore can be said in regard to Leeds being bad in the matter of its statistics of health. The evidence all points to the fact that it is one of the best towns in the country. In regard to ventilation, the houses have got plenty of very good ventilation. There is a good skylight above the main staircase, and anyone who has ever been in these houses and studied them will know that they are quite as well ventilated as a through house, because in most through houses the people hardly ever open the front doors. Sir H. Little-john, who is one of the greatest authorities upon health matters, gave evidence before the Local Government Board not long ago against back-to-back houses. He was induced to come to Leeds, and he then said that his opinion in regard to back-to-back houses had been completely changed since he saw the Leeds houses. I think what has changed him would change everybody else if they came and examined the houses that we have in Leeds.

We asked the President of the Local Government Board to come and examine them for himself. Whether he has done so or not we do not know. At any rate, he asked nobody in Leeds to show him anything. He did not offer to let the corporation or the officials who knew about the subject give him any information, nor did he seek their guidance in any way. I think if he did come to Leeds, as it is said he did, he might have treated a corporation like Leeds in some different way from what he did. I hope that while he has considered and consulted other interests, so that he is now going to allow back-to-back houses to be put up one on top of the other, he will allow Leeds to put up houses side by side. He is willing to allow people to live in back-to-back houses if they walk up five or six flights of stairs, but he will not allow them to live in back-to-back houses if they walk in at their own hall doors. I think that is unreasonable, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman may at the eleventh hour alter his decision.


I could understand the attitude of the right hon. Gentleman if he had kept the Clause in the original form and forbid all tenements to be constructed except upon the same principle, but it does seem very illogical to forbid back-to-back houses in Leeds and to allow back-to-back tenements in London. I remember showing the right hon. Gentleman plans of houses which were to be put up by a certain trust when the matter came before the London County Council. These tenements were constructed back-to-back. The right hon. Gentleman seemed to think they were just as objectionable as back-to-back houses. When you have back-to-back tenements you cannot have a yard, but if you have back-to-back houses you could have a front yard, and you could have far more opportunities for storing goods than you could have in tenements. For that reason it does seem advisable to extend this Clause, and to provide that where a medical officer is able to certify that the houses are so constructed and arranged as to secure effective ventilation such houses should be allowed. We have had up to the present no sort of justification for the Government considering tenements on a different principle from houses, and I hope that before we go to a Division some attempt will be made to explain that matter. There are methods of ventilation for back-to-back houses now, such as having through trunks by having a pipe laid through which gives the same ventilation as a through draft by windows; and in view of the great importance of having cheap accommodation under the Housing of the Working Classes Act, I do think it is very indefensible of the Government to block the way to improvements which may perhaps at the same time give excellent ventilation while affording cheap houses to the working classes.


I was very much interested in the statement made by the hon. Member for Leeds who has spoken on the other side in defence of back-to-back houses, but I do not agree with him. I have spent no small part of my life living in back-to-back houses. The hon. Member was good enough to quote, in support of his statement, Sir Henry Littlejohn, of Edinburgh. No doubt he is a very eminent physician and sanitarian, but he came to Leeds as an expert witness, and most of us have heard expert witnesses on both sides. I should attach much more importance to the hon. Member's case if he had been able to cite the evidence of his own medical officer of health. I should very much doubt whether the evidence of the medical officer of health for Leeds could be obtained in support of back-to-back houses. I have had sent to me—as many Members of the House have—some very beautiful pictures of these marvellous back-to-back houses in Leeds, and I find they are all somewhat of this type. There are a number of houses in each, eight in a block, four in front, and four behind, none of which have separate sanitary conveniences. The conveniences are all at the end of the block, and I should like to ask hon. Members of this House who are in favour of this type of house for the working-classes, how they would like their sisters and daughters to stand there waiting their turn.


I do not intend to respond to the invitation of my hon. Friend to inform him about my peregrinations in the City of Leeds on the three or four occasions I had the pleasure of visiting it in connection with my visits to the works of the unemployed, and to the afforestation schemes in the last two or three winters. To go into these details would not be germane to the serious subject under discussion. I will deal with the facts, the appreciation of which induces the Government to disagree with this Amendment. The hon. Member for Leeds assumed at the commencement of his observations that there was a great deal of prejudice against back-to-back houses. Of course there is, and that prejudice, as he properly assumed, is universal. It is universal because there never has been a house reformer or any minister engaged in housing reform, and who was seriously interested in the housing of the poor and of the working classes, and who had gone into places in the industrial districts of the Midlands and the North of England, but found that wherever back-to-back houses prevailed there insanitation, fever, disease and anæmia followed in the track, and were co-existent with such houses. Did the hon. Member quote a single authority outside Leeds in favour of back-to-back houses? No, he did not, because he could not. All the local authorities, when they apply for new bye-laws dealing with housing and sanitation, declare that back-to-back houses are useless and dangerous, and ought not to be tolerated, and they asked for bye-laws to make that condition of things impossible. Here we have one authority coming along saying, "We are building back-to-back houses, and we must ask you to allow us to do so." As against that we have most of the other authorities asking for bye-laws to prohibit back-to-back houses, and all the medical officers of health I know are against such houses, and so are the Local Government Board inspectors. The Leeds Trades Council, some of the members of which live in back-to-back houses, have unanimously passed a resolution asking me to ignore the deputation of property owners which came to see me, and as representatives of the working classes they ask us to have nothing to do with back-to-back houses. The Health Congress of the United Kingdom held their August Session in Leeds, and in the Yorkshire "Daily Post" and the "Observer" we saw the amount of chaff to which the chairman of a particular housing committee that de fends these houses was subject to, not only by the delegates at the Congress, but also by men from Ireland, Scotland, and other parts of the Kingdom. With regard to experts, I have known them upstairs in Room 13 maintain one attitude and an hour later in Room 14 maintain almost an opposite attitude. I am not inclined to accept always the opinion of an expert, and I refuse to brush aside the opinion of the Trades Council, the Health Congress, and all our doctors when there is only one authority on the other side.

10.0 P.M.

In taking this serious step I think it is only fair that I should justify the attitude of the Government by giving one or two facts. I notice one of the hon. Members representing Manchester sitting before me. If he will go to Dr. Niven, than whom this country does not possess any better medical officer, he will discover this remarkable fact: that in a district with no back-to-back houses infectious diseases are 4.5 per cent. and 8.7 per cent. in back-to-back houses. The figures for consumption are 2.8 in non-back-to-back houses and 5.2 in back-to-back houses, or more than double. So far as children are concerned the deaths from diarrhœa in non-back-to-back houses are 1.4 and 3.4 in back-to-back houses. The universal experience is that back-to-back houses are bad. They may for a short time be acceptable, because when they are new they are often occupied by newly-married couples to whom two rooms, one above the other, with no back yard or garden, is not much of an inconvenience, more especially if both of them go out for the best part of the day. It is, however, a different matter when the children number, 2, 3, 4, or 5, because then a back yard is necessary, and a back garden is indispensable, with proper lavatory accommodation on the ground level, which you can only get in through-houses. Those are the reasons why infantile mortality is greaser in back-to-back houses. May I again quote the case of Manchester? Dr. Niven says that the general mortality in back-to-back dwellings exceeds through-dwellings by 40 per cent.; the mortality from infectious disease by 93 per cent., and from consumption and lung diseases by 86 and 30 per cent. respectively. We contend, in face of those figures, that back-to-back houses stand condemned. The medical officer of Sheffield gives figures up to July, 1909, in which he says that Sheffield has a large number of back-to-back houses—probably about one-sixth of the whole. He gives some figures with regard to Sheffield houses in which cases of consumption were notified. Those particulars have reference to all the causes of consumption-notified during the year 1906–7 for which the information was available. They show that of 702 males suffering from acute tuberculosis the disease began in back-to-back houses in 233 cases, and of 350 females it began in 111 cases. I think I have proved unmistakably that for conducing to infectious disease—diarrhoea in children, anæmia generally, breeding consumption and stimulating it when it is partially there—there is nothing to equal back-to-back houses as a general propagator of the most serious forms of disease.

Now I come to Leeds. It has been truly said. "A little child shall lead them." The medical officer gives figures up to August, 1909, and he says that while for all forms of tuberculosis in England and Wales the figures are, males, 1,936 deaths per million of population, the figures for Leeds are 2,334. The figures for females are 1,444 in England and Wales, whilst in Leeds they are 1,605. For children under five years, excluding phthisis in the country, the figures are 2,566, and in Leeds 3,904. Take tuberculosis, including phthisis. You find that in the country the figures for children under five are 2,839, whilst in Leeds the total is 4,337, or nearly double-In the case of Bradford, where the industrial conditions and the population is somewhat similar, the figures are 2,550 children per million, as against 4,337 in Leeds. The figures for Burnley are 2,627, as against 4,337 in Leeds; Batter-sea 2,657, as against nearly double that total in Leeds. In London, of which we hear so much, the figures are 3,681, as against Leeds 4,337. Other forms of tuberculosis are: Males—England and Wales, 582; Leeds, 801. Females—England and Wales, 487; Leeds, 371. Children under five—England and Wales, 2,839; Leeds, 4,337. Although Sheffield has 3,721, against Leeds 4,337, the medical officer for Sheffield says the high death rate among children is due to bad conditions in which back-to-back houses bear their part. I could go further, but it is not necessary. I ask this House on my authority, and I appeal to it on behalf of all the local authorities of the three Kingdoms, not to sanction what only one authority has asked for in the teeth of all enlightened medical opinion and in opposition to the interest of the working classes as reflected by the local trades council. I do ask the House of Commons not in these days, when we are doing everything by Act of Parliament, by housing and by Departmental Order, to kill consumption and tuberculosis in the Army and Navy, and in the general community at its source, to perpetuate the nursery for tuberculosis which back-to-back houses inevitably become. I ask the House, on behalf of the people who in the future would live in back-to-back houses when they become dilapidated, to strike out a new line in sanitation, and not to allow back-to-back houses in any quarter.


May I claim the indulgence of the House whilst I undertake the extremely difficult task, which I do with great diffidence, of following the President of the Local Government Board. There is one point to which I am sure the House will attach very great importance, but to which the right hon. Gentleman has made no reference. He has given us statement after statement of experts after first giving us his own view of the importance which he attaches to experts' opinions. We first heard of the three categories of experts, and then we heard the opinion of experts in support of the right hon. Gentleman's view.


There is a great deal of difference between an expert who is brought in for one particular job and regular officials who have given hostages by long service and are not casually employed.


I fully appreciate the point of the right hon. Gentleman, and he will hear I am prepared to deal with it. The exceptional powers possessed by Leeds were granted by this House and the Upper House on two separate occasions after the fullest inquiry by the Police and Sanitary Committee of this House and by a Committee of the Upper House, and after hearing experts, including the medical officer for the City of Leeds and also the experts of the Local Government Board, who in those years were in favour of the proposals they now oppose. I have not risen to advocate the continuance of any power to the borough I represent to allow back-to-back houses as any hon. Member understands them to be, nor would I advocate the continuance of the powers at present enjoyed by Leeds if it could be held or alleged that figures such as we have had given us to-night apply to the class of houses there. It is under the circumstances under which we now live impossible to place all the details of these schemes before the House to enable us to come to a proper judgment, but I feel that an injustice will be done if without inquiry you take from Leeds exceptional powers given to it under special conditions upon not one but two separate occasions after the fullest inquiry by special committees both of this and the other House. I am afraid, after what one has heard from the President of the Local Government Board, that there is no hope, but I regret that from the first this should have been his attitude towards all representations made to him. This Clause was not in the Bill as originally drafted. That is singular if the question is of the extreme importance which the right hon. Gentleman now attaches to it. It has found its way in the Bill at the instigation of a private Member. I might add that, in spite of all the figures given to us, the death-rate of Leeds for the two years 1906–7 was 15.5, the lowest of any town in the whole country with the exception of London; and it now stands at that figure.


The right hon. Gentleman gave us, as he always does, an exceedingly powerful and eloquent speech, but one would like to have it explained how it is that back-to-back houses are condemned and back-to-back tenements expressly permitted. Why are back-to-back tenements in a big block of buildings to be permitted, and back-to-back houses with entrances on the ground floor, and front windows to every house in streets from 36 to 44 feet wide to be forbidden? Every one must admit that back-to-back tenements are infinitely worse than back-to-back houses. An hon. Member opposite gave a touching instance of the want of sanitary accommodation in certain back-to-back houses, but has he travelled about so little and is his experience so slight that he does not know that exactly the same terrible state of affairs is to be seen in other houses, and is he aware that nothing in this Act will prevent that state of things being perpetuated in tenement houses? It is actually sanctioned in tenement houses, and it is only when it is in back-to-back houses which are far better that it appears to excite the animosity of certain Members. Certain back-to-back houses have every accommodation. In the basement there is a wash-house, a cellar, a coal-house, and a w.c. On the ground floor there is the living room and the scullery. Then you have two bedrooms, and on the second floor you have a large attic and a box room. Yet you are going to forbid back-to-back houses and encourage inferior back-to-back tenements. I will just deal with a question which came under my notice the other day. My wife was convassing in the North-West of London, in a district in which there were very nice houses indeed. At one house at which she called the occupier said: "It is a pity that these houses are deteriorating; it is because they raise the rent." That is the case, because people who were only too glad to secure a house by themselves were by reason of the increase of rent obliged to go into houses where two or more families were accommodated. That will be one of the results of the right hon. Gentleman allowing this Amendment. Respectable people who prefer single houses will in our big cities be forced to crowd into one house. This Amendment may not prevent the cellar-dwelling difficulty. The Clause ought to be left out, so that the matter should be left to the judgment of the local authority and the local medical officers. The right hon. Gentleman says, in so many words, experts are liars, but immediately after that he puts forward the opinion of his own inspectors and medical men at the Local Government Board. Are those experts, and, if they are, are they liars, or are they only liars when they speak against his view on any controversy? If I were a Local Government Board inspector, and I knew that the President wanted me to give evidence in a certain direction, my mind would be certainly biassed though I do not say that I should give the evidence. He asks how it is there is such wonderful unanimity, but I can quite understand why there should be. There is not a single reason given in this matter, except statistics which do not apply at all in regard to the deaths of people who live in the worst part of the town, where there is likely to be a high death rate. It is not, however, the result of living in a back-to-back house, but people who live in those houses live in a low part of the town. You forbid certain things because some ancient back-to-back houses were insanitary, and it seems to me that Parliament is going very much out of its way to do so. Then again, as to ventilation and the number of doors: There are plenty of houses built in the country which have only one door, and if there is a second door you will find it locked. I hope the Local Government Board will see their way to admit the Lords Amendment to this, and, if they do not, I hope the Lords, when it comes to a conference, will insist on their Amendment.

Lords Amendment: After Clause 44 insert Clause B.—(Power to Local Government Board to Revoke Unreasonable Bye-laws.)

If the Local Government Board are satisfied, by local inquiry or otherwise, that the erection of dwellings for the working classes within any borough, urban or rural district, is unreasonably impeded in consequence of any bye-laws with respect to new streets or buildings in force therein, the Board may require the local authority to revoke such bye-laws or to make such new bye-laws as the Board may consider necessary for the removal of the impediment. If the local authority do not within three months after such requisition comply therewith, the Board may themselves revoke such bye-laws, and make such new bye-laws as they may consider necessary for the removal of the impediment, and such new bye-laws shall have effect as if they had been duly made by the local authority and confirmed by the Board.

Mr. BURNS moved, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

The hon. Member (Mr. Vivian) and the Noble Lord (Lord Robert Cecil) have given several instances in which some local authorities had arbitrarily imposed obsolete and unreasonable bye-laws upon builders of houses and cottages, particularly in rural areas, and I promised that if this Bill would enable us to do it, we ought to prevent the local authorities taking this absurd and very unreasonable attitude to modern building requirements and conditions, and it is to meet this point that we say the Local Government Board shall have power to veto such obsolete and undesirable bye-laws.

Lords Amendment: After Clause 47 insert Clause C.—(Definition of "Working Glasses.")

The expression "working classes" in this Act shall include mechanics, artisans, labourers, and others working for wages, hawkers, costermongers, persons not working for wages but working at some trade or handicraft without employing others except members of their own family, and persons whose income does not exceed an average of thirty shillings a week and such persons as may be residing with them.

Mr. BURNS moved, "That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

The Lords have put in a new definition of working classes to which we cannot possibly subscribe, for reasons which were frequently advanced, and I must ask the House to support us in our disagreement with the Lords.