The act and the dwellings.
Considering how many interests were affected by the Birmingham Improvement Scheme and the adoption of the Artisans’ Dwellings Act, it may be doubted if the scheme would have passed as it did had its full purport and meaning been fully considered and understood. Some persons saw that they would be grievously injured, and they offered strenuous opposition, but there were many others who only found out when it was too late what extreme and arbitrary power was conferred upon the authorities who put the Act into operation.
Of course the scheme was laid before the rate-payers in the usual manner, but few realised the importance of studying it well, or grasped the far-reaching character of its operations till too late.
Let me explain more especially what is meant by this. When it was decided to adopt Mr. Chamberlain’s scheme and make the new fine street, land was cleared and was let on leases by the Corporation. In letting this land, agreements were made that the new buildings, when consisting of shops, offices, &c., should be so many storeys high, the object, of course, being to make the properties, which would in due course revert to the city, the more valuable. When, however, these tall buildings were erected, adjacent premises were robbed of light and air, and when the owners or tenants of these injured premises asked for compensation they found out, at least in some cases, that the authorities were not liable. I believe I am right in saying that the powers conferred by the Act absolved them from indictments on the part of those whose property was damaged by diminished air or light. The result was that certain sufferers found to their mortification that they had no redress, but must raise their chimneys at their own cost, if necessary, and in other cases endure the inconvenience of a decreased supply of light. This was an unpleasant revelation that caused much gnashing of teeth among the owners of, and the dwellers in, the properties surrounding the tall buildings erected by the leaseholders of the Corporation.
As for those whose property was required and taken under the Act, it was all very well for owners and for those who had leases: they could not be molested without fair and proper payment. Shopkeepers and others, however, who were only annual tenants, had, I fear in many cases, to go empty away. Some of these had good, old-established businesses that had for years become identified with certain premises. It was nothing short of ruin to them to move, but they had to take up their goods and walk. This is the way that authorities often have to deal with the more or less helpless in view of what they consider to be the greatest good of the greatest number.
It will, of course, be said that some of these traders were extremely short-sighted not to have had leases of premises that were so all-important to them. In many cases, however, they were unable to obtain such agreements, the landlords being unwilling or unable to grant them. The result was that many a prosperous tradesman had his successful career cut short and passed into a retirement he did not desire, probably with a few warm curses upon the Town Council, the Improvement Scheme, and the schemers.