HC Deb 29 April 1947 vol 436 cc1909-18
Mr. G. R. Strauss

I beg to move, in page II, line 27, at the end, to insert: (except section two thereof). Members will remember that, during the Committee stage, the question was raised whether it was necessary to incorporate in the Bill the powers under Section 2 of the Acquisition of Land Act, 1946. This Section gives to local authorities the power of quick entry into land which they require for urgent purposes. I stated at the time that I very much doubted whether such powers were wanted by the Transport Commission, and that I would look into the matter, and, that if I found they were not necessary, I would move an Amendment on Report stage. We have accordingly looked into the matter, and we are satisfied that the Commission does not want the powers. We therefore move this Amendment to delete them.

Amendment agreed to.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I beg to move, in page II, line 30, at the end, to insert: Provided that if any person is aggrieved by the proposal to purchase any land compulsorily on the ground that such land belongs to him and forms an essential part of the premises upon which he carries on a trade or business and was acquired in relation thereto he may within twenty-eight days from the date on which he receives notice of the proposal to purchase such land compulsorily make an application to the High Court and the Court may if in its opinion it is unreasonable in the circumstances that such land should be compulsorily acquired direct that it should not be so acquired. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will also consider that this Amendment is a reasonable safeguard in the case of compulsory purchase. I would remind the House of the words in the Amendment, which is rather long. As a proviso to the compulsory purchase Section, it provides: that if any person is aggrieved by the proposal to purchase any land compulsorily"— I invite the attention of the House to the next words, which are really the gist of the matter: on the ground that such land belongs to him and forms an essential part of the premises upon which he carries on a trade or business and was acquired in relation thereto. The House will appreciate the importance of that, and that land must be an essential part of the premises on which the objector carries on his trade or business and must have been acquired in relation to his trade or business. One knows and appreciates that on the actual land on which a factory or some other kind of business may be operating there is very often a piece of land which has been purchased with a view to extension, which is hoped for in a reasonably short time. It is that sort of land which we have in mind in the case of this Amendment.

Again, I stress the fact that it must not only be related to the business, but it must have been acquired in relation to the business. It has been emphasised, time and time again, that the Transport Commission is going to be a great trading body, a public corporation acting as a trader, and, of course, there are provisions in the Bill for the way that business is to be run and how the accounts are to be kept; and we have had an assurance as to the efficient management of the concern. Our point is that, if there is a trading corporation which might have a garage near by or something of that sort, it would be rather hard if it unduly pressed the owner to give up, under these compulsory acquisition powers, land which he was using for his business. We suggest in those circumstances the matter might be left to the arbitrament of the High Court, and if the Court is of opinion that it is unreasonable in the circumstances that such land should be compulsorily acquired, then it should not be acquired.

My experience in the matter—and I do not think the right hon. Gentleman or his hon. and right hon. Friends opposite would differ from me in this—is that in the case of these compulsory purchase orders one looks at the position created by the terms of the order and broadly at the hardship on the person whose land is affected, particularly the question of financial hardship, which is not taken into account at all. The matter which is really considered at public inquiries on compulsory purchase is whether it comes within the purview of the Statute which gives the right to acquire land or not. We say here that there are special circumstances. While that state of affairs might apply between the local authority purchasing for its purposes and the person who is here affected, we have what ought to be considered is a trading corporation, a body that is being operated as a trading corporation, compulsorily acquiring land from another trader. In those circumstances we think that the traders ought to have certain rights. We have tried to suggest a method for those rights to be determined, namely, by application to the High Court. For those reasons, I submit the Amendment to the House.

1.30 a.m.

Mr. Digby

There is no doubt that the most objectionable feature of the application of the Acquisition of Land Act, 1946, to this particular Bill has been removed by the concession which the Minister has just made, because the application of the "speedy procedure" would have been particularly onerous in cases under this Bill. Nevertheless, there is still a wide field for abuse, and when the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Renton) and I raised the question of the application of this Act to the Bill in the Committee upstairs the Minister of Transport found some difficulty in showing in what kind of cases they were going to use these powers. When we suggested that perhaps it was land for new hotels to be run by the railways, we were told that they would not be needed for that. In the end we found that the fact of the matter was that they were going to acquire land for the building of new garages for the new road haulage undertaking.

That is where we are likely to get into some difficulties because the land or premises that will be required for those purposes will almost always be in some town or other and often land which belongs to some other trading organisation. That will mean using powers for acquisition of land which were given to local authorities and Government Departments for their own requirements for commercial purposes, and there is the further possibility that the Commission may use those powers against competitors. There might easily be a case of a Naboth's vineyard. There will be excellent garages which will not be taken over by the Commission because the bulk of the business carried out from them is short-distance traffic. We have to be sure that there are no abuses of that kind and I very much hope that the Minister will accept this Amendment.

Mr. G. R. Strauss

I am afraid that we cannot accept this Amendment, and I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman who moved it can be surprised at our decision, because he must realise that the proposal now put forward introduces an entirely novel principle into the basis of land acquisition and one which has not been accepted or used by this country as long as the principle of compulsory purchase has been in operation. What he suggests, in fact, is that where an individual has acquired land and used it for his trade or business and wants to retain for himself, then the Commission shall have no compulsory power of acquisition. I suggest that if that principle is to be injected into our compulsory acquisition procedure, then I think there should be general legislation on this matter, and it would be quite wrong to confine it to this Bill.

If this principle were accepted there would have to be similar Amendments to the Town and Country Planning Bill which is now before Parliament, because under that Bill the Commission would have the power to acquire land under the Land Acquisition Act, 1946. It is entirely wrong to say that the Commission, which is a public body charged with certain public duties and responsibilities which Parliament says must be carried out, and is in that respect in the same position as a local authority, should be prevented from carrying out its duties properly because it has no adequate powers of land acquisition. Therefore, any restrictions which are unreasonable and unwise must be prevented. Moreover, I suggest that the acquisition of land and the use of land is a planning matter and it is wholly unsuitable for a decision by the High Court. The High Court should not and cannot be the proper authority to say whether a piece of land is to be used by the Transport Commission for the extension of transport services or is to be retained by a private individual for his own purposes. Never before has it been suggested that the High Court could possibly be the authority in matters of this kind. This is a problem which is completely an administrative planning matter, and I suggest that it is entirely wrong to bring the courts into it. In fact, if we did we should have to introduce at the same time a general revision of our land acquisition legislation, and the matter cannot be brought in as a sidewind in the manner proposed here.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

The hon. Gentleman has staged a counter-attack upon our Amendment without saying a word in defence of the position which we ourselves attacked. I am by no means a legal expert and I do not know whether he is right or wrong on the question of whether this is the proper procedure. But my right hon. and learned Friend, who is a legal expert, drafted the Amendment in conjunction with his hon. Friends, and presumably they know as much about it from that point of view as does the hon. Gentleman himself. However, I am not concerned with that particular dispute. What I am concerned with is that the Government has nothing whatever to say about the position we ourselves attacked.

The suggestion has been made that there might be a garage in a small town which is staffed with the cars of "C" licence holders. Along comes the Transport Commission and uses this Clause in order compulsorily to acquire that land That is a very unfortunate situation and I cannot believe that the Government are perpared to leave matters in that state. Have they no suggestions to safeguard the people concerned?

Mr. G. R. Strauss

May I point out to the noble Lord that any compulsory land acquisition Order must be confirmed by the Minister after inquiry.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

The words "the Minister" mean nothing to me at all. He is part and parcel of this whole mammoth scheme. He approves the whole of it, loves compulsory acquisition, and is only too glad to see "C" licence holders eliminated in order that this great thing can be all-embracing. The Minister did mention something about the question of a local public inquiry. There might be some solution in that, although I think it might be merely an opportunity of letting off steam for both sides. After all, we have a local public inquiry coming off into the acquisition of land by the War Office for training troops, and no one has any faith in that. But there is, perhaps, something in it, if the Minister would look at it again and introduce appropriate words in another place.

Mr. P. Thorneycroft

I am bound to say that I think that the argument which the Parliamentary Secretary addressed to this House was the most astonishing one. An Amendment is moved and argued from this side suggesting that in certain circumstances a British subject with some quarrel with the Crown or with this powerful Commission should have an appeal to the High Court. The Parliamentary Secretary says that that is a most novel principle in English law. I do not think that the right of a British subject to go to a court of justice is a novel principle at all. It is one which we have maintained in this country for a very long time, and it would be a pity to see it abandoned. In any event, why should novelty deter the present Government? There are quite a lot of novel things in this Bill. It is quite a novel idea that a man who is running a perfectly reputable business should have it taken out of his hands and run by somebody else. Talking of novelty I should have thought that we had quite enough of it already.

Let me examine the defence which the Parliamentary Secretary puts forward. He said that this is a planning matter. Apparently, if it is a planning matter that will make it quite all right. He said that there are no difficulties at all. Of course, it is not a planning matter. It is not the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, or anybody else, who will authorise this purchase. It is the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Transport who will authorise it, and he says that in some circumstances there may be a right of some local inquiry. Where is the appeal from that? The appeal is back to the right hon. Gentleman who authorised the purchase. What possible satisfaction is that likely to give to anybody?

1.45 a.m.

I would like to emphasise the importance of this Amendment to the class of people with whom we are concerned here. The purchasers are the principal competitors, or may well be, of the man whose property is being expropriated. Suppose that there is a garage which is housing a certain number of vehicles of a private trader. As far as I can understand it, under the terms of this Clause the right hon. Gentleman, or the Commission with the authority of the right hon. Gentleman, can come along to their competitors and say, "Of course, you can go on competing, but we want the main part of your property upon which you depend in order to make your competition effective." They can remove from the private trader the very tools of his trade. In those circumstances, I should have thought it was of very little use appealing back to the Commission or to the Minister. In those circumstances I should have thought that the only hope a man in such a position would have would be to go to some independent tribunal, and the best independent tribunal we have in this country is a court of justice.

Mr. Derek Walker-Smith (Hertford)

Like my hon. Friends who have spoken, I found the observations of the Parliamentary Secretary on this important matter both cursory and unsatisfactory. He complained that the procedure envisaged in this Amendment is something new in planning law. It is not entirely new in planning law, because, of course, on certain points of law there has always been recourse to the courts, even in planning law. But the argument which he has adduced is, of course, related to quite a different conception of the compulsory acquisition of land than that which is dealt with in Clause 8 of this Bill. The hon. Gentleman based his case on the contention that the Commission should be placed in the same position as a local authority, and that they should have the same powers as a local authority in regard to the compulsory acquisition of land for public purposes; but the reason there has not been more judicial restraint upon the powers of compulsory acquisition of land by local authorities in the various Statutes which, together, make up the planning law of this country is, of course, precisely because those powers were given to local authorities; that is to say, the democratically elected bodies who are normally concerned with the compulsory acquisition of land of people who, in fact, are voters, with a right of voting for those local authorities.

There was, therefore, a democratic and political sanction. So long as that sanction is operative, you do not require to the same extent the sanction of restraint and supervision by the law courts. But what has happened in planning law in the last eighteen months, under the administration of the present Government, has been a continual adding of Government Departments to the ranks of those in whom are vested rights of compulsory acquisition of land. This Clause proposes to take that one step further by giving these rights to the Transport Commission. It is because the circumstances are really so very far different from those on which our planning law was built up in respect of compulsory acquisition by local authorities that my right hon. and learned Friend has seen fit to move this Amendment, proposing a rather different sort of procedure from that which is normally found in our planning law. The hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friends have seen fit to introduce a new system, and the right then does not lie with them to complain that my right hon. Friend is seeking new remedies to check new abuses. One was to refer such matters to a public local inquiry. It is the habit of right hon. and hon. Members opposite when dialectically cornered in these matters, as the hon. Gentleman was dialectically cornered in the Committee stage of this particular Bill on which he is now relying—there are many hon. Members who remember that particular occasion very well—promptly to fall back upon a provision for a public local inquiry in the case of objection being raised. But what is the value of a public local inquiry which, after all, is held by a Departmental inspector and in fact has no sanction at all, because the inquiry simply results in a report to the Minister, who considers, not judicially, but administratively, the report of that inquiry, and takes action, or does not take action at all. It is a most threadbare reason to advance against this Amendment. The arguments put forward by the hon. Gentleman are a travesty, and are not related to the system which he is seeking to set up by this Bill. I hope that the House will say that some safeguard is necessary to prevent this growing abuse of departmental and bureaucratic power for the compulsory acquisition of land.

Mr. Mitchison

I shall not take up the time of the House for long, but I suggest that this Amendment would put the High Court into a wholly impossible position. They would be asked to decide what was reasonable or unreasonable between the public claims and the public duties of the Commission, on the one hand, and the private rights and private duties of some citizen, on the other. There is no indication of what the test of reasonableness is to be in those circumstances, and no court would know where to begin, or upon what sort of test it was to found its decision, if this kind of case were brought before it. That, I think, is a sufficient answer to the Amendment. But I should like to add that, in fact, no purchase of this sort can be made without rather more than the usual safeguards. In addition to the usual provisions regarding compulsory purchase orders, the Minister has to authorise the purchase himself, and to make the purchase, and of course he is answerable to this House for the authority exercised in that respect. I suggest that there is already a proper safeguard—the only safeguard which can be given in these cases— and that this is a subversive attempt to put on to the High Court an ill-defined responsibility which I am certain the judges themselves would refuse to accept, if they were able to do so.

Mr. Renton

With regard to the remarks of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), 'I would say that the High Court has very frequently been asked by Parliament to decide a lot of difficult questions. That, after all, is what the High Court is for. I suggest, however, that the question which the High Court would be asked to decide in such cases is not really such a difficult one. It is a question of reasonableness such as the courts are being asked to decide almost every day. I seek your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, on my next point, because it is a point which has arisen only since the Committee stage was concluded, and I am not certain whether I should raise it now on this Amendment, or on the Question that Clause 10 stand part of the Bill. But, if I might develop my argument, I would say 'briefly that the position is that, under the Acquisition of Land Act, 1946, mentioned in this Clause, the 1939 valuation is the basis of the computation. I was not a Member of the Committee on the Town and Country Planning Bill, but I understand that the whole use of the 1939 valuation is being changed and I would appreciate an explanation about this, in relation to the Transport Bill. Is the 1939 valuation to be retained in this, while in the Town and Country Planning Measure it is to be departed from?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member has developed his point and he is quite clearly out of Order.

Mr. Renton

I am much obliged, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for your Ruling. I was seeking a Ruling, and I now appreciate that the matter is one which could better be raised on the Question that the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I would remind the hon. Member that on the Report stage the Question "That the Clause stand part" is not put.

Mr. Renton

There is another reason why it seems to me we should not leave Clause 8 exactly as it is at the moment. Under Clause 46 (2) people who have their businesses compulsorily taken over will receive compensation on the basis of the amount which the property would fetch, if sold in the open market and that property may well include land because a number of garages will be acquired under this system. On the other hand, in Clause 8, we find that other people— people whose businesses are not being acquired but whose land is being acquired, quite apart from any such consideration—will have their compensation on the 1939 valuation. These different forms of compensation for land appear in this same Bill, and I think that we are entitled to an explanation. This distinction also gives weight to the point raised by my hon. Friend that this matter should be referred to the High Court. The High Court would be able to sort out the matter better than any other body. I do not know if the learned Solicitor-General can give an answer straight away, but the matter should not be abandoned without some statement.

It being Two o'Clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed this day.