HC Deb 27 January 1943 vol 386 cc551-7
The Chairman

There is an Amend-meat—a proposed new Clause—on the Paper in the name of the hon. Member for Southampton (Dr. Russell Thomas), and I suggest to him that this is the proper place to move it. If he will move it at the beginning of line 39, to insert the words of his new Clause and add the word "and" at the end of it, then I think it will be in the correct place.

Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)

I beg to move, in page 2, line 39, at the beginning, to insert: There shall be transferred to the Minister of Town and Country Planning the control and administration of—

  1. (a) the Ordnance Survey from the President of the Board of Agriculture;
  2. (b) the Land Registry from the Lord Chancellor and"
I am very grateful, Colonel Clifton Brown, for the guidance you have given me in this matter. I do not want to repeat all I said yesterday on this subject, when I went into it at a fair length, but with your permission I will briefly summarise the reasons for this Amendment. The Minister is taking over the functions of town planning from the Ministry of Works and Buildings, formerly held by the Ministry of Health, and I felt that he should go further and take under his control the Royal Ordnance Survey and the Land Registry. I should explain again that the Ordnance Survey is at present a sort of Cinderella service at the Ministry of Agriculture. I communicated with the Ministry of Agriculture some time ago suggesting that this step should be taken but, like all Ministries, they evidently did not want any of their powers to be taken from them. The Land Registry is under the control of the Lord Chancellor. It is my opinion that the new Ministry which is being set up should have control of these two other Departments.

As I have said, I will not burden the Committee with my arguments of yesterday but will summarise some of the reasons in the following way. The economic planning of the country must be related to geography, and there, of course, comes in at once the Ordnance Survey. The maps and plans of the country, according to the Davidson Report of 1938, have for a long time been in arrear. Considerable economy would result from amalgamation of these Departments. Town planning and land registration depend to some extent on the Ordnance Survey. Another reason is that the present position of these Departments does not lead to co-ordination, except at considerable expense of money and a waste of time, and, of the two, I think time is the more important. Then, the Land Registry has always operated at a profit to the Crown. It is good to find that a Department in normal times operates at a profit to the Crown. The Land Registry also depends on the plans of the Ordnance Survey, and, therefore, it would be advantageous to have a revenue earning section of the new Ministry to counterbalance the revenue spending which will certainly be inevitable under the new part of its activities. A further reason is that an extension of the compulsory registration of ownership must be part of any serious attempt to deal adequately with the future planning of this country. Therefore, 'the fees obtainable for the compulsory registration of land and so on, which will inevitably be incurred, plus the revenue from the Government maps and plans, would probably balance the civil cost of the Ordnance Survey, now appearing as a debit of the Ministry of Agriculture, leaving only the cost of the planning to be met by a Vote of Credit. Yesterday, in reply to my arguments my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich (Mr. H. Strauss) said: I do not want to say anything final on that topic or to predict the future, but I would remind the hon. Member that the Ordnance Survey department is at work for a great number of Departments, including the War Departments, and this would not be the time to take it over, even if it were otherwise desirable to do so."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th January, 1943; col. 466, Vol. 386.] We all know that at the present time the Ordnance Survey is working chiefly for the War Office. That must inevitably be so during war-time, and no doubt it will continue to do so, as happened in the last war. The War Office have never taken over the Ordnance Survey permanently in time of peace. It will be essential to have proper maps and plans when the war is over. The right hon. Gentleman said that he is setting up central machinery, and that he is anticipating to some extent the report of the Uthwatt Committee. Why does he not take the opportunity now to extend the machinery and make it as complete as possible. There is, of course, no reason for disturbing the Land Registry and the Ordnance Survey Department for the time being, but steps should be taken to be ready for future emergencies and the work that will come the Minister's way. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will give me more concrete reasons than I received yesterday from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary.

The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)

The history of the Ordnance Survey Department may interest the Committee. It was started in 1791 in order to prepare a one-inch map for the purpose of national defence and was placed, on that account, under the Board of Ordnance, which is, of course, the reason it has its present title. In 1855, on the dissolution of that Board, it was transferred to the War Office, in 1870 to the Office of Works, and once more, in 1890, to the Ministry of Agriculture, where it is, of course, at present. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, (Dr. Russell Thomas) has raised the question whether it might not find a more appropriate final resting place with the new Ministry of Town and Country Planning. As was said yesterday by the Parliamentary Secretary, neither he nor my right hon. Friend wants to express now any final view that that may not be a good idea. At present, of course, the Ordnance Survey Department is doing a great deal of work for the Service Departments, but I want to remove any impression that that has precluded, or does preclude, them from doing such work as is required for or in connection with town and country planning, such work as has been done up to the present and as will be done by the new Minister. The Ordnance Survey Department is working in the closest possible contact with those who have so far been charged with the consideration of these matters, and will continue to do so. It is rendering all assistance and help to those concerned with town and country planning and the question we have been discussing. However, we do not think it would be an appropriate moment to consider the question of an administrative change which, in view of what I have said, would really make very little difference in substance. That proposal may have something to be said for it, but inevitably it would mean a certain amount of dislocation, reorganisation and possibly rehousing. Therefore, while we appreciate that the idea is one which is worthy of consideration, we think its consideration can, without any prejudice to any interest of the new Minister, be postponed until more favourable times.

With regard to the Land Registry, I do not think the idea of transferring the control of that Department to the new Min- istry is a good or practicable one. The Land Registry is under the general control of the Lord Chancellor; he is responsible for it, and in this House I answer questions about it on his behalf. It is a technical legal department. Questions which are put to me with regard to it from time to time are questions which obviously it would be unkind to ask anybody but a lawyer to answer. I forget the exact date on which the Land Registry was set up. The job is one in which great care has to be taken to see that no mistakes are made. It was started within a limited area, the areas are gradually being extended, and new areas being added. That it is desirable that this work should be extended I entirely agree, and as the work can be extended no doubt it will play a useful part in the general transfer and development of land; but I do not think it would be a good idea to attempt to transfer that Department, which is a technical legal department, away from the present control of the Lord Chancellor to that of the new Minister.

Mr. McEntee

If the transfer of the Ordnance Survey were considered to be desirable after the war, could that transfer be made without a new Act of Parliament being passed?

The Attorney-General

It could be made without a fresh Act of Parliament if it were thought to be an appropriate measure to take.

Dr. Russell Thomas

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General for his reply, on one or two points of which I wish to comment. He said that if a transfer were made the work, of the Department would be disturbed, but it is quite clear that if the Ordnance Survey and the Land Registry were placed under one Minister there would be infinitely better co-ordination than if they are distributed throughout different Departments as at present. The Attorney-General referred to the possibility that the-transfer would mean rehousing the Ordnance Survey. I happen to have some little direct interest in the Ordnance Survey because its headquarters were in my constituency for a long period; for 99 years it had its headquarters in Southampton. On the question of rehousing, I would point out that only two or three months ago the whole of the Ordnance Survey was taken from Southampton to somewhere in Surrey, and those concerned had great difficulties in connection with rehousing. Therefore, that problem exists now. The 600 families of the men are still living in Southampton, and incidentally no extra allowance is being made to them by the Ministry of Agriculture to enable them to keep up two homes, when they are fortunate enough to find the second one. As to the Land Registry, the Attorney-General said that questions put to him concerning it are questions which only a lawyer could answer and that he represented the Lord Chancellor in the House; but surely, in the case of any Government Department, if there are points of peculiar legal difficulty arising, they are always put to the Attorney-General. Therefore I cannot see any argument there against my proposal. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that the work of the Land Registry was very difficult. Of course, there are enormous difficulties, but surely the new Departments will have to undertake further land registration and further registration of all kinds. Therefore, it seems to me that if the Ordnance Survey and the Land Registry were under the new Ministry's control, it would be a great advantage. However, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said that these changes could be effected later on if they were thought necessary under Clause 6, I am content to have ventilated the matter in this Committee, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Sir G. Shakespeare

May I ask the Minister without Portfolio whether he can give a reply to two questions I raised yesterday? First, what are the intentions of the Government in relation to the powers under the Restriction of Ribbon Development Act? Unless the new Minister takes over the complete powers given under that Act, a great deal of the spoliation of the country will go on. Secondly, if it is the Government's intention that the new Minister should take over those powers, can that be done under Clause 6, Sub-section (2)?

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works and Planning (Mr. Henry Strauss)

In reply to the hon. Baronet the Member for Norwich (Sir G. Shakespeare), I think that this Clause would be sufficient to transfer these further powers, but as I said on the Second Reading of the previous Bill, which is now the Minister of Works and Planning Act, to transfer those powers is not a suitable way of dealing with the problem of ribbon development. Certainly, we are not blind to the evils of ribbon development and we intend to stop it, but even at the present time all ribbon development could be stopped by planning under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1932, and only some of it can be stopped under the Restriction of Ribbon Development Act. We are determined that the system of planning as it is developed shall stop this notorious evil, which is recognised in every quarter of the House, but I do not think that the best way of effecting that object would be by transferring powers at present existing under the Restriction of Ribbon Development Act, although if a different view were to be taken, the Bill now before us would be sufficient to enable it to be done.

Question: That the Clause stand part of the Bill, put, and agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.