HC Deb 01 April 1938 vol 333 cc2341-9

Order for Second Reading read.

2.50 p.m.

The Postmaster-General (Major Tryon)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This is a Bill to enable the Postmaster-General to obtain powers regarding three sites, in London, Leeds, and Oxford. I am glad to say that we have reached substantial agreement with all the local authorities concerned in all three cities. In the first place, we are seeking power to acquire compulsorily a site in the City of London which adjoins the north block of Faraday Building, and is otherwise bounded by Carter Lane, Godliman Street and Knightrider Street, and also to close to public traffic the sites of Bell Yard, Bakehouse Court, and a portion of Knightrider Street. The site is required to provide a necessary margin for extension of the telephone equipment housed in Faraday Building, together with centralised accommodation for the regional director of the London telecommunications region. At present the staff is scattered in Various places and it is thought more convenient to have them together. It is considered unlikely that all the interests in the site could be acquired by private treaty in a reasonable time; and the matter is urgent. I may say with reference to the fact that some small side streets will be closed that there is a compensating advantage in that Godliman Street, a thoroughfare which is constantly blocked, as I know from experience in going to the General Post Office, will be a very much wider thoroughfare so that, on the whole, communications will be much better than before.

Secondly, we are seeking power for an extension of the Leeds Head Post Office on adjoining land which forms part of a disused burial ground. This burial ground was completely closed as long ago as 1854, and a large part of it is already built over. The corporation are raising no objection. It will be a considerable advantage to the people of Leeds to improve the accommodation in their central post office. In the third place, we are seeking power compulsorily to acquire land for a new telephone exchange at Oxford, on a site in St. Aldates Street, near to Holly Bridge, owned partly by the city authorities, and partly by St. Aldates Church, which has a school on the site, for which a site will have to be found elsewhere. There is no other suitable area in the City of Oxford large enough for the buildings we want, to meet the rapidly increasing telephone traffic at Oxford itself and in the surrounding districts of Berkshire and Oxfordshire. I am proposing, if the House gives the Bill a Second Reading, that it should go to a Select Committee, where any objections which may be felt by any individuals concerned can be fully heard; they will have every opportunity of putting their objections against the Bill. These are the leading points in the Bill, and I am prepared to answer any questions which hon. Members may wish to put.

2.54 p.m.

Mr. Viant

The House will be pleased to hear that the business of the Post Office has developed to such an extent that it is necessary to acquire these sites in the cities of London, Oxford and Leeds, but the House will ho doubt be rather concerned about the closing of certain streets in the City of London. It is true that some of them are somewhat narrow, but we should like to be assured that there is going to be a compensating advantage. I take it that the City authorities will imposed conditions, but if we can have an assurance on this point it will allay some uneasiness which might prevail among those who are accustomed to use the streets which are going to be closed. I think it is all to the advantage of the smooth passage of a Bill that all information which is available should be given on the Floor of the House. This also facilitates the passage of a Bill through Committee. It is for that reason that I have put this point of the Postmaster-General. I feel sure the House will welcome the fact that it is intended to extend the general post office in Leeds, but I hope that the Postmaster-General will be able to give an assurance to the people of Leeds that the burial ground has been disused for a sufficient number of years to ensure that the feelings of the relatives of those buried there will not be in any outraged.

I think the House will also be glad to know why there is, in Oxford, only this site available for the erection of a telephone exchange. I gather from the Postmaster-General that the use of this site will necessitate the closing of a school, and those hon. Members who have served on local authorities will appreciate the trouble which is sometimes caused by the closing of a school. The parents are compelled to send their children a longer distance to school, and in these days when motor traffic is increasing to such an extent, and when so many children are being maimed and killed in the streets of our towns, one can appreciate the apprehensions of the parents. Unless the residents in Oxford are au fait with the reasons for the closing of this school and the advantages and disadvantages that will accrue from it, and unless they can feel that the lives of their children are not going to be put in greater jeopardy, I feel that they will be likely to offer some opposition to the acquisition of this site.

I hope the Postmaster-General will be able to give the House some information on this matter. I presume that all hon. Members are rather concerned about the price which the Department will be likely to be asked to pay for these sites. There is to be compulsory purchase, and I am sure that hon. Members will wish to be assured that no undue advantage will be taken of the Department in the purchase of these sites. It would be interesting to the House if it could be told the probable price that will have to be paid for the sites. On the whole, however, I presume that the House will welcome the development of business in connection with the Post Office which has necessitated the purchase of these sites, which will undoubtedly work out to the advantage of the Department.

2.59 p.m.

Mr. Goldie

I intervene in this Debate in the capacity of watchdog. I view with the greatest concern Clause 6, which gives power to stop up a street in Leeds, and Clause 7, which gives power to stop up streets in London. Ever since 1841, under the Highways Act, a recognised procedure for the protection of the public has existed in connection with the stopping up of highways. The procedure is that, first, two justices of the peace must view the street and give their certificate; then application must be made to the quarter sessions which, if necessary, have a jury sworn to determine whether there is opposition, and whether or not it is desirable that the streets so inspected by the justices should be closed; and finally, after the whole business has been gone through, a certificate must be given by the justices to show that the work has been properly and satisfactorily carried out in the public interest. I have the honour, in Manchester, regularly to try these highway motions under a local Act. Six times in the year I have to deal with six or eight cases brought under a local Act, where the procedure is equally strict.

It seems to me that it is most undesirable that a Government Department, whether it be the Post Office or any other, should take advantage of Statutory regulations to carry through, in what is more or less a general Bill, Clauses which, as far as I can see, deprive the public of those rights which they would have if the Post Office authorities had to proceed either under the Highways Act or under some local Act. I suggest that it is not desirable that the public, who have absolutely no chance of protesting, should be forced to have business streets closed down without their being able to make any protest. Although I have not the honour to represent Leeds or the City of London, I wish to utter a warning and a protest in that matter. From every other point of view, I welcome the Bill as enabling the Post Office to carry on the useful work they are doing.

3.3 p.m.

Sir R. Tasker

I wish to call attention to the powers which exist to-day in the matter of closing streets. There are really three bodies concerned; first, the owners of the property in the street; secondly, the local authority; and thirdly, the quarter sessions. If their approval is obtained, there is no difficulty in closing a street. I view with some apprehension the claim which is constantly being put forward, not only by the Post Office but by every other Government Department, to exemption in this matter. I think that claim is to be deprecated. As far as this Bill is concerned, I suggest that if the Post Office are determined to try to get these powers, they should not do it piecemeal by selecting a site in Leeds, one in Oxford, and then next year a site in another place, and so on; but that they should ask for powers for the whole of the United Kingdom, and then allow the Select Committee to consider the whole matter, which I suggest might very well be dealt with by the Select Committee.

With regard to the disused burial ground, there are certain Acts which prohibit the building on or under old burial grounds. I am aware that the Post Office have exercised their rights in this matter, as they did in Islington, where they built over a portion of an old disused burial ground, and claimed exemption. Everyone connected with the building industry knows the difficulties which arise when human remains are uncovered in the course of excavations. The work has to be stopped at once, the authorities have to be notified, an inquest has to be held and steps have to be taken to reinter the remains in a decent manner. If the Post Office are allowed to do this, what is there to prevent every other Government Department claiming to be at liberty to use old burial grounds for building purposes? If, as I understand, however, there have been no burials in this particular ground for about a century, and if the precaution has been taken already of removing the bodies, then it is not very apparent to me why it should be necessary to introduce this Clause into the Bill at all. I hope the Postmaster-General will clear up those points which are of considerable importance in relation to the administration of the Building Acts in London.

3.7 p.m.

Major Tryon

I naturally sympathise with the interest which has been expressed by two of my hon. Friends behind me about the closing of streets, however small and narrow, which are now in use and also on the question of the disused burial ground. I think there is some misunderstanding. We are not proposing that all this should be done at once on the passing of the Second Reading of the Bill this afternoon if it should be passed. After the Second Reading there is to be a Select Committee to whom all these representations will be made. It will be composed of Members of this House, and I am sure it will be agreed that it will be an excellent and competent body to deal with any objections which may be offered either by people accustomed to use the streets which it is proposed to close, or by people who have a natural interest in the question of the use of this burial ground.

The alternative suggestion made by the hon. Member for Holborn (Sir R. Tasker) seems to be very much more arbitrary than anything we propose. He suggests that we should take complete power, all over the country, to do these things. It is just because we have not that arbitrary power that we are asking for the Second Reading of this Bill so that a Select Committee can go into all these matters. I did refer in my earlier speech to the closing of these small streets and to the fact, of which I am well aware, that the worst congestion almost in the whole of London is to be found in Godliman Street. I know that because it delays me every morning in getting to my work. That street will be made much wider if this Bill is passed.

With reference to the questions raised by the hon. Member for East Willesden (Mr. Viant) I have already dealt with the closing of the streets and in case of the Leeds burial ground the position is this. The decision to build over this burial ground must have been made before 1854, because it was completely cleared of all remains as long ago as that. We are only going to build on a little strip of a very much larger area, which is now building ground. Therefore we are not doing anything new and we are acting for the greater convenience of the people of Leeds in thus extending our operations. The hon. Member also asked about the question of price. That is just one of the advantages of the course which we are taking—that the position of the taxpayers in the matter of price will be safeguarded, because in the event of our not agreeing to a price, the question will be decided by arbitration which will, I think, satisfy both the needs of justice as far as the owners of the property are concerned and also the needs of proper protection as regards the spending of State money.

Mr. Viant

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman has not answered my question about the closing of the school at Oxford.

Major Tryon

The position there is that we are getting a very long site all along that street. We shall start our building operations further along than the school. We shall not start building where the school now is, until a satisfactory site has been found for the school, which may not be for some years to come. The position of the school is safeguarded and it is possible that there will be a joint scheme including this school and another school which will give much better results than are obtainable under the present arrangement. At all events we do not intend to build at once on the part of the site where the school is, and I think the point which has been raised in that respect is satisfactorily covered.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill be committed to a Select Committee of Seven Members, Four to be nominated by the House and Three by the Committee of Selection.

Ordered, That all Petitions against the Bill, presented at any time not later than five clear days after the Second Reading of the Bill, be referred to the Committee.

Ordered, That Petitions against the Bill may be deposited in the Committee and Private Bill Office, provided that such Petitions shall have been prepared and signed in conformity with the Rules and Orders of this House relating to Petitions against Private Bills.

Ordered, That the Petitioners praying to be heard by themselves, their Counsel, or Agents be heard against the Bill, and Counsel or Agents heard in support of the Bill.

Ordered, That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers, and records.

Ordered, That Three be the quorum."—[Major Tryon.]