HC Deb 20 January 1954 vol 522 cc1150-60

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I beg to move. That the Cwmbran New Town Compulsory Purchase Order No. 9 (The Garw), 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 24th November, be annulled. This is a Prayer asking the House to annul the Order which was made by the Cwmbran Development Corporation and was confirmed by the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

The Prayer comes before the House tonight in somewhat unusual circumstances. You may have noticed, Mr. Speaker, that a similar Prayer was moved in another place yesterday. I have no doubt that it was withdrawn because, obviously, a matter of this kind is far more conveniently dealt with in this House. I was a little surprised, and no doubt you were, to have seen from the Press that the Minister in another place yesterday said that he had spent a whole fortnight in a thorough and intensive study of this matter. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary has not had to spend a whole fortnight in studying what, after all, is not a very complicated matter.

I noticed also that the Government spokesman in another place had made a special journey to Cwmbran and back at his own expense. It seems to me that however the Government manage their affairs they should not be so parsimonious as to expect Ministers in this or in another place to travel about the country on official and important business at their own expense. I very much hope that steps will be taken to see that Lord Mancroft is duly reimbursed for his out of pocket expenses and all the trouble he took in this matter.

There is another curious feature about this Order. The Order was made on 25th July and laid before Parliament. Then Pontypool Rural District Council, who were concerned in the matter because they were the owners of the land which Cwmbran new town was seeking to acquire by compulsory purchase, decided to petition against the Order. In accordance with procedure, their petition, duly sealed by the council, was deposited in the House of Lords. But, unfortunately, no doubt owing to the fact that Pontypool Rural District Council has not had a great deal of experience in petitioning Parliament—fortunately for them—they omitted to deposit a copy of the petition with the Minister in due time. I think they were a few hours late in depositing it with the Minister. As a result, the Lord Chairman of Committees and the Chairman of Ways and Means, acting jointly, reported that the petition did not comply with the Standing Orders.

That would have been an end of the matter as far as the unfortunate Pontypool Rural District Council were concerned were it not for what I must acknowledge was a very handsome and generous act of the Minister of Housing and Local Government. I always like to give credit where I think it is due; there are plenty of opportunities in this House of criticising the Minister, but on this occasion he did the right thing. He was not going to let the Pontypool Rural District Council be penalised because, by an oversight, they delayed for a few hours to serve him with a copy of the petition. So he did a sporting thing—he withdrew the Order he had made confirming the order of the Cwmbran Council, and made a new Order, and it is against this new Order that my Prayer is directed.

As a result of the new Order having been laid, Pontypool Rural District Council have now filed a second petition which has been duly lodged, and duly served on the Minister, and everything will be in order for that petition to be considered by a joint committee of both Houses. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has an Amendment to my Motion on the Order Paper, with which I must confess I do not seriously disagree, the. effect of which would be to enable Pontypool Rural District Council to have their arguments properly considered, as they are entitled to do, because in this House we always feel it is a matter of some delicacy when there is an argument between two local authorities, or, in this case, between a local authority and a new town, and I think one would have, prima facie, a certain amount of sympathy with the Council because they have taken the initiative in this matter.

They bought this land; they have a housing problem like everyone else, they have 209 unsatisfied applicants for houses, and, therefore, they bought some land as long ago as 1948. They have incurred a good deal of expense. They have spent about £9,000 in providing a road, because where they bought the land one could not put up any houses until one had built a road. They would have liked to buy some more land, but at that time the Welsh Board of Health would not let them.

They built this road, and put up a certain number of houses, and were about to buy some more land front aging on to the road they had built. Then, to their surprise, the new town came along and said, "We would like to have all this land." Pontypool Rural District Council have bought some of it; they have put up some houses, and on the rest of it they have now put up some more. That is the story in a nutshell. I do not want to elaborate on it or go into the merits, but merely to submit that, in the circumstances, I should have thought that Pontypool had, at any rate, a case which they were entitled to have argued before the appropriate committee of the two Houses in accordance with the procedure laid down in this matter.

10.43 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

I beg to second the Motion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) has dealt with this matter with such clarity that there is nothing for me to do but to add just one sentence. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will bear in mind that the whole House will be waiting with wrapt, intense expectancy the answer to the question whether the noble Lord who, in another place yesterday, spoke with such passionate indignation about this matter, who had made this long, difficult, arduous and expensive journey, who had devoted 14 days of continuous, deliberate and, no doubt, painful cogitation to this matter, had in fact, at the end of that, arrived at any conclusion, and if so, what that conclusion was.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I beg to move, to leave out from "the," to the end of the Question, and to add: Petition of the Rural District Council of Pontypool against the Cwmbran New Town Compulsory Purchase Order No. 9 (The Garw), 1952, be referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses. I should like to join with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher), in expressing my thanks and those of the Pontypool Rural District Council to the Minister for his courtesy in not riding off on the technical slip that had been made, and in allowing the matter to be brought before Parliament so that we could hear the Government's explanation. I also join with my hon. Friends in my hope that the Minister who went down to Wales will have the usual courtesies paid to him, even when he is not a Minister of a Department, but has the difficult task of answering for all their sins—in a place where there are 24 bishops and two archbishops to consider sins.

I am not too much concerned with the merits of the dispute between the district council and the new town corporation. I think it a pity when two bodies of this kind get into conflict, because it clearly must be to the advantage of everyone that, so far as possible, local authorities should try to manage their affairs so that they do not provide an undue amount of fees to lawyers and expert witnesses. Such fees very soon mount up in cases of this kind. Sometimes I think that the smaller the issue the greater the amount of indignation which is engendered on both sides.

As I understand—and I think it desirable that this should be stated—the new town has endeavoured to do something, at any rate, to remove the difficulty they created for the rural district council. I think that should be publicly stated so that it may be realised that there were some efforts made locally to get this matter settled amicably.

I can well understand that the Pontypool Rural District Council, having bought this piece of land and started to develop it, were disappointed when they found another public corporation wanting the same piece of land. I understand that so far as costs are concerned the district valuer will settle the price of the land, but there is also the capital development which has taken place. I should have thought that also might have been assessed by the district valuer with the additional advantage that he would be able to see the engineer's certificates and presumably the receipted accounts for the expenditure that the district council has incurred.

I also understand that the new town has made an offer to the district council with regard to the nomination of some of the tenants for the houses that will be erected. I hope that in any arrangement which may be made that sensible procedure will be preserved. Everyone knows that when a district council develops an estate of this kind a number of people think that there are houses going up in which they will have a chance of living. It would be a pity if the mere change of ownership of the land meant that the persons on the waiting list of the rural district council had to wait a longer period for a house.

The position is somewhat cumbrous. A provision is laid down by the Act under which the new towns were created that if there is a dispute of this kind the matter must be brought before the House in the form of a Motion, as moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East, and then either House of Parliament has to refer it to a Joint Select Committee.

As I have said, we are anxious to get information about what has happened, and I understand that the Minister has given personal attention to this matter. I am sure the House would desire to be guided by the view which the right hon. Gentleman has, and its necessity finally to accept it. But I want to say that all of us recognise that this opportunity has only occurred through the courtesy of the Minister in not treating this rural district council according to the strict technicalities, but has afforded it an opportunity which I am sure a large local authority in the habit of coming before this House with private Bills and other matters would not expect to get. If that large authority were a few hours late it would be bad luck for them, and I have no doubt that someone would get into hot water locally.

I am sure that the House would desire that what appears in an Act of Parliament as being an opportunity for getting further consideration of views should not be denied to a small local authority when the big local authorities, with advisers who are continually handling these matters, would not fall into similar difficulties. At this stage neither my hon. Friends nor I am expressing views on the merits of the dispute between the new town corporation and the rural district council. We hope that as a result of the matter being ventilated the two bodies will be able to live in amity as the work of constructing the new town is carried on.

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Colegate (Burton)

This matter has been somewhat complicated, and I feel that two matters ought to be made clear. First of all, the rural district council is, naturally, grateful for the Minister's courtesy in allowing this matter to be dealt with as it has been. From something which has been said it may be thought that the clerk to the Pontypool Rural District Council was responsible for the technical slip. That is not so. A mistake was made in London by those who were acting for him. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) that it is important that the Minister should let us know what is his view of the circumstances, and the best way to deal with the matter.

10.54 p.m.

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

On my right hon. Friend's behalf, I am grateful to the Opposition for the moderate and lucid way in which they have expressed themselves in asking for annulment of this Order. They will not expect me to make a long dissertation on expenses for Members of another place. I noticed the passionate intensity of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) and the similar eagerness of the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) for payment of expenses to their lordships. I noticed how they were supported by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), who said that while they should have expenses no lawyer should have fees.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that the Minister had not taken advantage of a technical slip. The hon. Member for Islington, East hoped that I had not had to spend a fortnight in inquiry. I could scarcely have done that, because the Order, which was put down in another place on 16th December for 34 days until 19th January, was taken off the Paper in another place yesterday at an hour's notice and placed on the Order Paper in this House. That shows the proper anxiety of the Opposition that their colleagues in another place do not discuss these things before they are discussed in this House; but it shows also a faulty or perhaps non-existent liaison within the party opposite. No doubt that internal error will be corrected in due course.

What are the facts in this case? The hon. Member for Islington, East was wrong in one vital respect. The ball in this case was started rolling in 1950 by the Pontypool Council, who took the initiative by asking the new town corporation to meet them and discuss the sale of three plots of land. The corporation did not approach the council. They both agreed that the plots of land should be bought by the corporation who, naturally, assumed that the cost would be settled by the district valuer. In default of that, there would be arbitration by the Lands Tribunal, a body set up by this House to decide such matters.

Secondly, Pontypool actually passed the plans which the new town corporation proposed to adopt in relation to these plots of land. The corporation submitted them to the planning authority, the Monmouth County Council, through the Minister. The planning authority, in turn, got agreement from the rural district council. Then my right hon. Friend gave approval to the plans. Therefore, the rural district council had no objection whatever, and the new town corporation had committed itself by entering into a contract for developing the site. That was in 1952.

By July, 1952, it was clear that agreement could only be reached on the price of two of the plots and not on the third, and that the council would not allow it to go to arbitration. As this plot was part of their neighbourhood scheme the corporation had to do something, so they issued a compulsory purchase Order on the third plot to which objection was taken by the rural district council. In March, 1953, my right hon. Friend arranged for a hearing. It is curious to examine what happened. When at that hearing Pontypool were questioned by representatives of the corporation, they said they were willing to sell, at their price; in other words, although their objection to the Order was on other grounds, it was clear that only price was the stumbling block.

On the side of the new towns corporation, they had said that they had prepared plans, everything was agreed, they had let out the contract, and were waiting to start, and if they did not settle the matter quickly they would lose a deal of money on other services. Not only did they do that, but they went much further. They said that in the past they had been scrupulously fair, and that they would now go even further. They were having from Pontypool a piece of land the rural district council wanted to keep. The corporation said they would offer them an area similar in size on which they could build houses so that the rural district council did not lose any land. In addition, the corporation said that on the land on which they would build the rural district council could nominate tenants for half the houses. So from the housing point of view also the rural district has done better under this than it would have done had it retained the land.

It is not convenient for the House to listen to long and lengthy arguments, but I submit that my short summary of the facts has made out an overwhelming case for the Order. If we do not have the Order it will mean that the corporation will have an immense expense, and, therefore, the Government's advice is that we simply cannot allow this Order to be annulled. On the question of the Joint Committee, if this matter did go upstairs for consideration it would be an expensive and protracted procedure leading to abortive expenditure. In these circumstances, I am not without hope that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields and the hon. Gentleman for Islington, East will withdraw the Amendment and the Motion.

I would say this to the right hon. Gentleman, that it is important when we superimpose a new town corporation on a local authority that we do nothing to make for strained relations at any time. It is very difficult to establish new towns because the local authority is often wounded, and in some cases there is friction, and I should not like anything said in the debate to be regarded as acrimonious by either party. Let us get on with giving the new town corporation what it wants, and to which it is committed. At the same time, I will consult the Minister to see if he will take into account the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman about the arrangement under which the corporation proposes to offer the rural district council an extra piece of land plus the offer of the chance to nominate half the tenants. We cannot give a guarantee that they will accept the advice, but we will do all that is possible to see that that advice is accepted.

11.4 p.m.

Mr. Granville West (Pontypool)

As this problem is one which affects my constituency it is perhaps right that I should say a word about it. As I understand, the facts of the matter are as related by the Parliamentary Secretary, and it should go on record that the position, as I am informed, indicates that the corporation did everything to reach agreement with the rural district council. My constituents and the people who are living in neighbouring constituencies have over a period of 12 months or more been deprived of houses which would have been built on this site if this regrettable dispute had not arisen.

I hope that by this debate the House has given a sufficient indication that disputes of this sort are to be deplored. Local authorities should work together in the building of houses which are so sadly needed throughout the country, and not have this cumbrous procedure invoked merely because there is a haggle over a price—a haggle which could have been decided either by the proper authorities or by arbitration, which was offered to the Pontypool Council. It is an indication that local authorities should, in future, try to reach agreement upon matters of this sort.

I see that the Minister of Housing and Local Government is in his place. He will remember that I saw him upon this matter. So far as the merits of this case are concerned, I was in favour of the new town corporation, because they had done everything to meet the demands of the Pontypool Rural District Council. Nevertheless, when I heard of the difficulty in which the Pontypool Council were, on this pure technicality, I approached the Minister and suggested that steps should be taken so that the Council should have an opportunity of having the case brought before Parliament and the matter discussed.

I am very grateful to the Minister for having taken that course. I think it right that that course was taken, because the Pontypool Council, although acting unwisely in this matter and not in that spirit of co-operation which we should expect them to adopt, nevertheless had the right to put their case before Parliament. That having been done, I hope that my right hon. Friend and hon. Friends will now feel that they can withdraw their Motion and Amendment.

Mr. Ede

Having heard the answer of the Parliamentary Secretary and the views of my hon. Friend, and thoroughly agreeing with the last few sentences of the speech of my hon. Friend with regard to the desirability of local authorities working together, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. E. Fletcher

I have the same view as that of my right hon. Friend. Having regard to the very thorough, careful and reasonable speech that the Parliamentary Secretary made, putting the whole of the facts in their true perspective, and having heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. West) said, I am perfectly satisfied that the right course for me is to withdraw the Motion. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.