HC Deb 08 November 1934 vol 293 cc1417-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

11.7 p.m.


This is the first time since I have had the honour of being a Member of this House that I have thought a question of such vital importance that I have asked to be allowed to address the House on the Motion for the Adjournment. The incident to which I wish to refer did not occur in my own constituency but in that of my hon., and gallant Friend the Member for Taunton (Lieut.-Colonel Gault), who, unfortunately, is away after a serious illness, and although I have kept him informed of the circumstances up-to-date, I am taking this action on my own responsibility. There are only a few minutes in which to put the matter before the House, and I must therefore concentrate on one or two special points. I would add that I have already given the Minister a full and detailed description of the incident. I will ask the House to visualise a real tragedy which is being enacted in a small village on Exmoor. The thing is happening at a place called Withypool which I should think is unprecedented in English history. What is happening there savours more of what we knew in wartime as Prussianism or what we would expect to happen in Soviet Russia to-day.

The question concerns the demolition of certain cottages. Withypool is a village on Exmoor open to the four winds of heaven. It is right out on the moor and is one of the most rural villages in England. There are two incidents to which I wish to draw attention. One is that two cottages quite near the church were ordered to be demolished. The church authorities agreed and, wanting to be helpful, said they would not oppose the order for demolition, but they hoped the cottages might be left, and, if so, the partition would be knocked down and they would be used in future not for human habitation but as a village church hall. This request was ignored. They were not allowed to retain the cottages for that purpose, and men arrived in a lorry from many miles away. The cottages were demolished, and the rubble was sold on the site to pay for the ex- penses of demolition. That is the first case. It is serious, but not nearly so serious as the second case.

The second case is that of two cottages, of which there are many of the same kind in Withypool, and if the policy—whether it be the policy of the Ministry of Health or the local authority, I cannot find out—is allowed to be pursued, it seems to me that every cottage in Withypool will be scheduled for demolition. The two cottages in question are occupied by old people over 70 years of age. They are their own property and they are the owner occupiers. The cottages belonged to their fathers and grandfathers before them. They are the only possessions of these old people, and if they are demolished there will be no compensation and the site value will be nil. The Rector of Withypool, who is the chairman of the parish meeting, has been to see these cottages several times. He states that they are clean, warm, dry and weather-proof, and very dear to the inhabitants. If they are turned out, there is nowhere in the village for the inhabitants to go. This order for demolition is the result of the operation of the 1930 Act which was passed by a Socialist Government. I cannot believe that even a Socialist Government intended that it should operate in this severe and harsh way on innocent old people in country cottages, as it is doing at Withypool.

I would like to tell the Parliamentary Secretary that I am with him and I will support him to the full in the attempt of the Ministry to clear the slums. When I put this question down it was answered under the heading "Slum Clearance." To call these two cottages slums is absolutely not a true statement of the fact. It is difficult to find out who is behind it. It is either the inspector or the local authority, and I understand the inspector is a sympathetic and charming man who is only carrying out the orders given to him, which, I believe, are distasteful to him. The only motive behind it is that the local authority must demolish in order to get the statutory subsidy to erect cottages in other districts, but in this widespread district, the cottages which may be erected will be many miles away from the old homes of these delightful old people. Although I welcome the presence of the Parliamentary Secretary, I regret, after all the correspondence that has passed and in view of the importance we attach to this question, that the Minister is not here to-night.

When the Parliamentary Secretary replies, it is not a bit of good his sheltering himself or his officials, or the local authority behind the letter of the law. The spirit in which these orders are being carried out is un-English and unfair. I ask him a definite question. In reply to one question he said—I am quoting from memory—that he had no direct authority over the local authority. May I ask him whether he has any indirect authority; has he any powers whatever to prevent the demolition of these cottages; what influence he can bring to bear in this matter and whether he and all the officials of England put together are able to shelter themselves behind the statement: "We are only administering the Act"? In that case I ask him whether, in view of the fact that new legislation is about to be introduced, and in view of the details which I have already given to the Minister in full and have summarised to-night, he believes that any House of Commons would find fault with him if he were to say "I am about to introduce new legislation to deal with these difficult matters, and with the new circumstances which have arisen in the working of that Act; all the consequences of which could not be foreseen when it was drafted, and I will say to the local authority that these cottages must not be demolished."

It may seem a small thing to the House to demolish two cottages in a small Exmoor village, but if they are demolished a blow will be struck at the liberties of the people of England. The Parliamentary Secretary must realise that this case raises a wide principle and I ask him to use all the power and influence he has to prevent these cottages being demolished, to prevent misery and hopelessness overtaking these old inhabitants, who have lived in those cottages all their lives. These cottages may not be in accordance with all that is required under the Act, but they are clean and their occupants are happy. I ask him to do all in his power to see that the cottages are not demolished.

11.18 p.m.


The hon. Member for Chislehurst (Sir W. Smithers) has raised a matter of difficulty in a very reasonable way, and in the few moments at my disposal I will try to answer the many questions he has put to me. But I must point out at the start that to say that because a local authority is exercising a power of demolition which it has enjoyed for a generation something is being done which has never happened in the world before, is really a gross exaggeration. He started his statement with that suggestion, and I beg leave to differ on that point; but apart from that, the hon. Member has raised a case of great difficulty. My trouble is that I am not yet in possession of the facts, but I am prepared to accept as true the facts as he presented them.


I am sorry to interrupt, but has the Minister not had my long letter stating the facts?


We must be allowed to inquire whether there is another side, and what that other side is. It is very difficult for me to give a. reply when I am not yet in a position to know the point of view of the local authority and whether the statement put forward by the hon. Member is absolutely correct. Subject to that, I will make a reply.

This is a case of two houses against which the local authority has taken, action under the 1930 Act. Under Section 19 the local authority has power to demolish individual houses. If the medical officer makes representations on the subject, the local authority can consider them, and if they are in accord with the medical officer, a notice is sent to the owner stating at what time and at what place he can state his case. At the time when the notice is served, it is stated that the owner will have a chance of stating what works he will carry out in order to put that property into a state of repair. When the owner appears before the local authority, he is asked for an undertaking, either that the necessary works will be carried out to render the house fit for habitation, or that the property will not be used for human habitation.

I understand that this gentleman is to appear before the local authority on 12th November. What right has the owner when he appears before a local authority? What the hon. Member has said may be true. The owner may be 70 or 75 years of age, and his father and his grandfather may have lived in the house. That makes the house something like 150 years old.


Two-hundred years old.


That makes the situation worse than I thought. But let us assume that the house is in perfect condition. What is the remedy? Parliament laid down the remedy in 1930. Parliament said that the Ministry of Health should not be trusted to hear appeals, and that an owner who was dissatisfied with the decision of a local authority should have the right to go to the county court. Whether the owner will exercise that right in this case I cannot say. To the best of my knowledge, the case presented by the hon. Gentleman has not been considered by the appropriate local authority.


That is the second case. What about the first case?


I must deal with one case at a time. Before 1930 there was an appeal to the Ministry of Health. Had that been so now, this situation would not have happened, but Parliament decided that the appeal should be taken away from the Ministry of Health and should go to a court of law. That being so, we have no jurisdiction whatever. How could Parliament interfere with the decision of the court? The local authority is exercising a statutory right which it possessed long before 1930. The remedy for the owner was given by Parliament, and we have no power to intervene. How could Parliament intervene against the judiciary 4 The hon. Gentleman then went on to point out that this cottage was in a rural area and that the case of a rural area was very different from that of an urban area. There he was on safe ground. But anyone who knows anything about slum clearance knows that different considerations apply. That does not mean that a rural authority is not charged with the statutory duty of dealing with unfit houses, but obviously, in a rural locality, rural considerations must be taken into account. The plain fact is that every housing authority is an autonomous authority. We have no power to intervene except to see that the law, according to the Act passed by Parliament, is carried out. If an authority is carrying out the Act, as this one is—




My hon. Friend will pardon me. I have shown how, for the last generation, it has had this power and statutory duty. If the local authority is carrying out the Act, we have no power to intervene. What my hon. Friend really wants now is that the whole question of slum clearance should be governed from Whitehall, but, honestly, we cannot do it.

What is the remedy? The remedy, surely, is the remedy that applies in any area, namely, that, if any local authority is acting in an alleged arbitrary fashion, that local council has to come up for election. That is the whole principle of local government; that is the whole principle of democracy. My hon. Friend asks whether, if we cannot help by law, there is no way out? What we can do, and what we have done, is this: Although the local authority is autonomous, we are in partnership with all the local authorities in housing matters. We cannot say to them, "You cannot do what Parliament has enabled you to do," but we can advise, and use our power of persuasion in all housing matters; and, when my hon. Friend raised this question, we sent down an inspector, and we are now awaiting his report. When that report comes, it may be that further facts will come to light. That is really the difficulty of my position, that I cannot at this moment state a case, not really knowing both sides. When that report Domes I will consult my hon. Friend and see whether any action can be taken. The only other point I would mention is that he rather implied that the local authority was demolishing these cottages in order to get the subsidy. There is no obligation on a local authority to rehouse in the case of individual demolition. All that Parliament said was that, if a house was demolished, the subsidy was available for the building of a new house should the local authority so decide; and of course a good local authority has the moral duty to provide the requisite house as near as possible to the demolished cottage. Obviously I cannot criticise the local authority when I do not know the facts. I can only say what a good local authority can do and, when the report of the inspector comes in, I will consult my hon. Friend again.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.