HL Deb 10 July 1935 vol 98 cc237-45

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in moving the Second Reading, I must crave the indulgence of your Lordships to make a rather full statement on this Bill, which is one of great importance to Scotland. It is a Bill complementary to the English Bill, and it has had a long and severe passage through another place. I am aware that some of your Lordships still do not like some of its provisions. To take the general situation first of all, I would remind your Lordships that various causes have operated during the, last twenty years or more to create a serious shortage of working-class houses in Scotland. Building was at a complete standstill during the War, and in the post-War period private enterprise has been unable to provide houses within the means of the low-wage earner. On the other hand, the demand for houses has in no way diminished. Indeed, the cessation of emigration in recent years, and the increase, if not in population, at least in the number of families requiring houses, has aggravated the pressure on that available accommodation. Steps taken by successive Governments since 1919 have produced a total of 189,000 houses with the aid of public funds, sufficient to accommodate 760,000 persons, yet large numbers of additional houses at cheap rents must be provided before the people of Scotland are satisfactorily housed.

It is the policy of the present Government, by means of subsidies to local authorities, to encourage the provision of decent low-rented houses in sufficient numbers to rid Scotland of her slums and deplorable overcrowding and to leave the provision of houses for persons who can afford to pay an economic rent to be undertaken by unassisted private enterprise. The first step towards the realisation of this policy was taken in 1933, when an Act was passed to free private enterprise from the fetters of subsidised competition by local authorities and to concentrate the energies of local authorities on the task of clearing the slums. These objects are being amply achieved. Immediately after the passing of the Act the number of un-subsidised houses built by private enterprise in Scotland increased by three and a half times, and this increased output is being maintained. So also with the slum clearance operations of local authorities. At the beginning of 1934 the Government launched a vigorous five-year slum clearance programme, having decided to continue the generous State grant that is available for this purpose. Already, only seventeen months after the commencement of the drive, no fewer than 30,500 houses out of the 47,000 which local authorities have undertaken to provide during the five-year period have been contracted for, and these include over 8,000 which have actually been completed and nearly 16,000 which are under construction. The Bill continues the slum clearance grant at its present rate up to March, 1938, and there is every hope that when that time arrives slumdom will have almost disappeared from Scotland.

This Bill, to which I am asking your Lordships to give a Second Reading, inaugurates the latest stage in the Government's housing policy—namely, an attack on the serious and deep-seated evil of overcrowding in Scotland. The precise magnitude of the problem will not be known until the surveys for which the Bill provides have been made, but its seriousness can be judged from the figures given in the census of 1931. According to that census 1,600,000 persons, or 35 per cent, of the entire population, were living more than two to a room; in Glasgow the figure of overcrowding is over 42 per cent, of the population; and in Mother-well the figure is 55 per cent. The great mass of the overcrowding in Scotland exists in houses of one and two apartments, which constitute the very large proportion of 46 per cent, of the houses in the country. That is an appalling situation, fraught with so much danger to the physical, moral, and social wellbeing of the nation, that confronts His Majesty's Government and this Bill is designed to deal with it.

For the first time in history it is proposed to lay down a national minimum standard of accommodation which working-class families of Scotland will in future be entitled to enjoy. Noble Lords will find the definition of overcrowding and the details of the standard in Clause 2 and the First Schedule to the Bill. Without going now into details, I would draw attention to the two principles on which the standard is based—namely, the proper separation of the sexes and the occupation of houses by not more people than they can properly accommodate. The standard has been criticised elsewhere on the ground that it is too high and that it is not a practicable standard for adoption in Scotland at the present time. It is essential, however, that in the interests of health, comfort and common decency the standard to be adopted should be adequate to effect a real improvement in the deplorable conditions to which I have referred, and the Government think that the standard in the Bill is the minimum which meets this need.

As to its being practicable, let me inform your Lordships that the Bill provides a subsidy which has been calculated to enable local authorities to provide the necessary additional houses in the numbers and of the sizes required. The Government do not claim that the standard is an ideal one or that it defines the level up to which it is hoped that the housing conditions of Scotland will ultimately be raised, but they do think that it is a minimum standard which will serve for some years to come and that it represents a reasonable and practicable effort to deal with the realities of the overcrowding problem as it exists to-day. I should perhaps explain that the standard and the penal provisions of the Bill will not be enforced in any district until the greater part of the additional accommodation shown to be necessary by the survey of overcrowding has been provided. This virtually means that no occupier will be liable to prosecution for the offence of overcrowding before he has had an offer of suitable alternative accommodation, and even after the standard comes into operation on what is called "the appointed day" it will be possible under the Bill to relax the overcrowding provisions to meet particular circumstances.

Sitting tenants are afforded ample protection against prosecution under Clause 3. Provision is made under Clauses 4 and 5 to modify the standard in its application to districts as a whole or, by a system of licences, in its application to individual houses should circumstances make this necessary or desirable. Further, Clause 6 provides for the temporary relaxation of the standard in holiday places during periods when the pressure of accommodation is great through an influx of visitors. By these and other means the machinery in the Bill is made sufficiently flexible to cope with the varying conditions that prevail in this different districts and also in the same district from time to time.

If your Lordships will turn to Clauses 13 to 18 you will find provisions, to which the Government attach considerable importance, dealing with the redevelopment of congested areas. Very largely housing effort in the past has been devoted to the development of areas round the fringes of the urban districts of Scotland while the mass of the bad housing at the centres of the large towns has been allowed to remain. Of necessity the greater proportion of the houses to be provided for the relief of overcrowding must be built on suburban sites, and an inquiry which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland recently conducted showed that there was an overwhelming preference among the tenants themselves for residence in the new rehousing areas in the interests of health and the wellbeing of children. But, in addition, it is the Government's intention that a determined attempt should now be made to put an end to the unwholesome congestion that exists in central areas, and the redevelopment provisions in the Bill form the instrument which they have chosen for that purpose. The aim is to replan the centres of our towns so that the present congested and unhealthy areas may be replaced by more pleasing and ample environment. The task will not only be heavy but costly. That is a consideration which the Government have recognised by making additional financial assistance available to the large local authorities for redevolpment schemes.

Another important feature of the Bill is the provision which it makes to secure that the new houses and those already built by local authorities will be let to the right people at rents within their means. It has for some time been a matter for criticism—not wholly unjustified—that in many cases the rents charged for sub-sidised houses have been such as to place the houses beyond the reach of the poorer section of the community for whom Parliament intended them and that, as a result, they have been occupied by persons who could afford to pay an economic rent. The Bill seeks to remove these anomalies. In the first place, by the somewhat technical provisions contained in Clauses 36 to 45, it effects the necessary consolidation of the housing finance of local authorities with the object of creating a single pool of houses and a single rent pool to take the place of the separate pools which at present exist under the different Acts. It then replaces the various conditions affecting rents and lettings imposed by the different Acts from which the anomalies have sprung by the unified conditions contained in Clause 46.

In order to secure that the houses will be let to the right people, this clause requires local authorities in the selection of their tenants to give a reasonable preference to persons living in insanitary, overcrowded or otherwise unsatisfactory housing conditions. Moreover, a specified proportion of houses is to be definitely reserved for occupation by low-wage earners and agricultural workers. Rents of the houses are to be fixed in relation to the ordinary market rents of working-class houses in the district, but to ensure that no working-class family will be deprived of the opportunity of obtaining a house through the rent being beyond their means, the clause provides fox rebates from the market rents being given in cases where the financial circumstances of the tenant warrant this course. In the Government's view the clause will effectively secure the object in view—namely, that the houses erected by local authorities with State assistance will be let to the right people and at the right rents.

There is one other feature of the Bill to which I will refer at this stage—namely, the facilities which it provides for the enlistment of voluntary agencies in the housing field. Clauses 23 to 28 contain provisions relating to housing associations, with whom local authorities are empowered to make arrangements for the building or reconstruction of working-class houses for the accommodation of families displaced from unfit or overcrowded dwellings or removed from houses dealt with in the course of redevelopment operations. Very little has hitherto been done in Scotland by voluntary housing efforts. For the first time, however, the Bill proposes that Exchequer grants will be paid through the local authorities to those housing associations for rehousing work done under approved arrangements, and in addition facilities are being given to the associations to obtain up to nine-tenths of their working capital by way of loans from public funds. Together, these proposals should greatly assist any voluntary agencies who may enter into arrangements with local authorities to make a valuable contribution towards the solution of the housing problem.

These, my Lords, very broadly, are the main essentials of the Bill. There is no reason why a start should not be immediately made by local authorities to deal with overcrowding in their districts, as subsidies will be given for houses begun on or after February 1 last, and I am informed that already about twenty local authorities have had contracts approved for a number of houses approximating to 1,000. It is the policy of the Government that the worst cases of overcrowding will be dealt with first. In order to carry out this policy, the local authorities will be expected to provide a substantial proportion of houses of the larger types in their first instalments. They will further be discouraged from building small houses in their schemes, having in view that the decrowding operations may be expected to set free a sufficient number of houses of one and two apartments for persons whose needs can adequately be met by houses of these sizes. The Government propose also to make every effort to secure that houses will be well planned and that the outward amenities of housing schemes will be improved. Much has been heard in Scotland of the drabness and architectural dullness of council houses. The Government consider that without adding to the cost the attractiveness of housing schemes, from an architectural point of view, can be greatly improved, and Clause 72 of the Bill accordingly enables the Department to give directions to local authorities for the better lay out, planning and treatment of their houses in any case where this becomes necessary. The clause also empowers local authorities to appoint local advisory committees, including architectural and artistic representatives, to assist them to prepare their schemes, and further gives the Department power to require any local authority to appoint such a committee if the circumstances make this course seem desirable.

I should like to add a few words about certain criticisms against this Bill. In the first place, it has been described as a measure designed to deal with conditions in the urban rather than the rural areas of Scotland. Housing provision in the country districts must inevitably have regard to the needs of agriculture. In general, houses of farm servants are tied to the farm; that is to say, they form part of the remuneration of the workers and remain at the free disposal of the farmer. This presents peculiar difficulties to local authorities whose powers are limited to the provision of houses for the use of the working population as a whole. Moreover, the rural population of Scotland is diminishing. In view of these special problems the Bill was amended elsewhere to provide for the appointment of a rural sub-committee of the Scottish Housing Advisory Committee to be set up under Clause 22, and the Government propose to seek the advice of this body at the earliest opportunity, regarding the steps which should be taken in connection with the improvement of rural houses in its various aspects. Meantime the Bill extends the period by nearly two years during which grants may be obtained under the Housing (Rural Workers) Acts, and this will enable the very useful work which is being done under these Acts for the reconstruction of existing cottages to be continued.

Another criticism comes from owners of property, particularly in the West of Scotland, who have complained that the publication of the Bill has had the effect of depreciating the market value of working-class houses and that as a result the compensation provisions in the Bill are inadequate. It is said that this will involve great loss among others to charitable and educational authorities and other public bodies. The Government understand that most of the heritable property which the institutions themselves own, or which is the security for investments made by them in feu duties, ground annuals and the like, is already property in good condition. Inquiries which they have made have revealed no evidence of any general drop in the value of this type of property or of any substantial reason for believing that the operation of the Bill will adversely affect the reliability of good working class property as a source of income.

Indeed, there appears to be no ground for the assumption that compensation will be payable for any property upon values which have been artificially lowered by this Bill. Where it becomes necessary for a local authority to purchase property in connection, for example, with a redevelopment scheme, the owner will receive the agreed price or, failing agreement, compensation assessed by an independent arbiter under the existing statutory provisions which have been in operation for several years. Where the Bill alters the basis of compensation the alterations made are in favour of the owners of property and not to their detriment.

The only remaining criticism of substance, I think, is that the Bill does not provide for liberal grants to private owners for the reconditioning of working-class houses. Noble Lords will not expect me to deal at length with the details of this question. I would only say that a policy of reconditioning would not increase the accommodation required for decrowding purposes, which is the primary object of this Bill. It would not facilitate, but might conceivably hinder, the redevelopment of the congested and badly-arranged centres of our large towns. Taking the long view, the Government consider that it would be wiser, when conditions of finance and the supplies of labour and materials are so favourable to a forward policy, to use public money for the provision of new houses rather than for the reconditioning of existing properties which must sooner or later again become derelict, when there would be a recurrence of our present housing difficulties. Much emphasis has been laid on the fact that the Whitson Committee recommended that grants should be given for reconditioning those old houses, but it is necessary to point out that the Committee's recommendation was subject to owners being required to bring the condition of their property up to a higher standard of habitability, which was definitely specified in the Committee's Report.

The Bill, however, contains no provisions which set up a new standard of habitability for existing houses. It does not authorise a local authority to condemn such houses because they are not equipped with modern sanitary conveniences. Nor does it enable a local authority to compel owners to carry out improvements under by-laws unless it is reasonably practicable for them to do so, and on this point an Amendment was made elsewhere giving owners a right of appeal to the Sheriff where they are of opinion that it is not reasonably practicable to carry out any improvements asked for by the local authority. In view of this radical difference between the requirements of the Bill and the conditions laid down by the Whitson Committee, the Bill makes no provision for a reconditioning grant from public funds. The introduction of any such provision now would be incompetent, since it would be outside the term s of the Financial Resolution. I think I have now covered the main points arising in connection with this Bill, and as I am aware that a certain number of noble Lords from Scotland wish to speak, and that a great many points have to be threshed out in detail when we come to the Committee stage, I will not detain your Lordships further. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill he now read 2a.—(Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.)


I understand that it is convenient now to adjourn during pleasure.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.