THE COMMISSION ON THE HOUSING OF THE POOR.
THE Housing of the Poor is exactly the subject for a Royal Commission. It bristles with difficulties, but for the most part they are not difficulties which involve principles. Of course, this is not true universally. The proposal, for example, to throw the cost of rebuilding the great cities on the ground landlords touches the relation of the community to the land, and so involves very large principles. But this side of the subject is not very likely to give much employment to a Royal Commission. Commissions commonly represent the average good-sense of the public, and any doctrine that is very novel or very startling probably comes in for nothing more than a complimentary reference in the Report. For ourselves, we hold that in this matter common-sense is a much better adviser than heroic philanthropy ; and in a Royal Commission heroic philanthropy, while it gets a respectful hearing, seldom gets anything else. What is most of all wanted is, first, a large assemblage of facts ; and next, a care- ful separation of the several classes of facts.
There is all the difference in the world between the inability to get decent lodging which comes from absolute poverty, and the inability which comes from relative poverty. There is a class of persons in every large town who stand to wholesome lodging as they stand towards wholesome food. The lodging may be there, just as the food is there, and the price asked for it may be quite moderate. But on an uncertain income of a shilling a day it is hard to buy either, and impossible to buy both, and the consequence is that the wholesome lodging, as being the less necessary of the two, goes to the wall. There are other cases, again, in which a man in receipt of fair wages has no means of housing himself decently in one town ; while another man, earning precisely the same wages, but happening to work in another town, finds no difficulty in housing himself for a very reasonable sum. In the inaccurate way in which the subject is so often handled, both these cases would be lumped together, under the general name of overcrowding." Yet, in fact, they have nothing in common. In the second, it is plainly the machinery for housing the working-class that is in fault. There is not lodging enough to meet the demand, and there- fore the price of what there is, is extravagantly high. In the first case, on the contrary, the supply of houses may be quite adequate, and there may be room enough to build many more, if they are wanted. But unless they are let for a rent which would mean a clear weekly loss to the owner, the very poor cannot take them. Here it is not the machinery for housing the working-class that is in fault, but the destitution of a particular section of the working-class ; and if any remedy can meet the evil, it must be a remedy that raises wages not one that multiplies houses. In much that was written about " Outcast London," this vital distinction was altogether ignored. The difficulty of finding lodging and the difficulty of finding money to pay for lodging were treated as one and the same thing. All these distinctions are sure to receive their proper share of attention at the hands of a Royal Commission, and we may fairly hope to get some notion of the relative proportions of the two kinds of inability, and so of the real magnitude of the evil whidh it is possible for Parliament to touch. No legislation about dwellings will touch the case of the man who wants a supper and a bed, and
has only money enough to pay for one of them. It is only by keeping cases of this kind in memory that we can hope to deal to any purpose with the main question. Again, the difficulty of finding lodging for working-men divides itself in another way. In most of the large towns, if there is an insufficient supply of houses such as can be hired at. moderate, but still remunerative rents, it is owing to a want of building enterprise, which may probably be cured by muni- cipal action. But in London, the dearth of accommodation is often due to the immense competition for sites. In a city of less magnificent distances, a working-man can live in any part of it without much inconvenience. But in London, for a man to live in one district and to have his work in another may really involve a journey which, unless railway or tram companies take some pains to consult his wants, is of impracticable length. Then the character of a great deal of London work is quite different from that of the work in other towns. It lies much more in ministering to the wants of the well-to-do, and these wants arise at uncertain times and at very short notice. An artisan can live at Clapham, because he goes to his work and leaves it at fixed hours. But a linkman must live within call of his occasional employers ; at least, if he does not, he will pro- bably find his employment grow more precarious than it is already. Yet the value of land in the district in which he wants to find a lodging is prohibitive—prohibitive not merely to men of his clasq, but to men of any class except the very wealthy. Whatever it may be possible to do for these two cases, it is clearly not possible to do anything which shall apply equally well to both of them. Perhaps the treatments needed for each may not be so distinct as they may seem when first the problem is stated ; but they must still be distinct. A Royal Commission will be able to give full consideration to the points of difference, to trace them to their ultimate causes, and, it may be hoped, to make recommendations which shall go beyond those plausible generalities which seem to settle so much, and really settle nothing.
Whether the kind of Commission it is apparently intended to appoint is in all respects the best, we are not quite sure. There are two theories on which these bodies are mostly chosen. According to one, the Commission is a little Parlia- ment, in which all the various views that are held about the subject are represented, and find a fair field in which to do battle each for its own hand. According to the other, the Commissioners are in the position of impartial Judges, whose business is to sift and weigh the evidence laid before them, and to state the result to which, in their opinion, it points. The former kind of Commission is apt to end in the presentation of as many reports as there are opinions represented, since the representatives of each are far too much wedded to their own view to be induced to change it for another. Consequently, the net result of the Commission has to be looked for in the evidence, and as this is imbedded in a Blue-book, it seldom makes much impression on the public. It would not be easy to specify any precise service which the Agricultural Commis- sion has rendered to English farming. In the present instance, however, the subject is one of so much public interest, that had it been intrusted to three or five working Commissioners, theorists and philanthropists might have felt left out in the cold, and in this way the report, though more valuable in itself, would have had to make its way against some unnecessary prejudice. As regards this particular question, too, a large and representative Commission has one special advantage over a small one. The Prince of Wales is thus enabled to be one of the Commissioners, and anything that gives the future Sovereign a more intimate acquaintance with the wants of the poorest of his subjects does something to promote mutual sympathy. That is a quality in which the Queen and her children have never been found wanting ; but it will be all the more spontaneous and genuine, in proportion as it is based on actual knowledge.