HC Deb 26 May 1919 vol 116 cc883-96

(3)The Local Government Board may approve any such scheme or any part thereof without modification or subject to such modifications as they may think fit, and the scheme or part there of 'when so approved shall be binding on the local authority; but if the Board consider the scheme inadequate they may refuse to approve the scheme and require the authority to prepare and submit to them an adequate scheme within such time as they may fix, or they may approve the scheme subject to the condition that the authority prepare and submit to them a further scheme within such time as they may fix.

(4)If the Local Government Board consider as respects any local authority that an occasion for the preparation of a. new scheme has arisen they shall give notice to that effect to the local authority, and thereupon such an occasion shall be deemed to have arisen.

(5)Where the local authorities concerned or the Local Government Board are of opinion that a scheme should be made affecting the areas of two or more local authorities, such a scheme shall be prepared by the local authorities jointly and may provide for joint action being taken by those local authorities, and for the apportionment amongst the authorities of any expenses incurred in carrying the scheme into effect.


I beg to move, in Sub-section (3), after the word "inadequate," to insert the words or injurious to the natural beauties or architectural amenities of the neighbourhood. I desire merely to get such assurance as the right hon. Gentleman is able to give me as to the attitude of the Local Government Board in this matter. The fear is very widely held, and finds expression in resolutions by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and other societies concerned with the antiquities of the country, that an enormous number of cottages would be scattered about the country which would be eyesores. The desire of those who are interested in the preservation of the beauties of our country is that, in the first instance, our beautiful villages may not be spoiled; second, that great housing schemes in towns shall not have the effect of destroying, as in some cases they have destroyed in the past, architectural features which are of very great beauty and importance; third, that the fine old cottages which exist in all parts of the country in good repair shall not be knocked down and replaced by modern cottages of the kind which we have seen scattered about the country during the last thirty years, and which are perfect horrors. It is perfectly possible to restore almost any old cottage and make it habitable for many years to-come. Our country is very rich in old cottages, many of them unfortunately very far from being in a healthy condition for the purposes of habitation. I believe that as long as the present Administration is in power, and the present President of the Local Government Board in office, the amenities and beauties of our villages and towns will be preserved by the Local Government Board. But what I regret to notice is that there is no provision in the Bill for securing that protection in case of a change of spirit which might come over the Board in a few years to come.

I have heard it suggested that this housing scheme might be regarded as a great war memorial. I believe it to be an unsuitable form of national war memorial, but there is nothing more certain than that if we could scatter over the country as a result of this housing activity a number of really well-built, well-designed cottages-and small dwellings of all sorts, if they were as built as 500 years ago they used to be built, structures built to last century after century, if they were beautiful in themselves, quite simple, but well-proportioned and well-designed, in years to come the cottages built in the years immediately following the War would be remembered, and people seeing what buildings they were, might look back to the persons of to-day, who are busy with these great schemes of reconstruction, and regard these houses as a monument of ourselves and a credit to our generation. I have brought this forward to get an assurance from the right hon. Gentleman as to his action in the matter.


I beg to second the Amendment.


I think that the hon. Gentleman is well acquainted with the number of the architects and others who are, I am glad to say, helping us in inspections and in the consideration of plans and sites; and I can assure him that, if it is possible even more completely than he himself desires to avoid monuments of ugliness for the people of this country who will come after us, those who are dealing with these questions and these plans are most anxious to secure this result, and secure that these new houses shall be good to look at, with open spaces and green fields, and so on. We prescribe in the regulations, subject to proper modification of plans where it may be necessary, that as a general rule in rural districts there should not be more than eight houses to the acre and in urban districts not more than twelve. I am exceedingly anxious that the places shall be good to look at as well as to live in. I am sure we shall bear the hon. Member's remarks in mind, but I hope he will not ask us to put the words into the Bill. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why not?"] Because you would then have to secure that every individual scheme, for whatever purpose it was intended, would have to be scrutinised and dealt with from this point of view as well as from any other. It is quite impossible to lay down in a Bill anything that is a matter of taste. You cannot do it; you can only do your best. You cannot ask us to work up some instruction which would be variously interpreted according to the taste of those interpreting it. The only way in which you can do this kind of thing is to get people working at these schemes who are the best you can get for the completion of well-constructed buildings. That is what we have done. We have a good general instruction as to the kind of thing they are to aim at. I hope we shall not have any statutory instructions as to the taste they are to display or individually to possess, otherwise my responsibility might not be altogether a convenient one.

I think the hon. Member will be satisfied with the general assurance that we will do our very best in the matter.


I think my right hon. Friend has misconceived the purpose of the Amendment, which I rather regret he is not prepared to accept. My right hon. Friend said that if this Amendment was inserted in the Bill it would be an attempt to prescribe on questions of taste. It would not be anything of the sort. All that it would do would be to say that questions of taste were to be considered. It is quite true that there might be differences of opinion among those who consider them, but it would not lay down any canons of taste whatever. Another remark of my right hon. Friend convinced me that it is important that these words should be inserted. He says that if the words were put in, the effect would be that in the consideration of every scheme these aesthetical considerations would have to be taken into account. Of course they should be. I do not understand the objection of the President of the Local Government Board on that account. He objects to having the words inserted because they would make it necessary to take these matters into account.


May I interrupt? Inserted in this Clause the Amendment would make it read that the Board would have to consider whether a scheme was inadequate or injurious to the natural beauty or architectural amenities of a district and that, if so, the Board might refuse to approve the scheme. Does that not mean this, that in any case where we refuse to approve that scheme, we should have to give our reasons for considering that it was injurious to the natural beauties or architectoral amenities of the neighbourhood? How can you do that? We should have to be setting out a disputation on a work of art. We cannot do that with local authorities. It is not fair to place upon us the task of explaining to a local authority why, in our opinion, something or other interferes with the natural beauties or architectural amenities of a neighbourhood, and to have to do this as a statutory obligation.


If that is so, how does this matter stand? The right hon. Gentleman seems to me to have made the matter more difficult of understanding. He assured the hon. Member who moved the Amendment that the Local Government Board are going to consider these questions. Supposing a scheme is put before the Local Government Board which is not in the ordinary sense of the word inadequate, which from every other point of view is adequate, but which does obviously and flagrantly sin against the question of taste, or is flagrantly out of touch with the prevailing architecture of the district—supposing that a scheme is before him, is he or is he not going to reject that scheme? According to what he has just said he does not feel that the Local Government Board will be competent to reject the scheme, or to justify their objection on the ground that it sins against an aesthetic canon. What is going to happen if he does take these matters into consideration? Is he going to reject such a scheme on a false ground; is he going to say that it is rejected because it is inadequate, whereas in the ordinary meaning of language it is not inadequate at all? I think it would be much more straightforward and satisfactory from every point of view if we put in these words and assumed the responsibility of considering and rejecting such schemes as sinned against these canons of taste, and boldly justified that course. That course would be satisfactory both from the point of view of those who are interested in the aesthetic side and from the point of view of Local Government Board responsibility. At the worst all the right hon. Gentleman could say is that the words are not necessary. I think there is another point of view from which they are very desirable, because we have—I do not say so much now, but for a long time past—the Government of the country and all public authorities have paid far too little regard to what has been regarded in the past as unpractical points of view. The importance of architectural or aesthetic beauty, the real importance, the moral importance of it, have not been sufficiently realised. Therefore it would be a very valuable thing, apart altogether from the actual controlling power put upon the completion of these particular schemes, to have in an Act of Parliament such a recognition by the Government and by Parliament that these matters are not unimportant. I remember that the late Professor Froude, dealing with past periods of our history, said that there was more valuable history gathered within the preambles of Acts of Parliament than in any other source. We do not go in much for preambles in these days, but perhaps a future historian will find sources of history in unsuspected corners of Acts of Parliament, and it might be a monument to this present age, and to my right hon. Friend in particular, if it was possible to look back and say that in this great Act of Parliament, which he was instrumental in passing, even although the words may have no great executive effect, he was careful to see that the Government and Parliament had regard to the aesthetic and non-practical aspects of the case. From that point of view I hope he will accept the Amendment.

5.0 P.M


I think we are going on an entirely false assumption. It appears from what the hon. Member says that unless some words are put in in this particular Clause, there would be no proper supervision of the architectural beauty of any housing scheme. That is certainly not the fact of the case. To insert the provision here, in my humble judgment, is to insert it in an entirely wrong place. You are dealing there with the question of schemes being adequate or inadequate to a district, and it is on the question of adequacy that you insert a few words—with which I entirely agree if they are in a proper context—which would lead to a series of instructions. This Clause is dealing with the adequacy or the inadequacy of schemes submitted by local authorities, and that is certainly not the place to insert any standard of taste or beauty. If it is thought desirable in any wise to give instruction to the Local Government Board, if you desire to put in some words that would direct particular attention to the necessity of artistic taste and architectural perfection—that may be a desirable thing to do, but certainly not here. At the next stage, when the plans are submitted and these plans are being dealt with by the Department before the sanction of the loan is obtained, then arises the question what size the premises should be, the number of houses per acre, the elevation, the use of local materials, and all that sort of thing, but that is an altogether different proposition from saying whether a scheme submitted is adequate or inadequate. Even if you have the words in the right place I am inclined to think that they will do more harm than good. There are all sorts of definitions to be taken into account. If you are going to say that when the Board come to consider a certain proposal, they shall have regard to this aspect, or that aspect, or the other aspect, you may omit certain important aspects, and these would cease to be canons of judgment. It seems to me that if you give general instructions for the approval of plans, it is better than laying down a standard or specification. There should be no forgetfulness of the importance of proper architectural design, and care should be taken, for instance, that cottages of red brick should not be put down in the neighbourhood of one of those old magnificent cottages which my hon. Friend has in mind, and which are real things of beauty, and the local materials of which harmonise with the local surroundings. I think the likeliest way to secure the work of this Department being in the right direction is that the general taste of the community should insist, as well as the local authority, on high standards of beauty. We are always blaming architects, but they supply what the public wants, and the buildings, both of the present and the past, are only the natural expression of the standard of taste and the desires of the people in the age in which they were erected. If we are to get beautiful buildings, it will not be by putting definite and detailed instructions in the Bill, but by speeches like those of my hon. Friends who sympathise with these objects, and by doing our best to educate the community and stimulate the local authorities and make them realise that they should consider not only utility and economy, but beauty as well. I think that the speeches of the hon. Members who have supported this Clause ought to be widely-read and considered by all those who are engaged in preparing these schemes.


Is this to be the attitude of this House with regard to a question of this kind, and when we express our aspirations for elegance and architectural beauty, are we to be told, as has been done by the last speaker, that that is to be carried out by appealing to the better sense of the community and by educating the people? When we are asked to take some definite steps to secure that the designs of these buildings should be submitted to a competent authority, and not approved until that authority found them satisfactory, we are told that we are indulging in vague generalities. This is going to be a great epoch-making Bill in regard to the aspect of our country. If it is not carried out with a due sense of the traditions and local surroundings of the different parts of the country, it will be an influence of the worst sort upon the beauty of the country, and will, perhaps, destroy the whole plan of the country by the erection of some hideous monstrosities, and we are to continue to hope that people will be educated to a proper sense of the beautiful. Surely we have allowed in the past sufficient freedom of this sort with disastrous results. We know of the enormous evil that has been done by jerry builders and those who have erected houses which are a perpetual eyesore to successive generations. If we only calmly look around we will see close to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament the erection of a hideous edifice like Queen Anne's Mansions, which has done more harm to succeeding generations than many very notorious criminals, and has destroyed one of the most magnificent historic sites. It is a perpetual monument which we cannot get rid of, and source of trouble and irritation to everyone who has the slightest sense of beauty. We are told now that perhaps happy inspiration will come to the architect, and that there is no necessity to have the schemes approved by some competent authorities. When we say that before the schemes for these buildings are approved they should be judged by a competent authority, it is said that that is impossible and cannot be done. If that is the course we pursue we will go on in this House with the same idealistic aspirations and the same lack of practical means of enforcing them as we have done in the past, instead of making these new buildings a joy to the eye and a perpetual source of pleasure and education to the senses. I hope my hon. Friend will press his Amendment in order that we may avoid the erection of hideous monstrosities which will destroy all the surroundings, and will make the memory of this Bill a horror to all who wish to preserve the beauty of the country.


The hon. Member for Brightside (Sir T. Walters) says that this was the wrong place to insert this provision. I want to know where the right place is, and I desire to enter a protest against the attitude of the Government that they should have no sort of control over the architectural designs.


I did not say anything of the kind.


The right hon. Gentleman gave us the impression that the Local Government Board would not be able to refuse a scheme on any ground of that kind.

Dr. ADDISON dissented.


That is the impression created, and the right hon. Gentleman can remove it. I think that something of the kind which is proposed by this Clause should be adopted by the House. The local authorities have many sterling virtues, but this is a matter in which they should have the assistance of the Local Government Board. If a pro vision of this sort were inserted, it would make the local authority careful lest its scheme might be rejected. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider his attitude and accept the suggestion which has been made.

Lieut.-Colonel WEIGALL

There may be some difficulty as to a definite provision, but we are all anxious that the aspirations of my hon. Friend who moved should be carried into practical effect. I am perfectly certain that if these houses are things of beauty they will have a tremendous effect on the life of the nation, and what I would suggest is this, that if the right hon. Gentleman cannot incorporate the proposal in his Bill he should agree to do so in the Regulations, or find some words—which would carry out the desire of my hon. Friend, whereby no scheme would go through until it had been approved by the Local Government Board after consideration of this aspect of it.


The earlier part of the Clause provides for the details of the scheme which refer to a statement as to the deficiency of housing in the district and a number of other matters, which have no relation to the beauty of the neighbourhood. When it comes to the question of the design of the houses, that is another matter. I welcome the suggestion of my hon. And gallant Friend (Lieut.-Colonel Weigall) to deal with this matter in the Regulations. In our circular to the local authorities we have already referred to this question, and I see that the general feeling of the House is in favour of such action. I am sure the House does not want me to prescribe a standard which perhaps would be differed from in the near future. I shall issue a general instruction to the authorities concerned, embodying the general sense of the House upon this aspect of the matter, and pointing out that they should take these matters into account in the construction of the houses, and I hope my hon. Friends will be satisfied with that. If we were to Insert it in the Bill I am afraid we should find ourselves in a difficulty as to setting up a standard of beauty. I would remind the House that we have got to do as well as we can and as men of common sense. I have employed a number of the best architects and town-planners that I could lay my hands on to advise on these schemes, and we will do our best. The standard of taste varies considerably. I have seen monuments which many people thought to be very beautiful, while many of us going along the streets would almost wish that somebody would come along with a little dynamite to blow them up. I cannot ask the House to prescribe a standard of beauty, but, as I have stated, in a general note to the local authorities I will ask them to take this aspect into account in considering the designs and plans.


The Amendment has not been on the Paper, and therefore hon. Members may not quite have understood what it was, but the words are: "or injurious to the natural beauties or architectural amenities of the neighbourhood." It is not, therefore, a question of the houses themselves, but of the position where the houses are being put up. The scheme in Clause 2 is to set out the localities in which land is to be acquired, and the Amendment is meant, not to deal with the planning of the houses or the, class of houses, but with the place where they are to be put up. As I understand it, it is necessary to provide that houses should not be put up in such places as parts of the Lake District, where it might be considered injurious to the neighbourhood to have buildings of any kind. Therefore, what the Amendment means is that when the schemes come before the Local Government Board to put up a number of buildings in a particular part of the Lake District, say, or round about Stonehenge, as the Bill stands at present all the Board has to inquire into is whether the scheme is adequate to the housing needs of the neighbourhood, and the Amendment is simply to put it in the power of the Local Government Board to consider the artistic aspect of the case as well. The advantage of putting it into the Bill is the pedantic one that it is highly desirable to put in the Bill what is meant, so that people will not have later on to turn up the Official Report to find out what the then President of the Local Government Board said on the matter. There is nothing in the Bill to show a local authority that they ought to consider the amenities of the neighbourhood before they make a scheme, and if I was a local authority and had a perfectly adequate and useful site to place the people upon, I think I might consider myself fully justified in neglecting the question of the beauty of the district. If it is the opinion of the House that the effect of this Amendment ought to be in the Bill somewhere, surely it ought to be at this particular place, because then it is a direction, first, to the local authorities that in drawing up a scheme they are to bear the artistic aspect in mind, and, secondly, that when it comes before the Local Government Board it shall be a direction to them to consider that particular aspect at that particular time. Speaking as a general rule, it is desirable to have a Clause in an Act, and not to leave it to a mere departmental memo.


I did not intend to convey any suggestion that we should not have a thing in the Act, if we meant to have it at all. But I suggested that it would be as well if Amendments that are proposed bore some sort of relation to the general framework of the Clause.


I was very disappointed that the President of the Local Government Board was so willing to accept the weaker proposal of satisfying us by a regulation instead of putting it in the Bill. The hon. and learned Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Rawlinson) has given us the strongest possible reasons for putting the Amendment in the Bill, because he has shown that without it there is no obligation on any local authority to consider the amenities of the neighbourhood, but I go further. I have not seen the actual words of the Amendment, but I think the hon. and learned Member was wrong in suggesting that the Amendment does not also cover the question of the individual appearance of the houses. Where I differed from the hon. Member for Brightside (Sir T. Walters) was in considering that this is in the wrong place. My hon. Friend seemed to take a materialistic view, which is just the one we want to combat by the Amendment. He thinks that the adequacy of a scheme has nothing to do with its beauty, but I strongly disagree with him. Clause 2 says a scheme is to specify the approximate number and the nature of the houses, and, according to my hon. Friend, the nature of the houses, I suppose, would mean cubic space, number of rooms, and so forth. But I think it should also include the aesthetic side of the scheme in my view, if you leave this question to be dealt with by regulation, it is an advertisement to all the world that that aspect of the thing is much less important than the question of bricks, tiles, slates, etc. You cannot have an adequate house which is an ugly one, and a house which sins against the aesthetic canons is inadequate really to house a family in proper and congenial surroundings. It is because I think it is so important that the aesthetic and material aspect should be regarded as of equal importance that I do not want to separate them in the way the hon. Member suggests.


On a point of Order, Sir. How often has an hon. Member the right to speak on the Report stage? We have had two long speeches from my hon. Friend opposite (Mr. R. McNeill), and if we go on at this rate we shall never get through the Report stage at all. I think hon. Members ought to adhere to the rule.

The DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. Whitley)

It was my inadvertence, but, having only just come into the Chair, I did not notice that the hon. Member for St. Augustine's (Mr. McNeill) had already made a speech on this Amendment. Hon. Members are only entitled to speak once on the Report stage, with the exception of the Mover of the Amendment or the person in charge of the Bill.


I think some definite statement should be made in this Clause which would reconcile the opinion of those in this House and outside who are in favour of having artistic architectural buildings erected under the new scheme. There has been a considerable amount of talk about the education of the people and that they should be brought up to a standard of education which would enable them to have an influence on the houses that are built, but the housing question is one of the greatest urgency, and there is no shadow of doubt that numbers of them all over the country will be erected in the greatest possible haste. That will inevitably lead, in some places, to houses being erected close to the edges of roads and in all sorts of positions where we do not want houses at all, and it would also cause houses to be built which would have no architectural beauty. The Government say they will be prepared to put some vague terms in their instructions to the local authorities which will influence them, they hope, in causing good architectural houses to be built, and they say they will teach the local authorities how this should be done. I cannot see the Government teaching anybody on the subject of artistic value at the present moment. They will not even open the exhibitions or the galleries for the public, and they know what the habits of local authorities are when it comes to erecting houses in their district. In one of the towns of the county which I have the honour to represent, opposite a beautiful old county hall, is erected the most abominable building which can possibly be viewed anywhere in the country, and it is a source of pride to the local authorities in that town, a good deal more than the ancient county hall is, which has stood there for hundreds of years' That sort of thing is something which we are all hoping to avoid in the future. We have not got time to educate everybody to the niceties of architecture, and, therefore, it is up to the Department to use the powers which they have of obtaining the proper advice and enforcing that schemes which are brought forward by local authorities should be carried out in the most artistic way possible. Therefore, I cannot but think that the only way to do it is to pin the Government down, if possible, to something definite.


I think the House has discussed this question of aesthetic buildings quite long enough. There is an absence of houses in the country. There are thousands of people at the present moment who cannot get a roof over their heads, and the first thing this House has got to do is to create houses. After that we can discuss the question of whether they are artistic houses or not. [HON. MEMBERS: "Too late!"] It is not too late. The people who want to get under those roofs do not mind whether they are aesthetic or not so long as there is a roof there. There are thousands of people tramping our streets to-day, and among them demobilised men who have fought for us, who cannot get house-room for their wives and families. The question of aestheticism in house building is one which this House would never leave to the Local Government Board, and certainly not to a professor of medicine like my right hon. Friend opposite, because, after all, the question of aestheticism in house building is a different question all over the country. While my right hon. Friend might know exactly what would suit the people of London, I am sure he would be the last person in the world to venture an opinion as to what might suit Glasgow or Inverness or Thurso. It is obvious that we cannot have a uniform standard, and therefore I think we are wasting the time of the House in going into a question which must wait on the other question of urgency.


I do not see why the hon. Gentleman should be so fond of ugly houses. It is just as easy to build pretty houses as ugly ones, and people can live and sleep in pretty houses just as well as in the houses he wishes to put up. I thoroughly sympathise with the Minister that this interesting point should be discussed on a manuscript Amendment, but, knowing the spirit which the President of the Local Government Board has shown throughout the whole of this Bill, I feel sure he himself is in agreement with the Mover, and that he would rather have artistic and pretty houses than houses of another sort. I only hope he has not dug himself in on a question of principle, and refused absolutely and finally to consent to these words, which seem to be quite harmless. If he cannot make up his mind at the present moment to retreat from the position ho has taken up, perhaps he will think it over, and use another place to put in words which cannot possibly do any harm, and may possibly do good.

Amendment negatived.