HC Deb 26 July 1935 vol 304 cc2206-14

Lords Amendment: In page 57, line 21, at the end, insert: if it appears to the Minister that it is likely to be so required within five years,".


I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

In another place and in the Standing Committee the opinion was expressed that the Clause was much too wide in its scope and would open the door to land speculation by local authorities. It was explained at the time that the purpose of the Clause was to enable local authorities to purchase land which they would obviously require not necessarily immediately but certainly before the expiration of their five years programme. In the circumstances it was decided to meet the criticism levelled at the Clause by limiting the powers of the local authority to the requirements for five years. This Amendment accordingly specifically limits the powers of a local authority compulsorily to acquire land in advance of their immediate requirements to land which the Minister of Health is satisfied is likely to be required within five years. I think that that is satisfactory to all parties and meets the criticism that land might be bought a very long time ahead and that by that means various difficulties might arise. I think that five years is a reasonable period to insert.

12.33 p.m.


We certainly cannot agree with this limitation of time. I am sure that the Minister will agree with me that in the development which now takes place of these very large schemes for local authorities, a period of five years is far too short. The Dagenham Scheme, for instance, was under development 14 years. I happen to know a little about these matters because I have acted on behalf of the London County Council on the accession of a very great deal of the land in various parts around London. One of the things experienced constantly in these cases was the way in which directly the London County Council or other local authority started to go into an area prices rocketted up alarmingly. From month to month prices used to rise £20, £30, £40, £50 or £100 an acre. A local authority like the London County Council coming into the Morden, Dagenham, or Edgware district has to buy enough land not sufficient for five years but even for 10 or 15 years for big schemes of that sort. To limit them to five years is to give the speculators the very opportunity they want.

It is going to fix the local authority sufficiently in their area to make it obviously necessary to go on after the five years, and at the same time not to allow them to make provision in advance for the land which will be needed in that subsequent period of time. That is going to preserve to the speculator his power to get the benefit of local authority development in housing, which I am sure is not a thing which anybody in this House attempts to justify or would attempt in any way to support. If one were dealing with a small local authority which is going to put up 100 houses or so under a scheme, that could be done in the five years. They could buy their 20 or 30 acres of land in a block and cover it in the five years, but where you are dealing with these big local authorities who want hundreds and thousands of acres in order to do their rehousing, if you say: "You may only buy enough land to be covered with houses in the next five years, and then in the next year you may buy another year's supply of land and the year after a further year's supply of land," you are going to lay them open to the very worst form of speculative competition in the acquisition of land.

I am sure that the House will bear in mind the fact that nowadays around the big towns there are very few large areas where you can put down a big scheme of housing. It is not as if you had an infinite choice. You have to bear in mind the questions of transport, amenities, conveniences, roads and the rest of it, so that there are only certain large areas into which you can go. Unless when you go there you have the power to take all the land that you want to develop, a thousand acres or so, you will be in the position that I have described. I think it was more than a thousand acres at Morden that was acquired by the County Council when they went down there, and it is not all covered yet, after all these years. If you say to a local authority: "How many houses are you going to build," and you are told one thousand a year, and then you say: "Well, you must not get land for more than 5,000 houses in five years," it means that in that event you are going to make them stop in that place because they have started there, and you are going to leave around a fringe of land into which they are forced to develop. You are going to give five years for the speculators to work up the prices in that fringe, so that when the moment comes that they have to acquire new land they will be the victims of these land speculators. I am certain that no one here desires that that should take place. I beg that the right hon. Gentleman will not insist on the five years' plan in this respect, whatever else he may desire to do, because it is impossible for the bigger local authorities to deal economically, as every one wants them to do, with this problem unless there is a longer term than that.

12.38 p.m.


I should like to support what my hon. and learned Friend has said. If we accept this Amendment it will strike a fatal blow at the best kind of housing development. My hon. and learned Friend understated the case. Becontree was bought 19 years ago and is not yet finished. If you follow garden city development and you are going to have proper planning and proper facilities for amenities, parks and open spaces you have to take the long-term view of the housing problem. You have to buy ahead. Therefore, my hon. and learned Friend is right in that respect. The average price of the Becontree estate when it was bought was something like £100 an acre—in my view that was rather too high a figure—but if you were to try and buy land in that neighbourhood now, as a result of the development of Becontree by the London County Council, you would have to pay four or five times that price.

My right hon. Friend is anxious to get these Amendments through, but he is also anxious to signalise his occupation of the great office of Minister of Health as a housing reformer. If, however, he allows these words to appear in an Act of Parliament he will go down for all time as one of the most reactionary—I say this deliberately—Ministers of Health that we have had since the war. We owe it to Lord Downham, a former Conservative of the Local Government Board—the same Department over which my right hon. Friend now presides—the credit for the buying of this large estate at Becontree. Some of the more modest members of the London County Council at that time wanted to do what the right hon. Gentleman apparently desires us to do now, and only to make provision for six years. But Lord Downham—then Mr. Hayes Fisher—insisted on big scale operations and on buying the whole of the estate, and the result is that we have the fine scheme which is not yet completed, although it is nearly finished, after 17 years' hard work. I feel sure that if my right hon. Friend had had further time to consider this problem he would not have accepted the proposed words. I hope that he will allow his second thoughts to be the right ones and that he will withdraw his support of the Amendment.

12.42 p.m.


As I was the person who signed the contract for the Becontree Estate I should like to make some comments on the Amendment and on the speeches that have been made by the hon. and learned Member and the hon. Baronet opposite. If the right interpretation of the Amendment is that which has been put by those two hon. Members, I should be entirely against it, because it is obvious to everybody that when there is development land goes up immensely in value. Becontree would have cost immensely more if we had had to buy the land piece by piece. In July, 1919, I signed the contract for £30,000,000, one of the largest contracts anybody has ever signed, on behalf of the County Council. It was a contract with a make and break Clause in it. Would that contract be accepted as proof that the land was required for those purposes? The scheme is now completed, or to all intents and purposes finished, and was opened by the right hon. Member for Swindon (Dr. Addison) last Saturday. The whole question rests upon the interpretation of the words: unless it appears to the Minister that it is likely to be required for those purposes.


In five years.


The point is what does the word "required" mean? It does not necessarily mean that you have to complete the building on the estate in five years. I should like the Minister to say how he is going to interpret the word "required". When I signed the contract for Becontree in July, 1919, the area was required for that purpose, and therefore the money could have been granted. The question is, how does the Minister interpret the word. All depends on whether he says that it will meet the provision if there is a presentation of plans, or the beginning of building, or still further the completion of buildings. That point has not been discussed. I think that "required for the purpose" may be interpreted by him as a prepared scheme being brought forward, or a contract signed for reasonable progress of development within five years. That would be reasonable, but if the words mean that the buildings have to be completed within five years then, surely, neither the Minister nor any of us would so wish to diminish the possibilities of building.


Surely the roads and sewers were not finished within five years or anything like it.


No, but my point is as to the way in which these words will be interpreted.

12.46 p.m.


I appreciate the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Bristol East (Sir S. Cripps) but the House must realise the position before the Bill was introduced and how it has now been altered. The Becontree Estate was evolved under existing powers, under which a local authority cannot purchase in advance compulsorily, only by agreement. The existing powers have not prevented the London County Council developing Becontree. What we are doing now is to give compulsory powers to buy in advance of need. Having done that it seems only reasonable that you should fix some limit—five years seems to me to be a reasonable limit—for the exercise of these compulsory powers. What we have to consider is whether it will interfere in any way with housing, and the answer is no, because local authorities can anticipate a five-year programme, and have in fact done so. We have also to consider whether it will interfere with redevelopment. Every stage of redevelopment is governed by a time limit, there is six months for one process and two years for another. There again, this limit of five years will not interfere with redevelopment. It will give a new housing spirit to local authorities, who instead of dawdling along without having any plans will now know what they want to do in the matter of housing contracts and can come to us for compulsory powers to buy in advance of need.


The Becontree Estate was largely purchased compulsorily in advance of need.


I myself signed the order for the compulsory purchase of Becontree, nearly 3,000 acres, 14 or 15 years in advance of need. The hon. Member is entirely misinformed.


In any event local authorities will still have those powers.


No, this Amendment will take them away. They cannot buy for five years in advance of need. It would make a case like Becontree entirely impossible. In that case the whole point was whether the Minister was to sign an order for the compulsory purchase for the whole area; and I signed it.


I have just made inquiries and I understand that this Amendment will not interfere in any way with the powers of the London County Council.


I am sorry to intervene in a debate in which hon. Members seem to be proud because they have developed the Becontree Estate. There is a substantial body of opinion which is not too pleased with the building of a great mass of municipal houses all of the same type in a given area, producing social consequences of a kind which many people do not like. So far as the Amendment is likely to restrict that undesirable form of housing development I rejoice at the Amendment, but although it seems that it does not go as far as I thought it did I shall support it.

12.53 p.m.


There seems to be a little misunderstanding in regard to this matter because the Minister himself is not quite certain how far the Amendment goes. If our view is correct it is going to have the most appalling effect on housing development. Everyone will agree that housing development is best done by means of large estates, and it is clear that if the Amendment is accepted the London County Council and other local authorities are going to be prevented from developing large estates. Every layman reading the proposal can come to no other conclusion but that. If the Solicitor-General can satisfy us that we are wrong I shall be the first to agree to the Amendment. As it appears now the Minister, through ignorance, I am sure that he does not want to do anything contrary to the best interests of housing, is asking the House to agree to something which is going to strike a most serious blow at housing development by large estates. I think we should have a definite legal view on the matter before we part with this most important proposal.

12.54 p.m.


I think it will be admitted that interpretation that is put upon this Amendment by hon. Members on this side of the House is the right one, and if the hon. Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle) desires to do which he has said he want to do, then, obviously, he must vote with us. The point I want to make is that if only sufficient land is bought to carry over a period of five years, then if a local authority wants to purchase further land in the same vicinity the price will rise. What is going to be the effect of a rise in the price of land on the second lot of houses which may be built. Every £100 added to the price per acre means 6d. per week on the rent of the houses that are built. In the case of Becontree the price of land immediately increased by 300 to 500 per cent. Land which could be bought at the beginning of the scheme for £100 could not be bought later on for much less than £500 per acre. That would mean an increase of rent for the tenants equal to 2s. 6d. or 3s. per week. It is something that the House ought not to contemplate without very serious thought. I hope the Minister will be prepared to give the Amendment further consideration.


I hope that the Government will not accept this Lords Amendment. In any event we ought to have some statement from the learned Solicitor-General to clear up the position. We ought not, even at this late stage of the Bill, to allow the Amendment to go through unless the House is clear as to what it means.

12.56 p.m.


I have been considering this matter, and I am impressed with some of the arguments that have been addressed to me. No one has any desire to do anything which would restrict a local authority in having a reasonably advanced view. At the same time I want the House to appreciate that there have been cases cited in which local authorities have purchased land and then held it for a very long period, and ultimately have disposed of it. If it will be agreeable to the House I will move to substitute "ten years" for "five years." That would meet all requirements and would give the local authority a reasonable period. If I had the general assent of the House to that proposal it would strengthen me when I have to make the necessary provision in another place. If I have the support of the whole House I shall take the responsibility of making the period ten years instead of five years.

12.57 p.m.


The right hon. Gentleman is between the devil and the deep sea. We do not like this idea of a time limit at all. In the cases which have been cited the ten years limit would have been insufficient. However, I realise the difficulties of the Minister. He has to return this Bill to another place. My hon. Friends and I would feel that it was some advance towards dealing with the problem if ten years were inserted instead of five years. That would make necessary a consequential alteration of the Amendment on line 24. Then if the right hon. Gentleman finds from experience that something further is necessary I am sure the House will be agreed on the question of principle.


With regard to the last sentence in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood), I hope that the Minister will give some attention to what is suggested.


I will take into account the experience that this may give us in deciding whether anything further can be done, and whether there is any reason for the apprehension which has been expressed. I ask leave to withdraw my Motion for agreement with the Lords Amendment.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made to Lords Amendment: In line 2, leave out "five" and insert "ten."—[Sir K. Wood.]

Lords Amendment: In page 57, line 24, at the end, insert: and at the end of the said subsection the following proviso shall be inserted— 'Provided that a local authority shall not be authorised to purchase any land compulsorily for those purposes unless it appears to the Minister that it is likely to be required for those purposes within five years from the date on which he confirms the compulsory purchase order.'

Amendment made to Lords Amendment: In line 8, leave out "five" and insert "ten."—[Sir K. Wood.]

Lords Amendment: In page 59, line 44, at the end, insert: