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Problems of a Scottish Provincial Town
Chapter VI. The Building By-Laws


IT will reasonably be urged that it is not possible, owing to the building by-laws, to build houses in Dunfermline at such a low cost as would enable them to be let without loss to the poorest classes at a rent which would not unduly tax their resources. There is considerable truth in this argument. The by-laws are responsible in no small degree for the depopulation of the rural districts and for the congested state of many of our larger towns, and I strongly urge that steps be taken to prevent the application to a housing scheme for Dunfermline of by-laws intended for large towns.

The building by-laws throughout the country will probably soon be entirely overhauled and remodelled to meet existing needs, and it may be helpful to give here a brief account of the recent agitation against them with the grounds upon which it was based. Reference must first be made to the remarkable article by Mr. Wilfred Scawen Blunt in the Nineteenth Century and After. [October, 1904. The account which follows deals with the English by-laws, but the whole question is so important to Scotland also that no apology is necessary for including this chapter. I am, of course, aware that the Building By-laws for Scotland are made under different acts to those in England, but the problem is practically the same in each country.]

Mr. Blunt owns an estate of 4,000 acres in a poor agricultural district of Sussex. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was a considerable population, which has gradually dwindled owing to causes which need not be gone into here. There still remained, however, a good number of small freeholders, labourers who owned their own cottages and strips of garden ground. It was reserved for recent times to see the more general exodus of these under the pressure, in a large measure, "of a new class selfishness and the operation of laws devised for the protection of the poor, but so unintelligent in their framing, and so ruthlessly misapplied in other interests than theirs," as to make it impossible for them to continue to live in their ancestral homes. Mr. Blunt then explains how this misapplication has come about.

"The Public Health Act of 1875 was the outcome of a philanthropic movement throughout England caused by the coincidence of a period of great economic prosperity, and of certain gross abuses of speculation in the housing of the poor, made possible by the rapid expansion of town life. On every side London and the great industrial cities were extending their borders, and the same was the case in most country boroughs, and at all points where the railways favoured the creation of new urban and suburban centres. Many of these new areas were being covered with houses insanitary in their construction and unsafe for the poor who lodged in them, and the whole question of housing was raised in an acute form."

The Public Health Act of 1875, therefore, came into being. It was essentially an Act for the bettering of the condition of the poor, especially of the London suburban slums, but an unfortunate clause was introduced into it providing that the Poor Law districts might declare themselves to be Urban Districts and so acquire powers similar to those exercised in towns, and be enabled to issue their own by-laws as to building, sanitation, etc. The purpose of the clause originally was that when rural districts began to be built over and assumed an urban character, urban regulations should be applied to them j but it was never intended that they should be made applicable to the whole of the purely agricultural areas included within the rural districts, and Mr. Blunt shows how the clause has been "perverted by human stupidity and human selfishness into an instrument of class tyranny over the labourers of our villages." Half the rural districts of England have become possessed of urban powers, and the results have been entirely disastrous. The candidates for the rural councils are, as a rule, either tradesmen or retired tradesmen; or, perhaps, "a villa-dweller with idle time on his hands; or, again, men who . . . have 'an axe to grind.'" In practice it has been found that it is men of the last category who are the directing force in nearly every council, the representatives of certain businesses which have a direct trade interest in urbanising the district— local owners of residential land which they desire to develop, contractors for local work, and, above all, local builders, and so "the urbanising process is pushed on merrily and always at the expense of the agricultural poor." The peasant is no longer wanted—only the villa-dweller, and an impossible scale of expenditure, under by-laws enforced in the interests of trade, is used to exterminate the former.

"The Public Health Act sprung in ignorance of its meaning on many a rural district, and manipulated since by the local building and contracting interests in connivance with suburban landowners, has become not only the instrument of a vast amount of jobbing expenditure of all kinds in rural England, but also an engine of direct tyranny, which is driving the indigenous English peasantry from the soil of its forefathers."

Now to Mr. Blunt's own experiences. He has long wished to re-erect peasant holdings, but the expense prevented its economic success. This year, however, he had erected on the New Forest a single-storied iron bungalow. It was simple in construction, effective in its comfort, and wonderfully cheap. He inhabited it for some time, and tested its practical advantages. He then gave a commission to his estate carpenter to erect two similar cottages to serve as an experiment for further cottage-building in Sussex. This he could do at the small cost of £130 for a building covering 700 feet area, with a verandah of 240 feet more, and an outbuilding containing wash-house and closet—" as snug and sanitary a home as any poor man could wish to inhabit; for there was a large fireplace in every room, roof ventilation, and ample door and window space."

These two cottages had been built where there were no builders' by-laws, away from Mr. Blunt's principal property. He now wished to erect similar ones on the latter, where, however, urban powers had been obtained and the London by-laws were in force.

The plan of a cottage was therefore submitted to a rural council, and no definite objection was raised until the building materials were ready and the houses were about to be erected. The council then gave notice that the plan was disapproved as violating the by-laws. Mr. Blunt, however, very properly considered that he was fighting for the interests of the whole community, and resolved to proceed and to trust to the discretion of the county magistrates. The cottage was therefore built. It replaced a very poor one for which a rent of 3s. 6d. had been paid. The new cottage cost £130, and even with an additional quarter of an acre for garden thrown in, Mr. Blunt was able to reduce the former rent by a shilling without loss. However, Mr. Blunt's builder was summoned by the council for building other than with bricks and mortar. A further action was brought against Mr. Blunt, and a continuing penalty of two shillings a day was imposed against him to oblige him to pull the building down.

The immediate amendment which Mr. Blunt urges in the Public Health Act is that no by-law of any rural sanitary authority shall apply to any new building to be erected on a freehold property where such building is more than a given number of yards from the nearest other dwelling or past the property of adjacent owners.

This is an amendment which appears wise and reasonable, and admirably calculated to solve the difficulty which at present exists. It will be an effectual safeguard against the risk of damage to adjacent property through fire if the buildings proposed to be erected are of wood, and it will at the same time give every encouragement to builders to give plenty of ground to each cottage. Mr. Blunt has been joined in his crusade by Sir William Grantham, one of his Majesty's judges and a large Sussex landowner.

Sir William Grantham has been subjected to not a little abuse in connection with his action; but he has been solely actuated by a sincere desire to solve the housing difficulty on wise and reasonable lines, and in the true interests of the peasant class. Like Mr. Blunt, Sir William Grantham proposed to build cottages for the agricultural workers on his estate, but was prevented from doing so by his rural council. Sir William also headed a large deputation to the President of the Local Government Board in November last, and presented the following statement of facts:—

I. That the by-laws governing the building of cottages in the country are enforced by those who either have no knowledge of the locus in quo or no knowledge of the wants and requirements of the district, or no ability to administer, or an interest against the landlord or person desirous of building, or a desire to administer by-laws suitable for towns but most unsuitable for country districts, or there is a desire on the part of the councils or officials of the councils to strain the language of the by-laws against the building owner, and instead of assisting him throwing every obstacle in the way of his carrying out the desired, work.

2. That hundreds more cottages would have been built all over the country, which would have prevented (to some extent) the people from crowding into the towns, if there had been more suitable by-laws, or an elasticity allowed to those who administer them, or if there had been no by-laws in those places or districts where there is no necessity to enforce them.

The reply of Mr. Walter Long to this deputation was distinctly encouraging. Whilst he did not definitely commit himself to his future course of action, he stated that a model code of by-laws for rural districts had already been drawn up, and that under these by-laws cottages might be built either in wood or other materials. Only in the matter of sanitation were by-laws applicable to rural buildings. And he further promised to examine the rural code again, with a sympathetic desire to relieve unwise and unnecessary restrictions; but added that in his view it was absurd that where only trees and grass existed rules should be applied that were only intended for aggregations of houses in towns.

The reply of Mr, Long will do much to encourage the reforming party, and the new movement has also received considerable impetus from the most helpful and suggestive correspondence which has been appearing in the pages of the Spectator, The County Gentleman, and other papers. In this correspondence emphasis has been rightly placed on the necessity for wooden buildings to be freely permitted in all rural districts. These are already common in America—a country which is subject to far greater extremes of heat and cold than Britain. Yet such houses are absolutely weather-tight, warm, and sanitary. Their cost is considerably less than any houses which could be built with bricks or stones, and their general introduction in this country would mean that landowners and others would be able to house the peasant and labouring classes in rural districts at a capital outlay which would bring a remunerative return. I have dealt at some length with this question of the building by-laws because it is of the first importance that in embarking on a housing scheme which will be of a semi-rural character the trustees should have entire freedom to erect buildings in materials other than those allowed under the existing by-laws for the Burgh of Dunfermline. It cannot be too often repeated that the use of such materials does not mean an unsuitable, inferior, or insanitary dwelling. It does mean a considerable help towards the solution of one of the most pressing aspects of the housing problem. The least to be contended for is permission to build under the model set of by-laws drawn up by Mr. Long, to which reference has been made. I cannot, in conclusion, do better than refer my readers to the approaching exhibition of cottages to be held at Hitchin [June, 1905.] under the auspices of The County Gentleman and The First Garden City Company, Limited; which is designed to bring to an end the search for a cottage costing not more than £150 to build, which, whilst healthy, convenient, and adequate, is not lacking in the elements of beauty.


 


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