HC Deb 18 November 1949 vol 469 cc2350-61

11.16 a.m.

Mr. Derek Walker-Smith (Hertford)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 16, after "may," to insert: where they are unable to take such a lease by agreement. This is a simple Amendment, but an important one. Clause 1 is drafted so as to give two alternative powers to a local authority if and when they are satisfied on each of the three conditions specified in subsection (1). These two alternative powers are put simply and without qualification as alternative. The local authority may take a lease of the land by agreement, or may be authorised by the Minister to take possession of the land compulsorily.

In our view, that provision is not satisfactory put in those terms. We believe that what the Bill should provide is that the local authority has power to take a lease by agreement, and, failing that, to requisition the land under compulsory powers. It is indeed, or it certainly was, inherent in our system that voluntary powers are not and should not be enforced until voluntary persuasion has failed and can be shown to have failed, and that is the system which we suggest should come within the provision of this subsection. If the words which are proposed to be inserted are incorporated in the Bill it then becomes clear that the local authority cannot proceed to the use of compulsory powers until the powers of voluntary persuasion and negotiation have failed.

Now it may very well be that the right hon. Gentleman will say that local authorities, being reasonable bodies, will not, in fact, proceed to the use of compulsory powers until the use of voluntary powers—that is to say, the taking of a lease by voluntary negotiation—has failed and it may well be, as, I am sure, it will be, in the great majority of cases, at any rate, that that will be so. However, there is no reason why there should not be a statutory provision to that effect. Indeed, there is every reason why there should be a statutory provision to ensure that, in the minority of cases where it may otherwise not be so, it will be so under the terms of this Bill.

I did cite on Second Reading one comparison which I felt was relevant, and that was the recent comparison from Section 43 of the Town and Country Planing Act, 1947. As the Committee knows, Section 43 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, is the Section whereby the Central Land Board has power to acquire compulsorily in certain cases: and subsection (2) of that Section reads: If the Minister is satisfied that it is expedient in the public interest that the Board should acquire any land for any such purpose as aforesaid, and that the Board are unable to acquire the land by agreement on reasonable terms, he may authorise the Board the acquire the land compulsorily in accordance with the provisions of this section. From the point of view of the right hon. Gentleman and Members opposite, I am citing, I hope, a very respectable precedent when I cite Section 43 of the Town and Country Planning Act. I have never hidden my own view that it is an extremely controversial Section indeed, but the subsection I have just read out seems to me to be probably the most reasonable feature of that highly controversial Section. Therefore, it seems to us that it would be a good thing to borrow the words of that Section and reproduce them in this Clause of this Bill. The right hon. Gentleman would hardly like, I imagine, to lag behind the Minister of Town and Country Planning in reasonableness, or in regard for the liberties of the subject. Therefore, with that example, and, it may be, that challenge before him, I confidently hope that he will see the reasonableness of the Amendment. It is, as I say, in terms a simple Amendment. It in no way complicates the Bill, and it gives statutory force to a principle which, I am sure, hon. Members on both sides of the Committee value. For those reasons I move the Amendment.

Colonel Dower (Penrith and Cockermouth)

I rise only to say that I hope that at the beginning of these proceedings the right hon. Gentleman will show the same co-operation now that we showed on Second Reading. This Amendment in no way conflicts with what the right hon. Gentleman said when he spoke on Second Reading. I have the report of his speech before me, but as, I am sure, his words are still fresh in the mind of the right hon. Gentleman I do not intend to read out even the parts of it relevant to this matter. I would only say that all the way through his speech he showed his determination to try to bring about what he wanted, first, by full and free voluntary agreement between any of the parties, before resorting to any of the strong compulsory powers that are contained in this Bill.

We are not in any way against the putting into operation of compulsory powers. I can assure hon. Members opposite that that is perfectly true. What we do feel, though, is that they should be the last resort, and that before they are put into operation, the right hon. Gentleman should try to see that friendly negotiation takes place so that all the parties will feel, not only that they are not in any way being overridden, but that they are being given a fair and free chance to take part in what we all desire, which is the clearing of those bombed sites.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Aneurin Bevan)

As I have ventured to remark before—I think probably privately; my mind cannot recall the exact circumstances—I cannot make up my mind whether I prefer to have a Bill opposed on Second Reading or unopposed on Second Reading. My experience has taught me that it is very much more difficult in Committee if the Bill has not been opposed on Second Reading, because then at the Committee stage we have a number of Second Reading points which, were they carried, would have the effect of wrecking the Bill entirely.

Mr. Walker-Smith

The right hon. Gentleman now says we have a number of Second Reading points in Committee. How does he square that with his observation on second Reading that we were bringing up a number of Committee points on Second Reading?

Mr. Bevan

There is nothing at all to prevent the hon. Member from doing both—from putting Committee points on Second Reading and Second Reading points in Committee—which is precisely what the hon. Gentleman has succeeded in doing.

Mr. Walker-Smith

They are the same points.

Mr. Bevan

If one wills the end one really must will the means. If it be the fact that the House of Commons has generally ageed that these bombed sites should be cleared up and should be put into proper order, then hon. Members ought not to insist on Amendments which make that practically impossible. This is precisely one of those Amendments, and the hon. Member has pleaded a very heavy argument indeed. First of all, he quotes from another Act the machinery for compulsory acquisition when, as a matter of fact, we are not discussing compulsory acquisition at all. We are discussing temporary possession, and surely it is not appropriate to apply to temporary possession machinery which has been laid down for compulsory acquisition. Therefore, his comparison is, I think, entirely beside the point.

Moreover, there are a number of Amendments on the Paper of much the same altitude, to import into this slender and, I thought, generally agreed Measure machinery which is used in connection with major legislation, and which, if it were put into the Bill, would have the effect of frightening all the local authorities away, so that the Bill would become abortive from the very beginning.

Let us see what we are asked to do by this Amendment. The hon. Gentleman says it is simple. It is simple, yes; but as simple as a bullet; it just kills the Bill from the very start. I will try to show how. In the first place, how is a local authority to obtain the permission of an owner who cannot be found? There is nothing in the Amendment about that at all. We do not know where are the owners of very many of these blitzed sites. They have no interest in them at the moment. That is part of the difficulty. They are entirely neglecting them because until they are developed or redeveloped, either the authority which is going to redevelop them, or the owner who is ultimately to be able to build upon them, has no interest in the matter at all. The owner does not bother about it, and the local authority has to search around for a very long time trying to find out who was, in fact, the owner of the property, or who had a right in it.

In many cases there is not only one person, remember, but a very large number who would have an interest or a share in only one of these blitzed sites. The local authority would have to search around trying to find each one of them, because if each one had not been asked for his consent the local authority could not take possession of the site.

Colonel Dower

Does that mean that the Minister does not intend to try to obtain consent by agreement?

11.30 a.m.

Mr. Bevan

If the hon. and gallant Gentleman will wait, I shall come to that later on. I am only pointing out that in a great city like London, where there are a number of participants in the ownership of a bombed site, to insist that the local authority should search out and obtain the consent of each one before proceeding to take possession of the site would frustrate the local authority at the very start. That is why we have put into the Bill the provision that the local authority can for clearing purposes enter into possession of the site in 24 hours. I notice that there is an Amendment down to that provision also.

We also provide that the local authority can put up a notice, such as is done in the short method of acquiring possession of land under the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) Act, 1946. In 1946 the House found it necessary to agree to that, because it was not always possible to find the owners, and at that time the House passed a Measure which I proposed to it which, in the case of house building, enabled a local authority which could not find the owner to put up a notice on the site. If that be the case where the possession of land is urgently required for housing purposes, and where complete possession is being taken for all time, it is surely reasonable to have such a provision in a Bill under which temporary possession is to be taken.

Secondly, the Amendment does not say how long the owner can spend parleying, even if he is discovered. He can simply delay, and if he does not consent action cannot be taken. How long must the local authority wait? The Amendment says nothing about that. It gives no definition of "reasonable time," so that all the owner need do is to refrain from giving consent, and the local authority will be delayed for very many months. I should have thought the hon. Member would be with me in wanting to get these blitzed sites cleared up. He ought not, therefore, in his passion for the defence of every piece of private property, to deny the means by which this can be carried out.

We shall, of course, by administrative action seek to obtain the consent of the owner where the owner can be readily found. That is the whole point. The Minister's authority has to be obtained if compulsory possession of the site is sought. If the local authority knows it can proceed by agreement it does so, and in such cases my consent would not be sought. But where the local authority intends to proceed to compulsory possession the consent of the Minister would be asked, and I should imagine that in such circumstances he would ask the local authority whether they had taken reasonable steps to obtain the consent of the owner of the property. I should have thought that in that way all requirements of reasonable conduct would be met, and I must therefore resist the Amendment.

Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)

I am really astonished at the right hon. Gentleman talking like that about this Amendment and saying that it would kill the Bill. Surely the Bill is not such a rotten Bill that it will be killed by an Amendment of this kind? We ought to give a little more thought to this, and not permit it to be dismissed by the Minister in that way. He says that a local authority often cannot find the owner. Surely that difficulty could be overcome, and instead of saying that this Amendment would wreck the Bill the Minister ought to try to see how this Amendment can be improved so as to satisfy his criticisms.

Mr. Bevan

How would the hon. Gentleman suggest?

Sir J. Mellor

I will proceed to tell the right hon. Gentleman. The Minister himself is now trying to wreck the Amendment. Instead of doing that, let him consider how the Amendment might be improved. As the local authority has to advertise and give notice of their intention it would be perfectly easy to provide that, if no reply to such notice is received from any interested person within a very short period the local authority is entitled to assume that no proprietor can be found, and in the absence of any claimant to a proprietory interest it would be reasonable that the local authority should apply for authorisation for compulsory acquisition. I am sure my hon. Friend would be prepared to accept some such Amendment to his Amendment.

The Minister then asked how long the local authority would have to wait. Again, it would be the simplest thing to put a definite time limit in the Bill. He also said that this could be dealt with by administrative action, and that everybody is most anxious to be reasonable. As a result of our experience during this Parliament we have found that people prefer to have things in the Bill; they prefer to know how they stand and what their rights are, so that if they are dealt with in a high-handed way they have some redress.

Mr. J. H. Hare (Woodbridge)

I do think the Minister is exaggerating the point that one of the inconveniences of accepting this Amendment would be to frustrate local authorities because they would be unable to find the owners of sites. He is surely using the exception in order to prove a line of thought. He wishes, for administrative convenience, to streamline this Bill, as it were, and to give nobody the right of appeal; but in order to justify that, he says that local authorities will be impeded in their job of clearing these sites because they will not be able to find the owners. Admittedly, there may be cases in which the local authority does not know the owner of a site, but the Minister must admit that such cases are the exception and not the rule.

Mr. Bevan

Oh, no.

Mr. Hare

To base his whole argument on that is surely specious. I therefore certainly support this Amendment.

Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)

I am sorry that the Minister has taken up this attitude, because I can assure him at once that we on this side of the Committee have no intention of wrecking this Bill. Indeed, we desire to see it go forward, and in putting down this Amendment we thought we were helping the right hon. Gentleman. During his Second Reading speech the Minister said most clearly that before granting compulsory acquisition he would make certain that everything had been done to secure agreement, and we are only seeking to put that into the Bill. We are doing that, and nothing more.

The right hon. Gentleman seems to think that our Amendment falls far short of what is necessary to secure what we desire, without providing a delay which would frighten the local authorities out of taking any action at all. If he would only think a little more deeply about some of our subsequent Amendments, to which he referred, he would find that fear unjustified. In a later Amendment, in Clause 3, page 2, line 31, in which we refer to the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) Act, 1946, we seek to make provision for missing owners, and also to ensure that there shall not be any undue delay. But that can be argued when we reach that Amendment.

This Amendment is in no way a wrecking Amendment. We merely put down what we thought the Minister desired. It is making absolutely certain that the local authorities exhaust the possibilities of agreement before they apply to the Minister. It is really saving the Minister a considerable amount of trouble. It is a beneficial Amendment, and for those reasons I am afraid I shall have to ask those who sit behind me to insist on dividing the Committee.

Mr. Walker-Smith

Before we take a decision on this matter, I should like to answer one or two of the points raised by the Minister in reply to the speech in which I commended this Amendment to the Committee. His first point was that the comparison of this procedure with the well known procedure regulating the compulsory acquisition of land is a comparison which should not be pressed. He says that, because he distinguishes between the case of taking permanent possession of land and taking temporary possession of land by requisitioning. There is a distinction between taking land for five or 10 years and taking land permanently, but it is a distinction of degree. I venture to suggest that a good deal of the land which is taken under compulsory requisitioning under this Bill will never find its way back to its original owners; it will be the first step, which will be followed in due course by compulsory acquisitioning. I think that the good sense of the Committee will suggest that the procedure should be followed except in such cases where it is inapplicable.

His second point was in regard to not being able to find the owners, and my hon. Friends the Members for Sutton Coldfield (Sir J. Mellor) and Woodbridge (Mr. Hare) have already referred to that point. The Minister exaggerates the difficulties of finding the owners of sites. The sites that are to be dealt with under this Bill are mainly in big cities, and the Minister has an inaccurate impression of the values of the sites in these cities if he really thinks that the owners are not aware of their ownership. If, in spite of every reasonable effort, the local authority cannot find the owner, then, quite clearly, they are unable to take the land by agreement within the terms of the Amendment. In other words, the Amendment acts as no bar at all, which was the principal reason put up by the Minister.

As the Committee are aware, local authorities are under a duty to try to identify the owner if they are to carry out the procedure of the Schedule for compulsory requisitioning. The, Minister must be very barren of argument if he has to attach such weight to such a fine point as that. He went on to say that in the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) Act, 1946, it had been necessary to incorporate a special Section to give powers for speedy compulsory acquisition, but he did not say that in every Act since incorporating that provision the Section giving power for speedy acquisition has been excluded. That, again, seems to be a very poor point on which to found his argument.

He made the point, which I anticipated he would make, that this is unnecessary because the local authorities would tend to do this administratively in any event. That point has also been fully and lucidly answered by my hon. Friend for Sutton Coldfield. People like to see, and are entitled to see, their rights on the Statute Book, so that if a local authority tends to be arbitrary or overriding in its demeanour, a person is able to point to the Statute Book and say, "These are the rights Parliament gave me. This is what Parliament said they would do."

Finally, the Minister referred to what he was pleased to call my passion for protecting private property. I have no such passion, but what I do have, and what every Member should have, is a passion for the protection of liberty. [Laughter.] The right hon. Gentleman laughs at that, but his laughter is extraordinarily out of place. I challenge him to cite the case of any country in which liberty has survived the suppression of private property. We know it is a fact that the normal method of totalitarianism is the extinction of the rights of private property, just as of the political rights of the individual. When the right hon. Gentleman laughs he reveals one of two things, or both—either his gross ignorance of contemporary history, or his inattention to the rights of the subject in a free community. In these circumstances, I can only express my disappointment at the action of the Minister, and the hope that the Committee will support this Amendment.

Question put, "That those words be there inserted."

The Committee divided: Ayes, 35; Noes, 80.

Division NO. 285.] AYES [11.48 a.m.
Boles, Lt.-Col. D. C. Harvey, Air-Comdre. A. V. Prior-Palmer, Brig. O.
Boyd-Carpenter, J. A. Hollis, M. C. Roberts, W. (Cumberland, N.)
Braithwaite, Lt.-Comdr. J. G. Lucas, Major Sir J. Robertson, Sir D. (Streatham)
Bullock, Capt. M. Lucas-Tooth, Sir H. Ross, Sir R. D. (Londonderry)
Channon, H. MacAndrew, Col. Sir C. Smith, E. P. (Ashford)
Davidson, Viscountess Macdonald, Sir P. (I. of Wight) Smithers, Sir W.
Dower, Col. A. V. G. (Penrith) Mackeson, Brig. H. R. Studholme, H. G.
Fox, Sir G. Maitland, Comdr. J. W. Wakefield, Sir W. W.
Fraser, Sir I. (Lonsdale) Medlicott, Brigadier F Walker-Smith, D.
Galbraith, Cmdr. T. D. (Pollok) Mellor, Sir J. Young, Sir A. S. L. (Partick)
Galbraith, T. G. D. (Hillhead) Neven-Spence, Sir B.
Gridley, Sir A. Noble, Comdr. A. H. P. TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Hare, Hon. J. H. (Woodbridge) Price-White, D. Major Conant and Colonel Wheatley.
Albu, A. H. Driberg, T. E. N. Morris, P. (Swansea, W.)
Allen, A. C. (Bosworth) Dumpleton, C. W. Moyle, A.
Attewell, H. C. Evans, Albert (Islington, W.) Nally, W.
Austin, H. Lewis Field, Capt. W. J. Naylor T. E.
Ayles, W. H. Freeman, Peter (Newport) Pargiter, G. A.
Battley, J. R. Ganley, Mrs. C. S. Parker, J.
Berry, H. Greenwood, Rt. Hon. A. (Wakefield) Parkin, B. T.
Beswick, F. Guest, Dr. L. Haden Piratin, P
Bevan, Rt. Hon. A. (Ebbw Vale) Hastings, Dr. Somerville Popplewell, E.
Binns, J. Hudson, J. H. (Ealing, W.) Price, M. Philips
Blenkinsop, A. Hughes, H. D. (W'lverh'pton, W.) Reid, T. (Swindon)
Bowden, H. W. Hynd, H. (Hackney, C.) Ridealgh, Mrs. M.
Braddock, T. (Mitcham) Irving, W. J. (Tottenham, N.) Robinson, Kenneth (St. Pancras, N.)
Bramall, E. A. Jeger, G. (Winchester) Royle, C.
Broughton, Dr. A. D. D. Kenyon, C. Shackleton, E. A. A.
Brown, T. J. (Ince) Lipton, Lt.-Col M. Silverman, S. S. (Nelson)
Burden, T. W. Longden, F. Skeffington-Lodge, T. C.
Coldrick, W. McAdam, W. Skinnard, F. W.
Daines, P. McEntee, V. La. T. Smith, S. H. (Hull, S. W.)
Davies, Edward (Burslem) Manning, Mrs. L. (Epping) Swingler, S.
Davies, Harold (Leek) Mellish, R. J. Symonds, A. L.
Delargy, H. J. Middleton, Mrs. L. Taylor, R. J. (Morpeth)
Dodds, N. N. Morley, R. Tiffany, S.
Turner-Samuels, M. Whiteley, Rt. Hon. W. Yates, V. F.
Viant, S. P. Willey, O. G. (Cleveland)
Wallace, G. D. (Chislehurst) Williams, Ronald (Wigan) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Warbey, W. N. Williams, W. T. (Hammersmith, S.) Mr. Pearson and Mr. Wilkins.
Webb, M. (Bradford, C.) Williams, W. R. (Heston)

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.