HC Deb 17 April 1935 vol 300 cc1979-88

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

11.0 p.m.


I apologise for detaining the House for a few minutes, but I desire to raise a question, of which I gave notice, relating to certain land in South Liberty Lane, Bedminster, Bristol. It is an area 50 acres in extent in one of the less attractive parts of my constituency. A few years ago it presented a very dismal picture, bounded on one side by the main line of the Great Western Railway Company and on the other by factories, tanneries and other industrial premises. It is low-lying land, smoky, dirty and subject to occasional floods. Two or three years ago 37 acres of this land was let upon lease to the Unemployed Welfare Association of the City of Bristol, a voluntary body catering for the welfare of the unemployed. Since that time £1,000 or more, money raised by public subscription from charitably disposed persons, has been spent on draining the land, and a great deal of work has been put in by the unemployed men themselves and by voluntary helpers. Over 300 unemployed men are provided there with allotments. Each allotment has its own hut, very well ordered and very well cared for. There is a general canteen for the use of the men, at which we are able to obtain produce at low rates. Indeed, the whole of the land has been turned into a flourishing and happy community, doing really useful work for the good of the unemployed men in my constituency. Some months ago it was honoured by a visit from the Prince of Wales, who expressed himself in very high terms of commendation of the work that was being done there.

The land was only let upon lease, and recently the freehold was sold by the owner to the Northville Building Company for the purpose of building. I make no complaint whatever about the action of the company or its proprietor. He has acted merely upon ordinary business lines, and no complaint whatever can be made of his action in purchasing the land. The land was at the time of the purchase scheduled, under a town planning resolution passed by the Bristol City Council, for industrial purposes, industrial purposes being in conformity with the general nature of the district. I must admit at once that it was perhaps a little short-sighted of the Bristol City Council to schedule that land for industrial and not for allotment purposes, and I think they realise that that is so, because there has for some time been a discussion going on about the desirability of altering the nature of the zone and of turning the land from industrial to allotment purposes. In answer to a supplementary question by the hon. Member for Bristol North (Mr. Bernays), the other day, the Minister said that this was a matter of a private owner being allowed to do what he liked with his own land. I would remind the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health that when the land was purchased it had already been scheduled for industrial purposes. If he will look at the notes of the public inquiry he will see that the representative of the Company, Mr. Jennings, stated that he knew at the time of the purchase that the land had been scheduled but he took the risk because the whole question of town planning is so risky and one never knows from day to day what is happening. The company appealed against the classification of this land in the schedule, and the appeal was heard by one of the Ministry's inspectors. The inspector no doubt made his report to the Minister and on that report the Minister allowed the appeal and turned the classification of the land from industrial land to housing land, with the result that during the next few months these men will be turned off their allotments and the land will be used for the purposes of housing. I have rarely known any decision of a Government Department which has created so much spontaneous feeling in the city of Bristol as this decision. I am the last man to raise a matter merely because there is public feeling in my constituency, but in this case I happen entirely to sympathise with the general feeling in my part of the world. As the Minister knows, not only has the holdings committee of the corporation passed a resolution, but the whole city could themselves have passed, without a single dissenting voice, a resolution protesting against the decision of the Minister, which has been forwarded to him. I could tell him of dozens of private representations by persons and bodies of all sorts protesting against this decision.

The feeling is based upon four different lines. First of all, if this sort of decision is to be taken, it makes nonsense of the whole principle of town planning. That is the official point of view. What I may call the more general public point of view is that this decision ignores the need for allotments. I see the hon. Member for West Nottingham (Mr. Caporn) here. He has been engaged in a discussion with the Minister on the question of allotments. There has recently appeared in the public Press a letter which the Minister wrote to him on this question, from which I quote the following: The Minister is, of course, well aware of the importance of the allotment movement and its particular value to unemployed persons. He is therefore very careful to see that there is no improper interference with allotments. What is true for Nottingham surely ought to be true for Bristol also, and if allotments are important for the unemployed men in Nottingham, they are equally important to the unemployed men in Bristol. The third reason which has caused this unparalleled outcry is that no official person in Bristol can understand what reasons can have actuated the inspector. The city engineer, the medical officer of health, and everyone who has had the opportunity of examining this matter agrees that while this is an admirable site for allotments and might even be used at a pinch for industrial purposes, it is of all the undeveloped sites there the least suitable for housing. If I could take the Minister down with me next week-end, I am sure he himself would agree that it is most unsuitable for housing purposes.

Finally, there is the general feeling, of sympathy and that it would be most unfortunate if these men, who have spent a great deal of energy, trouble, and labour upon building up their own allotments and have, by means of this grant, been given useful, interesting, and healthy work to do, should be displaced for the sake of building a few more houses. The Minister knows the interest which I have taken in the question of housing, and I pay him a great tribute for his desire to promote the housing of the working classes. I congratulate him upon the great strides which his Department has made in the last few months. The houses which will be built upon this land, if this proposal is carried through, are not ordinary working-class houses at all; they are houses which will be for sale and not to let, houses which will be beyond the pocket of the ordinary working-class man. Bristol has a very great record. It is not a matter of vital importance to the city that these 37 acres should be turned into a fresh road of villas for men who can afford to pay £500, £600, or £700 cash for a house. There are plenty of other sites available for houses in Bristol, hut there is no other site available for allotments of this sort.

I have every sympathy with the Minister's desire to score a record bag of houses but he can do that without dispossessing these 350 unemployed men. I do not desire to use intemperate or hasty language. I appreciate that he has had a very difficult decision to make, and I dare say he has felt that the balance has fallen on the side on which he eventually decided, but I do ask him if, in view of the serious local feeling in this matter and the really genuine hardship which will be caused to 300 or 350 unemployed men, he cannot reconsider this decision and disallow the appeal against the unanimous decision of the Bristol City Council. If he feels that his statutory responsibilities prevent him from reconsidering his present decision, then I do ask him if he cannot make some other sort of proposal, if he cannot put before us some suggestion whereby the city council, voluntary workers—those of us who are interested in the welfare of the unemployed—can work together in order to secure the preservation of this land.



I desire very briefly, but very emphatically, to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend. It is a question, of course, that directly concerns his constituency, but he will agree with me that it concerns, as well, the whole of Bristol. The decision with regard to the allotments was given entirely against the weight of local opinion and I would just quote one or two important local authorities who have given their opinion on this question. There is the town clerk of Bristol, who said with regard to this use of these allotments for housing purposes: We regard the land as entirely unsuitable for the erection of dwelling-houses and in our submission it is difficult to imagine a more unsatisfactory place in which to expect people to live. If town planning meant anything it would never authorise the use of such land as this for dwellings. There is the opinion of the Bristol city engineer, who said: I am absolutely satisfied that the land is not suitable for dwellings. There is the opinion of the medical officer of Bristol, perhaps the most important of all, and at least the Ministry of Health should give some weight to the opinion of the medical officer. This is what he says: I do not know of any undeveloped site in Bristol that is less desirable for housing purposes. That is a very formidable opinion. I suggest that the opinions of the town clerk, of the city engineer and of the medical officer present a very formidable trinity of local opinion. I fully recognise, with my hon. Friend the Member for South Bristol (Mr. N. Lindsay), the zeal of the Under-Secretary with regard to housing, and I think the whole House recognises the tremendous efforts he has made in that direction; but in the opinion of the local experts in Bristol there are alternative sites for housing. I would venture on one other quotation. I would read an extract from the town clerk's letter to the Ministry of Health dated 19th October, in which he says: The council were of opinion that there was plenty of other land available for building purposes in this part of the city, and that such land would be more suitable. The site in question"— that is the allotment site— is low-lying, no sewer is available; the site is very near a large brick earth quarry, which is used as a tip which is usually burning; and there is also a large colliery spoil heap opposite the site. This land is very unsuitable for residential purposes. The Parliamentary Secretary, I have no doubt, will lay stress on the report of the medical inspector of the Department, who visited the site, I understand, on a. most unfortunate day, after a long dry spell, when the land, which is usually water-logged, happened to be dry. It was also at a time when the wind was blowing in an unusual direction, and the fumes of the brick quarry were not in evidence. I suggest that his report, although as impartial as he could make it, was not based on the facts as they are known to those who live in Bristol. The Parliamentary Secretary may say that we should have approached him earlier in the matter. The local authority, knowing the condition of the site, had no idea that the Ministry of Health would allow buildings to be erected upon it. I know the kind of letter we should have received from the Parliamentary Secretary, a most charming and courteous letter, but telling us that the matter was sub judice and that he could make no comments on it.

But surely it was incumbent upon the Minister of Health, knowing that there was strong local opinion against this use of the site, to consult the Members of Parliament for Bristol, or to consult again the local authority before coming to a final decision. This decision makes the whole position of town planning decisions a farce. I agree that the Minister of Health must have an over-riding power in regard to town planning decisions of a local authority, but I suggest that it should be used very sparingly and with the utmost caution. Our contention is that in this case this over- riding power has been used wantonly and ill-advisedly against the overwhelming weight of the evidence.

11.18 p.m.


The hon. Member for South Bristol (Mr. N. Lindsay) and the hon. Member for North Bristol (Mr. Bernays) have raised one of those difficult cases in which the Minister of Health is called in to adjudicate between the right of a developer and the desire of a council to preserve a certain character of planning. The position is broadly as stated. This site of some 37 acres was part of a site in respect of which a resolution to plan had been passed by the council in 1929, but when a resolution to plan has been passed the decision is not final. The council then got down to the business of drawing up a complete scheme. That scheme is now being considered but it has not been considered by the Minister, and between the time of a resolution to plan being passed and the scheme it frequently happens that councils change their intention as regards a particular zone. What Parliament has said in the Act is that once a resolution has been passed, a developer develops at his own risk unless he consults the council to find out what is their probable intention in respect to any zone. This company has at its head a well-known builder, a man who has built 3,000 houses and is a well-known man in the building trade and is an ex-president of the National Federation. Being in possession of this particular site he applied to the council to build some 500 houses of between £380 and £500 each. He was informed that his application was refused on the ground that this particular area would be reserved for industrial purposes. That being so, he exercised his right of appeal to the Ministry, the right of appeal which is given by Parliament; and I suggest that, when Parliament gives a right of appeal against what is at that stage a rather fluid position of the council, it is nonsense to say that we are making nonsense of town planning.

The claim of the council on the one side was that this area should be reserved for industrial purposes, and the claim of the developer was that this was a. good site for the building of working-class houses. The question of allotments was never considered. Indeed, it was never submitted by the council. I believe at one time that it was suggested this land could be kept as an area zoned for allotments. But the issue we had to decide was whether this zone should be kept for industrial purposes or whether we should allow it to be used for working-class houses. That is the narrow issue. I do not intend to argue the merits of it again. The hon. Member for North Bristol (Mr. Bernays) said I might say this or that, but I will say neither. An inquiry was held. The hon. Member for North Bristol has quoted evidence on one side, and I could equally quote evidence on the other side.


Local witnesses.


The object of holding an inquiry is to consider the whole merits of a case, and on which side the balance of advantage lies. We came to the conclusion that on balance, in view of the fact that there had been no industrial development in this area for some years, in view of the fact that some 300 or 400 acres in Bristol would be scheduled under a scheme for industrial purposes; in view of the acute shortage of small houses in this area—there being, with the exception of a small row, no houses within half a mile—and in view of the desire of workers to live near their work—for all these reasons we came to the conclusion that we could not properly refuse permission for development and building of working-class houses. I admit that the site is not an ideal one, but it is no worse than a site recently acquired by the council. In some particulars it is better, and in some worse. But it was not so bad as to justify refusal of development.

I appreciate that there is another question in this issue, and it is a big one. Whether this particular site is reserved for industrial purposes or for residential purposes the ultimate fate of the allotment holders will be the same. They are on a yearly tenancy. Had we been asked to consider the question of allotments, very different considerations would have entered our minds. My hon. Friend, raising, as he always does, questions which vitally concern his constituency, wants to know what can now be done in view of the turning of public opinion into a rather different channel which was never raised at the inquiry. I agree it is a hardship that these 350 unemployed men should, after the labour they have spent on the soil, be turned out. The position is this. If public opinion in Bristol demands that this land should be kept for allotments, if that is the decision of the council, then their course is clear. They should at once approach the developer. They could either acquire the land from him and keep it for allotments or they could change their scheme, which is still fluid at this stage, and zone the area for allotment purposes. I understand that the builder, Mr. Jennings, is a generous supporter of allotments and of the Unemployed Welfare Association and if an approach were made to him in a friendly spirit, I cannot imagine that he would not consider the representations made to him, very sympathetically. That may be the outcome of this short discussion. I claim that, on the main issue, we could not have done other than we did. Now that the broader question has been raised, it may be that the council will be able to find land elsewhere but, if they cannot do so, they should immediately approach the developer if it is the unanimous wish that this land should be zoned for allotment purposes. Justice may thereby be done.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Seven minutes after Eleven o'Clock.