HC Deb 24 January 1951 vol 483 cc265-74

Motion made, and Question proposed. "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Popplewell.]

10.11 p.m.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

As this is the first occasion when my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is appearing at the Box in his expanded capacity, that is, covering local government, may I take the opportunity of congratulating him on the extension of his responsibilities, and also congratulating the Department on having such a suitable Minister so readily at hand? With his magnificent experience of local government on the Welwyn Garden City Urban District Council, the Hertfordshire County Council and in the wider spheres of local government, I can think of no hon. Member of the House who could so well fill that important office.

The subject I wish to bring before the House may appear at first sight of local application only—though it has tremendous importance to a large number of my constituents—but I think hon. Members will find it of general interest, and possibly with much wider implications, particularly if it is looked at in the light of the fact that there is this hiatus between now and the general reassessment of property which, according to the latest announcement, is due to take place in 1953.

The question with which I am concerned affects 659 post-war houses in Accrington, at three sites at Willows Lane, Richmond Road and Fern Gore Estates. Those post-war houses were assessed by the Accrington Corporation in the normal way in 1948. Unfortunately, Accrington is not yet a county borough, and in this and similar respects they are always subject to the overriding authority of the Lancashire County Council. About 12 months later the Lancashire County Council said, "These assessments are not high enough", and they tabled proposals for higher assessments.

I do not complain that the county valuation officer, in so doing, exceeded his right and, indeed, his duty to seek more uniformity as between the different rating areas of the county, but I ask the House to note the date on which this action was taken. The county valuation officer tabled those new proposals on 25th March, 1949, which means, that under the 1925 Rating and Valuation Act, those proposals had a retrospective effect automatically until the beginning of that financial year. In other words, they would take effect from 1st April, 1948.

It may be considered as very smart work on the part of the county valuation officer to get an extra year at the higher rateable value. I would describe it as slick. I object straight away to what I regard as sharp practice on the part of the county valuation officer in coming along, in the last week of the financial year, and making proposals which back date for 12 months.

Hon. Members can imagine what the effect was on the tenants concerned. I wish to emphasise that this action was taken under the 1925 Rating and Valuation Act and not, as certain people locally have been suggesting, under the 1948 Local Government Act. It was the 1925 Act which had this retrospective effect and which has caused all the trouble. Alarm and despondency was caused not only among the tenants, but also among the local authorities affected. It was not the tenants but the local authorities which lodged objections in the first place to the higher assessments.

Certain assessments at Bacup were taken to quarter sessions. The decision went against the Bacup Corporation and the Bacup assessments were confirmed. The local assessment committee concerned which is the Hastinglea local assessment committee which covers the towns of Accrington, Bacup, Haslingden and Rawtenstall, had postponed the hearing of the objections to the original proposals pending a settlement of the quarter sessions case on the Bacup assessments. That was a perfectly natural thing to do, but it meant that there was delay in deciding what these new assessments were to be.

There was further delay caused by the operation of the 1948 Act involving the change over to the new procedure under which the valuation officer of the Inland Revenue Department comes into the picture. He automatically had to take ever the functions of the county valuation officer. These delays meant that the matter was dragging on, and if the assessments were to be confirmed the arrears were piling up. There was further delay until eventually, on 16th October, 1950, the local valuation court heard seven test cases, representing various types of houses.

Therefore, we had that time from the first proposals on 25th March, 1949—one and a half years ago and, with retrospective effect, a total of two and a half years—during which arrears were piling up. It is obvious that this delay was vexatious. It was unfortunate and it meant a further burden if the assessments were to be confirmed; but this delay was in no way the fault of those tenants. That point is most important when we consider the validity of their complaint. At the local valuation court the case was handled on behalf of Accrington Corporation by the borough treasurer acting, in effect, in the interests of the tenants. In my opinion, he put up a splendid case on their behalf.

The net result of the deliberations of the local valuation court, added to subsequent negotiations, was that of 464 cases involved. 310 had £1 taken off the proposed new assessment; 357 had decreased gross assessments which does not affect their actual payments but does affect the assessment of their water rates; and in the other cases the assessments were confirmed. In most cases there were increases ranging up to Is. 10d. a week in the inclusive rent—that is, rent plus rates —and the arrears amount in most cases to about £12 for each tenant. It will be agreed that £12 is a considerable amount for a working-class family to find in these days. It will cause considerable hardship if it is enforced.

The local council, who have been acting all the way through up to now in the interests of the tenants, have tried to ease the position by offering them a spread-over of 18 months, during which this debt can be wiped out, but, even spread over 18 months, £12 is still a considerable sum. I think the tenants are justified in feeling that they have had rather a raw deal over the whole business. It is perfectly true that the tenants did have the right to appeal to the lands tribunal within 21 days after the hearing by the local valuation court, and it may be put up against them that they did not exercise that right. I am given to understand that they did not do so because they had decided, through their tenants' association, that the time had come when these cases could no longer be looked at individually, but that the matter had become one of principle which should -be decided as a collective matter of principle and not by taking individual cases to the lands tribunals.

This is where I come back to the peculiar position of the Accrington Town Council. They put up their borough treasurer to make a very good defence of the lower assessments, acting in the interests of the tenants. As a result of this decision, the council find themselves in the position of being forced to collect the increased rates from the tenants whom they have been defending up to now. The local council do not want to take this action and do not want to have the assessments of the houses increased, but they are bound, as agents of the county council, to take this action. Therefore, it is very unfortunate indeed, both from their point of view and that of the tenants affected, that they now find themselves faced with a collective protest from the tenants, who, under legal advice, are now refusing, I understand, to pay the increased amounts, as the only possible protest left to them.

The position is one which the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. De la Bère), would describe as "thoroughly unsatisfactory." I am not certain what the Minister can do about it. I make no complaint at all about the attitude of his Department, or, rather, of the Ministry of Health, so far, and I acknowledge the very helpful letter which I received from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health some time ago about this matter, but it does seem to me that, in the first place, these new proposals should not have been tabled so far on in the financial year. Indeed, I think that, having got to that stage, it would have been far better to leave the re-assessment of that property until the general re-assessment that will take place all over the country, which was originally fixed for 1952 but has now been postponed to 1953.

If that postponement cannot take place, I suggest that, perhaps, either the whole or part of these arrears might very well be waived. I suppose that that would have to be done by the county council, but, anyway, I think there is a case for consideration either by the Ministry or by some sort of local arbitration, for the whole or part of the arrears to be waived. It may be that the Minister may have some other solution to propose.

The final question which I wish to put to the Parliamentary Secretary is whether this is an isolated case or whether similar action has been taken in other parts of the country; whether this is a widespread action on the part of valuation officers, or whether this is something peculiar to my own constituency and the surrounding districts, because, if it is, it emphasises all the more the injustice which I have been attempting to explain.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

I am well aware that the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) has put forward a very detailed case that calls for a very careful reply from the Parliamentary Secretary, and therefore I shall not trespass for more than a minute or two on the time available to the hon. Gentleman. I think it is not a bad thing to add our hope from this side that the new Department responsible for housing is going to show some results that were lamentably lacking when it was under the hon. Gentleman's predecessor. It is rather a case of King Midas adjudicating in a case between two flautists; he heard the first, and gave the prize to the second. The hon. Gentleman's results likewise cannot be worse.

The hon. Member for Accrington seemed concerned about the dangers of retrospective legislation he showed how it had worked to the detriment of tenants and councils in this particular instance, and I hope he will have a satisfactory reply from the Parliamentary Secretary. The other point I wish to place on record is that assessments are dependent on the value of property, and I believe that, next to the shortage of houses, which is obviously the outstanding social evil of today, the cost of houses and the consequent rents are the next greatest evil. I hope that the new Department will bear in mind that great efforts are needed to keep down the cost of houses so that these assessments which are the subject of tonight's debate are not going to be too high.

I think this is not an inappropriate moment to reinforce our plea for more houses to meet the ever-growing lists by having slightly smaller houses. I do not want to trespass on the time which the Parliamentary Secretary ought to take in answering the very detailed point put to him by the hon. Member for Accrington, but I hope that when this debate is over he will keep the two propositions that I have presumed to underline well in his mind and in that of his right hon.Friend.

10.27 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning (Mr. Lindgren)

I hope the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. H. Nicholls) will forgive me if I do not follow him too closely, but I would like to say how glad I am to hear from him that his policy for reducing housing costs is to reduce housing standards.

Mr. Nicholls

Sizes, not standards.

Mr. Lindgren

The hon. Gentleman is not going to get me away from the point raised by my hon. Friend through that interjection.

I am sure that my hon. Friend, whom I thank for his kind remarks at the begin, ping of his speech, will not expect me to deal with the question of the merits or otherwise of a particular assessment. All I can deal with is the machinery for arriving at these assessments, and the machinery used in this particular case was the Rating and Valuation Act, 1925, the valuation principles of which remain in operation right up to the time that the 1948 Act becomes fully effective in 1953. The machinery which was in operation when this first arose, consisted of the local rating authority—the borough council—and the county valuation committee and had the responsibility throughout the whole period to see that there was uniformity of assessment in order that there should be fairness as 'between one ratepayer and another.

In the opinion of the Lancashire County Council rating valuation committee, Accrington had been unfair to other ratepayers in the county by assessing these council houses at too low a rate. Therefore, inasmuch as these people were thereby not only paying less for their own local rate in Accrington, but also a lower proportion of the county rate for the services over the whole county, it was their duty to call attention to this lower assessment, and to give to the body who had the right to determine whether it was correct or not—then the local assessment committee—the opportunity to decide whether the local rating valuation committee—the borough council—or the county council were in fact right in their assessment.

That was put to the assessment committee, as my hon. Friend said, in March, 1949. When it got to the assessment committee for hearing, the committee appreciated that there was another case for the Bacup area in which a similar set of circumstances arose. There the matter had been taken to what was the appeal court for the assessment committee, the Quarter Sessions. Quite rightly, the local assessment committee said that as there was then a similar case or set of cases before the Quarter Sessions which would in fact be a test case, it would defer the hearing until the decision of the Quarter Sessions was made, and that in the light of that decision these appeals would fail or succeed.

Then came the Quarter Sessions hearing and the county valuation committee's opinion of values in the Bacup case was upheld by the Quarter Sessions. That, in the opinion of the local assessment committee determined the line of action likely to be taken in these cases from Accrington. But in the meantime the machinery of valuation had changed. I make this point—just the machinery of valuation had changed. The machinery of the 1948 Act came into operation on 1st February, 1950. That machinery provides that the old county valuation committee goes out, and in fact the valuation officer of the Board of Inland Revenue takes responsibility for valuations throughout the area. Instead of the assessment committee, there is set up the local valuation court to hear questions of differences of opinion.

As in fact the assessment committee's hearing in this case had been deferred, then it was the plain duty of the Board of Inland Revenue's valuation officer to take the case to the new court for decision. That procedure did not take place until 16th October, 1950, when in fact the decision was made that the county valuation committee's original valuation, which was the subject of the appeal, was fair and reasonable, generally speaking. Certain variations were made in the proposals, but in the main they were upheld.

Now I arrive at the point to which my hon. Friend referred, that of taking the re-assessment back to 1st April, 1948. Surely that is right, because what, in fact, had the Lancashire County Council's valuation committee said? It said that these assessments were too low, and because of that these people were paying less than their fair share towards the cost of local government services throughout the county. For one reason or another, the hearing of the county's claim had to be deferred. My hon. Friend said that that is not the fault of the tenants; I agree, but I must point out that it is also not the fault of the county. The delay could have been the fault of the tenants, because, if they had not appealed, the new valuations would automatically have come into force when the assessment was made.

Mr. H. Hynd

The council appealed.

Mr. Lindgren

Yes, but in fairness it should be pointed out that, it having been decided that the assessment was wrong, it was right that it should go back to the time that the proposal to alter it was made. Under the Act of 1925, the new assessment applies, irrespective of the time the actual appeal is made, back to the commencement of the financial year in which the proposal is made.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls

Could the Parliamentary Secretary tell us whether the council have the power to remit the accumulated reserves?

Mr. Lindgren

It amounts to this; some people are paying too much or too little in relation to other people, and if one remits to some, one is placing an unfair burden on other persons in the particular locality. This rule of taking back the coming into effect of the new assessment to the commencement of the financial year applied in the 1925 Act, and applies in the 1948 Act, and it applies whether there are increases or decreases. If people have had a decrease in rateable value, then there will be a refund and this principle must equally apply if the assessment goes up. In such cases where, in fact, one had block decisions in the main going before the assessment court prior to the war or during the war years, these were mostly appeals by individual ratepayers against too high assessments and seldom was there an appeal by a local authority for a general re-assessment.

I think that was a correct thing to do. My hon. Friend asked if this was an isolated case or whether it was one which could be found generally over the whole country. Let us be quite clear. It has been the responsibility of the local authorities to apply the 1925 Act; it was the responsibility with the old county valuation officer and it is the responsibility of the valuation officer of the Board of Inland Revenue. To suggest that until the new Act comes into operation no one should be concerned about the fairness of one ratepayer's case compared with another in the incidence of valuation is, I submit, taking things a little far. Counties had in the old days, and the Board of Inland Revenue inspectors have now, to apply the Acts as they exist and where there is unfairness, then the applicants are met. It is not altogether usual to get group cases such as this but they do arise because of differences of opinion between a minor authority and the county council over what is considered to be the proper valuation.

To the hon. Gentleman the Member for Peterborough (Mr. H. Nicholls) I would make the point that this is not a question of retrospective legislation. It is, in fact, a question of the operation of an Act of Parliament which does say that where there is a change in value it should date back to the commencement of the financial year, unless a change in value arises involving a physical change in the condition of the property such as an additional room or garage. In such cases the altered assessment takes effect from the date of the physical change.

I am afraid I have not been able to give my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) much change in reply to the excellent case he put on behalf of his constituents, but I have tried to make it clear that in fact the Lancashire County Council and the valuation department of the Inland Revenue have, in so far as it is within their power, applied the Acts of Parliament in fairness to all ratepayers within the county of Lancashire.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.