HC Deb 18 October 1944 vol 403 cc2436-48

2.10 p.m.

Captain Duncan

I beg to move, in page 24, line 5, leave out "exceptional."

We had a discussion on this Subsection in Committee, and there was a strong feeling against it. The Minister, however, insisted on keeping it in. It was pointed out that he had deliberately restricted his discretion to allow a local planning authority to sell land or lease it for not more than 99 years. The object of the Amendment is to give the Minister more discretion in allowing planning authorities to sell land, perhaps back to their owners, than he has in the Bill. There are various circumstances in which it would be reasonable for owners to get back the land which they owned before. From an investment point of view, in certain cases, it would probably be a better security to have the freehold than the leasehold. There is no security in the Bill that the local authority will grant a 99 years' lease. It might be on much shorter terms, 21 or even 14 years. The omission of the word "exceptional" would give the Minister greater discretion, for the courts might interpret the word as so limiting his discretion as to make it impossible for him ever to agree to a suggestion for sale or lease put up by a planning authority.

2.11 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower

I beg to second the Amendment.

I feel that this is an occasion when hon. Members above the Gangway on this side ought to give us their support. They are always talking about what is progressive and what is reactionary. I suggest that for people to be permitted to own their own homes is progressive. I would like to see every man in the country own his own home. This Amendment would be helpful in that direction.

2.12 p.m.

Mr. H. Strauss

I cannot advise the House to accept the Amendment, although it would perhaps make less difference to the operation of the Subsection than some Members may suppose. I do not wish to express any general view on the subject of freehold or leasehold, but where a local authority or, indeed, a private person, acquires a considerable amount of land in the interests of good planning, one great convenience of the leasehold system with a proper length of lease is that which was pointed out by the Uthwatt Committee. It would prevent the problems that lead to the area being replanned to-day arising again and causing similar difficulties some years later.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower

The power to re-acquire the land when it is necessary to re-plan it is laid down in the Bill, so that there will be no difficulty in getting the land back when it would be required again for redevelopment.

Mr. Strauss

I do not think that is so. We are dealing with land which has been, after all proper safeguards, acquired by the local authority to be developed as a whole. In these circumstances we think that the normal way in which it will be developed and disposed of is by lease. Under a later Clause we have taken power for the Minister to control the situation, supposing a local authority refuses to give leases of adequate length. The cases where the Minister would authorise a disposal for longer periods than by a 99 years' lease are exceptional. On the whole, therefore, we think it is better that the word "exceptional" should remain. Hon. Members may consider that there are certain classes of case of which, perhaps, the most obvious example is land required for churches, where it is desirable that a freehold should be granted. There would be nothing impossible about "exceptional" applying to all of a limited class. The word on the whole expresses the position accurately. I do not think it will have any undesirable effects such as hon. Members fear, and it certainly will not prevent the Minister doing what he thinks is proper. I do not think there was any other point, and in those circumstances I invite my hon. and gallant Friend not to press his Amendment.

2.15 p.m.

Sir J. Mellor

Would not the purpose which the Parliamentary Secretary has in mind be equally well achieved by disposing of the freehold and at the same time imposing the necessary covenants, to secure that the local planning authority shall maintain some regular control for planning purposes over the use to which the land is put by the freeholder? We should really get the same result by the planning authority disposing of the freehold as they would if they granted the lease, but at the same time it would have the advantage which my hon. and gallant Friend has pointed out of enabling people who are going to live on the property having the freehold, which is a source of pride and satisfaction to every Englishman.

Mr. W. S. Morrison

I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will not persist with this Amendment. We had a long discussion on the subject in Committee and I endeavoured to point out that control by leases by the great landlords in the past had led to the best planning that exists in our cities to-day. The alternative suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Sir J. Mellor) that we should achieve the same result by means of covenants running with the land is not sound, as I think he will agree upon reflection. Covenants are restrictive in their operation. They prevent the doing of this or that. It is far better, for planning, to do as the great landlords did, have leases proportionate to the proper life of the building and then a free hand to face the future with a proper plan and a proper use of the building.

It may be argued that it does not make very much difference, and that what is exceptional and what is not is often a matter of opinion; but there should be no dubiety. The normal thing is for development by just and proper leases and provision must be made for the freehold being disposed of in certain cases. The Parliamentary Secretary mentioned Churches, where they cannot consecrate the ground unless they have the freehold. Many other cases might be cited and we think it is better as a matter of policy to have the words in so that we can be honest with the House, It is only in exceptional circumstances that the freehold should be parted with.

Amendment negatived.

2.17 p.m.

The Solicitor-General (Major Sir David Maxwell Fyfe)

I beg to move, in page 24, line 22, leave out from beginning to end of line 23, and insert: and the authority have refused to dispose of it to him or are unable to reach agreement with him as to the manner in which or the terms or conditions on or subject to which it is to be disposed of to him, the Minister may, after consultation with the authority and that person, require the authority to offer to dispose of it to him, and give directions as to the 1paanner of the disposal and as to all or any of the terms or conditions on or subject to which it is to be offered to him: Provided that the authority shall not be required by any such directions (except to such extent as may appear to the Minister to be requisite in any particular case for giving effect to the last preceding subsection) to offer to dispose of land for a money consideration less than the best that can reasonably be obtained, having regard to the other terms and conditions on and subject to which the offer is to be made so, however, that in estimating the best consideration any amount which only a particular purchaser might be prepared to offer by reason of special needs of his shall be disregarded and any difference as to what is the best consideration shall be referred to and determined by an official arbitrator to be appointed in accordance with the provisions of the Acquisition of Land (Assessment of Compensation) Act, 1919. As was promised on the Committee stage, this matter has been looked into and we have made what we think considerable advances towards the view which was suggested, although some hon. Members may think that we have not gone far enough. We have provided safeguards for the local planning authorities in two respects. First of all, the Minister must consult with them before requiring them to dispose of land, and secondly the authority may not be required by such direction to offer to dispose of land for a money consideration less than the best which can reasonably be obtained, except to the extent that the Minister may consider it necessary for re-accommodating people whose land has been taken. Any difference of opinion as to what is the best consideration will be referred to the arbitration of the official arbitrator.

To deal with the rub between us on this point, it has been considered essential—on this point we have not been able to give way—that the Minister should have the right in the last resort to require the local authorities to dispose of land. I need not go over the reasons, but the general standpoint is that the Minister must have the final control in matters of planning. With regard to the point which was suggested to us, regarding offers by a particular class of developers being taken into account, the price that a special purchaser might be willing to pay might have the result, in our view, that the developer whom the Minister was anxious to encourage would not be able to have the land. The arbitrator is not entitled to take into account any special price. We have therefore made an effort to came to a reasonable line of compromise on this point, and I hope that my hon. Friend who felt so strongly about it will appreciate our efforts in that direction.

Mr. Silkin

I would like your guidance, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, as to a manuscript Amendment to the Amendment, and I would like to know whether you propose to call it now or at a later stage.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Charles Williams)

It would be better to decide whether to omit the words which the Minister proposes to leave out of the Bill, and then we can proceed to insert words in their place. We could then take the hon. Member's Amendment.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Bill," put, and negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the proposed words be there inserted in the Bill."

2.21 p.m.

Mr. Silkin

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, to leave out from "him" in line 1, to "the" in line 3, and insert: on grounds other than those of proper planning. There has been a good deal of discussion on the Sub-section which the Minister is proposing to amend. The general objection during the Committee stage was not so much to the powers they would confer upon the Minister. Most sensible people recognise that some powers have to be conferred upon the Minister to give a direction in the last resort. The quarrel that some of us had with the Clause as it then stood was that it gave the Minister unlimited power. There was no limitation put upon his discretion. I take it that the Minister has recognised that there was something in that objection. He actually invited any Member of the Committee to put up a Clause which would limit in a satisfactory way the discretion conferred upon him. The Amendment which I move is an attempt to carry out that change.

The only ground upon which the Minister would interfere is to be that the local authority are not carrying out their planning functions properly. They have presumably acquired the land for planning purposes and the Minister is not satisfied that they are using their powers properly, and therefore he will intervene. In other words, his intervention is on planning grounds. The words of his Amendment are designed to ensure that he will interfere on planning grounds only if a local authority is refusing to dispose of land. If they are refusing to dispose of land on a legitimate town planning ground, I submit that the Minister should not interfere. Therefore, the issue is, does my right hon. Friend want to direct local authorities to dispose of their land on any other ground than on planning grounds?

Let us examine the instances which he gave. Possibly a local authority would be against a particular denomination and might not be willing to dispose of land for the purposes of that denomination. Such refusal would be on grounds other than those of proper planning and the authority would be caught by this Amendment. My right hon. Friend could intervene and direct that the land could be disposed of. To take another example; suppose an authority refused to dispose of land because they were opposed in principle to a co-operative society or to one of the large multiple stores. That refusal would be on grounds other than those of proper planning and would be on grounds of prejudice. In such a case my right hon. Friend could again intervene. What the local authorities fear legitimately is that some Minister may intervene to direct that land should be disposed of on grounds which have nothing to do with planning and we feel that planning considerations should be inserted as a criterion.

I repeat that nobody objects for a moment to the ultimate power being conferred on the Minister in the case of an unreasonable or recalcitrant authority. Obligations have been laid upon the planning authority, and as long as the authority are carrying them out in the spirit of proper planning the Minister ought not to interfere. I hope the words I propose are acceptable and meet the case. They give the Minister adequate power to intervene when a local authority is not acting properly. It seems to me that they limit his power, in cases where a local authority are acting within their powers and carrying out their town planning obligations.

Mr. Woodburn

I beg to second the Amendment to the proposed Amendment.

2.30 p.m.

Mr. H. Strauss

I cannot advise the House to accept this Amendment. I am most reluctant to repeat the speech which I made in winding up the discussion on this Clause in Committee on 5th October, but the question is, who is to be the judge? The Minister of Town and Country Planning, of course, acts on planning considerations, that is his function, but there is not necessarily agree- ment about that between the local authority and the Minister. The question ultimately is really whether the Minister of Town and Country Planning is, or is not, to be responsible to this House for the performance of the functions laid upon him by Statute. I reminded the House, when it was in Committee, of the terms of the Minister of Town and Country Planning Act. The duty was placed upon the Minister to secure consistency and continuity in the framing and execution of a national policy with respect to the use and development of land throughout England and Wales. It is, of course, possible for a Minister to go wrong. It is equally possible for a local authority to go wrong. The question that the House must consider is whether they wish to hold my right hon. Friend responsible, in the last resort, for the planning of these areas. I believe that the House does so desire. If so, it is quite impossible to accept this Amendment.

I have no doubt that the local planning authority may in certain instances refuse to dispose of land on the grounds of what they believe to be proper planning. But my right hon. Friend, with his responsibility to this House, may take a different view, and in that case the view of my right hon. Friend must prevail, if he is to discharge his statutory function. This is not something which we are now inserting for the first time. It was for precisely similar reasons that in 1943 we took power to control decisions on interim development applications. They undoubtedly concern the local planning authority in the first instance. Nevertheless, in order that my right hon. Friend might be in a position to discharge his responsibilities to the House and country, we took power for my right hon. Friend to say how these applications should be decided. There are other Clauses which we have introduced into this Bill with the same object. I made clear, on the occasion to which I have referred, that we must keep the powers we had in the Clause, but that it might be possible on two points to meet the desire of the local authorities for safeguards. Safeguards on these two points are what the Government Amendment carries out. We can meet the local authorities' point of view on these two points, but we cannot admit on any ground that in the disposal of land the Minister shall in fact be impotent. For that reason I am unable to advise the House to accept the manuscript Amendment.

Amendment to the proposed Amendment negatived.

Proposed words there inserted in the Bill.

2.36 p.m.

Mr. H. Strauss

I beg to move, in page 24, line 23, at end, insert: (8) In the exercise of the powers conferred by this Section a local planning authority shall have regard to the desirability of preserving features of special architectural or historic interest, and in particular buildings included in any list compiled or approved under the provisions of the Section (Designation of buildings of special architectural or historic interest) of this Act, and the Minister shall not give his consent to the disposal under this Section of any land comprising a building included in such a list unless either—

  1. (a) the consent is given subject to such conditions or limitations as in the opinion of the Minister will secure the preservation of the building; or
  2. (b) the Minister is satisfied that the purpose which the local planning authority seek to achieve by the proposed exercise of their powers under this Section is one which ought in the public interest to be carried out, and either that the preservation of the building would prevent the carrying out of that purpose, whether by the use of the land in question or otherwisee, or that the effect of preserving the building on the carrying out as aforesaid of the said purpose would be such that notwithstanding the desirability of preserving the building it is inexpedient so to do.
In this Sub-section the expression 'preservation,' in relation to a building, means the preservation thereof either in its existing state or subject only to such alterations or extensions as will not seriously affect its character. This is the main Amendment to give effect to the Government's acceptance of the principle of the proposals put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling). These proposals, as the House will remember, were supported by Members in every party and received enthusiastic support. The hon. Member for Twickenham withdrew his Amendment on the Government's undertaking to consider the most appropriate steps to take to give effect to what he desired. The first step we have already taken at the beginning of our proceedings to-day—a new Clause providing for lists of buildings. We now come to this Amendment. I think the words speak for themselves: In the exercise of the powers conferred by this Section a local planning authority shall have regard to the desirability of preserving features of special architectural or historic interest, and in particular buildings included in any list compiled or approved … under the Clause we adopted at the beginning of our proceedings to-day. The Minister is instructed by this Sub-section not to give his approval to a disposal of any land comprising a building included in such lists unless one or other of two conditions is satisfied. The first condition is, if the consent is given subject to such conditions or limitations as in the opinion of the Minister will secure the preservation of the building. The second one is that the Minister is satisfied that the purpose which the local planning authority seek to achieve by the proposed exercise of their powers is one which ought in the public interest to be carried out, and that in addition to that one of two conditions is satisfied: Either that the carrying out of that purpose whether by the use of the land in question or otherwise would be prevented by the preservation of the building, or alternatively, that the effect of preserving the building on the carrying out of what I might call this approved purpose would be such that, notwithstanding the desirability of preserving the building, it is inexpedient so to do.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower

On a point of Order. May I ask, Mr. Speaker, whether a general discussion will take place now, in which case some Amendments on Clause 40 might be ruled out of Order, because Amendments to Clause 40 raise the whole question over again?

Mr. Speaker

I think the Amendments to which the hon. and gallant Member refers raise specific points, which would not be covered by this Amendment. I think it would be better to wait until we reach those Amendments before we discuss them.

Mr. Strauss

The effect of what we are doing is in some respects perhaps wider, and in some respects narrower, than in the original proposal of the hon. Member for Twickenham. But we have secured this, I think; the lists will be lists of great authority and, unless very strong reason is shown, anything included in those lists must be preserved. There may be cases where, notwithstanding the desirability of preserving an individual building, it may have to give way to some imperative need. That is provided for at the end of this Sub-section. I think the simplest way to deal with this matter will be for me to conclude with this explanation, and if there are points raised, and the House should give me leave to reply, I can then deal with them, or one of my right hon. Friends can do so.

2.42 p.m.

Mr. Keeling

I, of course, welcome the introduction of this new Sub-section and am grateful to the Government for proposing it. Nor do I quarrel with anything which my hon. Friend has just said, but I have some points of criticism on the Sub-section. First of all it seems to me that the word "features" is a wretched word, in which I cannot think my hon. Friend, with his well-known sense of style, can have any pride or pleasure. I do, however, make allowances for his having been very busy in the last few days, and I will not press him too hard on that. Secondly, if hon. Members will look at paragraph (b) of this new Sub-section, they will see that it says very obscurely in go words what the Amendment which I moved in the Committee stage, and which was withdrawn, stated quite clearly in 15 words. But here again I do not want to peer too deeply into the mouth of a gift horse.

I have three questions of substance which I will ask my hon. Friend to consider. The first is that the safeguard of publicity, which was provided for in my Amendment, is absent in his. The intention of a local planning authority to destroy a listed building does not have to be advertised, and the Minister is free to fall in with the plans of the local authority without consulting anybody. It is no use asking questions in Parliament after a building has been destroyed. I hope the need for publicity will be considered. My second point is this. This Amendment seems to put no restriction on the action of a local planning authority between the time of acquisition and the time of disposal. My third point is that Sub-section (1) of Clause 17 refers to the disposal or appropriation of buildings whereas this new Sub-section refers on to disposal. Is it intended also to apply to appropriation? If so, why does it not say so? It seems to me that under this very obscure Amendment it would be possible for a local authority first of all to drive a coach and four through the Sub-section, and then put a bulldozer over the listed buildings in its area. I hope I am wrong, but I would ask my hon. Friend, if he replies with the leave of the House, to reassure me on those points, or to consider dealing with them in another place.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower

I would like to ask my hon. Friend very briefly to inform us who it is intended shall keep historic buildings in order. I cannot see any liability for keeping them in order.

2.45 p.m.

Mr. Woodburn

I hope the Minister will retain the discretion in this matter, because if the method of dealing with historic buildings is so fixed they might become a danger to life, and that would be unreasonable. We have known occasions when people who are never near the historic buildings insist upon retaining them, to the detriment of other people who live near them. The House wishes to retain buildings of great historic value where it can be done consistently with progress; but some people have such a habit of looking backwards that they forget that we have also to look forwards. The Minister has a duty to plan for the future. Sooner or later, the ground has to be cleared; and I hope that no one will interfere with the Minister's reasonable discretion in regard to the preservation of these historic monuments.

2.47 p.m.

Mr. H. Strauss

If the House will give me leave, I should like to deal with two or three points. The Bill gives final discretion to the Minister, and that is the purpose of the Clause which I am moving. But I should like to say, quite clearly, as one who has studied this matter for some years, that I can think of very few cases of the destruction of such buildings as we have in mind where it has not been utterly foolish from the point of view of the people in whose locality the buildings were. There is a tendency to view much too lightly the destruction of these buildings, and to repent of it afterwards. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) objected to the word "feature," and assumed that I would abominate it. I defend it. When this matter was considered in Committee we all agreed, I thought, that some of the most admirable things we wished to preserve were not merely individual buildings, but streets, crescents, squares, and so forth, which give their character to so many of our towns and villages. Therefore, we deliberately put in this wider word "feature." But, lest my hon. Friend should think that this is a modern innovation, derived from the films, I would give him this quotation from Dryden, as long ago as 1692: Examine separately each feature of the picture. That is what I want the local authorities to do. I think this criticism of "feature" is wrong. There are various points which I should like further to consider, before I give any final answer. What the local authority appropriates is the land. This is a limitation on disposal, and I think the words are correct. I will certainly see whether there is any possibility of a coach-and-four being driven through what we have provided; although I am far from accusing any local authority of wanting to drive a coach-and-four through these words, which embody the obvious intention of Parliament. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Penrith (Lieut.-Colonel Dower) asked what could be done to preserve these buildings. I think that most of the points he wishes to raise can be more appropriately dealt with on a later Clause and that your Ruling, Sir, would prevent either of us being out of Order if we attempted then to deal with them. It may be that, under the conditions or limitations of a lease of these buildings, the authority may provide adequately for their preservation.

Mr. Keeling

What about the question of publication?

Mr. Strauss

A later Government Amendment deals with the question of notice of any alteration to these buildings, and I think that that subject can be raised then.

Amendment agreed to.