HC Deb 24 February 1938 vol 332 cc649-55

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

7.36 p.m.

Sir Arnold Wilson

I beg to raise a question of which I have given previous notice to the Minister of Health, namely, the demolition of certain ancient cottages in my constituency at Therfield, near Royston, ordered to be demolished under a slum clearance order. They are six in number, three pairs, 200 yards apart, and could not by any extension of the word "slum" be regarded as such, whether individually or collectively. It is common ground that they were derelict and that the owner was not in a position to repair them, as the rents he received were barely sufficient to pay the rates and taxes. No question arises as to the fact that the slum clearance order was not opposed and was approved by the Minister on representations made to him by the local council. They later came into the possession of a new owner, after the period within which it is possible to appeal to the Ministry of Health. It was not really a case in which a slum clearance order should have been made. Slum clearance was designed to deal with an ill-planned district in which a large number of houses were unfit for human habitation.

These cottages stand on three different sites in one of the most beautiful villages of Hertfordshire. On the strength of the slum clearance order the rural district council obtained a subsidy to build new cottages. After the building of these new houses, these cottages, of real beauty, dating from the fifteenth or sixteenth century, came into the hands of a new owner, who is anxious to put them into such a state of repair as will make them in all respects suitable for human habitation. They are, I repeat, beautifully situated in some of the finest scenery of Hertfordshire, nearly 800 feet above sea level, on the chalk; the local inhabitants lament the idea of their demolition. The rural district council is anxious that they should not be demolished. There is no financial advantage whatever in their destruction. They are not at present habited and will not be occupied by wage-earners.

The position is very simple. Under the existing Housing Act a demolition order may be reviewed by a county court, but a slum clearance order, once made and confirmed, cannot be reviewed. There is no appeal; the Minister says it is beyond his power to review or to vary a slum clearance order, once made. He says he has referred this matter to the Housing Advisory Council, who, to my surprise, recommend no change in the law, for it seems right that the Minister should have power in the public interest to revise an order, once made, if conditions have changed meanwhile. I cannot, on the Adjournment, suggest any alteration in the law, nor is it necessary. What I suggest is that the Minister should, in this case and in other cases, when cottages and other buildings of real beauty are, as only too often, demolished under slum clearance orders, intimate, in the exercise of his discretion, that once the cottages have been vacated by their inhabitants and other cottages built to house them, it is not his intention to press for the actual demolition of ancient buildings which are of real beauty, which are treasured locally and nationally as part of the ancient heritage of our race.

When I was last on a Select Committee upstairs, dealing with another Department, we were examining the permanent officials of the Department, and we asked them what their practice was with regard to the actual administration of a statute. They replied, "The practice of the Department is not to press for so-and-so." The law was there, and they could enforce it, if need arose, in any case where it seemed to them that the public interest requires a strict adherence to the letter of the law, but when the public interest would not be served, they did not press for the application of the strict letter of the law, the more so because in certain cases there was some dubiety as to the legal interpretation to be placed upon a particular enactment.

I want to ask the Minister, in the case of these three pairs of cottages, to make it known, in whatever form he thinks fit, that although the rural district council is under the obligation, in terms of the Act, having received the subsidy for these three cottages, to require their forcible demolition by the owner, or failing that to demolish them themselves and to charge the cost against the owner, he will not press for their physical demolition, provided that the Department is satisfied that they are being reconditioned in such a manner as to improve the rateable value and amenities of the parish, and to ensure the health of those who will occupy them.

These old thatched cottages are nothing much to look at, but competent architects who have visited them are satisfied that the structure is firm and solid, that the wooden framework is as good as when they were first put up. They are an asset to the parish and should be kept. We are fortunate in that they have come into the hands of a public-spirited owner, who is willing to recondition them, so that they may once more be fit for human habitation. I urge the Minister to consider whether he cannot be as liberal in the exercise of his discretion in this matter as he is habitually in every department of his innumerable activities. If we were to stand every day upon the letter of the law, the law would become unworkable in a very few months. An element of discretion is essential. These cottages—and this is only one out of many hundreds of instances in England—are part of the assets of the country. They are regarded with respect, indeed with veneration by innumerable tourists. They have a beauty of their own. They are as much part of the history of England as is Westminster Abbey, and to the inhabitants they mean more than Westminster Abbey, because they are part of the make-up of their daily lives.

One of the greatest of the late Victorian poets, Thomas Edward Brown, a Manxman, wrote in 1887 these words: Dear Countrymen, what'er is left to us Of ancient heritage— Of manners, speech of humours, polity The limited horizon of our stage— Old love, hope, fear, All this I fain would fix upon the page; That so the coming age, Lost in the empire's mass, Yet haply longing for their fathers, here May see, as in a glass, What they held dear— May say, "Twas thus and thus They lived'; and, as the time-flood onward rolls, Secure an anchor for their Keltic souls. That, in poetical form, is what the villagers of Therfield desire—an anchor for their souls in the sight of these cottages upon their own soil.

I have compared the electoral roll with the corresponding Elizabethan birth registers. There are no small number of families to be found on the electoral roll to-day who were there in Elizabethan times. They are the true aristocracy of the soil. They have as good a right to the monuments of their past upon their own soil, in their own parish, as has the nation to the Palace of Westminster or Westminster Abbey. I earnestly trust that the Parliamentary Secretary will feel able to give an undertaking that his Department will exercise a humane and wise discretion in this and in other instances, where a good case can be made out.

7.50 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Bernays)

There is one quality of which I envy my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson), and that is his facility for quotation. If he had been in politics at the time these houses were built he would have been able to play a prominent part in a rather hectic time in quotations from one side of the House to the other. At the outset I may say that my right hon. Friend is most anxious to do everything in his power to preserve the beauty of the countryside and to preserve those old cottages that are part of our national heritage; but I must also point out that my right hon. Friend is as much a servant of the law as any other citizen of this country and he can only work within the framework of existing legislation.

It is necessary to restate the facts of this case, so that we may know where we stand. If I am wrong in any particular, perhaps the hon. Members will correct me. I understand that a clearance order was made by the Hitchin Rural District Council in respect of these cottages, and that a local public inquiry was held by one of the Ministry's inspectors. The hon. Member for Hitchin said that these cottages cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called a slum. I am afraid that he cannot be the judge of that. The judge of that must be the Ministry's inspector.

Sir A. Wilson

It is impossible by any extension of the English language to call three pairs of cottages, isolated from each other by a distance of 200 yards, standing in purely rural surroundings, a slum. It is an abuse of the English language and an abuse of an Act of Parliament to call them a slum.

Mr. Simpson

Did not an earlier English poet say of certain cottages that they were picturesque without but fever dens within?

Sir A. Wilson

The average age of the inhabitants of these cottages is 80.

Mr. Bernays

The hon. Member is entitled to his view. If satisfactory reconstruction proposals had been made they would have been accepted, but my information is that no satisfactory reconstruction proposals were made. Some of the owners did make offers but the offers were not regarded by the inspector as capable of making the houses fit for human habitation, and in the light of his report the clearance orders were confirmed by the Minister, The local authority took a long time to find alternative accommodation, and a local resident, to whom the hon. Member referred, made an offer for the houses. In the meantime the order had been confirmed, and now that the tenants have been rehoused in accordance with the Act of Parliament the cottages have to be demolished. The hon. Member has raised the question of reconditioning after the clearance order has been confirmed. There must be some finality.

Sir A. Wilson

Hear, hear.

Mr. Bernays

As a business man, I am sure the hon. Member will agree with me upon that point. The Act gives ample opportunity for owners to submit reconditioning plans. What is the procedure? Before submitting a clearance order the housing authority give public notice of the Order in one or two of the local newspapers, giving a full account of the houses that come under the Order and telling the place where other information can be obtained. The local authority also have to inform every owner that such an order is to be submitted and specify the time within which and the manner in which objections can be made. They are further required to serve on any objectors a notice in writing stating what facts they allege as their principal grounds for considering the houses are unfit for human habitation. So much for the local authority.

When the Order reaches the Minister he has to hold a local inquiry, at which objections are heard. After that inquiry the Minister's inspector visits the houses personally, as was done in this case. The inspector from the Ministry of Health went down to visit these cottages and made his report on the relevant considerations, the condition of the cottages and the proposals that had been put forward for their reconditioning. These matters were all examined and taken into account before the Order was confirmed.

The hon. Member raised the point that there is no appeal to the county court. The elaborate procedure that I have outlined is an alternative to the appeal to the county court laid down for demolition orders, and this procedure is regarded generally as being more satisfactory than procedure by appeal to the county court. Most of the complaints as to the irrevocability of Orders received by the Ministry of Health relate to Orders for demolition made under the county court procedure, and it was in regard to procedure under demolition orders that the Rural Housing Sub-Committee made their recommendation. Demolition Orders do not require public inquiry, but it is rightly realised that the persons who may be interested want to know what the procedure means, and therefore action must be taken in that regard.

The hon. Member is asking that the Act of Parliament should not be enforced. That is what his request really amounts to. The situation is this, that the Minister having confirmed an Order has no further jurisdiction. The hon. Member asks that I should give an assurance that the-Minister will be willing to intimate that, whatever may be the law, in this particular case he will not press for demolition. I am afraid that I cannot give that undertaking. The hon. Member said that in many cases the Minister could use his discretion. He can use his discretion only where the law gives him a discretion, and I am afraid that however carefully one reads the Act it is impossible to find that it gives to my right hon. Friend the discretion which the hon. Member asks him to exercise.