HL Deb 22 March 1934 vol 91 cc405-20

LORD MOYNE had the following Notice on the Paper:—To ask His Majesty's Government whether they can give any figures for Greater London or any appropriate area, comprising a radius of about fifteen miles from Charing Cross to show what acreage of land is still available for building; what proportion of this acreage is zoned for a greater density of development than twelve to the acre; whether closer zoning by which alone houses can be provided at lowest rentals is limited in many districts to those areas scheduled for industrial purposes as being least desirable for residential development; whether any standard has been prescribed by the Minister of Health as to the number of flats or separate tenements which are to be considered the equivalent of a given number of houses; whether regulations that building must not cover more than a quarter of the curtilage are ever relaxed and on what terms; whether the Minister possesses and will exercise powers to increase the number of houses and tenements to be allowed per acre where existing town-planning regulations are shown by the promoters of a building scheme to interfere with the provision of working-class accommodation; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have rather a long Question on the Paper, and its object is to obtain information upon the effect of town-planning, as applied especially to Greater London, on the provision of working-class accommodation at low rents. I am afraid the noble Viscount may find it a little difficult to answer some of my questions, which have been purposely framed in rather loose terms, because I do not know quite what kind of information may be in his possession. There is very general agreement, as expressed in this House yesterday, that it is of vital importance that the efforts of the Government to relieve overcrowding in central areas should be facilitated by drawing people out to the suburbs into new and low-rented accommodation. In the suburbs there is a great field for private enterprise, and it is very urgent that restrictions should be avoided which would have as their effect the increase of rents to be paid for working-class accommodation.

I have made what inquiries I could, and I must say the position seems very disquieting owing to the lack of coordination between these innumerable authorities. I have only been able to make researches in the outer Metropolitan area, and nothing that I say applies to the London County Council area. Their regulations are entirely different. They allow flats, and I have no comment to make on their practice, but it does appear to me that the present administration of town-planning often proves an effective obstacle against the provision of the cheapest accommodation for the working classes. The town-planning authorities often seem to be entangled in their own regulations, and if my generalisations seem perhaps in some cases unduly critical, I want at once to say that I am quite aware that some town-planning authorities go all out to help, and are trying to find a way through the regulations to enable up-to-date and cheap accommodation to be put up.

The problem has become acute since the Act of 1932, which provided, for the first time, town-planning for built-up areas, and there is now, I am informed, only an infinitesimal portion of land in the outer ring of London zoned for over twelve houses to the acre. This is not the fault of the Ministry of Health model clauses, because they say that the authorities should not rigidly adhere to a maximum of twelve where conditions justify a higher figure; in fully or partly-developed areas a higher density than twelve will frequently be necessary. All the same, twelve to the acre is, in most cases, a maximum, and the only chance of closer development is in land excluded altogether from the zone as dedicated to industrial purposes, and there, if the builder can convince the local authority of the wisdom of his scheme, he may be allowed to build houses at a closer interval. The result of that is that working-class accommodation is too often being driven into the most undesirable places. If you drive through Northern London you see lots of places along the river valleys and so forth where they are bound to put up working-class accommodation because they are not considered fit for anything else. They have been zoned for industrial purposes, and these are the only places where people who want to build close have the slightest chance of being allowed to carry out their schemes, unless they are able to get relaxation in the zone provisions. I think it is very undesirable that the working classes should be limited to these lowlying sites. The cost of building is also increased owing to awkward lay-out and to the very costly foundations which are often involved.

I shall no doubt be told that the Ministry of Health have power to vary these regulations, but appeals are, of course, a very expensive method, and builders tell one that they have a great dislike of fighting the town-planning authorities because they are completely in the power of the borough surveyors and town clerks and people who carry out these regulations. One builder who works in Northern London, Mr. Heath. tells me he has £60,000 worth of land tied up because he cannot get his scheme through. In Kingsbury he has had an area tied up for seven years. First of all the local authority said it was to be a cemetery. Then, without any compensation, they threw the area back at him, and he began to work out plans. When he put in those plans they said: "No, you cannot do this; it has got to be an open space." Then he had the cost of an appeal to the Ministry of Health and won his appeal. He now has put in what he believes to be a very economical plan for flats, and that has been turned down. I think now the area has been merged with Hendon. So for seven years he has had a site, which was going to be covered with working-class accommodation, completely held up, and he will never he able to use it for this cheap type of development unless he is successful on the second appeal in defeating the obstruction of the local authority.

But appeals really do not altogether solve the problem, because the builder cannot appeal until he has bought his land, and, naturally, he does not want to buy his land until he is certain how he is to be allowed to develop it. He may negotiate with the owner for him to approach the local authority, but that is a very slow procedure and it is a great obstacle to satisfactory development. There is another point in connection with these appeals. Appeals to the Ministry of Health are only possible while these schemes remain provisional. Once they become final these powers will lapse. Then, if people want to get any relaxation of the zoning provisions, it can only be done by the local authority putting forward a new scheme or an amended scheme for the Minister s approval. That is very cumbersome and costly machinery and is even more effective in preventing any relaxation of zoning if and where that zoning is unreasonable.

I believe that the lack of suitable provision is often due to the narrow view taken by some local authorities as to the interests of their districts. From the point of view of rates they often admittedly want to avoid unprofitable development for low-rated accommodation. I have had several cases sent me by different builders to say that town clerks and others have publicly announced that this low-rated accommodation involves very heavy burdens on the other rate- payers and that they are not going to have it in their districts if they can help it. And, of course, that attitude is very popular with local householders because they feel that it spoils the value of their property if there is any admixture of working-class accommodation. Building societies have sunk huge sums of money in this kind of property at high valuations and naturally they do not wish to see their security diminish in value. There are therefore many interests who are now combining to cause the well-to-do and the poor to live apart in separate territories, and I do not believe that that is a fair or indeed an economical arrangement.

Then there is the difficulty about flats. A builder in Harrow, Mr. Nash, writes to me: Flats are a more economical proposition than cottages, the saving being effected on the foundations, roofs, land and road charges. I work at the present time under four councils and each has a different interpretation of the Town Planning Act. I also have had great difficulty in getting plans approved for blocks of flats as up to the present the different councils consider one flat to equal one dwelling. That does not apply everywhere, but still there is great diversity of opinion amongst these councils and the erection of flats is being held up. In no case that I can hear of do local authorities approve two units which cover about the same area to be erected in place of single houses. That is not the fault of the Ministry of Health. They have laid down no standard. They say it is a matter for local consideration. But at the same time local authorities say that they cannot settle this and that the Ministry of Health do not wish that flats should be erected on the generous basis that is claimed.

The position is really absurd. I was told of one area where the town-planning scheme allows twelve six-roomed houses per acre. Each of those six-roomed houses has one sanitary convenience and each six-roomed unit has a sub-tenant. Therefore there are two families sharing one lot of sanitary accommodation and twenty-four families with insufficient sanitary accommodation. Yet the builder, who has put forward a scheme for putting up two self-contained flats of the non-parlour type on the same area, one on top of the other, is not allowed to do so. They say that twenty- our flats, although they cover no more space, must be looked upon as twenty four separate houses. They profess in that case that they have no power to make a relaxation, but even if they had it seems doubtful from their attitude whether they would be willing to use it.

Closer zoning obviously means a big economy in rent. It is difficult to assess the building factor, but, although large tenement buildings are costlier per unit than single houses, the double flat unit is definitely cheaper than two single cottages. There is a difference of opinion about the cost of roads and sewers under closer planning. Some experts say that it is cheaper under that heading when you build sparsely, but builders contradict that and say that the greater run of sewers, fences and paths per house with sparse planning increases the costs under those heads. I will take the same figure for both. I will take £600, which has been given me by two builders as being the figure per acre. I do not want to give too much arithmetic but this is very simple.

If you make an addition of £1,000 for land, then you have £1,600 per acre for these costs of land, roads and sewers. If you put on the land twelve houses to the acre and divide £1,600 by twelve you get £133 as the cost per tenement or house. if you put forty-five tenements on the land that means that £1,600 has to be divided by forty-five, and you get £35, showing a saving of practically £100. We were told in evidence before the Departmental Committee that, the cost of capital under the building societies' scheme was £6 2s. per cent. That includes interest and sinking fund for thirty years. It allows no profit to the builder, so I do not suppose that the speculative builder could possibly work at the price. Even with no profit to the speculative builder the difference between twelve and forty-five tenements weans an extra rent of 2s. 4d. per week on the non-parlour house.

Already there is an advantage in favour of local authorities building with public money. The difference between their cheap money and long-term repayment and the dearer money and shorter-term repayment of the building societies is 2s. a week in the rent. How on earth can private enterprise be expected to provide houses at a rent below 10s. a week if they start with this unnecessary handicap of at least 5s. a week if builder's profits are to be allowed? I have a lot of evidence that builders are being deterred at the present time. I have a letter from Messrs. Costain, who are reputed to be among the biggest builders, and they say: It is our view that town-planning restrictions in areas where the poorer classes obtain, has limited the activities of private enterprise…. Frankly, areas of this type have been severely left alone by us and our business confined to building for occupier-owners only, so that it can be generally inferred that building of houses of the type evidently required has been left almost entirely to the local authorities concerned who willingly vary restrictions to their own requirements. I have other evidence of the same kind to show that local authorities compel builders to adopt a more costly standard than they apply to themselves. Messrs. John Laing, another well-known firm of builders, report that in most areas they have to put in separate drains for each house whereas local authorities have often put six houses on one drain. Surely it is unreasonable that these varying standards, increasing the cost as against private enterprise, should be allowed to continue.

Mr. Costain continues: Again, the limitation of the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act in regard to curtilage, in our view, totally rules out the possibility of private enterprise producing dwellings of the nature called for at a cost that will provide for rentals as laid down. Given proper scope by waiving such restrictions, it is felt that adequate provisions could be made on a much reduced scale. These curtilage requirements lay it down that three-quarters of the total area occupied by each house must be unbuilt. This apparently applies to each plot separately. I was shown by another builder, who had almost completed two houses, notices he had just received to the effect that he had got to suspend work because the local authority had discovered that the plot did not fulfil the curtilage requirements. Owing apparently to the site tapering back, the back garden was smaller than was called for by a strip a foot wide. Surely these restrictions are absolutely unreasonable, and I should like to know how far there is any power of varying these curtilage regulations. I am informed that the combined effect of town-planning and curtilage regulations effectually prevents the erection of small houses in rows. Human wants are very varied in houses. A lot of us have always lived in rows and done without gardens, and if some people want to do that, why should we not let them? Are we not losing our sense of proportion in compelling everyone, whither they can afford it or not, to pay for the luxury of a private open space when they may prefer to save the money and devote it to greater necessities of life such as food? Then, again, some families only need two bedrooms. Why should these town-planning restrictions make it impossible for the builders to provide these absolutely reasonable requirements?

I think the lack of adequately-zoned land for these small dwellings is shown by the general agreement among builders that where land is at the higher zoning its price is always higher. Surely the fact that there are these inflated prices for high-zoned land shows there is a very great shortage of that type of property on the market. An automatic cure would be to give the Ministry of Health or some authority—perhaps it should be the Greater London Zoning Committee—powers to break through these zoning regulations where it is shown to be in the interest of working-class accommodation and these powers would, I think, break the "corner" in this type of land and reduce prices. It would be perfectly reasonable that higher zoning should be allowed, and therefore the "corner" in that type of land would be destroyed when some authority is satisfied that the benefit will go to working-class occupiers.

I apologise to the noble Viscount for having asked him so many questions. My main points are that at present it does appear to me that restrictions are not consistent with the provision of the cheapest houses and with what the working classes need. Was the maximum of twelve fixed in view of the necessities of the working classes or was it only for the people who are well-to-do and do not mind very much what they pay? Also, what is the prospect of some action to cut red tape and obstruction on the part of local authorities, and what provision will still exist when town-planning schemes, a couple of years from now, become final? Are we then to be throttled with absolutely rigid regulations from which there will be no escape? The trouble, I am sure, round London is in the multiplicity of authorities who take a narrow view of what they consider to be local advantage, and at present there seems to be no provision for imposing a wide view on those parochial authorities. If, as I believe, a conflict exists between local desire to keep areas sparsely built and the public need for facilities for housing the very poor at the lowest rents, will the Ministry of Health take powers to step in and ensure that no district wriggles out of its responsibility by passing on this unpopular baby to its neighbours, but that each accepts its share of providing the public need for housing the working classes? I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, I should like to support the plea of the noble Lord for rather more elasticity in the town-planning regulations. I think there is a very great deal of force in the case which he has made for greater density than twelve houses to the acre in some of these areas. My noble friend, I think, was speaking very largely of the outer Metropolitan area. That, I think, is an area which is covered, as far as town planning is concerned, by the Greater London Regional Town Planning Committee, but that Committee, I believe, has no executive powers. There are in that area, I understand, 150 authorities each of which has town-planning powers, and what the noble Lord said is perfectly true. Not only do they administer their powers in different ways, but there is very little coordination between them. At the end of his remarks my noble friend suggested that there ought to be means of compelling each of these authorities to take its share of what might be the unpopular zoning of working-class dwellings and industries. I agree with that. I agree that there is a tendency on the part of local authorities to seek to avoid this burden, but I am inclined to suggest that proper town planning would take a wider view. Instead of forcing each of these 150 local authorities to take its share, it would be better to have one large authority—let it be this Greater London Regional Town Planning Committee—to take a wide view of the zoning area on a big scale. It seems to me that can be accomplished by giving that Committee executive powers to over ride these individual, small, local authorities who are inclined to be obstructive.

With regard to the question of density, I share the view of my noble friend that twelve to the acre is too low. Of course we have got to bear in mind, and start from the standpoint, that these regulations are directed primarily towards the prevention of new slums. I think it behoves primarily those of us who sit on these Benches, and who are supporters of private enterprise, to remember that the slums are a product of private enterprise, and we have to realise that private enterprise, if left uncontrolled, might produce more slums in the future. Therefore we must not cavil too much at regulations directed to the control of private enterprise. I remain quite unrepentant in my conviction that private enterprise will always be the dominant factor in making the wheels of life go round, but it must be within its proper sphere and subject to proper control. In this matter of town planning we are really still rather groping for the proper way of exercising control without going, as we may be in danger of doing, too far in the other direction. I should like to ask the noble Viscount who will answer for the Government whether that would not be a possibility.

On the subject of density, I quite agree with my noble friend that flats could very well be at a much greater density than twelve to the acre. My noble friend Lord Dudley yesterday took me to task for saying that I regarded flats as a necessary evil. I am quite prepared to stand by what I said. Yesterday I said that five-storey flats were necessary evils, ten-storey flats an abomination. I think that is a perfectly exact description. Five-storey flats may suit some people very well—people who do not require gardens, people who are content with a large communal open space. I see no reason why proper town planning should not provide for five-storey flats. They must be provided with proper open spaces and with proper regulations. I would like to support my noble friend's plea that town planning should be reasonably elastic on these points, and above all that burdens should be equitably distributed. My noble friend referred to taking people out into the suburbs, and said that his Question was directed to making it more easy to do that. I do not much care about the expression "taking people out into the suburbs." I should prefer to get the people out into new towns. Let industry go out with the houses. But even so, even if you are planning a new town on perfectly undeveloped land, there is no reason why you should not have flats, if that will add to the economic development, and provide people with houses at low rents, which is the object we are really aiming at.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Moyne has asked a sort of omnibus Question, which really embraces six rather different questions, so I hope he will excuse me if my answers are somewhat short; there is a good deal of ground to be covered. In answer to the first Question, there is no precise record what area of land is available for building in Greater London, but it was estimated a year ago that over 200,000 acres of vacant land were suitable for building within a radius of about fifteen miles from Charing Cross. I cannot, of course, say how many of the owners of this land would be willing to sell for building. With regard to the second Question, in the planning proposals which have come before the Ministers, which do not cover the whole of this area, only a small proportion of the land is zoned at more than twelve to the acre. I think that in the schemes that have been submitted covering a large proportion of the undeveloped land within that radius of Charing Cross, approximately 7,200 acres, have been zoned at more than twelve to the acre.

It must be remembered that these proposals refer chiefly to the areas of open land not hitherto developed. Hitherto it has been considered that the average density of working-class houses newly erected on open land should not usually exceed twelve to the acre. The proportion of land zoned at not less than that density is from 40 to 50 per cent. Naturally, it varies greatly from district to district according to the local conditions; in some instances all the land which is zoned for density is at twelve to the acre or more. The Minister of Health watches proposals to see that a fair proportion of laud is so zoned, in order that plenty of land shall be available for working-class houses. It has to be remembered that these proposals have hitherto related for the most part to open land not yet developed. In the density of twelve to the acre, as in other densities, the area of land occupied by roads is included. There have been very few representations to the Minister on planning proposals for a higher density than twelve to the acre.

With regard to the third Question, the records of the Ministry do not show that densities of more than twelve to the acre, or densities of twelve to the acre, have been limited to areas scheduled for industrial purposes as being least desirable for residential development.


May I be quite clear about that? I suppose that that statement does not contest the point that it is only the industrial areas which are excluded from the zone, and therefore where there is any chance of special conditions?


I think I am right in saying that if residential development is permitted in industrial zones it must be covered by some density regulation.


Ad hoc?


I think that any proposal for building in an area covered by town planning must be scheduled in some way, and covered by a density schedule. Therefore my information is that these particular regions are really treated exactly like other regions.

On the fourth Question, that of flats, investigation has been made to see whether some definite ratio can be fixed to determine the number of flats or separate tenements which may be erected in place of each separate house, but this has not been practicable because so much depends on the particular local circumstances. In several instances the Minister on appeal has permitted two or more flats for each house. Where provision should be made for large flats or tenements the best course is expressly to provide for them in planning proposals. The Minister is also prepared to consider express provision for maisonettes with a higher density of dwellings per acre than for single family houses. On that matter of the flats, any proposal to erect a large block of flats or tenements would be considered on its merits. In future proposals for the re-planning of already developed areas of towns, it is to be expected that provision will frequently be included for allowing large blocks of flats or tenements.

With regard to the fifth Question, the provision that not more than a quarter of the curtilage shall be built upon is contemplated only for houses of two or more storeys, newly erected on open land at all average density of twelve to the acre or less. The Minister is always prepared to consider proposals for a higher proportion of building. Provision is also made for special local conditions. With regard to the sixth Question, when a final planning scheme has already been made and is operative, its provisions are binding until amended, and I must point out that the Minister has power, even after the scheme has become operative, to make amendments. That is to say that amendments have to come before Parliament and be confirmed. Where a resolution has been passed, but a final scheme is not yet operative, that is, in the interim period, there is an appeal to the Minister for refusal to permit proposed developments. In such cases, and on planning proposals, the Minister always considers any representations made to him by interested parties for permission to build at higher densities. He also has to consider representations made against such permission.

I think there may be some misapprehension about this definition of twelve houses to the acre, or whatever the average density may be. It does not mean that each acre must have twelve houses on it, much less that each house must have its twelfth of an acre. If the unit of development is, say, ten acres, what it means is that not more than 120 houses are to be erected on those ten acres. It is for the developer to decide how those houses are to be arranged, provided that he complies with the other requirements, such as space about buildings. I think uniform development is more often than not to be deprecated. It would often be far better to build more closely, leaving larger open areas of land for small playgrounds, allotments, and so forth. I would like to point out that according to the Ministry's calculations it by no means follows that a limit of twelve to the acre really adds to the cost. On the contrary, unless the value of the land is high, development may be cheaper, especially where the area of land is sufficient for good lay-out of the houses and advantage can be taken of the valuable concessions in costs of road construction which are then permitted. I have a note here to the effect that where land can be obtained at below £300 per acre, and advantage is taken of the reduction which may be effected in street costs, development at twelve to the acre should certainly be not more costly than at higher densities. Where the contours of the land present difficulties twelve to the acre may be more economical even at a substantially higher figure of price of land.

I have attempted to answer the specific Questions put to me. On the general question I think your Lordships will agree that yesterday we spent a considerable time in discussing extensive and drastic methods of dealing with bad developments, and it would be really absurd for these same conditions to start again. It is obvious that the only way to prevent that kind of thing is to lay down certain standards and certain regulations. It may be argued, of course, that any standard or regulation is likely to add to the cost of building, and to some extent that may well be true, particularly in the first instance. It is a dilemma which no Government, I think, can hope to solve by rule-of-thumb methods. We can only lay down a certain standard. I recollect that only a short time ago we had a debate on the density proposals initiated by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, and then I was able to show that it is not in the Ministry but in another place that the desire for that standard of twelve to the acre was insisted upon.

Obviously you cannot have too rigid rules, because the conditions of every county are far too various. Surely, the only thing we can do is to give the Minister fairly wide powers of discretion. I understand that Lord Moyne is not complaining of that idea, but he says that the machinery for the exercise of that discretion is too cumbersome. I am not by any means going to insist that this Government, or the Ministry, have nothing further to learn about town planning—I am sure that the information given to us by the noble Lord will be most useful—but I must point out that workable machinery does already exist whereby appeals for the relaxation of the zoning restrictions can be submitted to the Minister, and the Minister is able to release those restrictions before they have been confirmed by Parliament in a final scheme, and he is willing to do so if good cause is shown. Builders may find some difficulty in the procedure, but I do not think those difficulties are insuperable.

The noble Lord mentioned a difficulty arising from the uncertainty of whether the zoning restrictions would be relaxed or not. I think that can be got over by making your contract of sale conditional upon permission having been got to have the land zoned at the higher level. In fact, I have a form here which includes such a provision. I cannot help recollecting that at the time when the Town Planning Bill was being introduced there was some apprehension lest the Government were going too far in giving the Minister power to compel local authorities, but perhaps there is growing up a spirit in favour of compelling local authorities rather generally. While, however, we have local authorities we must rely to some extent on their discretion.

Lord Balfour of Burleigh suggested that the only way of arbitrarily dealing with London was to entrust these things to the Regional Committee. My information is that of the 150 authorities which, he says, are comprised within that area, not one has asked that these general powers should be given to that Committee. Of course it is quite true that these executive powers can be given to the Committee if the authorities them selves desire it, or if the Minister insists, but it is quite obvious that even the most despotic Minister can hardly insist upon the uniting of all these authorities in London against their wish. We must work with the local authorities if we are going to have them at all, and we are waiting for some expression of desire from some local authorities as to their wish to be united. I do not think I have very much to add. I am quite aware of the very wide knowledge which the noble Lord has of this subject, and I may say that we shall carefully consider everything that the noble Lord has said.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Viscount for the very interesting information which be has afforded us. I need hardly assure him that I fully realise the necessity of avoiding the mistakes of the past, and the dangers of making any such relaxation of town planning as would allow of a repetition of the slum problem; but I am still unconvinced that the present machinery is adequate to allow quick reaction to new needs for working-class facilities. The very fact that very few appeals are taken to the Ministry, when you consider the number of authorities involved, shows that those who are dealing with those authorities do not feel that it is a very profitable line for them to take to get up against the building authorities. I still feel that the Ministry ought to take every step to see that reasonable provision is made in advance of requirements for the securing of land in suitable areas.

I was very much attracted by the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, that further responsibilities should be given to the Greater London Regional Town Planning Committee, and I was strengthened in that view by the information given by the noble Viscount, that so far not one single authority has asked to share its power. That seems to me to point to the fact that they are very jealous of their privileges and very anxious to see that their own districts are developed according to their own prejudices and not necessarily according to a wider public advantage. I think that there may well be a case for an ad hoc reconsideration by some such authority as the Great London Committee as to the adequacy of these provisions at the present time, so that the Ministry of Health might, if necessary, embody further over-riding powers in their Bill. After the gallant effort made by the noble Viscount to give me information on this largely unexplored field, I will certainly not be so unreasonable as to persist in my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.