HC Deb 29 July 1952 vol 504 cc1413-24

Lords Amendment: In page 15, line 5, leave out Clause 18, and insert new Clause A (Repeal of restrictions on disposal of land by local authorities and development corporations). A.—So much of section nineteen of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1944, and of section five of the New Towns Act, 1946, as restrict the power of the Minister under those sections to consent to the disposal of land by a local authority or development corporation shall cease to have effect and, accordingly, the enactments specified in the Schedule to this Act are hereby repealed to the extent specified in relation thereto in the third column of that Schedule.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

This Amendment does two things. First, it makes good a defect in the drafting of Clause 18 as it now stands. A technical defect in Clause 18 as it stands is that although it repeals Section 19 (5) of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1944, it failed to repeal the re-enactment of the subsection of Section 44 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947 with consequential reprinting in the Eleventh Schedule in that Act, and this Amendment puts the matter beyond all doubt.

Secondly, and perhaps more important to some hon. Members, it brings the Minister's powers as regards consent to disposal of land by new town development corporations into line with what is being done for the local authorities. The Minister can consent to the sale of land or a grant of a lease of land for a term of more than 99 years without having to find that there are exceptional circumstances justifying the adoption of this course in the case of the local authorities. This Amendment allows them to do precisely the same with regard to new towns which are being built, and by bringing the New Towns Act into line with the Town and Country Planning Act, the Bill will give the Minister the same discretion as regards disposals over the whole field of housing and planning legislation.

There are four points. First, the Amendment makes the position uniform as between local authorities and new towns. There is no reason why the Minister should have different powers regarding new towns and local authorities. Secondly, I would remind the House that it is permissive and not mandatory. In certain cases, of course, a long leasehold or even a short leasehold is desirable, and in other cases the freehold will be desirable.

Thirdly, the House on the whole has agreed that in these new towns there should be a balanced development, and if we are to have a balanced development it is necessary to have a varied population. Some people will want freehold and others will want leasehold. If a man wants to build his own house and have the freehold it is right that he should be encouraged to do so. So that we shall get the balanced population in the new towns which the House wants.

Finally, it has been agreed by at least some hon. Members opposite that this is a very desirable principle, and I would like to quote from the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) on the Second Reading of this debate. He said: There is one feature of the Bill of which, to be frank, I approve very much, and that is the extended power to sell land outright in the new towns and development towns, and on housing estates. I do not consider that we ought, where we can prevent it, to perpetuate all the evils of leasehold, and I see no reason why a local authority should be a leaseholder any more than a private person. I do not believe in the leasehold system. I believe in the freehold system, and when I was at the Ministry of Health I made my views known to the local authorities. I informed the local authorities on several occasions that where they wished to dispose of land freehold I would approve the sale. I did not agree with the argument that the maintenance of leasehold was necessary for good town and country development purposes. There are other powers which local authorities can exercise to see to it that property is properly looked after and that the buildings are in accordance with good town planning. It is not, in my view, essential to retain leasehold rights in order to bring that about. Therefore, I heartily support the proposal that the Town and Country Planning Act should be amended so as to give powers that I obtained from the House for housing purposes."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th February, 952; Vol. 496, c. 762–763.]

Sir Lynn Ungoed-Thomas (Leicester, North-East)

Do I understand that the Conservative Party now accepts that as a general principle?

Mr. Marples

No, I was merely qnoting the views of the former Minister of Health, and while I do not always associate myself with the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale, on this occasion I think that certain remarks at least have a germ of consistency with the principles of the Conservative Party.

Therefore, the powerful and weighty argument of the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale on this occasion shows that selling freehold is the answer; but the main argument which I advance is that if it is right for local authorities to sell freehold surely it must be right for the new towns to do so, because, ultimately, the new towns will be taken over by the local authorities. I hope that the House will accept the Amendment.

Mr. Lindgren

I cannot give such enthusiastic support to this Amendment as does the Parliamentary Secretary. His case must be a little shaky when he calls in aid something which was said by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan). So far as I and the vast majority of my colleagues are concerned there is a very great difference between a leasehold within private ownership and a leasehold within public ownership, as regards a person who wishes to undertake the use of a building or land for a particular purpose and for a specified period.

I think it is equally true that this is dangerous in that development corporations may be in conflict with local authorities. There is no safeguard here, so far as I can see, in the case of a difference between a local authority and a development corporation. There may be a conflict instead of the agreement which the Parliamentary Secretary suggested was likely because the ultimate ownership of the land would go back to the local authority.

So far as the local authority is concerned, the Minister has always had power to vary the general condition as to sale or lease. That is correct because of particular circumstances which might arise in regard to an industrial estate or a particular parcel of land and its particular use. The Parlamentary Secretary went further. He instanced, as what would be likely, the freehold ownership of the individual sites of houses within new towns. If that is so it certainly conflicts with the general conception of the new towns development.

Part of the revenue arising to the development corporation is the ground rent from the lease of land, and that has a relationship to the expenditure incurred by the development corporation on the services and amenities associated with the land on which the development takes place. The Parliamentary Secretary did not explain how—if, in fact, this is allowable—the development corporation is to recoup to itself the value of the development which it undertakes both in making the site available for building and providing the general amenities in the district.

While I am quite prepared to accept this new Clause in relation to local authorities, the suggestion of the Parliamentary Secretary seems to indicate that it is an encouragement to development corporations to undertake the extensive sale of freehold sites in regard to housing development. If that is so this is likely to be a much more dangerous Clause than it was under the previous drafting, when it was confined to local authorities.

Mr. Gibson

I think the Parliamentary Secretary is a little too simple about this, if I may put it that way, for this is an important change. Under existing law, the Minister must be satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances before he can agree to the sale of freehold land or a lease of more than 99 years. This new proposal abolishes that provision, and the Minister could in future sanction such an operation without having to have regard to whether there were exceptional circumstances.

That is a complete change and, as the Minister knows, there was a big fight in Committee about the principle involved. I do not want to detain the House, but I must make it clear that some hon. Members on this side of the House, at any rate, cannot support this Amendment.

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

The speeches we have heard illustrate one of the characteristics of Her Majesty's Opposition during the Session which is now drawing to a close —namely, that they are more anxious to oppose the Measures brought forward by my right hon. Friends than to read them. There was no opposition during any stage to Clause 18 of the Bill, to which the Amendment relates.

Mr. Lindgren

On a point of explanation. The hon. Gentleman will agree that the Amendment was withdrawn by him during the Report stage in order that we might facilitate business. There would have been considerable opposition to it and considerable discussion on it that evening.

Mr. Powell

If I had been allowed to proceed a few words further, we might have saved time. I am referring to Clause 18 of the Bill, which has been unchanged and to which this Amendment makes an addition.

It is important to be clear about what are the provisions of the Clause. They enable the freehold interest to be disposed of without the former limitations in the case of land acquired by a local authority in order to secure its development in accordance with the development plan. Any argument that can be advanced against the Amendment, on the ground that the planning objectives of a new town corporation are defeated by the sale of the freehold, would apply equally to the Clause which is under Amendment and to which no objection was made.

Whereas in the case of land acquired for housing it might be that the plots to be disposed of were small and marginal, there was no such question in the case of land acquired by the local authority to secure its development in accordance with the development plan. The House has already agreed that land so acquired shall he freed from the limitations of the existing law. The only question is whether the almost consequential Amendment should be made of freeing land acquired for the same purpose by new town corporations.

Obviously, in the new towns, the case, if anything, is stronger. I believe it is common ground on both sides of the House that these new towns will succeed only if they are replicas of whole communities. Unless the new town corporations can offer freehold sites for building and freehold houses for ownership, they will not be able to secure a true cross-section of the British community because, whether we like it or not—and I think most of us on both sides of the House do like it—there will always be a considerable proportion of people who will insist upon owning the freehold of their houses. The new town corporations will be unable to secure that unless we accept the Amendment.

I think the fears of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Lindgren) that the new town corporations would be the losers are groundless. They can, of course, dispose of the freehold at a price which will make appropriate allowance for the development to which the land has been subjected. I hope, therefore, that the House will assist the object of the new town corporations by making the Amendment.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Lindgren

Is it not within the hon. Member's knowledge that in the two new towns which already exist—Letchworth and Welwyn—in which there is a very mixed community, the leasehold system is the system which has operated and which is agreed upon? The attraction to a town of a social strata of people has nothing whatever to do with the question of freehold or leasehold.

Mr. Powell

I am sure that the hon. Member is also aware that there are other new towns where the inability to obtain or to sell a freehold has been a big obstacle to development.

Mr. Lindgren

No, none whatever.

Mr. Sparks

The new Clause proposed by the Minister undoubtedly creates a very different position from that which we were concerned with on the Report stage of the Bill, because it includes within it the repeal of part of Section 5 of the New Towns Act. The right hon. Gentleman is importing into the Bill something that ought not to be here. Town development is a quite different undertaking relatively to the development undertaken by the new town development corporations.

What the right hon. Gentleman may not be aware of is the important fact that all the new towns are designated, and substantial sums of public money will be spent upon developing them. Therefore, in principle, it is right and proper that the freehold of the land should belong not to private individuals. It is obvious that with the expenditure of many hundreds of millions of pounds on the development of the new towns, a great value will be given to land within the designated areas.

Why, therefore, should private persons reap the advantage of the appreciation of the value of land in an area as a result of the expenditure of large sums of public money? The New Towns Act was based upon the fundamental principle that if great sums of public money were to be spent upon developing a new town, the people in it should enjoy the enhanced value of the land that was created as a result of the expenditure of public funds.

The Minister has the power to give consent in exceptional cases to the disposal by town development corporations of the freehold of certain parts of land within their areas, but he has to be satisfied that there are exceptional reasons for giving his consent. If now, he is to repeal that part of the Section of the Act and throw the door wide open, there is nothing to prevent him from giving wholesale consent to the sale of the freehold of very large pieces of land in the new towns, and the consequent alienation of the land from the community.

It is nothing but hocus pocus for the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) to say that unless new town development corporations are permitted to sell the freehold to anybody who wants to buy it, there will not be a balanced cross-section of the community in the new town. The greatest objection to the leasehold principle is not leasehold as such, but the power of exploitation which too often arises from it when it is in private hands and is used for private speculative purposes. Some of the new towns are fairly well advanced. They have a number of factories and growing populations, but there has been no difficulty about factory owners purchasing land on a lease of 99 years or less.

To come to the House and say that there will not be a balanced new town unless people are to be permitted to buy any freehold they might like in that new town is a dangerous principle for the Minister to enunciate. It would certainly be anti-social if the right hon. Gentleman were to embark upon it in any widespread sense. He has given us no indication at all, but from what we know of his policy and that of the Government, he will want to do that just that, and we consider such an action to be anti-social in view of the large sums of public money being spent on these new towns. If there is any appreciation in site values in a new town because of the spending of public funds then it should go to the community and not to a few private individuals.

The Minister is wrong in injecting into this Bill a provision to repeal Section 5 of the New Towns Act. Left as it was there might be something to be said for it in connection with the Town and Country Planning Act, but it is a reactionary step in connection with the New Towns Act.

Mr. H. Macmillan

The debate has raised an important issue, but I think there is a danger of exaggerating it. I am not altogether convinced, even by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), that leasehold is a bad system; but I am not altogether convinced that freehold is always right. I think that in this, as in many other matters, we have to proceed with a reasonably balanced and commonsense arrangement of what is best in particular cases. In bringing the arrangement into conformity with that which the House has agreed should be right for local authorities I am not asking for a general subversion of the procedure under which the new towns have hitherto operated.

I inherited the new towns: they were a great inheritance, but were also rather a problem. I have, and hon. Gentlemen will agree, in my short tenure of office done everything possible to assist their development, and I am determined, as the House is determined, if it is humanly possible to do so, to make the experiment a success. There are a number of obstacles to be overcome. I do not suggest that we want very free sales of freehold plots, but we want the right to do it if it helps.

Let us take the matter of industrial development. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Wellingborough knows that, even during the time of his Government as well as in mine, there are many obstacles against getting industries into the new towns. Questions whether they are necessary for exports or re-armament or of the highest priority have to be settled, and I have found industrialists are not prepared to take leasehold premises. If somebody can be got over one or two of these hurdles—such as capital investment, the Board of Trade requirements, and so on—and does not want to take leasehold, but wants freehold, then I want to be able to close with that if it should be necessary.

Mr. Sparks

Would the right hon. Gentleman give some evidence of that, because my information is contrary to what he says.

Mr. Macmillan

I want to be in a position to do that. I have had one or two such cases. The same thing applies in the case of local authorities. By selling a few freehold properties we would get that kind of development about which the Parliamentary Secretary spoke. If the chairman and management say, "We can get that kind of development if we could sell a few freehold properties," I want to be able to do it.

I could strain my powers and say that these are exceptional circumstances, but I do not like doing that. I understand that my predecessors laid down that the only exceptional circumstances in which a sale could take place was to make a graveyard. I do not want to be tied to the graveyard principle. I want to make something which is more fruitful and constructive and looks to the future, at any rate on earth.

This is not a dodge to bring in a political issue. I want this little freedom of manoeuvre, and that is all it is, because I would assure hon. Members that we have a difficult job to do. I would like this little bit of easement without straining my conscience by saying this was an exceptional circumstance. I hope, therefore, that the House will let us have this extension of our flexibility, and I can assure hon. Members it is in that spirit I intend to use it.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will go over the hurdles and not through them, because going through a hurdle is a most uncomfortable process for the person attempting it.

Mr. Macmillan

And for the hurdle.

Mr. Ede

In certain cases hurdles are all the better for being made a little less formidable.

I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that we accept the spirit of what he has just said. We know his attitude to-towards general administrative problems and we can feel that the position is quite safe in his hands. But very often local authorities, and, I suppose, development corporations, are too ready to part with the powers that their possession of freehold give them with the continuous application of the idea with which the scheme was started.

In the course of 41 years' experience of local government work I have known cases where freehold has been granted subject to restrictive covenants. But as time has passed the advantages given by the original scheme of development have been considerably altered. I hope that local authorities and development corporations, before seeking the permission of the right hon. Gentleman, will have regard to the possible consequences of their dealing with the freehold position, and that the right hon. Gentleman and his successors, in weighing up, not the exceptional circumstances, but the ordinary natural evolution of events, will have regard to the possibility of that kind of thing happening. In that way perhaps the right hon. Gentleman may consider, on occasions, that the hurdles are so formidable that he will never try to jump them nor go through them.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Lindgren

If I might have the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, I should like to press the Minister just a little more. As far as industry is concerned I am prepared to give him his case, because, if he searches the records of his Ministry, he will find that during the tenure of office of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) this did happen in one or two instances—at Widnes, for example, where certain exemption was given to the local authority in regard to a chemical industry which was coming there. But no case has been made out for domestic property.

I must ask that this will not be used for domestic property. The whole ex- perience of both Welwyn and Letchworth has been that the power of control of development, control of amenities and the guarantee of there not being any abuse of existing amenity, has, in fact, been the attraction to a very large number of persons of what the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) would call the best people to the area.

He can go to the industrial city quite near him. Birmingham is a first-class example of what should be, and what could be done. You have your back-to-back houses and your Edgbaston Estate which has been preserved against all the attempts of a large number of persons in that area to destroy it as an industrial area because of the leasehold system within the estate and the single ownership of the estate.

In residential properties in the new towns, which, we feel, are perhaps some of the most important in regard to future development, single ownership and the right of control which comes from the leasehold system is most important. As the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) mentioned, if you once let go of the control which comes from ownership of the land and the lease, you can get the old scrap-yard up against someone else's good house. In the new towns we avoided all these mistakes of private enterprise in industrial and residential areas.

I must press the right hon. Gentleman for a more effective assurance in regard to domestic property. We accept it for the industrial side, and we think there are one or two instances where it is likely to arise. If he can give us the assurance that this will not be used for domestic property, we are prepared to let him have the Clause.

Mr. Macmillan

I must, out of sincerity, answer this point. I certainly cannot give that assurance. I hope and believe there will be occasions on which the sale of freehold properties for domestic use will be the right course. I can give no such assurance because it would be dishonourable for me to give an assurance that I could not carry out. I am a Tory; the hon. Gentleman is a Whig. He believes in the great rights of the Whig landlords. He is the Duke of Omnium. He believes that the landlord is always right. I believe that the poor little man has a right to property too. I stand unalterably as a Tory against the Whigs. There I stand, and if the hon. Gentleman must divide the House he must divide the House. I cannot give the assurance because I wish to see in these new towns a reasonable amount of freehold property to marry up with the other property.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

The right hon. Gentleman indicated that he would use the power exceptionally in the case of dwelling-houses. Could he give the House any indication of the principles or exceptions he has in mind for administering it in that way?

Mr. Macmillan

I think they will vary according to the character of the new town. The people who went to Welwyn accepted that. On the other hand, the people in new towns who are already owners of leasehold did not, in many cases, want the new towns. There were compulsory purchases. They have a great sense of grievance, and I want them all working happily together building up the new towns which have come into their district against their will.

As I say, it was quite different in Welwyn. That was the system. If people accepted it, they went there. I want to get as much balance and support in the new towns as I can. I cannot pledge myself—I would like to because the hon. Gentleman is always so kind to me—to do something I could not carry out. Therefore, the House must decide.

Question put, and agreed to.

Remaining Lords Amendments agreed to