HC Deb 05 February 1948 vol 446 cc1995-2000
Mr. Sargood (Bermondsey, West)

I beg to move, in page 2, line 3, at the end, to insert: Provided that nothing in this subsection shall extend any power of a Minister to acquire any land, or any easement over or right restrictive of the user of any land, or to retain or authorise the retention of possession of any land, or to maintain and use, or authorise the maintenance and use of, or to do, or remove, any works upon any land, being land which forms part of any common or open space vested in, or under the control and management of, any local authority. The purpose of this Amendment is to secure that at an early date a little relief will be given to local authorities charged with the duties of maintaining open spaces in districts which are very largely built-up. That duty has been placed on local authorities in order that they may provide amenities for the public. In some built-up areas, particularly in London, before the war the standard accepted was such that there was a serious deficiency of open spaces. Large portions of open spaces now are being used for temporary housing, agriculture, and allotments. There is no suggestion at all that the use of these open spaces for those three purposes will be affected in any way by this Amendment. It is inevitable that the use of open spaces for those three purposes must continue for a long time; but, if we can get the Government Departments which have requisitioned them to release even the smallest areas of open space, it will mean that we can improve the standard of amenities in London.

The total area of plots and open spaces maintained by the London County Council is 6,705 acres. A year ago well over a quarter of this acreage was diverted from open space use. The exact figure was 1,621 acres. That figure, in the last 12 months, has only been reduced by a little over 200 acres, owing to the pressure which the council and its representatives have put on the Government, and there are approximately 1,400 acres in use for other purposes than open spaces. The areas requisitioned by several Government Departments, including the War Office, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Works, just over a year ago were 370 acres. As a result of the pressure we have exerted, we have managed to get a little over 100 acres released from requisition. Although we have been promised early release of some of the areas, it is clear that if the powers of retention proposed by the Bill are conferred, the present unsatisfactory state of affairs will continue for a long period.

8.15 p.m.

May I indicate what the restriction of facilities means to the people of London by referring to various sports facilities provided before the war compared with those now provided? Before the war, London County Council parks and open spaces included 347 cricket pitches as against 80 in 1948. Before the war there were 436 football pitches, and now there are only 180, and compared with 29 hockey pitches we now have only six. That gives an indication of the need for the Government to look closely at this matter. I hope the Government will look kindly at the proposition contained in this Amendment.

Mr. C. Williams

I beg to second the Amendment.

I feel sure the matter is one which should be properly ventilated in this House. The hon. Member for West Bermondsey (Mr. Sargood) has made an excellent speech from the point of view of London, and I would not contradict or alter a word of it; but London is not the only place which would benefit by this Amendment. In my Division there are open spaces which are liable to be seized by the military authorities, and I think it right that we should use this opportunity for getting some declaration from the Government as to what is to be the position. In Plymouth the authorities have tremendous open spaces under their charge and the need of that city for playing fields for the children is very great, as it is in London. They are in a serious position in regard to the dockyard extensions, which no doubt will be affected by this Measure.

Hon. Members who represent Plymouth are not present, but I felt it necessary to put the wider point of view of the West Country on this issue. On Dartmoor most of the land is either Crown land or privately owned, but there are places there where the local authorities have some control over the land, which are liable to seizure. I am not supporting the Amendment in any spirit which is hostile to the Government, but because I feel it necessary that the matter should be ventilated in the House at the present time. In co-operation with one of the Government's supporters, I ask for their consideration of this matter. I have no doubt that the Patronage Secretary will welcome the fact that I have to do this duty because of the silence of his own supporters, who cannot come and put the position of the great towns and the country in this regard.

I am putting this matter in a perfectly friendly way, because I hope that the Government will be able to meet us in this respect. I wish to emphasise once again that we in the West Country have grave difficulties at times when we come into contact with the Government on this matter. I ask the Government at least to give us some assurance that they will not needlessly use the powers under this Measure to close open spaces and playing fields held by local authorities. I make a special plea for the area which is close to the heart of the West Country, and which is under-represented in the House at the moment—Plymouth.

Mr. Gibson (Kennington)

May I press the Minister who is to reply to this Amendment to give sympathetic consideration to the point which it raises? I am sure that what has happened in my own town, a not unimportant one, has happened in many others, where public open spaces have been used during the war for all sorts of defence purposes. It certainly seems to some of us that the time is long past when many of these open spaces ought to be used any longer as dumps for war debris or places where there are still gun sites and other war installations. To illustrate the difficulty which some of us feel in this matter, I would point out that in London we have, for more than 12 months, been trying to get some of these public open spaces cleared for the public use, but although at the beginning of 1947 there were 1,621 acres still under the control of various Government Departments, there are, in spite of tremendous pressure, a number of deputations and the writing of a large number of letters, still 1,397 acres of public open land from which the public are debarred, under the control of various Government Departments for all sorts of wartime purposes. I press strongly for some sympathetic consideration to be given to this Amendment so that this land can be given back again to the people of London and of other towns where the same problem arises in respect of land of which, for quite good reasons during the war the public were denied the use.

The Solicitor-General

I feel that the whole House will be in sympathy with my two hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) in their desire to see open spaces preserved and given back at the earliest possible moment for public recreation and enjoyment. I cannot help feeling that the Amendment is a great deal too drastic, however, and I hope that for the reasons which I shall endeavour to deploy, the House will agree with me that it ought not to be accepted. Its effect would be that the powers contained in Parts II, V and VI of the 1945 Act could continue to be used until December, 1952, for what have been described as transitional economic purposes, but in respect of any other purposes the Service Departments would have to cease to make use of those powers at the end of this month. We are already some way through February, and I think the House will agree that that suggestion is really going a little too far.

I would also point out that one of the powers which the Amendment seeks to terminate at the end of this month is the power to remove public works from public grounds and open spaces. I am sure that could not have been intended; it is perhaps a drafting slip, but the Amendment would have that result. Quite apart from that difficulty, I hope that the House will agree that this Amendment is not really necessary, because in the case of the acquisition of land, not only is there the procedure by way of appeal to the War Works Commission and the procedure whereby the Minister is bound, subject to certain limited exceptions, by any adverse report of the War Works Commission, but Section 12 of the 1945 Act is incorporated, the effect of which is that land cannot be acquired, where it consists of, or includes an open space or common unless equivalent land is provided in its stead. That is a substantial safeguard in relation to the acquisition powers.

I frankly accept the fact that there is no equivalent safeguard in regard to the powers of temporary retention by Service Departments under the relevant Subsection of Section 28 of the 1945 Act. I would say, and I hope that the House will accept this assurance, that the Service Departments are fully alive to the need of the public for rest and recreation, and to the necessity for giving back for this purpose, as soon as they can, land which they do not urgently need for their own purposes. I hope the House will agree that with these safeguards to most of the powers which are contained in the 1945 Act and with that assurance, the Amendment is not really necessary, even if it were otherwise acceptable. It contains a fatal defect of drafting which could no doubt be put right, but even apart from that it is far too drastic. It is not reasonable to expect these powers to be terminated at the end of this month. This Amendment goes to the very root of this Bill. Figures were given of the extent of public spaces still under occupation. To expect them to be immediately vacated by the end of this month would be putting an impossible burden upon those responsible for the administration of the Measure.

Mr. C. Williams

The Solicitor-General has given an assurance, which helps me, that the Service Departments will take a kindly view. Will he give me this little help, for I am in rather a lone position? Will he ask the Service Departments to take a very kindly view as far as Plymouth is concerned?

The Solicitor-General

The Service Departments are under the strongest pressure about all areas. I have no doubt the area with which the hon. Member is primarily concerned will be amongst these. It will be the duty of all Members in this House who have the interests of their constituents at heart to bear in mind the necessity for reminding the Service Departments that they really must move as fast as they possibly can, consistent with their minimum requirements, in the matter of releasing land. For these reasons I hope the House will agree that this is an Amendment which we cannot accept because it would be quite unworkable, and would put an impossible burden on the people who would be affected by it.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Sargood

The drastic effect of our Amendment is an indication of our confidence in the speed and efficiency with which the present Government work, but in view of the assurance given by the Solicitor-General, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.