HC Deb 26 September 1944 vol 403 cc195-8

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

Commander Galbraith

I want to speak against the Motion. According to the Explanatory Memorandum, this Clause is for the purpose of expediting the acquisition of land for housing. It empowers the Secretary of State to dispense with public local inquiries for two years from the passing of the Bill. I cannot see that the holding of these inquiries necessarily delays any housing programmes. The Explanatory Memorandum points out that there was a similar provision in the Act which was introduced immediately after the last war, and the suggestion seems to be that if it was necessary then it is probably more necessary now. I want to suggest that the conditions are absolutely different. At the end of the last war there was no housing authority which had any land available for housing purposes, but to-day practically every housing authority has sufficient land on which to erect the maximum number of houses that could be erected in the first year after the war. If that be so, it appears to me that there is plenty of time available for public local inquiries to be held without delaying the housing plans and that the plea that an inquiry would delay the plans has no substance whatever. I see no reason why inquiries should be suspended even for a limited period.

There is another aspect to which I would like to draw the attention of the Committee. Democracy, as I see it, can only function if the public take a live interest not only in national, but in local affairs. How many times do we go into our constituencies and hear the complaint that if people had only known the local authority was going to do this and that, they would have protested with all vigour? I do not think it is sufficient that there should be merely publication of the plans of the local authorities. The majority of people do not start to take notice until some objection is raised.

It appears to me that a public local inquiry gives an opportunity for raising objections and so gives the public a chance to judge the merits of the case and enables them to make representations to the proper quarter if they see fit. The Executive of a democratic State should work in the light of day. Our local affairs should not be decided at Edinburgh before they have been publicly discussed in the localities concerned. The public ought to know exactly what the objections are to any scheme proposed by the local authority. For those reasons, I desire to move the Amendment; first of all that a public local—

The Deputy-Chairman

The hon. and gallant Gentleman cannot move the Amendment, and he cannot go outside the Clause in order to refer to Amendments that he might have wished to see moved, but are just not selected.

Commander Galbraith

There are two reasons why the Clause should not stand part of the Bill. The first is that a public local inquiry will not delay any housing programme, and the second is that the inquiry is a democratic form of procedure which has long provided a safeguard to the public.

Mr. Erskine-Hill

I would like to add a very few words to what has been said. I entirely support what my hon. and gallant Friend has just said. The public local inquiry has played a very important part in Scottish local affairs. It is a democratic procedure and appeals to the public. I cannot see that any urgency should deprive the public of that very useful institution. I would, therefore, ask the Secretary of State to be reasonable about the matter. I know he will be, but I think he should give the matter particular consideration. All of us in Scotland are democratic at heart and we do not wish to see go an institution like this. We do not like to see anything go unless there is a strong case made out for departing, even temporarily, from the general procedure which takes place.

Mr. Johnston

I can assure my hon. Friends that this is not a power which any Secretary of State for Scotland would willingly attract to himself. It means that a certain amount of unnecessary ill-will is occasioned. The only excuse is that it is a temporary power, specifically limited to two years, a period in which there might otherwise be great delay in the acquisition of land in some places. The hon. and gallant Member who raised this issue said that Scotland had a considerable number of sites already; that is so in Scotland as a whole, but those sites are not equally distributed. There are areas where little or no land is in possession.

Commander Galbraith

Would the right hon. Gentleman assure us that he intends to use this power only in cases where no land is actually available?

Mr. Johnston

My difficulty in answering that question is illustrated by one authority of which I know. It has a fair amount of land but may be obstructed in the acquisition of suitable land in other parts of its territory. I would not like to give the precise pledge for which my hon. and gallant Friend has asked. All I can say is that normally, and wherever an inquiry would serve any Useful purpose whatever, no Secretary of State would want to withhold his consent to a public inquiry. Clearly, and I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend will agree with me about this, if there is a bona fide, clear case of obstruction, sabotage or delay, hindering the provision of houses—or the preparation for the provision of houses, which is a better way of putting it—anything that can save, as I am assured it will save, a period of up to two or three months' time will be a very valuable provision. Instances were given to me, which I have not verified, by local authorities in Scotland, which showed that the delays in acquiring land meant considerable delays in the preparation of sites in the recent bulldozer campaign. I hope that with this assurance, given by the Government, that they do not intend to use this power unreasonably, and in view of the fact that the Secretary of State can always be chipped at in this House if he does withhold his consent in any case to a public inquiry without due reason being given, the hon. and gallant Member will not persist in his objection.

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