HL Deb 24 July 1879 vol 248 cc1157-67

rose to call attention to the enormous pecuniary loss already incurred by the Metropolitan ratepayers in carrying out the Artizans' and Labourers' Dwellings Act, 1875, and also to the declaration of the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works that it was impossible to estimate the entire cost which might fall to the ratepayers under that Act; and to move a Resolution. The noble Earl said, he believed he would be able to show that the result of the proceedings taken under the Act up to the present time had resulted in a loss to the ratepayers of seven-eighths of the money expended, or £500,000 sterling; that thus there had been thrown upon the ratepayers a very heavy burden, which, to a large extent, ought to have fallen upon other shoulders; and even that the Metropolitan Board of Works, who were the authority charged with carrying out the provisions of the Act, were unable to say what would be the ultimate cost of the measure to the ratepayers. Indeed, in reply to a Question addressed to him elsewhere, Sir James M'Garel-Hogg, the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works, made the following statement:— It is impossible to say what will be the entire cost to the Metropolitan ratepayers of carrying out the Artizans' and Labourers' Dwellings Act, as there are many cases before the Board in respect of which schemes have not yet been prepared nor estimates made. Up to the present time, of 14 schemes approved by Parliament, the loss on the six sites referred to will be £562,061, while that on the remaining eight is estimated at £514,409—assuming that the prices received for land equal, and do not exceed, those already offered. The whole matter is under consideration by a Committee of the Board, who propose to make a representation to the Secretary of State, with a view to the amendment of the Act. Thus, there was already a loss of £1,000,000; and it might, therefore, be fairly contended that if all the schemes in contemplation were carried out there would probably be a loss to the ratepayers of upwards of £2,000,000. Moreover, it was quite possible that the Medical Officers of the various parishes might submit further schemes to the Metropolitan Board of Works; and, therefore, it must not be supposed that the sum of £2,000,000 which he had mentioned necessarily included all the expenditure which might be incurred under the Act. Now, to whom was this very large sum of money to be paid? It would be paid chiefly to the owners of dwellings which were unfit for human habitation—those dwellings against which the Medical Officers reported that they were fever-nests of the worst description. For instance, a Report sent in by the Medical Officer of the Bermondsey Vestry stated that the whole site proposed to be acquired was a plague-spot and a fever-nest. That that was the worst Report of the whole he was bound to admit; but it should be remembered that all the Reports had reference to houses which were declared to be totally unfit for human habitation. Their Lordships would naturally inquire how it happened that so large a compensation was given to persons who had no claim to liberal treatment? In the first place, the sums paid to them were out of all proportion to the Bums eventually obtained by the sale of the sites. Again, these bad houses were very densely populated; but when proper houses were erected fewer tenants could be accommodated, and the money received for rent was consequently very 'much less. If, in the first instance, the Nuisances Removal Act had been put in force, these fever dens could not have been used for habitations; and in that case the ratepayers, when they came to acquire the property, would have obtained it for something more nearly approaching its real value—this applied to the six sites referred to in the answer of the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board to the Peabody Trustees, and the private persons who undertook to build houses for the working classes. But these persons were unwilling to pay large sums for these sites. It was said that the Board had taken these properties at the fair market value. If that was so, there was some defect in the working of the Act. He did not object to a purchase "at the fair market value;" but what was that fair market value? It seemed as though the Board had purchased the property, not according to the actual value of the individual house, but had taken the rents paid by the the tenantry, and given so many years' purchase upon them. It seemed to him that the proper mode of proceeding would have been to consider these houses as condemned nuisances, which must be removed under the Nuisances Removal Act, and paid for them accordingly. Let them consider what had been the effect of the Artizans' and Labourers' Dwellings Act up to the present time. He had no hesitation in saying that the effect had been to establish and encourage a trade in those houses which were unfit for human habitation. It was notorious that persons had been paid for such houses very much larger sums than they could have obtained in the open market; therefore, it might be taken for granted that in the case of the other schemes which had not yet been sanctioned a considerable trade in this class of houses would be established. Who was to blame for this state of things? The Metropolitan Board of Works had been very earnest in endeavouring to prove that they were not responsible for it, and that they were merely the instruments for giving effect to the provisions of the Act. He admitted that he did not think the Home Office, in introducing the measure, sufficiently considered what would be the result of the arbitration clause. For his own part, he agreed thoroughly in the purposes of the Act; but it would have been better if provision had been made for purchasing the property at a price more nearly approaching its real market value. The Metropolitan Board of Works was stated to be composed of the most eminent members of the vestries and yet they had never thought of enforcing the provisions of the Nuisances Removal Act. Had that been done it would not have been necessary to pass the Artizans' and Labourers' Dwellings Act of 1875. The information of the Metropolitan Board of Works on that whole subject appeared to have been very inadequate. According to a Return of the 6th of March last the net cost of six of the schemes to which he had referred was £562,000; while he found that on the 31st of December of last year the Metropolitan Board of Works estimated the cost of those improvements at £285,101. He could not understand how so great a miscalculation should have arisen. Up to the present time they had cost £500,000; and if the Metropolitan Board of Works insisted on purchasing the sites they might acquire under the eight other schemes which had been sanctioned by Parliament, they would probably lose another £500,000. He thought that such a state of things ought not to be allowed to continue, and he trusted their Lordships would at least refuse to sanction any more of these schemes until some amendment was made in regard to the principle of compensation. He understood that the superintending Architect of the Metropolitan Board of Works had now advised the Board that the only alternative course it could adopt in order to relieve it from its difficulties and put it in the best commercial condition was to obtain an Act that would enable it to erect buildings on the sites which it might purchase. Now, he hoped that whatever else their Lordships might do they would not sanction such, a proposal as that. He might be asked what remedy he would propose? At any rate, there was one very simple remedy which might be resorted to—namely, they might pass an Act requiring the Nuisances Removal Act to be put in force with an adequate penalty. Why should the owners of houses which were a source of plague and disease and a disgrace to a civilized community be allowed to let such places for human habitation? For these reasons he had brought forward his Resolution. He had been informed, within the last few hours, that the Home Secretary had given Notice in the other House that it was his intention to introduce an Act to amend the Artizans' Dwellings Act. Now, he submitted that in passing his Resolution their Lordships would not be interfering with any improvement which that Minister might be making; but that they would be expressing their opinion that it was very undesirable that Parliament should sanction any other scheme based on the principle which had been followed up to the present time.

Moved to resolve— That in the opinion of this House no further improvements ought to be sanctioned under the Act until the principle on which compensation is awarded for property taken shall have been amended."—(The Earl of Camperdown.)


said, he was glad that the noble Earl (the Earl of Camperdown) had brought forward this subject, which had caused a good deal of misapprehension, and, in some cases, even an amount of panic. It often happened that when some large and beneficent scheme of improvement was in progress all went very well until the bill was presented, when the cold fit came on, and many people stood aghast. In this instance, however, he thought he could show their Lordships that there was really not so much ground for alarm as the noble Earl's remarks might lead them to suppose. The noble Earl had said that the burden of the Artizans' Dwellings Act ought to be thrown on other shoulders; but he had failed to indicate whose those other shoulders should be. The only hint he had given them on that point was that the owners of the property proposed to be taken should be compelled to undergo a considerable sacrifice in order that the Act might be carried out. When the Artizans' Dwellings Act was passed in 1875, nobody questioned its wisdom or denied its justification; and it was then pointed out that, in the nature of things, a considerable time must elapse before its full benefit could be realized. The scope or object of the measure was not to provide dwellings for artizans, but to provide sites for such dwellings; and, in connection with that it was sought to clear certain overcrowded areas, which were fever-dens and plague-spots in the midst of a dense population. That object was, in some measure, in process of being attained. The noble Earl based his Resolution on the cost of carrying the Act into effect. It was a famous saying of Napoleon that they could not make omelettes without breaking eggs. It was equally impossible, in a city containing some 4,000,000 of inhabitants, to get rid of those centres of disease and infection without incurring considerable expense. He did not think that the noble Earl had made out a case of mismanagement against the Metropolitan authorities. A great many Metropolitan improvements had been carried out during the last half century; but, unfortunately, those very improvements had in a great degree occasioned the evils of overcrowding which the Act of 1875 was intended to remedy, because they had caused a great displacement of the working classes without providing them with other and more suitable dwellings. It would be most undesirable to sweep away from the Statute Book that provision of the Act of 1875 which said that the improvement schemes of local authorities should be accompanied by conditions in favour of the working classes who might be displaced. The Act of 1875, no doubt, followed very much the lines of the Improvements Acts of Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Liverpool; but those cities, being neither so large nor so populous as London, found it comparatively easy to accommodate the working classes in the suburbs and elsewhere when their old houses were demolished. In London, on the contrary, this was in many cases quite impossible, and it was necessary to provide dwellings for the working men in the neighbourhood of their work. The noble Earl had pointed to the compensation clauses as another cause of expense. Now, one reason why these areas had not been cleared long before arose from the great complexity of the interests involved. The noble Earl appeared to imagine that in every case there was some individual owner who could be promptly and easily dealt with. This, however, was a misapprehension. There were often three classes of persons to be considered—namely, freeholders, leaseholders, and occupiers. Then, again, because a house was situated in an unhealthy district, it did not necessarily follow that it was itself a nuisance, or in an unsanitary condition—many unsanitary buildings existed side by side with others which were unobjectionable—but they had to deal with the area as a whole, including this latter class of buildings. In these circumstances, it would be manifestly unjust to deprive the owner of a habitable house of proper compensation when his property was taken from him. The noble Earl would, therefore, see that the interests might be very complicated, and that it might be impossible to settle the question of compensation by any simple process. The Nuisances Removal Act was a very useful measure; but the expense it would entail was such as to prevent them from proceeding under its provisions. It was very desirable, in dealing with these sites, to have a uniform system of valuation; and the Act of 1875, so far from neglecting the question of compensation, took a very stringent step regarding it. It contained a very special provision, borrowed from the Irish Lands Clauses Act, which provided that owners of property should not receive compensation for the enhanced value, but only the fair market value of the land as it stood. What panacea did the noble Earl propose, and on whose shoulders did he wish to throw the burden? In drawing a picture of the expense incurred, he had omitted to speak of the number of persons who would be benefited. He found, for example, that on the six sites to which the noble Earl had referred the population displaced amounted to over 11,000, and provision had been made upon them for as many as 11,500. It was, he thought, some satisfaction that the outlay would be attended with substantial benefit to so large a number of persons. He denied that the loss would be so great as the noble Earl had represented. Experience had shown that even in Glasgow and Edinburgh, where a building had been removed and replace d by another, a substantial pecuniary benefit had been derived. For one thing, the rateable value would be increased, and the indirect benefits would also be considerable, because it was an ascertained fact that the improvements were always attended by a diminution of disease and pauperism. The case was, therefore, not so bad as the noble Earl would make it out to be. Great attention had been paid to the accumulation and study of statistics; but of what use were they if not as a basis of legislation? They were too apt, in dealing with statistics, to forget that every unit represented human life and human suffering. If it could be shown that disease could be controlled and diminished, and human life prolonged, by such improvements as the Artizans' Dwellings Act introduced, the House would be slow to accept the indictment that had been made against it by the noble Earl. It would be a great injustice to go beyond the provisions of that Act; the owners were not a class to be treated in a rough-and-ready manner, and there was a great complication of interests to be regarded. When the history of the present Reign came to be written, there was no page which would shine more brightly than that which recorded the efforts made for the improvement of the health and morals of their fellow-subjects.


said, their Lordships were all ready to acknowledge that the object of the Artizans' Dwellings Act was a most desirable one—the question was, how had it been carried out by the present Act? With regard to the statement made by his noble Friend (the Earl of Camper-down), he thought it was one which had not been answered by the remarks of the noble Earl who had just sat down. The noble Earl said that his noble Friend did not indicate on whose shoulders the expense was to fall. Now, it was quite clear, from his noble Friend's observations, that he did not wish for any act of spoliation against the owners, and that what he sought was that they should be dealt with justly and reasonably. Great dissatisfaction had been justly felt at the excessive sums that had been given as compensation for dwellings which were absolute nuisances. The noble Earl seemed to think that the noble Earl (the Earl of Camperdown) brought a charge against the arbitrator, Sir Henry Hunt. But he did not do so. Sir Henry Hunt was, and is, well known by many of their Lordships as a gentleman whom all would be glad to choose as an arbitrator, not only from his knowledge and abilities, but also from his high character. But he had to deal with the facts as they were created for him by the statute; and it was, besides, only right when they were purchasing eggs to make omelettes they should take care they were good ones. The only explanation offered by the noble Earl opposite, with reference to the Nuisances' Removal Act, was that it could not be put into force on account of its great expense and complexity. But no one would, surely, believe that that expense would amount to the enormous cost entailed by the application of the Artizans' Dwellings Act, as they had now discovered. Nothing could be more fatal than to allow so large an expenditure as that which was being incurred in carrying out the Artizans' Dwellings Act to be borne by the ratepayers of the Metropolis. Notwithstanding the pressure put upon the Government at the time, they persisted in departing from the principle adopted in the Glasgow and Liverpool Acts. That, he held, was a great mistake. The Government would, he feared, be straitened in their humane efforts in promoting the objects of the Artizans' Dwellings Act if they remained perfectly satisfied with the status quo, and consented to an enormous fine to be inflicted upon the ratepayers of the Metropolis.


My Lords, I am sorry to hear the noble Earl (Earl Granville) charge the Government with being contented with the status quo, after the announcement made this evening by my noble Friend that Notice had been given in the other House of the intention of the Government to amend the Act which we are now discussing. That, I think, shows that, on our part, there is a wish to improve that Act. No doubt, when an undertaking of this kind is attempted, it is very difficult, from the largeness and novelty of the subject, to bring forth at once an altogether perfect measure. The noble Earl who has just addressed us has not touched any of the points in my noble Friend's (Earl Beau- champ's) speech, and, indeed, I think they were not very easy to answer. In the first place, with regard to the Nuisances Removal Act, the reason why the Artisans' Dwellings Act was brought in was because the machinery provided by the Nuisances Removal Act was found insufficient to effect those changes which were absolutely necessary. Before it became law, it was possible to deal with isolated houses here and there; but they could not deal with areas; and unless they dealt with areas they could not secure a change in the sanitary condition of a great city like London, although public opinion, expressed in a most undisguised and undoubted manner, demanded such a change. With regard to compensation, the charge made by the noble Earl who introduced this debate was met by my noble Friend (Earl Beauchamp) in a complete manner; but the noble Earl who has just sat down avoided that answer. My noble Friend showed—as was impressed upon the House by the noble Earl who introduced this discussion—that compensation was not merely given to the owners of the miserable haunts of fever and disease, which were swept away under the provisions of this Act, but that it was also demanded, and it was necessary to afford it, in respect of those tenements which were really not themselves liable to that imputation. I hope, although Parliament will always be ready to improve the working of the Act, as experience guides and enlightens it, there will be no attempt to tamper with the principles on which that Act is founded, and with the admirable provisions which it contains. I do not believe there was any measure ever brought forward more desired by the country, and more approved by it, or which more completely effected the object it had in view—namely, the improvement of the sanitary condition and health of the people of this country.


observed, in reply, that it seemed only too evident that compensation was sometimes given for houses unfit for habitation. The owners of such houses ought either not to let them, or else to put them in a proper state of repair. The noble Earl, who had stated that the Nuisances Removal Act could not be worked on account of the expense, was, apparently, not aware of the procedure under that Act. It was simple enough. The local authority complained to a stipendary magistrate, and the magistrate could prohibit the use and occupation of the house till the necessary repairs were done. He would point out, in conclusion, that the ratepayers of Glasgow and Edinburgh, fortunately for themselves, lived under a very different government from the government of London.

On Question? Resolved in the Negative.