HC Deb 10 December 1937 vol 330 cc770-9

Order for Second Reading read.

1.30 p.m.

Mr. Perkins

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

I am asking the House to give a Second Reading to this Bill because I believe, and I am sure that every hon. Member of this House will agree with me, that a playground is just as essential for young children as an adequate supply of fresh, clean food. I believe that that opinion is widely held in this House, and I have every hope that we can get this Bill by agreement among all political parties. The object is a very simple one, namely to enable local authorities to have the power to close streets and turn those streets into playgrounds. It is necessary, as hon. Members who come from the industrial North know, because in some of our big industrial towns there are certain slum areas which are so congested that it is practically impossible to provide a proper playground for the children in those areas, and as a result the children spend their days playing in the streets. The result of that is, as every hon. Member in this House knows, that there is a considerable number of street accidents which affect the children. Another result, I am sure everyone will agree, is that it tends to inflict on the mothers a kind of haunting dread through the whole of their working day, because while they are at home doing the housework they have a feeling that their child may be knocked down by a passing vehicle and eventually be brought back on a stretcher. I believe that if this Bill is passed, we shall have done something to alleviate that haunting dread which is felt by these mothers, something to get these accidents down, something to make the lives of these children happier, and something to make them in the future better citizens.

Clause 1 of the Bill is a simple and straightforward Clause, which gives power to the local authorities who are responsible for more than 20,000 inhabitants to either prohibit or restrict traffic in any street, either generally or at any particular time, in order to turn that street into a playground. A certain safeguard has been put into the Clause which allows reasonable access to the street and which also allows anyone with a valid objection to have a fair hearing. Clause 2 gives a local authority power to make by-laws to control these playgrounds and generally to protect the children from any injury. I may add that two private Bills have gone through this House, the Salford Corporation Bill in 1933 and the Birmingham Corporation Bill in 1935, in which this principle has been approved by the House. The sooner this Bill is passed, the better it will be for this country. I believe it will be welcomed by all mothers in the industrial North and that it will have the effect of making the children fitter and happier and of reducing road accidents.

I must make myself plain on one point. I do not believe that this is a permanent solution of the playground question. I cannot believe that just closing a street will meet the situation, and I do believe that probably in my lifetime, perhaps even in the next five or ten years, we shall see playgrounds provided for every child that wants or needs them; but the facts are at this very moment that that is not immediately possible, and, therefore, I ask the House to give a Second Reading to this Bill, not, as I say, as a permanent solution or cure, but as a temporary Measure to tide over the gap.

1.34 p.m.

Wing-Commander Wright

I beg to second the Motion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Perkins) has already very ably and clearly explained the Clauses of this very short Bill, and I feel certain that the House will approve of its object. Therefore, it is quite unnecessary for me to say anything except a very few words in support of it. In fact, I cannot find any reason why the House should refuse these powers for which we are asking for the local authorities. The Bill does not even compel them to close streets, but it gives them the opportunity to do so where they wish to do it, and without going to the considerable expense and trouble of promoting private Bills to get those powers for themselves. The second reason for not refusing these powers is that we have already created a precedent by granting them to progressive cities, such as Birmingham and Salford, which have, on their own initiative, promoted Bills in the past in order to get these powers. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend has said, I do not think that even the keenest supporters of the Bill can look upon it as a satisfactory way of dealing with this question. In Birmingham we find, as we progress with our large and extensive town planning and rebuilding, that we want to make less and less use of the power to close streets. Nevertheless, there are certain places where these playgrounds cannot be provided, and the people living in those districts will find great benefit to their children from this temporary Measure until better arrangements can be made.

1.36 p.m.

Mr. Montague

I want to put one point about which I feel doubtful. I have no authority to commit our party for or against the Bill, but it seems to me that if one street in a locality is turned into a playing-ground, it will put that locality in a difficult position. We can realise that if we close a street for traffic in order that children can play in it, the people living there will not have much peace.

1.37 p.m.

Sir Percy Harris

This Bill gives the power to local authorities to make bylaws, and we can leave it to the discretion of the various boroughs such as Islington, Bermondsey, and Bethnal Green, to use their discretion. They will have to bear in mind the consideration mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, and also the needs of through traffic. Obviously they will avoid roads where those factors apply. I heartily support this Bill, for it is a proposal I have advocated for many years. It will be a blessing and a boon to hundreds of families and thousands of children in poor neighbourhoods where they are some way away from parks and open spaces. It is a constant anxiety to mothers when their children are playing in the streets. Whether this Bill passes or not, they will continue to play in the streets, because very often there is nowhere else for them to play. This Bill will be a great advantage to the poor overcrowded neighbourhoods in great cities like London, Chester, Liverpool, Leeds and Bradford. It will be safe to leave the discretion to the local authorities to exercise their judgment as to the streets they select.

1.40 p.m.

Mr. Kirby

My Division in Liverpool is very densely populated, and many of the streets are very often filled with children playing out of school hours. There run through the Division one or two main arterial roads into which the children oft-times overflow. If we are to make that part of the city safe for the children in their play hours, there must be some kind of regulation. We hear of the impossibility of setting aside streets for this purpose and of the inhabitants of such streets being unfairly dealt with by having to put up with the children's playing, but whatever may be the objections from that angle, I do not think they should deter us from giving a Second reading to a Bill which will ultimately make the safety of the children much more sure than it is. In Liverpool we have tried a similar scheme by reserving, out of school hours, the school playgrounds in the thickly populated districts for the use of the children. That has taken a large number of children off the streets, but it has not gone nearly far enough. Under this Bill the city and other councils could, by by-laws, make proper provision for playgrounds in the streets, in such a way that they would be safer than they are to-day. In places like Liverpool and Birmingham the number of accidents to children in the streets in the course of a year is appalling, and I am sure that every right-minded person will welcome a Bill of this sort, which aims at giving the children that measure of safety out of school hours that they all ought to enjoy.

1.42 p.m.

Mr. Wakefield

I heartily commend this Bill to the House. Anything that can be done to provide playing places for the children must receive sympathy and support. The mover of the Bill referred to the haunting dread which mothers have when their children are playing in the streets. The result is that young children are frequently sent on bright sunny days to the cinema when they ought to be playing in the fresh air and sunshine. If, therefore, the provision of streets for them to play in will enable them to take fresh exercise in the bright sun instead of being shut up in some building, it will be a definite forward step. The hon. Member who moved the Second Reading said that the Bill was not meant to be a permanent solution. The only fear that I have about the Bill is that local authorities may consider that, so long as they shut out traffic from certain streets so that the children can play in them, they have done their duty. It would be deplorable if local authorities considered that by merely shutting streets for playing purposes that was sufficient. We want to see a greater number of playing spaces provided for children. They need not be large, but let them be made close to the homes of the children. Large areas are now being cleared, and surely it ought to be possible in a slum clearance scheme to provide some small space instead of rebuilding the whole of the area. It should be possible to use the space where two or three houses and their gardens formerly stood, for the provision of a playing space.

The criminal statistics for 1935 show that nearly 2,000 young persons under 17 years of age were found guilty of playing in the streets. Surely it is a great reproach that young people should be brought before the courts for playing games in the street. Those figures show the very great need for playing spaces, and although making streets into playing spaces is a poor substitute for what ought to be done, it is, nevertheless, a step in the right direction. If we look at the statistics of road accidents we find that in the ten years from 1924 to 1933, inclusive, over 12,000 boys and girls under 15 were killed in the streets in England and Wales alone, and that over 300,000 were maimed or injured. That is an appalling state of affairs when our youth and children are becoming more and more important in face of the declining birth rate. I strongly support this Bill, and should like to congratulate the mover on bringing it forward. In conclusion, I repeat that I hope it will be urged upon local authorities that merely to provide streets in which children can play is only a temporary step before we make permanent provision for proper open spaces in which children and young persons can play their games and take that recreation in the air and sun to which they are by right entitled.

1.47 p.m.

Mr. Denville

Though I am keen to support the Bill I think we ought to embody in it a provision that doctors shall at all times be entitled to drive into these closed streets in their vehicles. Also, I do not know whether the promoters of the Bill have suggested that it would be worth while to ask local authorities to throw open school playgrounds. I know that they can do so, but they do not generally do so, and we ought to make it the custom that during the time when the school is closed the playground shall still be open for the benefit of the children. I wish to give the Bill my hearty support.

1.48 p.m.

Sir Edward Campbell

I have very great pleasure in supporting this Bill and also in congratulating the hon. Member who has brought it in; but though I am anxious to support the Bill I regard the necessity for its introduction as a condemnation of local authorities and local education authorities for not having provided sufficient playing-fields and open spaces many years ago. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) and I, when we were on the London County Council together, tried our utmost not only to get more playing-fields but to see that the playgrounds of schools were places in which children could really enjoy their exercises. I think, too, that school authorities should be induced to allow their playgrounds, and even playing-fields, to be used in the evenings and during holidays. I believe that the principal argument against it is that some school attendant or other person must be present, but what is the cost of a school attendant compared with the health of the children, or the safety of their lives.

I am very much interested not only in the Playing-Fields Association but also in the work of boys' clubs in the slums. Our young people cannot get out into the open air, and this is the only alternative they have unless school playgrounds can be made available for them. The cost would be infinitesimal compared with the benefits. I dare say that some of my hon. colleagues will remember Major Cadogan, who was in this House. He was very keen on this kind of thing, and, I think, was chairman of the new organisation of which the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Wakefield) is a member. In 1926 he brought forward the Motion to procure more playing-fields and open spaces, and I had the honour of seconding that Motion and of asking the local authorities and the education authorities to make use of the Acts of Parliament on the Statute Book at that time, which enabled them to procure more playing-fields and open spaces. The Minister in charge said the subject would have the attention of the Government. On whichever side of the House we sit we know that the Government have very good intentions, but effect is not always given to them for some time, owing to more important matters occupying their attention, and no action has been taken until the introduction of the Bill under which we are all, including the Members of this House, going to be made really fit.

That physical fitness Bill ought to be more helpful to us, who spend in this House the most unhealthy life which anybody can spend, and if we are to be made fit why should we not do our utmost to help those youngsters who have far less opportunities than we have to get fit? I sincerely hope that if this Bill becomes an Act of Parliament the powers-that-be will not consider that when they have provided back streets as places of recreation they have fulfilled their duty in the matter. I regard this as merely a temporary Measure until steps are taken to provide proper and lasting open spaces. I take a great deal of exercise when I can get it, and prefer taking exercise in the open country or, alternatively, around London on a nice grassy pitch, for instance, playing cricket at Westminster School, which is only a quarter of a mile from here. That is a great deal better than playing in a street with a lamp-post as wicket.

When I was Member for Camberwell the children had to go several miles by tram, as they have to do in the North of London, before they could get to any place where they had an opportunity of playing games, and that not only takes time but costs money, and often they are not able to afford it. What we are aiming at is to give facilities for as many people as possible to play games, and play them without any possibility of danger. I have very great pleasure in supporting the Bill, and hope that it will soon become an Act of Parliament, but that it will never be regarded as supplanting the need for real open spaces and playing-grounds.

1.55 p.m.

Mr. Mathers

Although there are no names of Scottish representatives upon the back of the Bill, the Bill, if it becomes an Act of Parliament, will apply to Scotland. I hope that I may be forgiven if, as a Scottish representative, I intervene for a few moments to say that I am certain that the Bill will be welcomed by many local authorities in Scotland. I have had experience of provisions similar to those in the Bill being put into effect, without the necessary statutory power being available, in Edinburgh, which is not one of the worst provided towns in the country in respect of playing-fields. I refer to the division which I previously represented, West Edinburgh. The high standard of lay-out in the central part of the city, which was so well designed in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies of last century, has not been lived up to, and in the working class western part of the city there are closely built-up areas and huge tenement dwellings. In order to meet the needs of the children, certain streets were reserved by arrangement, very much along the lines laid down in the Bill. The reservation could be carried out only by the good will of those who would refrain from taking their vehicles into those streets. It was in some ways pathetic to see notices at the ends of the streets asking motorists and other vehicle users to allow—making the request—the street to be reserved during certain afternoon hours of the day, in order that it might be available for children to play in.

Authorities who have shown their willingness to make this provision, without having obtained proper powers to close streets in this way, will readily welcome the passing of the Bill into law, and will, I am sure, make proper use of it when it is passed. There is evidently much concern in the minds of Members that the Bill should not be taken as an excuse for not proceeding with the provision of proper playing-fields. When the provisions of the Bill are put into full operation, it will be found that the streets which are cleared of traffic will be made use of almost exclusively by the tiny toddlers, especially when a proper playing-field system is developed. Many prosecutions that take place for the playing of football in the streets and otherwise breaking the law are in respect of young fellows who are perfectly well able to go the distance required to the parks that are provided, but they prefer in many cases to play in the streets. The object of the Bill is to provide for children, not for organised games, or anything of the kind, to be carried on in the streets. I am certain that the provisions of the by-laws that will be framed by local authorities under the Bill will be of such a character as will enable this House to realise that it has done a good job in giving authority to local bodies to carry out these provisions.

1.59 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Captain Austin Hudson)

I am glad to see the very general agreement which the Bill has evoked. Of eight speeches which we have had, every one has been heartily in favour of the Bill, which commends itself also to my Ministry. We have, in fact, given advice to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Perkins) as to its actual drafting. The power of turning certain streets into playgrounds is given to all of what I may call the relevant local authorities who care to exercise it, and has already been obtained by means of Private Acts by several such local authorities in the past, for instance, Salford, who obtained the power in 1933, and have used it. Manchester and Birmingham, as has already been mentioned, also have this power. I understand from my Department that the power has worked smoothly, and has proved of great benefit in the localities concerned.

I would point out that there are safeguards for the inhabitants. An order made by a local authority does not become effective until it is confirmed by the Minister of Transport, who has to wait 28 days to see whether there are any objections, and who may order an inquiry. I agree with the hon. Members who have expressed the hope that local authorities will not use this Bill in order to evade responsibility for providing playgrounds. The power in the Bill for holding inquiries should safeguard that position. When we come to the Committee stage we can see whether that power should be strengthened in any way, in cases where somebody may feel that a local authority is not doing all that it should to provide alternative accommodation. The power to hold inquiries is a safeguard to prevent anything of that kind. The rest of the Bill contains provisions for the revocation or variation of an order, as to the actual form of making the regulations and of holding inquiries and for the making of bylaws, to which the hon. Member for West Islington (Mr. Montague) referred in his short intervention.

No doubt the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Mathers) will notice that we shall have to consider in the Committee stage putting in a Clause to adapt the Bill to Scotland—simply an adaptation Clause. The Bill applies to Scotland, but a form of words will be required. I will consult with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud as to a suitable form of words at that stage. I am of opinion, with the whole House, that this is a useful little Bill which should prove of great benefit to children in congested areas, and I hope that the House will see its way to agree to it.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time" put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.