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New Clause—(Preservation Of Certain Houses Unfit For Human Habitation)

Volume 467: debated on Wednesday 13 July 1949

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(1) Where apart from this section a local authority would be under a duty to make a demolition order under Part II of the Act of 1930 with respect to a house with respect to which a building preservation order under section twenty-seven of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act, 1947, is in force they shall instead make a closing order prohibiting the use of the house for human habitation, and shall serve a copy of the order upon every person upon whom they would be required by subsection (1) of section sixteen of the Act of 1930 to serve a notice issued by them under that subsection.

(2) Where a building preservation order under the said section twenty-seven takes effect with respect to a house to which a demolition order made under Part II of the Act of 1930 by a local authority applies (whether or not that order has become operative), the local authority shall determine the demolition order and make a closing order prohibiting the use of the house for human habitation, and shall serve on every such person as aforesaid notice that the demolition order has been determined and a copy of the closing order.

(3) A local authority by whom a closing order is made under this section shall determine the order on being satisfied that the house to which it relates has been rendered fit for human habitation.

(4) The following provisions, namely,—

  • (a) subsection (1) of section twenty-three and section twenty-five of the Act of 1925 (which contain provisions for the protection of superiors and of owners of houses);
  • (b) subsection (2) of section nineteen of the Act of 1930 (which imposes a penalty for using premises in contravention of a closing order made under Part II of that Act);
  • (c) section twenty of the Act of 1930 (which relates to appeals to the sheriff against notices, demands and orders under Part II of that Act); and
  • (d) section twenty-eight of this Act (which empowers local authorities to pay allowances to persons displaced from premises to which closing orders so made apply);
  • shall have effect in relation to a closing order made under this section, to a refusal to determine such an order, and to a house to which such an order applies as they have effect in relation to a closing order under Part II of the Act of 1930, to a refusal to determine such an order and to a house to which such an order applies as if references therein to a closing order included references to a closing order made under this section and references to Part II of the Act of 1930 included references to this section, and section twenty-nine of that Act (which empowers the sheriff to determine or vary a lease of premises in respect of which a demolition order has become operative) shall have effect in relation to a closing order made under this section which has become operative and to a house to which such an order applies as it has effect in relation to a demolition order which has become operative and to a house to which such an order applies, as if the references to a demolition order included a reference to a closing order made under this section.—[ The Lord Advocate.]

    Brought up, and read the First time.

    I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

    This is a very long Clause, and it would perhaps be for the convenience of the House if I summarised it because it is largely machinery and the principle involved is easily understood. Orders can be made under the various Housing Acts to secure the demolition of unfit houses. On the other hand, orders may be made under the planning Acts to preserve houses although these houses are unfit, because they might have some architectural merit, some historical value or for some other reason. The Clause prevents demolition orders and preservation orders applying to the same property, because manifestly it would be absurd to have one authority, namely, the planning authority, providing for the preservation of property and the local authority putting a demolition order on the same property.

    This Clause meets that situation by substituting a closing order for a demolition order in such circumstances. Accordingly, there will be standing side by side not a demolition order and a preservation order, but a closing order and a preservation order. The rest of the Clause is purely machinery.

    The Lord Advocate will notice that subsection (3) of the Clause reads:

    "A local authority by whom a closing order is made under this section shall determine the order on being satisfied that the house to which it relates has been rendered fit for human habitation."
    Is it then the purpose of this Clause—and it would be a desirable purpose—to bring into human habitation a building which has fallen out of use for human habitation? The Lord Advocate indicated that it might be desirable to preserve a building because of historic interest, but this subsection appears to deal with the case of a house which is no longer suitable for human habitation being brought back into use by the closing order being abandoned. What is the machinery for that step to be carried out?

    By the simple process of the owner having the necessary works carried out to render the house fit for human habitation. There is nothing new in this proposal; the principle has been recognised since 1930, when the Housing Act of that year made similar provision. If it is possible, by doing the necessary work, to bring a house which is unfit for human habitation into use for human habitation then it is desirable that it should be done. We are not instituting any new principle here; it has been accepted since 1930.

    I think we should welcome this Clause because it lays emphasis on a fact often overlooked, particularly by local authorities, that there is no old house, whether of historical or architectural value, which is not capable of being restored to a useful purpose. The ordinary builder will say, "No," but the real architect will say that it can be done. This Clause will ensure that anything worthy of preservation for habitation will be retained.

    11.15 p.m.

    I do not think we should let this go so easily. Who is to determine the standard of fitness? If I remember aright a demolition order can only be put on a house providing it cannot reasonably be made fit for human habitation. I have had only a glance at this Clause, but I do not see the purpose of putting a closing order on a building because it is an ancient monument, and then to make it fit for human habitation. I do not want to be misunderstood on this: I can show the House several hundred yards of Edinburgh, scheduled as containing buildings of historic interest, where to do anything more to make them fit for human habitation than puttying the ceiling, would be to destroy their architectural value. In those circumstances, I feel we should have a fuller explanation from the Lord Advocate.

    What is to be the standard of what constitutes "fit for human habitation." Will public money be made available, instead of the owner being asked to make the property in all respects fit for human habitation? If public money is available, in which part of the Bill is it proposed to lay down what constitutes the standard of human habitation? As one with some experience of administration, I think a local authority is entitled to guidance on a question like this, and I cannot see where that guidance is given in the Bill. Perhaps the Secretary of State will elucidate the point I have raised.

    I have a certain measure of sympathy with what has just been said by the hon. Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay). The House should be given some further elucidation of how it is proposed to operate this Clause. Has the right hon. Gentleman had conversations with the various local authorities? Has any form of standard been laid down, or any agreement been come to how it is proposed to operate this Clause in regard to what is or is not fit for human habitation? This Clause also raises the question of the value of historic houses or monuments. Who is to decide which house is or is not fit to be preserved? This is rather leaving it to the possible whims of a local authority if there is no more close definition than appears in the Clause, unless the right hon. Gentleman informs the House what result the conversations with the local authorities have led to.

    I can think of many ancient buildings in Scotland which would not be fit for human habitation even if extensive repairs were undertaken, but which are certainly worthy of preservation because of their historic importance. Supposing, for example, the ancient fabric of Hermitage Castle was in question. That is the kind of thing I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to inform the House about. The Clause confers far-reaching powers on local authorities. There was, in the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, an implication that this was a cumbersome and long-worded Clause, and he ought to inform the House a little more fully how it is proposed to proceed if the House agrees with the Clause.

    I am a little in the dark about what happens here. May I try to put the matter as I see it? If the planning authority sees fit, a building preservation order is made. The demolition order falls, and the closing order comes into being. It is the next step I am rather worried about. That closing order might remain until the building fell down, so far as I can see at the moment, but I suppose what is intended to happen is that the owner shall then make the building fit for human habitation and the right hon. Gentleman will assist him by the powers he has taken in Clause 9, page 8, line 15, earlier this evening. If that is not the intention, how does the house become fit for human habitation? That is the point I would like cleared up, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman will do that for us.

    With the further permission of the House—because I did not know there would be these speeches, particularly the summation of other speeches by the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. McKie)—I would say that the position is perfectly clear. The hon. and gallant Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) had the matter right up to a certain point, and then expressed a doubt. He was right in saying, as I think I explained earlier, that if there is a demolition order and a preservation order applicable to the same premises, there is something inconsistent. So we transfer the demolition order to a closing order, and the two can run in perfect harmony without being inconsistent. If it should come to pass that, as a result of work done on that property, the house becomes fit for human habitation, the closing order would cease to have effect. That work might be done either by the owner or the local authority under their powers—that is a question which relates to the individual property in each case, but whether done by one or by the other, if, in the opinion of the local authority—and this answers the point of the hon. Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinley)—the house has become fit for human habitation, then the closing order goes.

    It was asked, by what standard should that be judged? I should have thought that obviously the local authority are the best people to judge, because, apart from their wide general knowledge of these matters, the local authority is the body which determined whether the closing order or demolition order should be imposed in the first instance, because presumably the property has fallen below the standard of human habitation. If that is the authority which determines that the property has fallen below the standard of human habitation, manifestly that is the best authority to determine whether the property has been restored above the limit which had been imposed. Accordingly, I cannot see any practical difficulty in the administration of this scheme.

    Question put, and agreed to.

    Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.