HC Deb 24 May 1939 vol 347 cc2444-52

(1) The council of any county or county borough, the common council of the city of London, and the council of any metropolitan borough or county district may hire compulsorily any land to which this Section applies for any of the purposes of the Act of 1937 or of this Act by means of an order made by the council and confirmed by the Minister, and the provisions of Sections one hundred and sixty-one, one hundred and sixty-two one hundred and seventy-four, and one hundred and seventy-five of the Local Government Act, 1933, and of paragraphs (a) and (c) of Section one hundred and seventy-nine of that Act shall apply with respect to any such order with such modifications as may be specified in the order and as if for the references to purchase and to a local authority there were substituted references, respectively, to hiring and to any such council as aforesaid.

(2) Section fifty-three of this Act shall with any necessary modifications apply to an order under this Section as it applies to an order under Section five of the Act of 1937.

(3) The Acquisition of Land (Assessment of Compensation) Act, 1919, shall apply to the determination of the amount of rent or compensation payable in respect of land authorised to be hired compulsorily under this Section.

(4) Land to which this Section applies is unoccupied land and land in the occupation of a tenant whose tenancy thereof will expire or can be determined by his landlord within a period of three years after the making of an order for the compulsory hiring of that land pursuant to the provisions of Sub-section (1) of this Section.—[Mr. H. Morrison.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. H. Morrison

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

This is an extension in a certain direction of powers which exist in other parts of the Bill. The Committee will know that powers already exist in the Bill for the compulsory purchase of land, which includes buildings, for the purposes of Civil Defence. There are occasions when it is more expedient that the local authority should hire land, including buildings, rather than purchase them. That often is the cheaper procedure, and economy is very desirable in the administration of this Bill not only in the interests of the local authority but also in the interests of the State, which finds a substantial proportion of the air-raid precautions expenditure. Therefore it appears to us that it would be expedient that we should have the power to acquire instead of purchasing. Moreover, there is the possibility, we all hope, that the existing tension in international affairs will be lessened. If it were the case within a reasonably short time that the European situation cleared up, and there was reasonable security among the nations of Europe, it would be a pity of a local authority were the actual possessor of property which was no longer wanted. From the point of view of economy, we should have this power of compulsory hiring.

There have been certain cases in my own experience. The London County Council are acquiring very considerable property in connection with additional fire station accommodation for the auxiliary fire services. One of the difficulties has been that we have no compulsory powers to purchase or to hire, and the consequence is that the acquisition of property for auxiliary fire services has been much slower than would otherwise have been the case. In Eltham we wished to acquire property, but the owner was unwilling to let. In Westminster the property was vacant, but the rent asked was unreasonable, and alternative accommodation had to be secured. There are other cases like that where the public interest has been damaged. I imagine that there would not be a terrible number of occasions where we should actually have to utilise these compulsory powers, but they would facilitate negotiations and enable us to get occupation earlier. The Committee are anxious that local authorities should be able to move with speed in completing their civil defence preparations, and this would be a facility which would help us in that direction, and would be an economy in the expenditure of the State and local authorities. I trust that the new Clause will commend itself to the Committee and to the right hon. Gentleman.

10.22 p.m.

Mr. Elliot

I think the Committee should have had a little more information on this proposal. We recognise the cogency of the arguments of the right hon. Gentleman, but he will agree that it is a little difficult to introduce war time legislation in a peace time Bill. There are no precedents for compulsory hiring, and the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the question of compensation is a difficult matter. The right hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that the London County Council have actually specific instances where a building was empty but the owner would not let. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will accept this, that he and his advisers should meet the officials of the Department of the Lord Privy Seal and the Ministry of Health and give them specific cases with evidence; then I should be willing to undertake to consider the matter sympathetically. If he can under- take to give me chapter and verse, I will undertake to consider them with a completely open mind. I cannot go further than that to-night. This is a drastic power, and opens the door to a lot of awkward cases about compensation.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. H. Morrison

I did not speak at length, because it seemed to me to be elementary that the local authorities ought to obtain that power. There is, of course, a provision in the Clause for the necessary appeals and arbitrations which are common to this type of legislation. I cited some instances where difficulties have arisen. There are, in fact, two precedents for the principle of this Clause outside war legislation. There are the precedents of the Smallholdings and Allotments Act, 1908, and the Acquisition of Land (Assessment of Compensation) Act, 1919, one before the War and the other after the War. I cannot see that there would be hardship to the owner in his being under an obligation to let vacant property, unless he could show that the property was required for re-development, or that there was a reasonable prospect of his being able to dispose of his entire interest, or that the letting of the property on reasonable terms was a necessity of good estate management. If proper powers were obtained, it is probable that they would need to be put into practice quite infrequently, since they would be used as a negotiating influence in the course of the discussions, and the knowledge that there were statutory powers be hind the local authority would help. The right hon. Gentleman has asked that the officers of the London County Council should discuss concrete instances with the officers of his Department. I was under the impression that that had been done—

Mr. Elliot

There has been some discussion.

Mr. Morrison

I will give the Committee some instances. I have already given that of Eltham, where a property was vacant, the owner was unwilling to let, and we had to purchase the property. That meant that we had to spend a substantial capital sum of which the Government had to find 60 per cent. I want to save the Government money, and to save the money of the council. I think that is meritorious. That property was unoccupied. In Westminster, there was a vacant property, the rent was unreasonable, and alternative accommodation was secured. In another case in Westminster, the owner was unwilling to let, and alternative accommodation was secured. In Bishopsgate, the property was vacant, the rent was unreasonable, and alternative accommodation is being sought. In Homerton, business premises were occupied by the owner, he would not let, and in any case the price asked was unreasonable. In Knightsbridge, the price was unreasonable. In New Cross, in the case of two vacant properties, the owners were unwilling to let but would sell—and they do tend to get sticky when a public authority is concerned: In Hackney, we required a property for the emergency ambulance service; the rent was unreasonable, and we could not proceed. In Wandsworth, the property was occupied partly for business by the owner, who would not let, but would sell. In Stoke Newington, the rent was unreasonable. In Plumstead, the rent was unreasonable.

Every one of those instances meant delay, and our auxiliary fire people are complaining that the accommodation is not available for them. The complaint is reasonable. As long as we have not these powers, there will be delays. The Committee need not fear that the council would wish to be inconsiderate towards the interests of people who are occupiers; and even if we did, there are in the Clause checks that could be exercised by the State. I should have preferred the Clause to have been inserted, and then, if the right hon. Gentleman, on the Report stage, thought that some Amendment was needed, I am sure we could settle any Amendment amicably. This power is of great importance in the interests of speed and in the interests of the finances of the State and the local authorities. I know that the right hon. Gentleman wishes to be helpful and friendly in these matters; therefore, will he accept the Clause on the understanding that it will be examined and that, if necessary, appropriate Amendments will be brought forward on the Report stage?

Mr. Elliot

I do not wish to chaffer with the right hon. Gentleman and I am prepared to accept the proposal which he has put forward, if it can be shown that it will make for expedition.

10.30 p.m.

Sir I. Albery

I feel that the cases cited by the right hon. Gentleman are not very impressive. Much depends upon the nature of the letting, in cases where it is sought to compel people to let premises. For instance, there are people who own property and who have borrowed money upon it. If the premises are unoccupied or unlet, that is probably due to the fact that the owner wishes to sell and is not, financially, in a position to let. Further, the right hon. Gentleman has not said whether the offer was to take the premises for seven years, 14 years or 21 years, or whether it was to be an annual letting with three months' notice. All these factors have to be considered, and I do not think that the fact that, in a number of instances, owners of premises have not desired to let, but have been willing to sell, is in itself conclusive evidence that there is any real obstruction.

10.32 p.m.

Sir J. Lamb

I hope the Minister will be careful before he accepts this new principle.

Mr. David Adams

On a point of Order. Has not the Minister accepted the proposed new Clause?

The Chairman

I do not know why that should stop the Debate.

Sir J. Lamb

I hope the Minister will not accept it because I think it very dangerous to start a new idea, that where a man is willing to sell, we should say to him, "No, we do not want to buy and to accept all responsibilities for the future; we prefer to take a letting and leave you with the responsibility." Suppose a man is compelled to let premises of which he is in occupation, he will then require other premises in which to carry on his business. He is compelled to acquire another building for his own purposes and when the time comes for returning the property to him he may not require it. There are many cases in which considerable hardship will be caused to individuals who are compelled to relinquish temporarily property which they are using for business purposes. The right hon. Gentleman said that in several cases the premises were vacant. These cases are probably in a different category. He said that the owners were not willing to let at a reasonable price. It may be that the right hon. Gentleman's idea of a reason- able price and the other party's idea of a reasonable price were not the same. If it was a case of acquiring the premises compulsorily, there would be an opportunity for both seller and purchaser to go to arbitration and to have the purchase made on a valuation, but it is very difficult to fix a reasonable price in the case of a tenancy, when you are leaving on the lessor liabilities which may make it difficult for him to repossess himself of the property later.

Mr. McCorquodale

I support the new Clause in reference to the Knightsbridge example which the right hon. Gentleman gave. I have been informed that, in the interests of the auxiliary fire services, some such Clause as this is urgently necessary in that case.

Brigadier-General Clifton Brown

This proposal refers to Clause 53. I would point out that that Clause authorises the compulsory purchase of land, but not the compulsory hiring of land. Speaking of the country as distinct from the town and of land instead of premises, I wondered why the Government did not take power to hire land for these purposes. In many cases owners of land are more anxious to let our land temporarily than to have it purchased, which might very likely spoil the whole property. I think some Amendment of Clause 53 should be made, so that local authorities should be able to have the right of hiring as well as of purchasing. I hope the Minister will be very careful in this matter and will not always consider these things from the town point of view, because there is a country point of view as well, which may be very much affected by these Defence provisions, and I think the country point of view is in favour of the compulsory hiring rather than of the compulsory purchasing of land.

10.36 p.m.

Major Milner

It ought to be made clear that this new Clause applies only to land and unoccupied land and to land in the occupation of a tenant, the tenancy of which will expire within three years. Therefore, the remarks of the hon. Member for Stone (Sir J. Lamb) do not apply. This is not a case of a man carrying on business in premises and having to be moved out of them and to buy other premises. It is a question of unoccupied land. Probably in the neighbourhood of large towns there is land which landlords own and which, in the course of time, will increase in value. All these factors would be taken into account by the assessor who would determine the amount of rent appropriate, and it seems to me to be both in the public interest and probably in the interest of the landowner himself that there should be a hiring of that land rather than a selling, and, therefore, an absolute disposal, of it. In any event the valuer would have the right to take all the factors into consideration in determining the appropriate rent. It seems to me that it could apply only to a comparatively limited number of cases, and on all these grounds I think it is a very desirable Clause.

Sir J. Lamb

Is the hon. and gallant Member right? Does this apply to land only?

10.38 p.m.

Mr. Elliot

I think it would apply not only to land but to premises as well. I was greatly moved by the general argument brought forward by the right hon. Gentleman opposite, first of all as to economy. It is undesirable that local authorities should undertake considerable capital expenditure, attracting grants from the Government, for purposes which could be properly dealt with by a relatively short hiring. Secondly, I think there is great force in the argument of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New-bury (Major-General Brown) that very often a man would prefer to have his property rented for a time rather than to have it altogether removed from his possession. It is a purely business transaction, and on both grounds I think it worth while considering this Clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. McCorquodale) also argued in favour of the Clause and cited a particular case. I understand the uneasiness of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Sir I. Albery), but I think that on balance I still adhere to the opinion which I formed earlier when I commended the Clause to the Committee. I think it should be included in the Bill now on the clear understanding, of course, that Amendments will be considered that will need to be incorporated in the Clause on the Report stage. I think it might be well that a time limit to this drastic power should be given. Furthermore, I think it desirable that the consent of the Minister should be more specifically introduced. But, taking it by and large, I think it is a pity that the powers of local authorities which were intended for permanent peace purposes should not be in any way modified when, as here, we are considering using them for temporary purposes and war purposes. I therefore hope the Committee will see its way to include the Clause, realising that it will probably need further Amendment, but realising also how much easier it is to amend a Clause in the Bill than to begin bringing forward Amendments on the Report stage, when we cannot study them in relation to the structure of the Bill as a whole.

Sir I. Albery

Do we understand from that that my right hon. Friend will himself move Amendments, because on the Report stage it becomes an important matter?

Mr. Elliot

Certainly, I shall be ready to consult with Members of the House as to the Amendments which might be put down, and I shall be prepared to take the responsibility of moving Amendments as the result of these consultations.

Mr. H. Morrison

The London County Council with a Socialist majority are often accused of wanting to socialise everything and getting everything under the Council. Here is a case where I am seeking the power, not for the Council to own, but for it to rent from a private individual. The proposal should, therefore, commend itself to hon. Members opposite.

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

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

The Chairman

Does the hon. Member for Gravesend (Sir I. Albery) desire to move his new Clause—(Construction of shelters on hire purchase)?

Sir I. Albery

In view of the fact that a Clause has already been added to the Bill largely covering this matter, and that it will be further dealt with on the Report stage, I do not desire to move the new Clause.