HC Deb 07 July 1952 vol 503 cc1051-62

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

11.46 p.m.

Sir Edward Boyle (Birmingham, Handsworth)

The subject which I wish to raise tonight is the confirmation by the Minister of Education of the Birmingham (Church Lane, Handsworth) Compulsory Purchase Order, 1951. This Order was made by the Birmingham Corporation at the request of the local education authority. The land affected consists of approximately eight acres lying between Church Lane and the Handsworth Wood Road. This land is required by the Birmingham Corporation for the erection of two secondary modern schools—a three-form girls' school and a four-form mixed school. Whereas the girls' school is urgent, and has been budgeted for in the current financial year, the Corporation is ready to admit that the second school is unlikely to be erected for five years, and, indeed, probably not for 10 years.

On 13th and 14th December, 1951, a public inquiry into this Order was held at the Council House, Birmingham, by Mr. H. W. Standring, of H. G. Godfrey Payton and Son, 25, High Street, Warwick, and he took evidence from the Birmingham Corporation and from the objectors to the Order. As one might expect, four out of the five objectors were the owners of the plots of which the site consists. Two of the largest plots, namely, those of Mr. Scott of Oaklands, Church Lane, and of Mr. Elvins, of 92, Handsworth Wood Road, are being cultivated only to a limited extent.

The third plot, that of Miss Hawker, of 77, Devonshire Road, is being fully cultivated. The fourth plot, that of Mr. Baines, of 87, Handsworth Wood Road, is used mainly as a paddock, and is subject to a restrictive covenant, imposed by a previous owner, that no building should be erected there. I ought to mention that a small part of Mr. Baines's plot is used by him for obtaining insects, of which he is an expert micro-photographer. I hope, as he has a nation-wide reputation in this field, that even if the Ministry feels that it must confirm this Order the local education authority will at least agree that this small part of Mr. Baines's plot shall be excluded from its operation.

But I should like to point out that the objectors to this Order opposed it on much wider grounds than the special interests which they, as plot owners, might be expected to have. This applies specially to the last objector—Mr. Jones, of 83, Handsworth Wood Road. He is not the owner of any of the land in question, but he appeared both on his own behalf and also on behalf of a number of neighbouring residents.

The objectors lodged their objections on four main grounds. First, they said that the erection of one or more schools on the site in question would affect not only the amenities of the neighbourhood but also the value of the residences in the three roads which surround the site. This area is one of the highest-rated residential districts in Birmingham. Incidentally, I think it is some evidence of its qualities that my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) resides in this area, and also the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) and the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) on the other side of the House. Mr. Standring himself expressed the view that if both these schools were erected on this ground, the value of the properties in the immediate neighbourhood would probably decline by something like 10 to 15 per cent.

The second ground of objection was that the shape of the site—some 400 yards by 100 yards—made it a very inconvenient one for the erection of two schools. I must say that I feel that anyone who has seen the site must agree that it is difficult to see how two schools could be conveniently erected on it.

The third ground was not so strong, but it is none the less an important one. To reach the site in question children would have to cross either Church Lane or Handsworth Wood Road and, as some hon. Members on both sides of the House will know, both these roads carry very heavy traffic. In particular, Church Lane is on the outer circle bus route, and it is a section of the very, important secondary road which connects the main road from Birmingham to Walsall with the main road from Birmingham to West Bromwich and Wednesbury.

The last ground of objection was that there were alternative sites available. Of the five alternative sites which were put forward at the inquiry only two were really feasible, and of those the site which Mr. Standring described in his report as Site No. 2 had admittedly the strong disadvantage of being rather far from the area from which the children for these secondary modern schools were likely to be drawn. Indeed, in all the correspondence about this compulsory purchase Order, Mr. Standring never at any time very strongly pressed the claim of this site.

On the other hand the last site, referred to as Site No. 1 in Mr. Standring's report, at the corner of Oxhill Road and Friary Road, was entirely suitable for the immediate erection of one school in every respect but one, which was that tipping had been carried out on this piece of land. The fact that this site was a tip site was not by itself a very serious objection, since at this moment a school is being built on a site in Grestone Avenue, where tipping has been a good deal deeper.

I think that the tenor of the report was absolutely clear. Mr. Standring, in sending in his report, made the technical error of not specifically recommending that the Minister should or should not confirm the Order; but when he was asked to give such a specific recommendation he replied quite categorically, on 11th January—and I will quote his exact words: I do recommend that the Ministry of Education should not confirm the Compulsory Purchase Order referred to above. I want to make it clear to the House that I am very far from saying that a Minister should never, under any circumstances, reject the report of an independent inspector. Quite obviously, the Minister is the final arbiter in these matters and one can think of many occasions when he or she might find it necessary to reject the report of an independent inspector; but in a case like this, where an inspector recommends that a particular Order should not be confirmed, I put it to the House that it is of the highest importance that the Minister should consider any alternative suggestion of the inspector with all possible care.

The tenor of Mr. Standring's report, on 20th December, was clearly that Site No. 1, the Oxhill Road site, should be used for the girls' school, which was immediately required, and he emphasised this view still more clearly in a letter of 22nd February. He wrote: Nevertheless, I am still of the opinion that alternative Site No. 1 is the most suitable in all the circumstances and that it is in the public interest that this site should be used for the purposes of one school rather than the site which is the subject of the inquiry. He went on: In this particular connection, Site No. 1 is derelict, and the erection of a school on this site would cause no public harm to any surrounding land and might, indeed, be of considerable benefit, whereas the site, which is the subject of the inquiry, is put to a useful purpose and is of considerable amenity value to the houses adjoining, which are substantially rated, and not a charge on the rates as are so many smaller properties which are erected today. The reply of the Ministry, on 15th April, to that last letter made one rather weak point, and another which was a substantial one. First, the weak point: the Ministry said that it would be difficult to build a school on the Oxhill Road site so that it had a southern aspect. I am not suggesting that the Birmingham Corporation should follow the example of Eton College, shortly after I went there in 1936, when a new boys' house was built with all the boys' rooms looking north and the kitchens facing south. But this particular problem of giving the school the right aspect is one which could surely be overcome by the exercise of normal architectural skill.

The second point is a more substantial one. The Ministry's letter reads: Furthermore (and to this point the Minister is bound to attach considerable importance at the present time) he"— that is the architect sent down by the Minister to examine the sites— expressed his opinion that building on such a Site would inevitably mean higher costs and greater demands on building labour and materials than building on the Site proposed by the Authority where, he says, the school could now be built more quickly, more cheaply, and with better amenities. I have great admiration for efforts which the Minister of Education has made to secure economy in the educational services and I have no desire to join the class of persons rightly pilloried by the Financial Secretary, who support the idea of public economy in the abstract, but, who oppose every concrete possibility of putting it into effect. But I would draw attention to the words "at the present time" in the letter I have quoted because, whereas it might be a mistake to use the Oxhill Road site now, I do not believe we should rule out the possibility of using it in the future, especially in view of the fact that the Grestone Avenue example to which I have already referred, has shown clearly that there are no insuperable difficulties. technically, in building on tip land of this kind.

I come now to the concrete suggestion to which my remarks have been leading. My suggestion is, in effect, a compromise. I ask my hon. Friend whether it would not be possible to let the school, which is immediately required, be erected on the two plots near the frontage to Church Lane, which are only being cultivated to a limited extent, but, at the same time, whether the Minister could not, even at this stage, revoke the confirmation of this Order so far as plots 3 and 4 are concerned—that is to say. those belonging to Miss Hawkes and to Mr. Baines. There is a very good case for building one school on the plots belonging to Mr. Scott and Mr. Elvins, which are not at the moment under cultivation, and at the same time to revoke this Order so far as plots 3 and 4 are concerned. These two plots are not really suitable for the erection of a second school, and they are both at the present time in constant use.

It is the erection of a school on plots 3 and 4 which, in my view, will interfere most seriously with the amenities of the neighbourhood, nor do I think plots 3 and 4 provide an adequate area for the erection of a second school. This second school, on the evidence of the Birmingham Corporation themselves is not immediately required, and I suggest it is unreasonable to allow this compulsory purchase Order to extend to plots 3 and 4 when there is a site so eminently suitable as the Oxhill Road site for the erection of a further school some five to 10 years from now.

12.1 a.m.

Mr. James Simmons (Brierley Hill)

I do not wish to stand between the Minister's reply and the House, but my presence here does not necessarily mean that I support the views put forward by my own Member of Parliament. It is a matter of courtesy to him as my Member to say that I should, as a democrat. be inclined to support the democratically elected education committee of my city council.

12.2 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Pickthorn)

If I may intervene in this internecine strife, may I say that there were in the old days various forms of petty treason, but I wonder whether it is a form of petty treason for the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) to resist the pleading of his own Member? I would not like to be quite sure. My hon. Friend the Member for Hands-worth (Sir E. Boyle) has put his case before the House, if I may say so, without patronage, in a very fair and reasonable way, and I will begin by indicating what seemed to be the salient points of what he said, to which he will require a reply. Then I will try to make a more or less reasoned reply.

First, the four or five alternatives really boil down to one. We need not be concerned with anything except the Site No. 1. So the battle is between the appeal site and the Site No. 1, where tipping is a serious objection. To whether it is or is not a really serious objection, I will return later. I thank my hon. Friend for his admission that the Minister must be the final arbitrator, because no doubt some of those interested in these matters have rather taken the line that it has always been previously understood the Minister was in some sense bound to accept the inspector's recommendation. I am glad we need not trouble to answer that. The fact is that the duty is on the Minister to make a decision and we are all in agreement on that point.

Finally, before I come to my continuous argument, the hon. Baronet spoke of asking his hon. Friend, which was his excessively polite and flattering way of referring to me, whether the proposal he indicated might not be possible. It is true he did make a request of that sort, and I do not say it by way of quarrelling, but that request came to me very late indeed. That request and his final sentence suggesting that it is unreasonable to allow this compulsory purchase Order to extend to the site for the second school are ruled out of court for consideration of time. It really seems to be not possible.

There has never been a case of a compulsory purchase order being revoked; and, although I do not say there never could be such a case, it seems plain that the revoking of compulsory purchase orders would introduce an element of uncertainty and inconvenience to everyone, and neither the hon. Baronet nor anyone else would expect the revoking of a compulsory purchase order except on extremely strong grounds arising since the order was made, and unless some new consideration had crept in. Those, then, are the points out of the hon. Baronet's speech which I would ask the House to bear in mind in listening to the continuous argument which I will now try to compress into ten minutes.

My right hon. Friend has always been extremely averse to compulsion, particularly in matters of property. The practice which has been traditional, and indeed under the 1921 Act obligatory, was that public inquiries in connection with compulsory purchase orders for educational purposes should be conducted not by an official, but by someone appointed especially for the purpose, generally a surveyor, but sometimes, if a question of law or other exceptional circumstances are considered likely, a barrister-at-law. This was the traditional practice, and until 1944 it was obligatory. It has continued to be the practice, without exception, that it should be a specially appointed person, and not an official, and that the proceedings should be public. That was the procedure followed in this case.

I think it is widely, and almost universally, believed that such publicity naturally, on occasion, must lead to public questions which could not happen if the facts were not public knowledge. Such publicity is the strongest guarantee that fairness will, in general, be sought, and I believe it to be a strongly settled habit of mine in the Ministry to try to be fair in these cases, and I believe that if anyone in the Ministry were inclined to fall away from that habit this tradition of publicity would help to keep the habit alive.

Such procedure, as my hon. Friend knows, in no way diminishes the Minister's right and duty to make the decision herself. The inspector, as he is called, the person specifically appointed for the purpose, acts in a judicial spirit, but does not act to give a judicial decision, but rather to inform the Minister; and the Minister pays the greatest attention to his advice, but decides not necessarily and exclusively on the inspector's advice, nor necessarily and exclusively upon the information collected and digested by the inspector. Although the Minister pays great attention to the advice and evidence, yet the Minister may have other direct information to act upon.

In this case, the argument was approached without prejudice, the evidence was most carefully weighed, as I think can be demonstrated, although it is difficult to do so, and so also was the evidence which the inspector submitted to the Minister and which presumably was all the evidence he thought necessary to submit. All such evidence was very carefully considered, and upon the inspector's advice, although ultimately against it, and also upon supplementary evidence and on direct evidence, it was reluctantly decided that although the balances of advantage and disadvantage as between appeal site and site one were not beyond dispute, yet the Order ought to be confirmed.

That was the decision that was made, and I think I have now given a complete, and, I hope, a candid account to the House of the procedural matters with which we were concerned. And upon those procedural matters I hope I have convinced the House that there was no fault, unfairness or prejudice on the Minister's side.

How far I ought to go into the material merits as distinct from the procedural I am not sure, but I will occupy the last five minutes in saying what I can about them. On the material merits it was not considered that the road dangers, as they will be minimised by the precautions the local education authority intends to take, ought to be a decisive factor; and indeed I think my hon. Friend agrees with us there; because, although I am sure he would agree with all the world that the lives of small children are more important than any other factor before us, he himself said that in this particular case that factor was not the most considerable.

It could not be settled on that, nor could it be settled upon the loss of amenity to the owners, occupiers and neighbours, deeply as my right hon. Friend regrets that loss of amenity. No doubt in any town, and more particularly perhaps in the outskirts of any town, one runs the risk that there will be new buildings, and when there are new buildings there is often loss of amenity.

Sir E. Boyle

My hon. Friend will agree that from the point of view of amenity it will make a considerable difference whether one school is erected or two schools are erected on the site.

Mr. Pickthorn

I quite agree, and I am coming to the point about one or two schools. The reason why these factors were not considered decisive is that the only one of four or five alternatives suggested which on investigation seemed comparable has this disadvantage, that it stands on a site for tipping, and that is where the southern aspect comes in. This objection against building upon rubbish and brickbats is particularly strong to precisely that part of site No. 1, where it would, for every other reason, be appropriate to put the actual building of the school. And the Minister's objection to Site No. 1 is stronger than has appeared from the extract from it—and that appears to me very strong indeed. Anyone who put his mind to it in the way in which it was the duty of the Minister to put her mind would conclude that it was a very strong objection indeed.

The subsoil has not been examined very closely, but on the face of all that can be observed it has the characteristics of a site which would swallow labour and material. There is not the least doubt about it. It is not a question of being mean about money. It is that the site would have swallowed labour and material. In all the circumstances of the case, whichever view one takes of the economic situation, whether the Conservative view or the Labour view, whichever view one takes of necessary economies in education, it would have swallowed labour and material which are at the Minister's disposal to be used only for absolute necessities. The objection is especially strong when we think of all the other things for which labour and materials. especially building labour and materials. are needed.

The suggested compromise came a little late. We consulted the L.E.A. as fast as we could. It had to be done mainly by telephone and everyone knows how difficult that is. I cannot say that the L.E.A. will accept, but I can offer a crumb of comfort to the hon. Baronet, that is to say, that the L.E.A. does propose to acquire the whole of the appeal site immediately, but they only need to build as immediately as possible—as my hon. Friend says—first, the girls' school; and they will consider as sympathetically as possible requests for continuance of the present users of those parts of the site which are not immediately needed and, as my hon. Friend said, that gives them, probably, a prospect of 10 years.

I hope that that may be some small comfort to them, particularly the micro-photographer. I am bound to say that until he referred to his numerous friends I did not realise that the favourite material of a micro-photographer was a Member of Parliament.

Adjourned accordingly at Sixteen Minutes past Twelve o'Clock a.m.