HC Deb 19 February 1951 vol 484 cc891-900

3.35 p.m.

Mr. Molson (The High Peak)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 12, after "damage," to insert: the cost of which exceeds two hundred pounds and.

The Deputy-Chairman

Would it be convenient to discuss this Amendment and the similar one to Clause 3 at the same time?

Mr. Molson

Yes, Sir Charles.

On Second Reading, several hon. Members on this side of the House, while entirely accepting the need for an Amendment in principle similar to this amendment of the main Act, wondered whether it was necessary and desirable for the exception to apply in the case of all war damage repairs. It was suggested that there might well be a limit on value so that those comparatively small works necessary for repairing property which has been slightly damaged should not be brought within the mischief of this Bill. The Parliamentary Secretary, in his reply on this point, said: With regard to blitz repairs, all the minor works, generally speaking, have, in fact, been already carried out. After all, it is now five or six years since work of that sort was started in such cities as London, Bristol, Plymouth and others. Therefore, whilst it is true that this Bill deals with both major and minor works, all the minor works have been carried out, and so the hon. Member's point about the need for a distinction between major and minor works does not in practice arise."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd January, 1951. Vol. 483, c. 72.] We have tried to make some inquiries about this since the Second Reading. We did not find complete confirmation of what the Parliamentary Secretary, no doubt in complete good faith, had said upon the subject. While it is true that a very great deal of work has been done in the last six years, our information is that it would not be true to say that there does not still remain a large number of small repairs made necessary by the original war damage which, it seems to us, it is desirable should be carried out without this restriction. It is for that reason that we suggest this Amendment.

We in no way criticise the principle of the Measure. We are, however, most anxious that this should not be a blanket rule to apply everywhere under the General Development Order, but that it should apply only to such major works of reconstruction as would really interfere with the development plan. Therefore, we put forward this Amendment, not in the least wedded to the actual value or to the wording of it, but in a desire to ensure that, as far as possible, this amending Bill will be a flexible and useful instrument for effecting the main purpose and will not result in a great deal of additional administrative work.

The Minister of Local Government and Planning (Mr. Dalton)

The object which the hon. Member for the High Peak (Mr. Molson) has in mind is, of course, a very proper one which we all share. At the same time, for reasons which I shall give, I hope that he will not press this Amendment. It is true that, as the Bill stands, even the very smallest works would be controlled. It may well be said, as he has said, that there should be some saving from so wide a sphere. But, in fact, there is a General Development Order now in operation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there has been a series of orders. The latest is that of May of last year which was issued after I came to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and which contains a number of easements which he will recall.

Under that General Development Order, the restoration of war damage continues to be permitted development, except in cases in which a direction has been issued. Broadly speaking, the restoration of what one might call scattered war damage—that is, not the blitzed cities, but small scattered areas of war damage—has been dealt with, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary quite truly said. At any rate, a very large part, if not all of it, has been dealt with. In any case, the restoration of scattered war damage continues to be permissible under the General Development Order. I think that particular cases where directions have been issued relate, in practically every case, to what we know as the blitzed cities, the heavily war damaged areas, where I think it is common ground that we wish the local authority to have a clear field. With the object of giving them that clear field, this Clause is inserted in the Bill.

Even where there has been a direction, the usual practice has been to exclude from the terms of the direction works value £100. The hon. Gentleman wants the figure to be £200 in all cases, but I think it is better to keep the position a little elastic. Particular cases will vary. If, for example, we have a damaged slum dwelling in a general development area, if it is hardly worth reconstructing but only worth patching up, then £200 would be too much. If, on the other hand, we have a reasonably good though damaged commercial property with a life of at least 10 years in front of it, then £200 might be too little.

I venture to express the view that it is better to leave the matter rather elastic, subject to the safeguards which I have indicated, and I would be prepared further, in order that we might get agreement, if we can, if the Amendment is not pressed, to go over the various directions that have been issued already in order to satisfy myself, looking at the matter with a fresh eye, that they do fit the conditions of the particular area concerned. I am anxious to keep the thing elastic, and I think this Amendment would have the effect of introducing an element of rigidity which really would not be helpful.

Mr. Molson

I am very much indebted to the Minister for his very clear statement as to the way in which the directions are issued. As a matter of fact, I asked that very question in the course of the reply by the Parliamentary Secretary in the Second Reading debate. I said: I also asked the hon. Gentleman … whether the experiment had been tried in the case of the directions to say that they should only apply to work involving expenditure of more than a certain amount."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd January, 1951; Vol. 483, c. 71.] I have no complaint to make about it, but the Parliamentary Secretary, in fact, did not deal with that particular point, and that is why I put down this Amendment. I am very glad to learn that, in fact, a provision of that kind is generally included in the directions. Quite obviously, the sum of £100 is just as good as £200, and in view of the very satisfactory explanation which we have had, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

3.45 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Irvine (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

During the Second Reading debate on this Bill, I ventured to raise a point which I think it proper to ask the Committee to consider again now. I believe it to be a matter of some importance and one affecting the position of constituents of all, or nearly all, hon. Members. I was concerned with the cases of certain owners of war-damaged premises whose compensation has been assessed as a value payment. That value payment contains nothing in respect of the owner's loss arising from a refusal to permit development to restore the building.

I took the view on Second Reading that that difficulty, which seems to me to be a real difficulty, could have been surmounted if the new development created by this Bill had been placed in the second part of the Third Schedule and not in the first part. As it was, it seemed to me that an injustice would be done to this class of owners of property, because the compensation, assessed at a value payment, contains nothing in respect of the loss which the owner may have sustained from having been refused permission to restore his war damaged property.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has been very helpful about this in the interval, and the matter has been thoroughly investigated. He has written to me about it, and has drawn my attention to the fact that, if land is compulsorily acquired, the owner's compensation is covered; that is to say, the point which I raised on Second Reading is covered by the provisions of Section 51 (2) of the 1947 Act, because if land is not compulsorily acquired, the value of the interest is, by that Section, ascertained upon the assumption that planning permission is granted. That covers the point in large part, and I wish that it ended the difficulty altogether, but the sad fact is that it does not. I think it right, therefore, at this stage to pursue the matter a little further, in order that, perhaps before the next stage of the Bill is reached, further illumination may be shed upon this problem.

The difficulty that still persists arises from the fact that the Minister need not confirm the purchase notice; in other words, where permission is applied for and refused, it does not follow that the land will be compulsorily acquired, nor does it follow, therefore, that Section 51 will come into operation, because what the Minister can do, in lieu of confirming the notice, is to grant permission for some lesser development than that for which the owner sought permission. If he does that, the land will not be compulsorily acquired, and the owner of the property will find himself refused permission to carry out the development which he wanted to carry out, but allowed, instead, to carry out some lesser or smaller development which the Minister can say will amount to reasonably beneficial use of the land. When that happens, the owner of those premises receives no compensation at all.

It may be that the permission for which he asked was permission to build up his war-damaged house to its previous extent of four storeys. The Minister, or the planning authority, may require that the house should be built up to only two storeys, or that it should be set back from its former frontage. All kinds of developments may be required by the Minister, and they would have the effect that the land would not be compulsorily acquired, and, therefore, Section 51 would not come into effect. The owner of the property would be disadvantaged, and in a way in which he could not have been disadvantaged if this Bill had not become law.

In my view of the matter, a situation might arise which would work out extremely unfairly. We might have a case involving two owners of property whose premises are adjacent one to the other, such as two houses in the same street. One of these houses maybe war-damaged, whereas the house next door is not war-damaged at all. The owner of the house which is not war-damaged may take his house down, practically to the foundations, and rebuild it in a manner which will not materially affect the exterior of his house, and he can do so without getting permission from anyone. He can do that because under Section 51 (2) of the Town and Country Planning Act that would not be a development at all.

The owner of the war-damaged house may desire to conduct exactly the same degree of building upon his house, but he has to seek permission. That is an inequality at the outset. The permission may be refused. If it is refused entirely and the land is compulsorily acquired, then the owner will get compensation under Section 51—that is the point which has been cleared up by the Parliamentary Secretary—but there is the other possibility that the land will not be compulsorily acquired because the Minister gives a conditional permission to build not the same house as existed upon the site before, but another house, perhaps lower or set further back, or subject to some such restriction. That may be a very beneficial use of the land and yet a use of far less value to the owner than would have been its use had he been given permission to build the house as it stood before it suffered war damage.

These are somewhat involved, but none the less important, points, and I bring them forward now because I desire to give my right hon. Friend the opportunity of considering them before the next stage of the Bill. After all, a great number of persons are affected by this. In my own constituency, where considerable war damage occurred, large numbers of people are affected, and I think there is a point here which still requires clarification. This Bill was first presented to us as if it were largely declaratory of the existing position, something in the nature of a formality setting doubts at rest. But I think it is rather more than that, and I am still not satisfied that owners of war-damaged property may not be adversely and unfairly affected by its provisions. My difficulties, which I expressed during the Second Reading stage of the Bill, have been in large part cleared up, but not entirely removed.

Mr. Henry Strauss (Norwich, South)

I invite the right hon. Gentleman to be good enough to look at one small point of drafting before the subsequent stage of the Bill. It is the point to which the Amendment which was not selected was directed. I think there is a slip in the drafting as will be seen by the right hon. Gentleman if he will contrast the curious phrase used in line 9 of page 2: any works being such as aforesaid with the normal phrase: any such works as aforesaid.

The Deputy-Chairman

I must point out to the hon. and learned Gentleman that I did not select that Amendment.

Mr. Strauss

I realise that, Sir Charles, and that therefore I cannot move the Amendment, but I submit that on the Motion, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," I am entitled to point out an apparent mistake in the drafting—an unfortunate contrast between subsections (2) and (3)—which the right hon. Gentleman may wish to correct. If you will give me permission to put the point to the right hon. Gentleman, Sir Charles, I promise not to detain the Committee for more than another minute.

If the right hon. Gentleman will look at subsection (2) he will see the phrase, "such works as aforesaid," and the same in the proviso to subsection (2). I think it is merely a slip that the same phrase does not appear in the proviso to subsection (3). Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will be good enough to consult his advisers with a view to correcting it if he thinks fit.

Mr. John Hay (Henley)

On Second Reading, both the hon. Member for Edge Hill (Mr. Irvine) and I drew attention to a point which he has raised again this afternoon. On that occasion, I went so far as to invite the Government to put down their own Amendment to cover the point which he and I had in mind. I must admit that I was not so concerned with those who were to get value payments as with those who were to get cost-of-works payments. Since there is no Government Amendment on the Order Paper, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman if he has considered that point again.

My point is simply that where war damage has occurred to a building and the owner is entitled to a cost-of-works payment, he can only use that money to carry out repairs to the identical site where the damage was incurred, and, unless he gets planning permission—as he will now he required to do under this Bill—he will not be able to use the money upon repairs to any other site. What I had really in mind was a question which I understand has been raised before in this House, the "portable cost-of-works payment." I understand that it is sometimes dealt with by administrative action, but I should like to know whether the Government have looked at this point again, and, if so, whether they are prepared to consider some provision for assisting the kind of person I have in mind who is going to be in difficulty if he comes up against a stubborn local authority which may not be prepared to grant him planning permission in that particular case.

Mr. Dalton

My hon. Friend the Member for Edge Hill (Mr. Irvine) is still not quite happy about this Clause. I shall try to set his fears at rest. This is frightfully technical stuff, and I apologise, as, I think all hon. Members should who introduce technicalities into this debate. I am advised that where land is compulsorily acquired, the compensation is assessed on the assumption that planning permission will be granted for any development included in the Third Schedule. Therefore, the refusal of planning permission would not influence the price of the land under Section 51 of the Act. But there is also Section 20 (3) of the Act—I do not know whether my hon. Friend has been giving attention to that—which provides that if permission is granted for a lesser development than the total applied for, then compensation for the difference is payable. That being so, I think my hon. Friend's constituents can rest happily in their beds.

So far as the particular hypothesis which he has indicated is concerned, I would go a stage further and say that, in practice, purchase notices are confirmed in practically every case where blitz arises. Therefore, I think that, on the one hand, the hypothetical case he raises is very infrequent, and that, on the other, when it does arise, it is taken care of.

Mr. Irvine

I am very much obliged to my right hon. Friend, but there is just this point. My recollection is that Section 20 deals with development in the second part of the Third Schedule, and my whole difficulty arose from the fact that this amending Bill applies this development to the first part.

Mr. Dalton

I do not think that affects the issue, but I will have a final look at my hon. Friend's final fear.

Mr. Molson

To what Section was the right hon. Gentleman referring?

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Dalton

I was referring to Section 20 (3).

The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) raised a much wider matter, namely, what he described as a "portable cost-of-works payment," and that, of course, is a much bigger proposition than anything in this Bill. It has often been debated, and when I was at the Treasury I used to know the case against it; and a formidable case can be deployed against it. But that lies quite outside this Bill and it would only be possible to consider it at all in a very much larger amending Measure and that, at present, is not before the Committee.

Mr. Hay

Can the right hon. Gentleman answer my inquiry whether anything can be done by administrative action to meet this difficulty?

Mr. Dalton

I am afraid that it is beyond administrative action. I have looked at it with attention and sympathy but I am afraid it cannot be done. Once one opens that particular gate, it lets many sheep through, more than perhaps the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) would wish to see. With regard to the hon. and learned Member for Norwich, South (Mr. H. Strauss), his Amendment was not selected, and therefore it would not be proper for me to dilate upon it beyond saying that I always sympathise with him in his desire for pure and terse English. However, I will look at it again, though I am advised that this is a deliberate variation of phraseology to meet the conditions.

Mr. R. S. Hudson (Southport)

The right hon. Gentleman has apologised for the technical nature of the reply, but the only clear thing that emerges from this discussion—with which I am sure you, Sir Charles, if you were allowed to say so would agree—is that it illustrates the need for a fundamental change and a tidying up and elucidation of this very complicated matter. I confess that when the right hon. Gentleman was first appointed to his new job as Minister of Town and Country Planning I entertained, with my right hon. and hon. Friends on this side, some hope that the result of his being free to devote his undoubtedly great talents to these problems would have been a new Measure really simplifying the matter and clearing a way through this jungle. I am sorry to say that I am afraid that now that he has still another job, it may result in his attention being diverted. If he can devote a short time to trying to clear it up he will receive the plaudits not only of this side of the House but of a large section of the community.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman, for the sake of the record, verify the reference to Section 20 (3) of the Act which he mentioned in reply to the hon. Member for Edge Hill (Mr. Irvine) as it appears to me that it may be an error?

Mr. Dalton

I will verify it, but that was the information given to me.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.