HC Deb 04 November 1952 vol 507 cc134-44

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

10.0 p.m.

Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)

I make no apology for raising in the House tonight the subject of the use of land for building purposes, although I am aware that this subject was discussed in London very recently at the Town and Country Planning Conference, in which the Parliamentary Secretary took part.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton), when he was Minister in charge of town and country planning some 18 months or a little more ago, stressed the fact that we were building at such a rate, both for housing and industrial and educational purposes and for the public service, that we were losing approximately 50,000 acres per annum of agricultural land, not all of it necessarily good agricultural land, but land which could be used in some way for food production. In five years we should, therefore, be losing about a quarter of a million acres. The National Farmers' Union at that time put the matter a little differently by suggesting we were destroying about 500 farms per year by taking land for building purposes.

The first question I should like to put to the Parliamentary Secretary is whether the figures used some little while ago are, in the light of later developments and the development plans which the Parliamentary Secretary has no doubt been studying, still valid, or whether they have been increased or diminished, because they aroused considerable alarm at that time in agricultural circles. I believe that some of that alarm was misplaced, but it would be very useful for us to know just where we stand, and also whether any progress has been made in dealing with a land budget, as was suggested at that time, so that the country can have a clear idea of the direction in which it is going.

I am not concerned tonight with the details of urban re-development, which is one of the reasons why we are using up land for housing purposes, including new towns. I should like to speak from the point of view of my own constituency in Flintshire and of similar parts of the country where there is a county which is largely agricultural but in which there is increasing industrial development.

That means that land is being used for the first time for housing and for industry. It is not a question of rebuilding within existing towns. The Report on "The density of residential areas," which was no doubt initiated by my right hon. Friend but which bears the signature of the present Minister in its foreword, says that in areas of this kind it is common to begin at any rate with a rather low density of housing.

It is stated, in paragraph 130 of this very interesting Report: in such cases there may be a temptation to step down the density in the early stages (when the urgent demand for accommodation is likely to be for houses for families with children) with the intention of raising it later on, perhaps by building a proportion of flats. And, of course, of terraced houses.

I do not want to go into all the disputations on density. I knew a good deal more about them when I was closely connected with these matters in the days before the war. One can argue ad infinitum, as I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary knows only too well. One side is hardly ever able to convince the other of its rightness or wrongness of view. I remember arguing with garden city enthusiasts who felt that a single terrace of houses would contaminate a garden city, forgetting that they had all garden and not much city.

In the kind of area of which I am speaking there is need for special attention to be paid to intelligent planning, and that can with advantage very often be, as is suggested in this Report, rather tighten planning than the constant use of semi-detached houses. It is something which I think might need a little persuasion, but the use of terraced houses and low blocks of flats—blocks of a moderate height, I am not suggesting for one moment of five or 10 storeys, but the lower type of flat—could add variety to the housing and save a certain amount of land.

I should like to ask the Minister one or two questions. It was stated in Circular 65 of this year, in paragraph 5, that local authorities should give special attention to the use of sites which might cost more to develop, but which, because they were not such good agricultural land, might be desirable to use for building purposes. The local authorities are told in this circular that they should be prepared to incur some additional cost so as to enable them to keep off good agricultural land.

That is all very fine, so far as it goes. But I would remind the Parliamentary Secretary that the kind of authority about which I am thinking is not the wealthy county borough, which is expanding, but the small county district, the rural district, which has just not the resources to develop difficult sites. If they did so the only result would be that the cost would be passed on to the tenant, and there would be very much higher rents. I would ask the Minister whether there is any corresponding circular in which the Ministry itself offers to pay something extra for the development of these difficult sites.

It is all very well to have brave words in speeches and exhortations in circulars telling local authorities what they ought to do. But, if the Ministry is in earnest about this, I should be very glad indeed to know just exactly what contribution the Minister himself is prepared to make in this effort to preserve the better land for food production.

I should like to turn to what seems to me an extremely important subject, particularly in the type of area with which I am dealing, where we have an agricultural community which, almost for the first time, is feeling the shock of building development. I believe that the farmers in counties such as Flintshire are at present very apprehensive indeed about their future. It just so happens that in this county, of which I dare say the Par- liamenatry Secretary knows—it is not very far from his own constituency—that the most fertile ground is, naturally enough, the low-lying land towards the River Dee. The less fertile land is up in the hills, and it follows that the industrial development takes place on the more fertile land.

Although there is provision for consultation between planning authorities and housing authorities and the agricultural organisations, it seems to me that it does not work altogether smoothly. I can speak only for the areas of which I have knowledge. It may not be so generally, but probably it is sufficiently general to warrant attention being drawn to it. There is a good deal of irritation on both sides.

For example, I read in the "Municipal Journal" in September of this year an article which criticised the local farming community whose unselective opposition delays and deters progress in that struggle for a proper compromise. I think there is probably some truth in that, and what I am concerned about is to see if we can get a better understanding between the farmers, on the one hand, of what is really needed in town planning and the housing and planning authorities, on the other, of some of the quite genuine difficulties of the farmers.

My own county branch of the National Farmers' Union yesterday passed a resolution in which they deplored, as they said, the fact that the Land Commissioner could consent to the disposal of land without consulting the county agricultural committee. They thought that was not a satisfactory situation. In point of fact, I was told that they generally did consult the officers of the county agricultural committee, if the amount of land concerned was more than 16 acres, but, as we know very well, as so frequently happens with a small farmer, a demand comes along for a relatively small amount of land, say, 10 acres, and that goes through, and then, some little time later—and, in my own area, often not very long after—there comes a demand for another parcel of land, and there is a good deal of feeling about these successive demands for land from the same farm, which, in the case of small farmers, seriously unbalance production.

Then, there is the point about the farmer who feels that a compulsory pur- chase order is unjustified, and who takes the matter to the tribunal and wins his case, in the sense that the Minister refuses, on the evidence, to confirm the order. I have one instance of this, not in my own division but in another area of North Wales, in which a farmer had to go to very considerable expense indeed in order to prove his case. He did prove it to the satisfaction of the Minister, who declined to confirm the order, but this farmer had not only used the services of a solicitor and land agent, but even went to the expense of consulting a firm of engineers and producing evidence that an alternative sewerage system could be provided, thereby proving that an alternative site could be used by the local authority.

A farmer faced with this expense has no hope of recovering any of the costs involved, even though he may be perfectly correct, and that, as I understand it, means that small farmers, in particular, feel they are fighting an uneven battle against the local authority and the Ministry.

The psychological attitude of the farmers is not, to my mind, entirely justified, but I believe that there are some other elements in their feelings about the matter, and I therefore hope very much that everything possible will be done, where there is consultation, to have it early enough before feelings are too much aroused on particular acts of compulsory purchase.

For example, in the development plan going forward at present in my own area, the planning officer consults the officials of the Ministry of Agriculture and of the county agricultural executive committee, but does not consult the committee itself. What I am concerned with is that there should be, if possible, some consultation with the committee itself while the plan is still fluid, because what I foresee is that, if the plan is put forward in too final and definite a form, then we have the unfortunate situation in which prestige and pride come into the matter and in which people are unwilling either to give way or compromise, except under superior force.

I hope very much that we shall have the earliest and the largest possible measure of consultation so that, as far as possible, we shall be able to carry the farmers with us, instead of their having to fight the matter, as the "Municipal Journal" suggests, in an unselective opposition to suggestions put forward for housing and other developments.

I do not know what steps, if any, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government takes to keep the agricultural organisations informed, or to have any conferences with them locally on the issues involved in town planning and these questions of density and the type of land really suitable for housing, because there is a tremendous amount of misunderstanding.

Farmers sometimes suppose, quite erroneously, that some land should have been used for housing when, in fact, it would have been quite wrong to have done so. In parts of Flintshire it has been suggested that land near the River Dee should have been used for housing before breaking up very prosperous farms, but I believe it would have been wrong to ask people to live in houses on very low lying land, which it is extraordinarily difficult to drain but which could be used reasonably well for agriculture.

On density, we have criticisms from farmers who consider that there is a good deal of waste land in some existing housing estates. They do not always realise the principles involved in the lay-out of housing estates or that the amount of land which might be saved—although there is some which might be saved in other forms of development—is not as great as they sometimes suppose. There is a school of thought which says that if we build houses and have productive gardens we are making better use of land than any farmer makes of it.

Mr. E. G. Gooch (Norfolk, North)

Hear, hear.

Mrs. White

I am sure my hon. Friend is thinking of the extremely valuable experiment which has been taking place in the City of Norwich and its neighbourhood, and I do not deny that one can have considerable food production from gardens on council and other estates, but if we see some of the gardens we feel that there is a good deal of education to be done before we have anything like adequate food production. Not everyone wants a garden, which is why I believe there is much to be said for mixed development.

My plea to the Parliamentary Secretary is for the greatest possible effort to be made towards bringing about a better understanding between the planners and housing authorities, on the one hand, and the farming community, on the other hand. I feel the irritation and resistance which is growing up—some, I believe, not fully justified—will harden people's feelings and that unless considerable diplomacy is used, and a good deal of sympathy and imagination, too, we may get the kind of local battles which we want to avoid. I am sure that in the end both sides have at heart the welfare of their neighbourhood and county. We need both good housing and good agriculture. I shall be very much interested to hear the Parliamentary Secretary's views on the problem.

10.18 p.m.

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

I am sure the House is grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) for raising this important subject and treating it with moderation, lucidity and, if I may say so, great calm. It is a most important subject. I want, first, to apologise for the absence of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture who is in bed with a severe cold; his absence is not due to inertia or lack of interest but to a severe cold.

The hon. Lady was perfectly fair. She enunciated principles which said that every acre of agricultural land which could possibly be preserved should be preserved, but that in the interests of housing certain land must be taken from time to time, although, if humanly possible, we must save agricultural land. We do not dissent at all from that principle; in fact, we agree with it.

As the hon. Lady kindly said, the Minister, at the Public Works Congress yesterday, and myself, in my humble capacity before the Town and Country Planning Association, laid it down that we must save agricultural land, although my subject was on saving the towns. I feel that the preservation of agricultural land is one of the main objects of planning and our arrangements to ensure it are an essential part of planning.

The Minister himself, in the foreword to this booklet, "The Density of Residential Areas," puts his Departmental policy. I should like to make that policy quite clear. The Minister very forcibly puts that policy in the first paragraph of that foreword, when he says: Many thousands of acres of land are taken for development every year, and much of this is good agricultural land. Some loss of agricultural land cannot be prevented if we are to have more houses, schools, and factories, if we are to meet the requirements of defence, and if we are to get the minerals we need. But it is essential that the amount of land that is taken should be kept as small as possible. We do not dissent from that at all.

However, ours is a crowded island and we have to build sometimes on expensive sites. But the building here in this country is less difficult than it is in a country like Holland. I have recently visited Holland. Every single house which is built there is built on piles—that is, in the regions of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and as much as 15 per cent. of the cost goes on piles and foundations.

The hon. Lady asked what we were going to do about the subsidies—in effect, that is what she meant. She said we were saying brave words, but that that was not enough. I put it to the hon. Lady in all fairness that the present rate of subsidies is higher than it has ever been. Many believe that it is too high. I do not think she would find a great deal of support in any quarter for raising those subsidies to a figure higher than that we have at present. I think that if the rural areas want to preserve agricultural land they can do so by proper planning, and by planning to have three-storey blocks of flats as well as two-storey houses, for that would save land.

Mr. Gooch

Not in the villages?

Mr. Marples

In some villages. I was at Runcorn on Saturday, where I opened a three-storey block of flats, which made an extremely charming contrast to the two-storey houses built nearby. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but he must go to Runcorn to see them. I do not think we can increase those subsidies. I do not think that there will be any great volume of opinion behind the hon. Lady if she does suggest that the subsidies should be increased.

The hon. Lady made what I call an extremely interesting and very good point on the question of consultation. There is bound to be a conflict of interests between the various parties on the question of building houses and the preservation of agricultural land, and when two parties have divergent views they are nearly always bound to overstate their case, human nature being what it is. In one of the earlier General Elections—before my time: in 1906, I think—the question of Free Trade and protection was a great issue, and I think one of the slogans of one of the industries concerned was expressed in "Punch" in four lines of poetry: My interests must not be neglected. What I produce must be protected. With that exception, we all agree. Everything must be duty free. It is rather like that with agriculture and housing. We are bound to find the agricultural community wanting to preserve every acre of land, just as we find that the town planners want to go on to agricultural land, be it good, bad, or indifferent, and build on it, if it is suitable for town planning. Those are the extreme views. One is black, the other white; but there are shades of grey, and it is with the shades of grey that we must stand. I think it was an extremely good point and a notable contribution that the hon. Lady made, when she appealed for early and friendly consultation between all parties, and I want to endorse that, and to say that we at the Ministry will always do what we can at our level to see that consultation takes place.

The hon. Lady asked a question about development plans and how much acreage was used per annum. It is extremely difficult to find that figure. Many shots have been made at it. The Town and Country Planning Association say 500,000 acres over 20 years of urban development, but the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton), I think, says it is half that figure. I do not really think there is any scientific approach to the figure, but development plans can play a major part in securing the most economical use of land.

We cannot say yet how agriculture will be affected by analysing the development plans because they are not all in and they have not all been passed, so there is too fluid a state to give a precise estimate of what would be needed. Planning authorities have evolved a particular framework of their plans in discussion with Provincial Land Commissioners of the Ministry of Agriculture, and not only the selection of land for development but the timing of the programmes are also worked out with full regard to agricultural needs. I think the hon. Lady will find that at the highest level, at the county level and regional level, there is consultation. It is more than likely that perhaps at the lower level, with the individual farmer, there is not consultation. However, I will communicate with my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to see whether we could perhaps go into the point further and assist.

Mrs. White

The point I made was about the county agricultural committees, not the Land Commissioner. There is some feeling that the Land Commissioner is consulted but not the County Agricultural Committees.

Mr. Marples

From the point of view of the Ministry, it is our job to bring them as close together as possible, and I will ask my hon. Friend whether he is satisfied or not. If he is not satisfied we will do everything in our power to see that he gets the consultation which is needed.

The hon. Lady then asked whether there could not be tighter planning, and referred to the booklet on "The Density of Residential Areas." I want to make this plea to local authorities. I am certain that some of the houses we are building are not being built on the most economical lines in the lay-out of the estates. We are pouring money away in roads and sewers, and it is costing a great deal of money more per house than it ought. A recent tour of the Continent convinces me of that. They have planned their estates very carefully, without, of course, getting the old back-to-back houses which we all detest so much; but there is no need to go back to that.

With careful siting and planning, and with use of the three-storey block of flats as well as the two-storey block, with the use of terraced houses and narrower fronted houses, it is possible to cut down on the cost of roads and of sewers per house. In this respect, good aesthetics go with economic planning.

Yesterday my right hon. Friend made a speech, reported in "The Times" to- day, in which he said what we intend to try to do at the Ministry this year. He said: This year we are going to try to embark upon an equally important form of saving to see whether by the same ingenuity and similar attention to detail we can achieve a high standard of housing—a good happy kind of home—and yet make smaller demands upon the precious land of our country, with reduced frontages, savings in space, better planned gardens and the like. This, he said, would be the next forward movement in the housing campaign. That was at the Public Works Congress which opened at Olympia yesterday.

I think that the Ministry ought to go further—it is my own personal view in this respect. It is not always impressive to the average person to produce a good pamphlet, or even an excellent leaflet. The average person is more convinced by seeing something in three dimensions before his very eyes, and he will profit by that good example.

I have in mind the Ideal Homes Exhibition last year, when we introduced the People's House. Prior to that there had been great controversy about certain sections of the People's House. I was taking a very prominent person—I will not name him; he was a local authority representative—into a house, who had sworn that he would never have a bedroom ceiling of 7 ft. 6 in, in height; he said it was too low. As we entered the house I said, "I quite agree. This is 8 ft. This is all right isn't it?" He said, "Yes, this is all "right, but I wouldn't have it an inch lower." I then said, "Well, it is 7 ft. 6 in. It isn't 8 ft." The moment he saw a 7 ft. 6 in. ceiling in a properly proportioned room he had changed his view.

Therefore, I think we must try, if we possibly can, to set an example in some spot in this country, in three dimensions, so that we can show what we mean by this advanced type of lay-out which is now being used on the Continent—

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'Clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Ten o'Clock.