10 AUGUST 1907, Page 7

W E may be pretty sure of one thing about speeches

made by the President of the Local Government Board, and that is that they will be characterised by thoroughness and sound technical information. The speech which Mr. Burns made at the opening meeting of the International Housing Congress, which took place at the Caxton Hall on Monday, was as carefully prepared and as full of valuable matter as usual. He showed clearly that he has done his best to master the extremely complicated subject of housing reform in large cities, and he placed before the Congress some statistics which are at once reassuring and yet formidable. They are reassuring because they show that, whatever difficulties housing reform may hold in store for us, we have at least met with some measure of success in tackling difficulties already. The death-rate of Great Britain is the lowest in the world. The improvement in the conditions of housing of London has been great. Mr. Burns's figures as to the proportion of inhabitants to houses in this and other countries may not be new to those who have made a special study of housing problems, but they are worth giving. " There were five persons per house in England, where they lived in cottages ; ten persons per house in London, where they lived in. houses ; twenty per house in New York, where they lived in tenements ; twenty-six in Paris and forty-six in Berlin, where they lived in barracks. In New York, notwithstanding the alleged superiority of comfort and wealth, there were 350,000 dark interior rooms, and 2,300,000 persons living in 82,000 tenement houses." That is, for those particular houses, an average of nearly three hundred inhabitants per tenement. Imagine half the popula- tion of London packed three hundred in a house. Yet the population of the Metropolis (4,684,794 in 1905) only exceeds that of New York by some 650,000. The standards of comfort and convenience of two nations speaking the same language could scarcely differ more widely. But the overcrowding of British towns still remains one of the most baffling of problems. Mr. Burns's figures of " the proportion of overcrowded popula- tion living more than two in a room " are these :—In London, one in seven ; in Leeds, one in ten ; in Sheffield, one in twelve ; in Edinburgh, one in three; and in Glasgow, one in two. We are better off in London than in the two great Scottish cities, but there is clearly a great deal of work still to be done. It is interesting to notice, by the way, that the death-rate does not always decrease pari passu with a. lessened proportion of overcrowded population. The death-rate of Sheffield (seventeen per thousand) is higher than that of London (15'6) and of Edinburgh (16.1). But the death-rate of London is more than three per thousand less than it was in 1900, when it stood at 18-8. The statistics of the Registrar-General are by no means dull reading when they are compared with the recorded progress of better housing.

The best answer to those who have urged, sometimes not very wisely, that the shape which attempts at housing. reform are apt to take in this country is merely talk, is that the Housing Congress has come together. That is a practical step of immense importance. If its discussions are certain to be lengthy, it is still true that no valuable reform takes place without preliminary debate which may seem exasperatingly slow to those who have made up their minds as to what should be done, but which wise men will never check or deride. Even if it were a 'feature of all such discussions that there should be an opposing element urging that no reform was needed, such an opposition would have its uses in bringing into relief the strength of the reformers' argument. In the housing question, at all events, there is one form which opposition is hardly likely to take, and that is, to underrate the enormous complexity of the problem. When each step forward on a particular road means raising issues as grave and commanding as the relation of the State to the individual, the duties of tenant and landlord, the comparative advantages of private and public enterprise, besides questions of taxing and rating, and when much of the discussion must inevitably concern action spread over a number of years, it is not astonishing that things move slowly. The wonder rather is that we should be dealing with movement and not paralysis.

There is, however, one point in regard to progressive action of which, perhaps, more might be made, and that was urged by Sir John Dickson-Poynder in his preliminary address. " Much might be done," he suggested, " by turning the peculiarly English mays,' with which our social legislation abounds, into imperative slialls.'" We agree, though possibly we should distrust the " shalls " which might seem imperative to some of Sir John Dickson- Poynder's audience. We are not likely to get much good, for instance, by beginning headlong with schemes of com- pulsory purchase of land adjoining large cities, such as are provided for in Germany. There are plenty of impera- tive " shalls " to come into operation first, before a man is to be told that he " shall " part with his land to make a suburb. But if Sir John Dickson-Poynder means that municipal authorities ought to begin by exercising the powers of promoting housing reform which they already possess, he is pleading for what has often: been urged before in these columns. Take, for instance, the case of areas of buildings now standing which are known to be hopelessly insanitary. Why should not municipal authorities make it a rule to begin any scheme of rehousing by ordering every landlord to have all his house-property put into proper sanitary repair within a certain limit of time ? If such an order were made, one of two things would happen ; either the houses would be made sanitary, and so a distinct step forward would have been taken, or else the landlord would refuse to comply with the order, in which case the houses would have to be abandoned, and steps could be taken towards purchasing the ground on which they stood at site-value. It would be argued, probably, that this would result in a great deal of cruelty, that the poor people who would be turned out of the houses would suffer terribly, and that until there were fresh houses standinc, to receive them they ought not to be driven out of the old. But as it is, in living in horribly insanitary conditions the people are already suffering more than they know. "The dishoused men and women would only crowd into other areas, and make those insanitary," —is that an objection? But the law deals with such cases ; the authorities have only to insist that it should be carried out. If they were to exercise the power which the law gives them to see that houses shall not be insanitary, and that if they are, they shall not be inhabited, they would incidentally provide a much-needed object-lesson which might wake the public conscience to a sense of its duty. It is certainly not true that a filthy house is better than no house at all.

But even so, and granted that a proper exercise of the powers now vested in municipal authorities would result in the dishousing of large numbers of working men and women, the problem still remains,—What kind of houses ought to be built to receive them ? That is, in other words, not so much the problem of the house as of the home. Mr. Burns's speech in this connexion is worth the study of the wilder, younger Socialists who have had some encouragement lately in the success of one of their repre- sentatives in a hopelessly divided constituency, but whose importance is not to be measured by their own estimate of it, which is too noisy. , One of their central objects of attack is, of course, " the family," and Mr. Burns - is one of the few members of the Liberal Party who have chosen to make their own position clear on this and other points of the Socialist creed. " Home to me," Mr. Burns's speech runs, " is not only a shelter, it is a nursery for the young, a seminary for the youthful, a refuge for the aged. It is the roof-tree of character, the fount of all domestic virtues, and, I believe, it is the source of many of the best national qualities." That is finely said, and will perhaps be remembered by Liberals who have hitherto hesitated to say what they think about Socialism. For regard for the family and for the home is, after all, one of the great touchstones of anti-Socialism. It is astonishing how individualistic a turn the possession of a home and a family to provide for will give to men's political views. All the more incumbent, therefore, is it on members of both the great political parties to make it possible for the working man to respect his home and his family. That will not be done by State feeding of children, or by the indiscriminate outdoor relief of .unearned old-age pensions. But it can be done, or at least partly done, by the kind of work which we hope the Housing Congress may help us to understand better.