HL Deb 07 April 1938 vol 108 cc606-11

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, it is with some satisfaction that I beg to recommend this Bill to your Lordships for a Second Reading. All my life I have been associated with agriculture in Scotland, especially in the Lowlands, from the Kingdom of Fife to Angus. Therefore this subject is one on which I will use all the arguments I can in order to induce your Lordships to accept the Bill. You will remember that when the Housing (Scotland) Bill of 1935 was before your Lordships it was criticised on the ground that it did not take sufficient account of the special housing problems of the rural areas, and in reply to that criticism the Government said that they would place the question before the Scottish Housing Advisory Committee, which was provided for in that Bill. In January, 1936, that is, the year before last, the Committee were asked to prepare a Report and were given terms of reference. The terms of reference were as follows: To consider the application of the Housing (Scotland) Acts and the Housing (Rural Workers) Acts to housing conditions in rural areas and to advise what action should be taken to facilitate in such areas the provision of new houses and the improvement of existing houses for the working classes, with special reference to the position of farm servants, small landholders and persons of like economic condition. A Sub-Committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Joshua Ross Taylor, a well-known farmer, sat and examined very exhaustively the various rural housing conditions, and paid particular attention to the special problems raised by the housing of farm servants, small landholders and similar classes, and they produced this Report. That was followed with consultations between the Association of County Councils and the Secretary of State for Scotland, and after examining the various recommendations contained in this Report, and after having consulted together, the present Bill was introduced in another place.

I quite realise that the scope of this Bill is limited. The real aim was the erection of new houses for the agricultural population, and within a limited scope the Government have tried to make the Bill as comprehensive as possible. Your Lordships will find that in this Bill "agriculture" has been defined in the widest possible terms, and that agriculture includes arable farming and all the types of farming used on the land for pastoral purposes, market gardening, poultry, orchards and afforestation. The Bill has been made as inclusive as possible. The Bill itself has been very fully discussed not only in another place but in the Scottish Grand Committee in another place, and I think that on the whole it has had a very favourable reception. If one reads the proceedings there one sees that, although there have been criticisms and one or two Amendments of importance, on the whole the Bill has been well received.

The Bill itself is divided into three Parts. Part I is concerned with the provision of houses by local bodies. Part II provides for assistance to private owners in order to enable them to replace certain types of unfit or unsatisfactory houses. Part III makes certain amendments in the general housing law applicable in rural areas, and is in the form of machinery. The provisions of Part I deal with the new Exchequer and rate contributions for houses built by local authorities. Under Clause 1 local authorities will be able to get special Exchequer subsidies for any houses built to meet the needs of the agricultural population, and there is the point about it that it is retrospective to cover houses begun on or after November 3, 1937. The definition of "agricultural population" which your Lordships will see is laid down in Clause 20, subsection (1), has been drawn widely in order to include not only workers directly engaged in agriculture but also workers engaged in industries which depend upon agriculture, such as village blacksmiths, carters, ditchers, fencers and others whose livelihood and work depend upon agriculture. Retired farm workers, or persons who have retired from an industry dependent on agriculture, will also be included under Part I.

In order to enable local authorities to let the houses at rates within the means of the agricultural population, the Bill provides for what I think is a generous subsidy. The new subsidy will range from about £10 10s. up to about £15 per house. On the average it will be about twice the present overcrowding subsidy of £6 15s., and it will normally be more than the slum clearance subsidy which local authorities can earn under the present unit grant system. Unlike the present subsidies, the new subsidy is not restricted to houses to replace unfit houses or to remedy overcrowding. It can be earned for any house built for a person of the agricultural population. One obstacle to the provision of houses for agricultural workers in recent years has been the fact that subsidies could only be earned for houses built to remedy overcrowding or to replace unfit houses. In rural areas, especially in Scotland, houses are very widely scattered and it is not possible to meet general housing needs by decanting the population, as in the burghs. If a house is vacated owing to overcrowding it is of no use for a young married couple if it is at the wrong end of the county or is a long distance from the man's work, and under the Bill the county council will be able to build a group of subsidised houses which will meet all the needs of the agricultural population in a particular village or hamlet.

The Bill also provides for the special circumstances of the Highlands and the Islands. That is in keeping, of course, with other Acts, and it means that where the remoteness of the sites is such that the £15 exchequer subsidy, together with the £4 10s. rate contribution, is inadequate, additional allowances can be given. Those schemes have been carried out under other Acts for the distant Islands, and in fact they are being carried out at the present moment. There is a scheme for forty houses going on now at Scalloway, in Zetland. Clause 2 provides that the statutory contribution from the rates will be one-third of the Exchequer subsidy. This is the same amount as is provided for in the slum clearance Act of 1930. In Grand Committee in another place there was some criticism of Part I of the Bill because it was restricted to county areas, and your Lordships will find in this Bill now an amendment from the original Bill which covers agricultural workers who are living in burghs. The town councils of those burghs will now be able to provide for their agricultural populations with the special subsidy. In the case of large burghs, that is, burghs with a population of over 20,000, the definition of "agricultural population" is restricted to persons actually engaged in agriculture; it is meant to cover agricultural labourers who live inside burghs, but obviously is not intended to cover those retired workers from agriculture who come under the conditions of the present housing schemes of those burghs.

Clause 3 is purely a machinery clause. It provides first that the new subsidies and rate contributions provided for in the Bill shall be reviewed from time to time, as they are at present. Secondly, it ensures that the local authority shall reserve for persons of the agricultural population a number of houses equal to the number for which the special subsidy is given, and that in fixing the rents of these houses consideration has to be taken of the amount which an agriculturist can afford to pay, and what he has been accustomed to pay. Thirdly, this clause provides that the State and rate contributions shall, like all other housing contributions, go into the pool, that is, the local authority's general housing account.

Part II of the Bill, which I think will probably interest some of my noble friends behind me, provides the second method of attack on the rural housing problem. It empowers local authorities to give grants to landowners to erect new houses to replace unsatisfactory farm cottages. Similar grants will also be available for the replacement of houses occupied by land holders and other agriculturists in a small way who must live on their holdings. The difference between Part I and Part II is that under Part I the local authority has power to build new houses for the agricultural population, whereas under Part II the private individual can get assistance from the local authority to build houses to replace those which are unfit, or which are being replaced for other reasons. Clause 4 provides that the assistance to private owners under Part II of the Bill will be given in accordance with schemes of assistance made by local authorities and submitted to the Department for approval.

I know it is the desire of the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Department under him to apply the spirit and intention of this Bill when it becomes an Act with the greatest sympathy, and not to deal with the various cases that come before the Department in a hard-and-fast manner. The intention is to use the Bill as far as possible for dealing effectively with the wretched housing which exists in some parts of Scotland. In order to speed up the use of the Bill, information is being sent round in advance to the various authorities by circular and other means, so that when the Bill comes into operation they may be ready to go ahead and submit schemes. The main object of Clause 4 is to provide grants for the replacement of unfit farm cottages in cases where other accommodation suitable to the requirements of the worker and his employment is not available and cannot be provided by the local authority. The grant will be given not only in cases where the existing house is being pulled down, but also in cases where, through the reconstruction of two houses into one, the number of cottages on the farm is reduced. Often in our countryside and on upland farms two small houses can be put together and formed into one, which is a very good thing. I think that is a real advance over past housing legislation. The desire is as far as possible to replace some of our old bothies and chaumers. The chaumer is a thing that I remember as a boy. It is a place where a person lives at night but does not take his meals—sometimes the top of a stable. "Chaumer" is a word which I have not noticed in legislation for a good many years. Anyhow, these unfit houses can now be replaced without losing the advantage of the subsidy.

With regard to the classes of persons who are covered by this Bill, they are defined as agricultural workers who work in and are dependent on agriculture. That definition is drawn widely and it is meant to include cottars and squatters in the Highlands and Islands. In the past we have been brought up against a difficulty in regard to the land of squatters. This Bill allows the expenditure in getting some form of title to the land before the squatter starts building a house on it to be reckoned for the purposes of grant. I do not propose to enter into the technicalities of the very difficult problem of defining exactly what is meant by getting the title to this land, but there are various ways in which it can be done by means of negotiation, and I am sure those who are acquainted with the Highlands and Islands know what I mean when I refer to this difficulty. The grant which it is proposed shall be given is a maximum of £160 for a three-roomed house and £200 for a house with four or more rooms. That money is paid through the local authority.

Under Clause 8 three-quarters of the expenditure of local authorities on grants will be refunded to the local authority by the Exchequer, and in the case of the Highlands and Islands, where owing to their remoteness it is more difficult to get building done, the Exchequer contribution is seven-eighths of the amount of the subsidy. There is one further point about these grants authorised by Clause 4, and that is that they will be available for a period of five years. I do not know whether the House would like to adjourn at this point; I shall take a little time to finish.


My Lords, I think it will be for your Lordships' convenience that we should now adjourn during pleasure, and therefore I propose that we should adjourn for half an hour, which is I think about as long as the other meeting will take.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.