It is not very easy to understand the just laws that should govern compensation. When there is talk of disestablishing public-houses, certain statesmen approve of compensation. The argument is that as public-houses are licensed by law, their owners have been given a sort of status and sanction, which should be properly and considerately dealt with in case their businesses are taken away from them. But other people also take out licences, such as tobacconists, pawnbrokers, grocers, and wine sellers, yet when these traders are disturbed or disestablished, compensation is never suggested.
Let us see what has happened in Birmingham. When the grand new street was made the traffic to the northern part of the town was largely diverted from other thoroughfares, and the consequence was that streets and passages that were once busy highways and byways were soon comparatively deserted. Shops became tenantless, or had to be let at greatly reduced rents. Indeed, the depreciation of property in the localities referred to is said to have been at least thirty per cent. Yet the owners had no redress.
Of course it usually happens that when large reforms are effected the noble work is done at somebody’s inconvenience or cost. It is the inevitable result, and people who are not sufferers shrug their shoulders and complacently remark that the few must be sacrificed for the benefit of the many. It is delightfully easy to be philosophical and even philanthropic when our own pockets, feelings, and interests are not concerned. The last new great Improvement Scheme would, of course, be a great thing for Birmingham; it would also shed a considerable amount of glory on its authors; it would likewise put a good deal of power into the hands of its administrators, and not a little money into the pockets of professional men. If some few persons had to suffer in order to bring about such splendid results they must try to be patriotic, noble citizens, or else grin and bear their discomfiture! Those, however, who were despoiled of their businesses, or who found their property seriously depreciated, were not likely to be consoled by such buttered comfort. They raised their voices in impotent protest, and denounced Mr. Chamberlain and all his works.
We do not hear very much of the Artisans’ Dwellings Act now, but any towns that contemplate adopting it should profit by the experience of Birmingham, consider its full scope and meaning, and count the cost. The city of Birmingham has applied the Act in connection with its last great Improvement Scheme, and it now remains to be seen what the results, in a commercial sense, will be. The present and succeeding generation, at least, will have to pay off some heavy obligations in the next sixty or seventy years, and then the city should he immensely the richer for its enterprising policy. I say it should be, and probably it will be, but there is a fair-sized “if” to be considered.