HL Deb 22 March 1906 vol 154 cc518-32


Order of the day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in asking you to give a Second Reading to this Bill I shall not detain your Lordships long, for it is in the main the same Bill that your Lordships passed last year after it had been referred to a Select Committee. The two principal objects of the Bill are (1) to promote and encourage the construction of suitable dwellings of a certain type for the working classes, cottages that are detached or semi-detached, and to free them from some very onerous and, I think I may almost say, tyrannical conditions which, originally intended and suitable for the crowded streets of cities, are now imposed on anyone building cottages of any kind in totally rural districts; and (2) to attempt to provide a solution, easy, cheap, and expeditious, in cases where difficulties arise between would-be builders and local authorities as to the construction, meaning, and interpretation of the by-laws. At present there is no such means of a friendly or amicable solution, and the consequence is that a considerable amount of litigation has taken place all over the country, and a great deal of public and private money has been needlessly wasted and consequent friction and ill-feeling has been caused.

Twelve months ago the question might, I think, have been fairly asked whether there was any demand for legislation of this kind; whether the grievances which it hopes to meet were of such a character that legislation was necessary; whether the existing building by-laws did, as a matter of fact, check, hinder, and stop building in rural districts; and whether public and private funds were being wasted and frittered away in unnecessary litigation in the matter. But I think that since the debate which took place last year in this House on the Bill that I then had the honour of introducing, and especially since the publication of the evidence that was given before the Select Committee, there cannot be any difficulty in answering all those questions in the affirmative; and I should like, on behalf of the supporters of this Bill and those who feel interested in these topics, to take this opportunity of expressing our best thanks to the noble Marquess the late Leader of this House for having granted that Select Committee, whose evidence has enabled the public to see how widespread and almost universal in country districts are the evils of which I have complained.

With reference to that point, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to refer to the report of the special committee appointed by the Central Chamber of Agriculture to deal with the question of rural building by-laws, which was presented to the Council of the Central Chamber of Agriculture on February 6th last; The committee stated that they had held seven meetings, that they had examined a number of witnesses, and that they would have carried the inquiry much further but for the evidence that was given before the Select Committee of your Lordships' House last year. The committee added that they were deeply impressed by the magnitude of the interests at stake, and that to encourage the erection of cheap and suitable dwellings we required a great deal of elasticity, a quality not to be found in the existing by-laws. They stated that on the proper lodging of the agricultural population depended to a great extent the solution of the problem of the migration of the agricultural population to towns. I think that such evidence from a totally independent body, and one so important, will carry some weight with your Lordships.

I quoted a great number of cases last year from different parts on the country in which specific grievances occurred, and I have no intention of wearying your Lordships by travelling over the same ground again. I quoted instances where by-laws forbade any materials being used for buildings except brick and stone. As your Lordships may perhaps be aware in many villages in Wiltshire there are excellent cottages built of chalk. This provision would have ruled such cottages out. It would have ruled out any attempt at utilising cement and other material. It would have ruled out all the wooden cottages of the south of England. In fact, the only materials in many cases allowed—they make no exception whatever—are brick and stone. Then, again, I quoted to your Lordships cases where cottages were not allowed to be built because the plans indicated that in one or two bedrooms the mathematical proportion of the window space to the floor space did not correspond to what was laid down in the building by-laws; and the result—the very absurd result—of that was that by reducing the size of the bedrooms in the intended cottages they would comply with the by-laws, whereas if they were left larger and better bedrooms, as intended by the builders, they would not comply, and sanction was refused. There are also cases where plans have been rejected because at every point of the ceiling of the attic rooms, by six inches, or even perhaps by so minute a quantity as three inches, the height did not correspond to what was indicated in the bylaws. These cases I brought before your Lordships last year as showing the great difficulties with regard to the present by-laws, and that they all tended to increase the expense of building.

In bringing forward this measure I do not urge it on your Lordships' acceptance from the point of view of the landowners and builders. I urge it chiefly on behalf of the working people who are to inhabit these cottages because, as your Lordships are perfectly aware, the more expensive the building is the higher must the rent tend to become, and the sufferers are not so much the landowners and the builders as the people who have to live in these cottages. I think that perhaps the principal grievance of all is that there is no court of appeal, no jurisdiction to which would-be builders can appeal to decide on any difficulty that arises between them and the local authorities. I wish to rest my case rather on general grievances, but I should like just to read a few lines from a letter received from the agent of a large landowner in the north of England. Writing from Wakefield, under date 16th March, he says— Here we cannot build a coal-house even, or add on to a farm building, without having to get out plans of the fullest description for submission to the authorities. The erection of a wooden building to protect a wheelbarrow would be illegal. …. Lord St. Oswald was able to erect a shed at his colliery works without reference to anybody, they being exempt; but he could not erect a small building in connection with his farm without the necessity of preparing elaborate plans. I should like to refer to the evidence of one witness. Mr. Munro, one of the principal officers of the Local Government Board, was a witness before us; and, in answer to a question whether under the existing law he considered hardships were entailed, he said— Oh, yes, of course there will always be hardships under the existing law. "Hard cases," I think was the exact expression he used. I venture to think that the words of that gentleman are alone sufficient justification for an attempt at legislation on this point.

If hard cases are brought before Parliament in which Chinamen or Russian Jews are concerned, Parliament makes it its business to inquire into them and to endeavour to redress those grievances; and I think I may claim that it is equally the duty of Parliament to examine and, if possible, redress hard cases in which British workmen's interests are concerned, for, as I said just now, this legislation is really not attempted on behalf of landowners or builders of cottages, but in the hope of being able to ensure British workmen a constant provision of good and suitable buildings. I think I am not going too far in saying that the evidence which was elicited before the Select Committee last year showed that in consequence of the tyranny and absurdity of some of the building by-laws landowners and cottage builders were in many districts holding their hands and refusing at present to go on building. There was a case from Lincolnshire in which we were told that a number of gentleman had determined to cease building any more cottages until some reform was made in the building by-laws.

I will endeavour to anticipate three arguments that may be, or might be, brought against legislation of this character. The first argument is that if you pass a measure of this kind you will let in the jerry builder: that very poor cottages of unsuitable character will be built. I do not think that this Bill will give the jerry builder any greater opportunities than he at present enjoys. Your Lordships will observe that the Bill only applies to detached and semi-detached cottages; and, as we all know, the jerry builder is in the habit of acquiring a small piece of land and building upon it a row or terrace of houses. In cases of that kind the Bill would not apply. Further, my Lords, the exemptions contained in Clause 2 we endeavour to safeguard by many regulations with regard to sanitary matters; so that I hope and trust, if the Bill becomes law, the jerry builder, at all events, will not be able to take advantage of it.

Then there is another argument that might be used against the Bill, and it is that the building by-laws of 1877, the old urban model, however unsuitable for country and rural districts, can be replaced by the model rural code of 1901. If the Local Government Board had the power of making rural district councils give up the old code and take the new code, there would be a great deal to be said in favour of that course; but your Lordships are probably aware that it is the fact that the Local Government Board, once they have sanctioned a code of building by-laws for any particular district, have no power whatever to force that district to take a new code in place of the old one. The late President of the Local Government Board and Mr. Burns, who is at present at the head of that Department, have very wisely and judiciously issued circulars to the rural district councils, pointing out to them how advisable it would be that the new code of 1901 should be adopted in place of the code of 1877, but in a great many cases no notice whatever has been taken of the Local Government Board's circulars; and there are reasons, I am afraid, why those circulars will remain nothing but waste paper.

It is far from my intention to make an attack on the administration of rural district councils, but we must not forget that in many cases, I think I may say in the majority of cases, there are people sitting as members of these councils to whom it is rather an advantage that the council should be working under a complicated and inadequate system of by-laws. You cannot forget that on most rural district councils in the country you find very often a builder or his son, or his brother; you find, perhaps, an architect, and you often find that the clerk to the council is a solicitor. Now, to all these people complicated and difficult by-laws under which to work brings grist to the mill, and those are not the people to whom it is at all agreeable that a simple, cheap, easy code of building by-laws should be in force. In cases where litigation takes place between the builder and the local authority, even if the case is won by the landowner or the builder, on whom does the cost of the legal proceedings fall? Why, on the successful landowner or builder, because in nine cases out of ten he is the principal ratepayer in the neighbourhood. With him it is a case, I am afraid, generally, of "heads I lose, tails you win," in any case of litigation with the rural district council. There is another argument that is rather more justifiable on the part of rural district councils as to why they will not adopt the new building code. The chairman of a rural district council pointed out to me some time ago that it had taken them years to get the original building code sanctioned by the Local Government Board. An enormous amount of correspondence had passed on the subject; and at last, after considerable delay, a code was sanctioned. He used words to this effect— We know that the new code of 1901 would be a much better one in this district, but we are not disposed to give up our old code and apply to the Local Government Board for a new one when we see reason to fear that we may be another three or four years before we get the new code sanctioned, and in the meantime the whole district will be in a state of confusion, and will not know under what building laws it is. We prefer, therefore, to keep our old code. Another argument on behalf of rural district councils against adopting the new code was brought before the Select Committee last year. It is rather an amazing argument, but it was brought forward by the clerk to the East Grinstead District Council, whose view was that if they got a new code for building in their district, building would became cheaper and easier, and that that would be very hard on the people who had invested capital under the old code. Therefore he said they did not mean to apply for the new code. In dealing with this question you must remember that there are gentlemen like the clerk to the East Grinstead District Council and his colleagues who take this—I venture to think unfair—view of the problems that await us in considering how to provide better accommodation.

There is this further argument against legislation of this kind, that it would be preferable to give rural district councils the power of dispensing, in such cases as they may think fit, with the regulations of their own by-laws. Now, my Lords, I venture to think that the majority of your Lordships will not consider the granting of such dispensing power a satisfactory solution of the problem, because it must open the door, at all events, to chances of jobbery, corruption, and favouritism. A council might find some reason for giving a dispensation to B. which they refused to A. But so unworkable are the present building by-laws found in several rural districts, that the councils have actually used this dispensing power, although it is illegal, and it has been declared that any ratepayer may proceed by a mandamus to make a rural district council enforce its own by-laws. I asked one witness who appeared before us last year—I think he was the chairman of the Chelmsford Rural District Council— whether, as a matter of fact, his council did claim this dispensing power, and his answer was— We do not claim it, but we exercise it. I think that a practice of that kind is an argument for legislation in this direction, because it shows that the present by-laws are found, at all events in that district, so unworkable that the council adopt a totally illegal course in order to obviate the difficulties. I was an interested witness of a debate that took place not very long ago in this House on my noble friend Lord Harrowby's initiation with regard to small holdings. I think your Lordships will agree with me that if an extension of the system of small holdings, of which my noble friend is so enlightened a promoter, is to take place to any great extent over this country, we shall want a considerable extension of houses in which to lodge the small holders and their families, and, therefore, I venture to claim that a Bill of this character, if it can do anything to promote the building of cottages, is almost entitled to logical precedence to a measure such as my noble friend advocates, and of which I also am a warm supporter. I do not pretend that this Bill is of a wide or extensive character, or that its result may be very wide or extensive, but I do think, as a witness before the Committee last year told us, that it will have in many districts a very considerable and beneficent result, and I therefore trust your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.

I will not trouble the House by going at any length through the clauses of the Bill. I have had the opportunity of conferring with the noble Earl the President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, and with the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board on this Bill, and I should like to express my grateful thanks to them for having met me and discussed the Bill with me. I believe that certain Amendments will be moved when we go into Committee, should the Bill be fortunate enough to secure a Second Reading, and I can only say that I shall be most willing to meet the views of the Government. I will defer any explanation of the clauses until the Committee stage.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(Lord Hylton).


My Lords, as a Member of the Select Committee which was appointed by your Lordships' House to inquire into this question, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to say one or two words in support of this Bill. After what my noble friend has said there is not very much to add except to assure your Lordships, which I think is almost unnecessary, that this is not a Bill of a polemical nature; it is not in the least of a Party character, but is an attempt to deal with a difficulty which is acknowledged on almost every side. The Committee to which my noble friend referred examined a good many witnesses from various parts of the country, who almost one and all supported some amendment of the present building by-laws, especially where they did involve a very vexatious restriction upon building schemes. In fact those witnesses who were in a certain measure against the Bill were not so much against its principle as against certain clauses of it, and were in favour of certain modifications. There was an undoubted consensus of opinion in favour of some change. Not only was this fully testified by the witnesses themselves, but it was brought out in evidence that many local authorities would wish to have the change, and were quite alive to the anomalous nature of some of their own regulations.

I do not propose to trouble your Lordships with much of the evidence, but I should like to refer to that given by Sir William Chance, who gave evidence of one or two very absurd instances of these restrictions. He referred to a scheme to utilise some old buildings in the making of new ones. There was nothing whatever against the scheme from a sanitary or from any other point of view. He said— The scheme came before the committee of the district council. They knew that what they were going to do was an absolute absurdity, but they said that if the scheme was to be carried out the gentleman in question must pull down part of the building, as there was not sufficient open space at the rear. The witness was asked— Do you think your opinions are shared by your colleagues on the council? and his answer was— I have given the two cases we had before us last Thursday. We have a by-laws committee, every member of which said the same thing, how absurd it was. But they added, 'We are bound to carry it out, otherwise we should have one law for one and one for another. We must have one law for all.' I think that is sufficient to show your Lordships that the grievance is not only felt from outside, but by many of the local authorities themselves.

As has been already remarked, this Bill, although at first sight rather technical, goes into deep and wide subjects. It is very intimately connected with the question of small holdings, about which we had an interesting debate some few days ago, because, of course, the success of small holdings very much depends on dwelling houses and buildings suitable for the small holders being erected without involving prohibitive costs.

One word about builders. It may possibly be that some of the builders object to an easier scheme of building because it would not give them quite such lucrative jobs, but I think the more sensible of them will see that the more restrictions are placed on building the less business there is, and, therefore, it is to their advantage to support any well-defined scheme. The matter is not without difficulty. It may be said to be at once simple and also difficult, but I think that the difficulties are more apparent than real. The matter has been thoroughly considered and thoroughly threshed out by this Committee. This is a Bill which attempts a practicable and reasonable solution of an admitted difficulty, and for this reason I hope your Lordships will consent to give it a Second Reading.


My Lords, I am sure the House and the country are under an obligation to the noble Lord opposite for having brought this subject before your Lordships' House. He made a most excellent speech last year on the subject, and his Bill of last year passed a Second Reading and was then referred to a Select Committee. The noble Lord has given us the substance of the Report of that Committee. So far as the principle of the Bill itself is concerned, the Government are entirely in sympathy. They, like everybody else, are fully aware that the bye-laws as they at present exist want considerable revision and amendment.

But I am bound to say that the Bill, as it stands, does require a certain amount of alteration. I will venture to point out to the noble Lord a few of the alterations which we consider absolutely necessary, and if he can see his way to agree to these alterations, His Majesty's Government will be very glad to give the Bill a sympathetic and kindly support. In the first place, the title of the Bill would have to be altered, because, as it stands now, it embraces an Amendment of the Public Health Act, and we think it should be restricted, and I think the House will agree that it should be restricted, to building by - laws only. Under Clause 2 the Bill would apply to the whole of England and Wales. It would not, of course, touch London, but it would include Manchester, Leicester, and other large towns, which I venture to think is not the object of the noble Lord, and perhaps he would agree that the operation of this clause should be restricted to rural districts, or to urban districts to which it may be made to extend by order of the Local Government Board.

Then we should like to see another sub-section introduced into this clause running on parallel lines with Clause 4. If the noble Lord would agree to my proposal, Clause 4 might be struck out altogether. We propose to exclude from the exemption in Clause 2 by-laws relating to health, and to insert there a new sub-section, to be Sub-section 5, with the object of bringing in the by-laws under Section 157 of the Public Health Act, 1875, with respect to the structure of walls, foundations, and roofs, for securing stability, for prevention of fire, and for purposes of health. I do not think the noble Lord will have any objection to that. Clause 3 can stand as it is. Clause 4, as I have said, we propose to omit altogether. Clause 5 can stand as it is.

We propose to omit altogether Clause 6, about which I believe there is a very strong diversity of opinion. As the noble Lord knows, this clause entirely alters, and I believe is intended to alter, the position of the Local Government Board as to its relations with local authorities as regards by-laws. The Local Government Board, as the House knows, can suggest an Amendment of by-laws, but they cannot force their own views on the local authorities. They can refuse to sanction by-laws submitted to them by the local authorities, but they cannot enforce a by-law of their own on an unwilling local authority; and, as the noble Lord informed the House, when a by-law is once made the Local Government Board have no power to alter it. Clause 6 of this Bill would give the Local Government Board an entirely new power, and most people think that that would be very strongly resented by local authorities; but if the principal of the exemptions in Clause 2, by the insertion of the sub-section to which I have alluded, and the appeal in Clause 7 are omitted, the main grievance as regards elasticity in the by-laws disappears.

Sometimes, as the noble Lord said, the borough or district council refuses to pass the plans, and go so far as to decline to give any reasons whatever. That happened to me this year. A district council, which had allowed me to put up four cottages in one part of the district three or four years ago, suddenly turned round and refused to allow me to put up two more in another part of the district, though they were to be identically the same cottages, built to exactly the same plans and specifications. I appealed to the chairman of the district council. He was a very sensible man, and the objections were waived. But no doubt councils do decline to approve of plans without giving any reason; and, as the noble Lord asks, What is a man to do under these circumstances? He may go on with his building, but he runs the risk of a prosecution. If he is prosecuted and loses his case he will have to pull down the house, and if he wins his case he has to pay the expenses of the action. It is not thought at all unreasonable to allow a court of petty sessions to determine whether a particular proposal does or does not conform to the by-laws.

In these circumstances, if the noble Lord will give me a general assurance that he has no great objection to these limitations, I can assure him there will be no opposition, as far as the Government is concerned, to the Second Reading, but my right hon. friend the President of the Local Government Board looks upon this Bill as an experimental measure, which indeed it is, and one the operation of which must be very carefully watched. It may encourage the building of houses—everybody hopes it will—but my right hon. friend is very anxious that nothing should be done which might, in any way, diminish the safeguards against insanitary conditions and the erection of bad houses.


My Lords, as my noble friend opposite knows, I have taken a very deep interest in this Bill, and I also had the honour of being a member of the Select Committee which your Lordships appointed last year to consider the Bill then brought forward by the noble Lord. I hope, therefore, your Lordships will allow me to make a few observations on the statement we have just heard from my noble friend the President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries.

I entirely agree with the noble Earl that Clause 6 ought to come out. Clause 6, if I understand it aright, interferes with the position of local authorities in their own districts—a principle which I am sure my noble friend entirely disagrees with. It would also give the Local Government Board a very considerable amount of extra work in sending down inspectors, and would altogether increase the heavy duties which now fall upon that Department of the State. With regard to the alteration of Cause 2 which my noble friend has suggested, I would venture to point out to His Majesty's Government and to my noble friend that there are districts which are not purely urban, and not purely rural, but which, as it were, intermix. I shall be glad to hear during the Committee stage how the Government propose to meet that especial difficulty.

The only other criticism I would venture to make is with regard to Clause 7. If I understand my noble friend aright, the Government are in favour of retaining that clause as it stands. I personally have had some hesitation in adopting that course. Clause 7 gives to petty sessions—that is, to magistrates—power to interfere with what the local authority has determined, and if it is objectionable for the Local Government Board to interfere with what the district council has settled in its own district, it seems to me to be equally objectionable that the magistrates of the district should be allowed to interfere in local government matters. I venture to think that if this clause is retained it should be so altered that magistrates should be able to adjudicate only on the matters definitely set down in the Bill if they are not carried out by the local authorities. With regard to sanitation and other matters, they should not have power, as it appears to me they would have under Clause 7, to interfere with the determinations which the local authorities themselves had arrived at. I approve of the principle of the Bill, and I am sure that if properly carried out it will be of great benefit to rural districts, and may, in some way, though not entirely, by the creation of cheap, wholesome lodgings for the working classes, prevent that migration from the rural districts to the cities which I am sure all your Lordships deplore.

On Question, Bill read 2a. accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the whole House on Thursday next.