HL Deb 05 December 1927 vol 69 cc499-512

THE LORD BISHOP OF SOUTHWARK asked His Majesty's Government when they propose to introduce legislation to facilitate the clearance of slum areas. The right rev. Prelate said: My Lords, it may seem a little unreasonable at the crowded end of the Session to ask this Question about legislation, but my reasons for doing so at this time are that I have always understood that it is about this time of the year that the Government decide on the measures which are to be presented in the next Session of Parliament and I am anxious, under the excuse of asking a Question, very briefly, but very strongly, to urge the Government to introduce some measure which will facilitate the clearance of slums. I am assuming that the Government propose at some time or another to introduce such legislation. At the opening of this Parliament His Majesty, in the Speech from the Throne, said: Something is already being done under existing legislation to clear the worst areas and to remedy sanitary and structural defects in those which remain. As new building increases it will be possible largely to develop this process, and My Government will take every opportunity of pressing it forward with vigour. It has been understood that the policy of the Minister of Health and the Government has been first to build new houses and then, when sufficient new houses have been built, to deal with these slum areas. I think that we are all bound to acknowledge that so far in this policy the Government have been most successful.

Over a million houses built since the War is an achievement which does great credit to the Minister of Health and to those who are working with him, but it is just because so many houses have been built that it is now opportune to ask the Question: When will steps be taken to deal with the slum areas which are in existence? I am afraid that through the remarkable success which has attended the building of these houses there may have developed an attitude of complacency, and a number of people imagine that quite automatically our slums are disappearing. As a matter of fact the case is very different. Our slums are so large in extent and so terrible in their conditions that they may very easily prove a real menace to the welfare of this country. It is very difficult to give exact figures about the number of houses which may be classified as insanitary or the number of people who dwell in them.

Many of your Lordships no doubt will have read that remarkable series of articles which recently appeared in The Times on the question of the slums—articles evidently written by a competent, careful and somewhat cautious observer. The writer states: What is certain is that not only in the large cities, but in practically every town other than those of recent growth, there are areas where people are housed under wretched conditions as to comfort, lighting, ventilation, facilities for keeping food and sanitation. Take London alone. The London County Council has schemes relating to 91 acres which will affect 25,000 people. But quite apart from the people who will be affected by these schemes, it is estimated that there are no fewer than 11,500 houses which are insanitary and contain a population of over 100,000. Some figures which may guide us can be obtained from the annual statistics of the medical officers of health. Let me take one or two illustrations. These figures show that in the Borough of Southwark there are 10,000 houses, in the Borough of Dept-ford 4,000 houses, in the Borough of Battersea 3,000 houses and in this Borough of Westminster 841 houses, which are not in all respects reasonably fit for occupation.


May I ask whether those are insanitary?


A large number are insanitary. The phrase I have quoted is very wide. I am told that in the Borough of Lambeth there are between 6,000 and 8,000 houses which are not satisfactory. If you look away from London you will find that elsewhere the conditions are as serious. In Bristol there are 25,000 people, living under insanitary conditions. In Liverpool there are 2,200 houses and in Glasgow 13,000 houses where the conditions are thoroughly insanitary. In Nottingham there are 5,000 back-to-back houses, in Leeds 72,000 and in Bradford 33,000, though I ought to add that some of these back-to-back houses are not to be described as unsatisfactory in other respects than their structure. I think figures like these help us to realise that the extent of this problem is very large and very grave. But figures by themselves fail to bring home to us the real gravity of the problem. They must be interpreted in the terms of human life. I have to visit very frequently some of the poorest parishes on the other side of the Thames and the welfare workers there, teachers and clergy, speak to me about the conditions of overcrowding and insanitation. When I have felt that they are competent observers I have asked them to give me some sort of return in writing with the actual facts of which they are personally certain. As a result of this I have had sent in to me a very large number of cases during the past three weeks. I suppose I have had sixty or seventy or more cases which have been investigated by thoroughly competent people and the statements they include are nothing less than appalling.

Let me give to your Lordships' House simply three statements, which are not the worst, and for the accuracy of which I can vouch. In one case there is a street of 23 houses. Each house contains one bedroom, a living room and a back kitchen. All these houses are over-One is occupied by a father and mother, five boys and two girls, the eldest fourteen years of age and the youngest six months. The back kitchen is the living room; the downstairs rooms are infested with rats, so they cannot use them as bedrooms. All nine sleep in one room upstairs. The second case is one in a street of 60 houses. The house contains a living room, kitchen and bedroom. The house is condemned but is not closed. In it live father and mother and nine children. They live in the kitchen, 10 ft. long, 7 ft. wide and 7 ft. high. The parents and youngest child sleep in the front room. The bedroom upstairs is divided by a curtain. Two lads sleep on one side and six girls on the other. The last house I will mention is a larger house, containing five rooms. In one room a man, his wife and six children live and sleep; in another room and a small boxroom, a man and wife and son aged twenty-three; in another room, 9 ft. square, a man and wife and three children; in the fifth room, a man and wife and two children. The figures I have given your Lordships, interpreted by facts like these, show how serious the position is.

The existence of our slums means that a very large portion of the population has to grow up under conditions in which health is almost impossible, in which the education of our elementary schools is thrown away, where home-life cannot be really experienced, and where character as well as physique is almost bound to deteriorate. I think there is and can be no disagreement about the seriousness of this problem, but where there may be disagreement is over the question of whether legislation is necessary. Two possible objections may be urged. It may be said by some that what you have to deal with is the slum mind, and that there are certain people who will make a slum wherever they go. It is useless, say these critics, to change the actual buildings, for the people will convert the next building into which they move into a place as insanitary as the one which they have just left. I think we are bound to admit that there are some people who have this slum mind. Can you wonder at it, when people have been born and brought up in these surroundings? But those who know the facts best are prepared to testify that these are, after all, in a small minority. Move people into better surroundings, give them a better chance, and almost at once you will see a change. Miss Octavia Hill and her workers found this even in the slum tenements, when the people were properly and sympathetically visited and the property was carefully administered. A number of these people have recently moved out from these districts into new districts and there is abundant testimony to show that those who were slum dwellers are able in the new surroundings to keep their houses as clean as anyone else.

The other objection is more serious. It may be said that local authorities have already ample power and that what is wanted is, not more legislation, but that the authorities should use the powers that they have. I admit, of course, that the local authorities have very large powers. I will go further and admit that in a number of cases they are using their powers admirably. I have mentioned some of the districts in which sanitary conditions are far more satisfactory, and in almost every one of those districts the local authorities are doing their best to clear the slums and to build new houses. Perhaps the noble Viscount who is replying on behalf of the Government will be able to tell us what has already been done in this respect. But when we have taken into consideration everything that has been done, the fact still remains that the greater part of the slums will remain untouched. At the present rate of progress another generation will grow and die in the slums, and new slums will have been created before the old slums have been abolished. There are a large number of authorities who are apparently taking no steps whatever to deal with their slums.

I know that the difficulties in the way of local authorities are great. There is the frequent objection of the tenants to move. It is one of the curious paradoxes of this matter that, though most of these tenants are dissatisfied with the houses in which they are living, they hesitate about any move which will take them a long way from their present work. The expense of reaching their work is an item which they have to consider. Further, we have a number of these very poor people who largely depend upon credit. They can obtain credit only in districts where they are known, they are afraid of moving to some new district where credit will be impossible, and they prefer to stay in these dilapidated houses, which they can feel are in a sense their own, rather than to move to a large tenement where they are only one amid many families. Then there are the very strong objections often raised by the owners of the property, and above all there is the difficulty of expense. The cost of slum clearance is very great, and the local authorities which, as a rule, have the greatest problem in this respect are those which are financially the least able to meet it.

I am not attempting to outline the legislation which may be required to hasten the clearance of these areas, though I shall be very glad if the noble Viscount can give us any kind of information as to the steps which the Government propose in order to hasten the rate of clearance. There is, however, one practical suggestion that I should like to make. We must all recognise that the cost of slum clearance is very heavy and that the time taken for it will be considerable. It might, therefore, be necessary to adopt some temporary measure. Slum clearance is undoubtedly the ideal solution of the problem, but it may be necessary to adopt some policy which will enable people to live in or near their present homes under different conditions.

Some years ago a Committee was appointed by the Minister of Health of that time to consider the problem of unhealthy areas. The Chairman of that Committee was Mr. Neville Chamberlain, and among the recommendations contained in their Report I find the following:— There is much to be said for the view of the late Miss Octavia Hill that old houses carefully repaired and kept under proper supervision provide as good homes for working-class families as new houses, the rent of which is necessarily so much higher. Considerations of this kind draw us to the conclusion that the management of old property on the Octavia Hill system, which has in London raised the general standard of living very considerably among the tenants concerned, might be extended with advantage to the community, but we felt bound to add that we did not see how such extension could take place under the present system of private ownership. There are many reformers who believe that a great deal could be done in the way of reconditioning many slums if the slum were purchased by the local authority and if the Government, instead of giving grants towards the complete clearance of such districts, would give a grant for the reconditioning of these slums, provided, of course, that the management was satisfactory. I hope that this suggestion, made at that time by Mr. Neville Chamberlain, will be fully considered by him now that he is Minister of Health.

I have said more than I intended to say on this very difficult subject I hope that the answer that will be given to us will enable us to expect that the Minister of Health, who has dealt so successfully with the problem of building new houses, will now devote his attention to those who are living in the shadow of death and the darkness of the slums, so as to provide them with homes in which they can live happier, cleaner and better lives.


My Lords, after the most admirable speech of the right rev. Prelate, I shall say only a few words to back up his appeal to the Government. I have in my diocese four and a-half millions of people who, I can assure you, are really living in conditions similar to those which he has described. We have had a very careful examination by very expert people of four districts in London on our side of the water. You must understand that the right rev. Prelate looks after South London and I look after London on this side of the water. Perhaps your Lordships are not so familiar as we in the Church with that division. We have had a very careful examination of St. Pancras, Chelsea, Westminster and—this touches me more especially—Fulham. I lived for nine years in Bethnal Green and I ought to know something about over-crowding, but the facts that I am going to give you are not the facts of twenty-five years ago when I lived in Bethnal Green, but the facts of last month.

The right rev. Prelate has told you some facts drawn from his own district, but you would really have thought that in a comparatively new district like Fulham things would be better than in the old parts such as Bethnal Green. Here are cases which I have taken out of this very careful report by two surveyors. We have employed expert people. The report says:— In house after house every room—with the exception in some cases of tiny kitchens—is a sleeping room as well as a living room, and frequently adult boys and girls have to sleep in their parents' room. In some families the boys sleep with their father and the girls with their mother; in other families the older girls contrive to undress in the dark when their brothers are in bed, or the boys when their sisters are in bed. Adult boys and girls usually have to share beds with younger children. It is difficult to give any adequate idea of the extent of overcrowding of this kind in Fulham. Then take one particular house. I could go on for hours, because we have so many flats. The report says:— In the ground floor back room, which measures 10 feet 6 inches by 9 feet, live a man, his wife, and five children, ages 7, 6, 4, 3, and 4 months. The room itself is nothing more than a passage-way, and contains one bed, a table, and a chair. Other bedding has to be put down at night. Another case is as follows:— Living in the first floor back, which measures 10 feet 6 inches by 9 feet, is a man, his wife, and two children, and again, this room is merely a passage-way. This couple recently lost a baby from suffocation, the child having to sleep with the parents, owing to their overcrowded conditions. One more case I will give:— One basement room—a man, his wife, and six children, one boy and five girls, that is eight people in one room. I attribute a great deal of the social unrest which we see in the country to this sort of thing. Many of these people, who live in these places, come to work at the Ritz and at the Bath Club. They see other people living in the greatest luxury, and naturally when they go back to their one room this causes a feeling of bitterness which is really indescribable. Then, of course, this overcrowding is the parent of disease. How can we expect them to live healthily in such conditions? Then take the question of morality. I am really astonished that our young people are so good, when I consider that they come from these surroundings. I admit, as does the right rev. Prelate, that it is the most difficult problem—to use a trade expression, the decanting of these people is most difficult. It is most difficult to get them away while you are replacing the slums. They resist, quite naturally, saying that they will not have a roof over their heads if they are moved. You have got to do it in the most careful way.

Then, as the right rev. Prelate says, there is the expense of it. I would like to describe to your Lordships, in a few moments, what has been done in St. Pancras by two public-spirited curates. They really shame us all by what they have done, and we are trying to do the same in Fulham. They raised £50,000 for a public utility council. Knowing them, the people trusted them. They bought three or four empty houses, and got people into them. They were enabled to do it solely because the people trusted them and did what they asked. Gradually, by spending £50,000 little by little, they have reclaimed and rebuilt street after street of that very crowded area. I propose to do the same thing in Fulham. We have started a public utility council, and propose to borrow the money at, say, 3 per cent.—I shall try to get it at 1 per cent.—and that wonderful success in St. Pancras I hope to see repeated in Chelsea and Westminster. The London County Council are, I know, trying their best to deal with this problem. All the borough councils are not doing their best, but it is of no use abusing them. What I hope to hear from the Government is that they fully realise the appalling nature of this problem, and will give all the help they can towards the solving of it.


My Lords, the two right rev. Prelates, who have of course spoken with such intimate and profound personal knowledge of this problem, have, I think, shown appreciation of the efforts of the Government in attacking this question. I think everyone who studies the speeches of my right hon. friend will realise that he considers the problem to be one of the most urgent and insistent problems of the day, and I am sure that it is ever present in the minds of those responsible for housing administration. As the right rev. Prelate, the Bishop of Southwark, pointed out, the slum problem, although a large part, is only a part of the housing problem. The most urgent part since the War has been the erection of new houses for the homeless and for the thousands who were compelled, owing to the shortage, to live in overcrowded houses and tenements. The Government's energies in the main have therefore been directed towards the necessary provision of new houses; and after all it is the erection of new houses in large numbers that will help to over-come the evil of overcrowding which is one of the chief conditions giving rise to slums. It was only natural that the problem of overcrowding should first be tackled, and the erection of some 1,040,000 new houses since the Armistice must have contributed very largely towards relieving this evil.

But although efforts have been mainly concentrated on the provision of new houses, it must not be thought that the clearance of slum areas has been entirely neglected. In fact the progress made, having regard to the difficult circumstances, can I think be described as encouraging. Not only London but many of our large centres of population have been energetic in dealing with their black spots. Since the Armistice 105 schemes have been confirmed by the Minister of Health, and others are under consideration. In the 24 years prior to the War, that is, after the passing of the Housing Act of 1890, which gave local authorities the power to deal with slums, only 44 improvement schemes, and 28 reconstruction schemes dealing with small areas, were confirmed.


Are the 105 schemes all slum schemes?


Yes. The schemes which have been confirmed since the end of the War are spread over England and Wales, and involve the demolition of a considerable number of properties, and the provision of new houses for a large number of people. The London County Council has been particularly energetic in tackling the slum problem, and has a definite programme in operation under which the worst areas are being dealt with in order of urgency. They have made substantial progress since 1919. Eleven schemes of considerable magnitude have been confirmed. In addition to these the City Corporation and the Metropolitan Boroughs have received confirmation of a further 12 schemes, making in all 23 schemes for the Metropolis. Other large schemes are also under consideration for London. It may be mentioned that an Exchequer subvention of an amount up to one-half of the estimated average annual loss on slum schemes, including the cost of rehousing, is available for local authorities who undertake schemes.

Apart from the wholesale clearance of large slum areas it should not be forgotten that local authorities are paying constant attention to the condition of individual houses in their districts. It is a statutory obligation on local authorities to have their districts inspected from time to time with a view to ascertaining whether any dwelling houses therein are in a state so dangerous or so injurious to health that they are unfit for human habitation. It is also their duty to secure that unsatisfactory houses are dealt with. I may perhaps be allowed to quote some figures in respect of the remedial work done in this direction. They are taken from the reports of the medical officers of health for 1925. There have been 1,114,000 houses inspected by officers of the local authorities. Of these 244,000 were rendered fit by the owners, after service of statutory notices, 5,000 were made fit by the local authorities in default of the owners, and defects were remedied in the case of 279,000 houses without: the need of formal action. Thus the local authorities were able to secure repairs in 528,000 cases during the year.

The right rev. Prelate asked for information as to the Government's intentions. He did not, however, anticipate that very much information would be available. I am authorised by the Minister to state that he does consider that the problem must be tackled in a much more comprehensive manner if any considerable improvement is to be effected within a reasonable time. There is no doubt that the very large numbers of new houses which are now being completed annually must ultimately—and it is hoped in the near future—relieve, the overcrowding problem; and the time should not be far distant when local authorities will be in a position to turn their attention in a greater degree to the slums. The Minister has come to the conclusion that, although the powers of local authorities for dealing with slums at present are wide and far reaching, it may be possible to introduce a further measure which should be practical and effective in helping those people who are now living in such unsatisfactory conditions. The scheme which is at present under consideration is one whereby houses in an unsatisfactory area which might be saved by the expenditure of a little money will be reconditioned, and only houses which are past redemption will be demolished. By the judicious use of powers on these lines a bad area might be opened up and improvements effected in a much shorter time than it would take to clear the whole area and rehouse the whole population of the area. Another matter on which the Minister has promised to legislate is in regard to the basis of compensation payable for insanitary property acquired in connection with slum schemes.

The Minister is not at present in a position to indicate precisely the time or the nature of the legislation. At this stage of the Session, and in view of the large number of authorities who would be affected, perhaps that attitude will be understood. But the whole matter of the slums is receiving most earnest consideration, and my right hon. friend will make a statement on the subject when his proposals are in a more definite form. It is perfectly obvious that figures and totals, though they satisfy up to a point, cannot ameliorate many of those cases which are so sadly familiar to those who, like the right rev. Prelates, live in their midst. But I hope that the record of the Government up to the present and the statement that I have been authorised to make by my right hon. friend will not appear discouraging.


My Lords, I am sure you will have heard with pleasure that this question has been occupying the mind of the Ministry of Health, but I think some of us feel that we want to do something more than occupy our minds; we want action. We were the more pleased to hear the concluding part of the statement of the noble Viscount, in which he said (and I think said truly) that what was required was some more comprehensive scheme if anything sufficient was to be done in a sufficiently short time. There was also a very significant sentence, which I should be glad to hear developed further when the Minister of Health makes his statement, as to the amount of compensation to be given to the owners of slum areas. It has always seemed an outrageous thing that the persons who have allowed, in so far as landlords do allow, slums to be created on their property, and who have taken the rents for their overcrowded properties, should then be rewarded for their misdoings. I am glad that that is going to be considered.

But I do not want this debate to come to an end with the entire note of satisfaction which seemed to pervade it even from the kind words of the right rev. Prelates themselves who introduced it. There is a boast, and a legitimate boast, that a million new houses have been built since the Armistice, but personally I feel that, with more energy and an earlier tackling of the subject, a million and a half might well have been built; and if that had been done by now it would to that extent have relieved the situation. Of course the difficulty in these slums really is the difficulty which the right rev. Prelate has pointed out; it is the difficulty of what you are to do with the people meanwhile. You cannot say with any reason to a person who is living in an unpleasant and overcrowded room: "This is a bad thing for you to do, and, in order to make it better, I am going to turn you out into the street in the cold." That is always the difficulty, and really I am inclined to think that the two curates mentioned by the Bishop of London have done more in this matter than anybody else; if that example were followed on a national scale we might have some hope. I doubt whether this question can be left altogether to local authorities. It may in some cases involve great expenditure, and very often in the cases where it is most needed the local authorities are the poorest and the burden on the rates is already heavy.

We ought not to regard this as a light matter. It is a matter which is worthy of occupying not only the time of the Minister and his Department but the time of Parliament. The effect of these slums is deplorable in every respect, as the right rev. Prelates know better than anybody in the House. You create a C3 population, you make people grow up anæmic, under-sized, and without proper sleep. And of course there is the question of morals which must arise to some extent, but that, as we have heard today, is better than we might have expected; but there is also the question of ventilation and air to breathe. People brought up in these conditions cannot expect to be healthy people, nor can you possibly avoid these places being centres of disease. It is a futile thing to get up an excellent health service when at the same time you have a centre of infection and disease like this, which the health service cannot overtake. The question is really, from the point of view of the health and happiness of the people, a very important one. I was very glad to learn from the speech of the noble Viscount who has just sat down that the Minister of Health recognises that, and that this Government recognise it. I agree that that is the tradition of the Ministry of Health, but I did want to emphasise the extreme importance to my mind of this problem for the health and happiness of this country.