HC Deb 19 May 1954 vol 527 cc2248-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir C. Drewe.]

10.59 p.m.

Mr. John Parker (Dagenham)

On 25th March last I had occasion to raise on the Adjournment the question of housing in Dagenham, and the Parliamentary Secretary answered the debate. I pointed out that the housing list in Dagenham is over 4,400. There is a lack of land for building; the only suitable piece of land available for building, which the council wishes to acquire by compulsory purchase order, is the Eastminster Estate, sometimes called Valentine's Way. Confirmation of a compulsory purchase order was refused by the Ministry, so that over 200 families on the list of the local authority were deprived of the chance of obtaining houses. In their place, 200 families whose need was less great are to be housed by private enterprise.

The Minister did not reply to the case. I suggest he had not a very good reply. He made a counter-attack. That is good tactics when one has not a good case. He attacked the Dagenham Council and accused them of breaking an agreement made with a local builder. In fact, he inferred that his refusal of a compulsory purchase order was due to this alleged misbehaviour of the Dagenham Council. He said: I am quite certain that the hon. Member for Dagenham … would never have supported his local authority in this matter if he had read the correspondence which I am quite prepared to send to him. He ended his speech by saying: I will send the hon. Member extracts from the correspondence and if he wishes to raise the matter again I will challenge him to do so after he has read those extracts."—OFFICIAL REPORT. 25th March, 1954; Vol. 525; c. 1572–73.] I should like to thank the hon. Member for his courtesy in allowing me 10 look through the file on this matter, which I did in his office. Having done so, I must say I was confirmed in my decision to accept his challenge and raise the matter again on the Adjournment. My view, having looked at the correspondence, is that the Parliamentary Secretary, in dealing with this matter, was guilty of gross lack of courtesy and rank carelessness.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)

On a point of order. I read in the Press that the subject of this Adjournment Motion was to be an attack on the conduct of the Minister. It is news to me that on the Adjournment, which is merely the way we go home, the subject should be announced as an attack on the conduct of a Minister. Since then I understand that there has been some withdrawal. I should like to know what the position is with regard to an hon. Member who announces that on the Adjournment he intends to try to bring forward a Motion of censure. It seems to be most improper.

Mr. Speaker

When the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) gave notice of the topic he was to raise on this Adjournment, he did put it down as "Housing: conduct of Parliamentary Secretary"—that is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. But, of course, any Motion attacking the conduct of another Member of this House ought to be made the subject of a substantive Motion, of which notice should be given. I caused the hon. Member's attention to be drawn to this practice of the House and he changed to the title "Housing in Dagenham." It is on that topic, I understand, that he is now addressing the House. It is a proper subject for the Adjournment.

Mr. Ian Horobin (Oldham, East)

Further to that point of order. Can the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) say whether he gave notice to the Parliamentary Secretary of the exact subject upon which he is now attacking the Parliamentary Secretary? When I inquired at the Vote Office a moment ago, as to the subject of the Adjournment, I was informed it was "Housing: conduct of Parliamentary Secretary."

Mr. Parker

The matter of which I gave notice to the Parliamentary Secretary was with regard to the correspondence on this matter and the way in which he dealt with it in a previous debate. The hon. Gentleman said: … I shall rest solely on the correspondence which has passed between the interested parties. The interested parties are the Dagenham Borough Council on the one hand, and Parrish, builders, on the other."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th March, 1954; Vol. 525. c. 1569.] On that statement, I should like to point out a number of things. First of all, Dagenham Borough Council were never approached by the Parliamentary Secretary for their side of the case. Knowing that the matter was to be raised in the House, one would have thought it would be ordinary courtesy for a Government Department to ask one of the parties to a dispute what they had to say on the matter. But they were never approached and their views and correspondence files were never looked at. The Minister's file was in fact obtained from the private builder, Parrish. Important letters and minutes are absent which throw light on this question. There were three main parties, and not two, to this dispute. They were the Dagenham Borough Council, the land developer and only thirdly the builder. The hon. Member confused the developer and the builder in much of what he said. The only correspondence in the Minister's file is that which happened to favour the case of the builder.

The hon. Member stated that the landowner, Mr. England, did a deal with the Dagenham Council. No agreement was made between Mr. England and the Dagenham Council. The first letter quoted in the correspondence by the hon. Member, was one of 24th November, which was sent by the landowners' agents, Messrs. Kemsley, and it is quoted in column 1570 of HANSARD. In fact, that letter was preceded by a private meeting which took place on that day, the minutes of which were circulated to the various parties at the meeting.

There were present at the meeting, Mr. England, the landowner, a representative of Messrs. Kemsley, the deputy town clerk, the borough surveyor, the deputy borough surveyor and the cleansing superintendent. The early part of the minutes was concerned with a matter already mentioned by the hon. Member, that is the proposal, that the Dagenham Council should acquire about 93 acres for tipping purposes from Mr. England, and Mr. England agreed to that.

Then the minutes go on: Mr. England was anxious to proceed with the Eastbrook estate and asked whether the Council would now allow him to proceed. The deputy town clerk explained to him that the Council were probably as anxious as he was over the matter. They were desirous of using this land for housing, and it was thought that any application for planning permission made in the matter by Mr. England would be fully supported by the Council although no guarantee could be given that the Council would not want to proceed with the erection of the houses themselves. Mr. England appreciated this point and offered to come to an amicable arrangement with the Council for the division of the land or if necessary, he would be prepared to proceed with the erection of houses, some of which could be sold to the Council under Circular 92/46. In his statement the hon. Member definitely took the line that the Dagenham Council only raised this question of building these houses very late in the day. As a matter of fact, they raised it at the very beginning of the whole proceedings before there was any correspondence. The various parties concerned with the case knew that the Dagenham Council had this view right from the beginning.

I should like to say a word about a letter of 1st January, which was mentioned by the Parliamentary Secretary in the previous debate; this was written to Messrs. Kemsley as agents for the land developer and not the builder, who at that time had not appeared on the scene at all, although later Messrs. Kemsley were also agents for the builder when he did arrive on the scene.

On this particular matter both the Council and Mr. England wanted this piece of land excluded from the Green Belt for building purposes. They agreed to co-operate on that, but no agreement was reached as to who was to build the houses if it were freed. No deal was made between them as the Parliamentary Secretary said in his speech. Messrs. Parrish appeared first on the scene on 16th January, 1953, when Messrs. Kemsley wrote on their behalf as prospective purchasers and submitted a planning application. An extraordinary statement was made by the Parliamentary Secretary when he said: On 23rd January, 1953, Dagenham wrote to Parrish on the lines that I have indicated. From his own file I can say that nothing of the sort was sent by way of a reply. There is no letter of that date in the hon. Gentleman's file or on that of the Dagenham Council. No letter was sent, only a standardised acknowledgment card, of which I have a copy here, stamped by Parrish as received on 23rd January, 1953. It was an acknowledgment of Parrish's application to develop that particular land under the Town and Country Planning Act.

The Parliamentary Secretary, continuing to quote from their non-existent letter, said that the Council said this: 'It is all right. You must get your planning consent, and we shall do what we can to help you'."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 25th March, 1954; Vol. 525, c. 1570.] The Dagenham Council never said that. They never used those words to Mr. England, to Parrish's or to Messrs. Kemsley. They are a figment of the hon. Member's imagination.

The Council continued to try to get the land freed for building purposes, and the matter was argued before the county planning committee by the Dagenham Council. They stressed the need for more houses for Dagenham. Neither Mr. England nor Mr. Parrish or their agents were present at the inquiry. In fact, the Council won the right to use that land by their own efforts, but when they came forward for a compulsory purchase order to satisfy their needs, they were turned down by the Minister.

The hon. Gentleman criticised the Dagenham Council for sending a "callous" letter to the builders. Actually, that letter was one of three similar ones which went not only to Messrs. Parrish but to Messrs. England and to Mr. Garrett, who had a lease of the land at the time for use as a riding school. It was a genuine attempt to find out who did own the land so that the compulsory purchase order could be correctly drawn up. That this was necessary was shown by the fact that Kemsley's said that England owned the land while a director of Messrs. Parrish said they owned it. In fact, it was only after this that there was a speedy handing over to Messrs. Parrish because the parties concerned thought that a compulsory purchase order was likely to be brought forward.

In column 1571 of HANSARD the hon. Gentleman said that half the people who had taken the houses were on the waiting list of the local authority. He gave as his authority that it was published in the "Romford Times." That is a local paper notorious for its inaccuracies and for being in the pocket of the local builders. On this occasion it was quite inaccurate, because 93 out of 206 persons—less than half of the applicants—live in Dagenham and only 59. that is less than 30 per cent., were on the wait-ting list of the local authority and only two in the priority category, so that the "Romford Times" on that matter was particularly inaccurate and so, unfortunately, was the hon. Member.

In this whole case we have seen a remarkable departure from the normal custom in this House. It is a general practice in our political life that we make appointments to political posts from people who are not normally interested, either professionally or commercially, in that particular field. For example, with regard to the Ministry of Health, it is unusual to appoint a doctor or anyone connected with the Health Service to a post in that Department, because it would be felt that if we appointed a doctor, he would have definite views on cancer research or on the running of hospitals, and would be likely to be biased on many of the administrative questions which might come before him for decision. I suggest, therefore, that this fairly general practice which exists in this country of not appointing people to fields where they have professional or commercial interests, is wise.

But in this matter I would suggest that the hon. Member, having been a private builder before coming a Minister—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shame‡"]—should exercise particular care to see that, when disputes come up in which a local authority is in dispute with a private builder about a compulsory purchase order or any other matter of that kind, it is especially important that he should not only do justice but appear to do justice—

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)

Would the hon. Gentleman give way for a minute? I have considerable experience of the matters I want to put to him. Because of the abysmal confusion of the statements which you have put forward, and the disgraceful statements that you have made about my hon. Friend—

Mr. Geoffrey Bing (Hornchurch)

On a point of order. Surely, Mr. Speaker, this attack on yourself should not be permitted.

Mr. Speaker

I did not hear any attack on myself. I should repeat what I indicated earlier, that any attack by one hon. Member on another should always be preceded by a notice on the Order Paper and by a substantive Motion. The debate on the Adjournment is not a proper opportunity for that purpose.

Mr. Rees-Davies

If I may continue to put the matter which I was putting to the hon. Member when he gave way to me, there was, I presume, an impartial inquiry by an inspector into the question whether there should be a compulsory purchase or not. He has to advise the Minister and no doubt he gave his advice. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of that fact? Is he also aware that the question whether a person is a builder or not has absolutely nothing to do with the case, and that he has shown a most abysmal ignorance of the procedure under the Housing Act?

Mr. Parker

On this particular matter no public inquiry was ever held, so that the matter could not be argued out, or information given to the public, or the facts brought to the notice of the hon. Gentleman or the House. In fact, the Dagenham Borough Council asked for an inquiry, but that was refused by the Parliamentary Secretary. Any private individual can insist on having his objection heard at a public inquiry, but a public authority have no such right to insist. In this case it is desirable that there should have been a public inquiry.

On the facts, I say that in a case of this kind it is very important that justice should not only be done but appear to have been done. It has not been done nor does it appear to have been done to my constituents or the Dagenham Borough Council. I feel the House should be aware of that fact, and that the hon. Gentleman should apologise for his action in this matter, and see that he does not take similar action in future.

Mr. Horobin

Speaking of justice, can I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to column 1571 of the OFFICIAL REPORT of the previous debate? May I ask him whether he is putting to the House that justice is done when, in a letter written on 17th July, the council states to the private builders: My council have always held the opinion that the land, the subject of this planning application should be used for housing purposes and they are, therefore, of the opinion that your application should be granted."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 25th March, 1954; Vol. 525, c. 1571.] According to the hon. Gentleman they had every intention of compulsorily acquiring the land and taking it over.

Mr. Parker

I have already explained to the House that the developer and the council worked together for the one purpose of getting the land freed for building purposes, but that they were not agreed on who should build on it afterwards.

11.18 p.m.

Mr. C. N. Thornton-Kemsley (Angus, North and Mearns)

I should like to declare an interest since the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) has mentioned that the firm with which I am connected was retained in this matter, although, personally, I had nothing to do with this case.

I should like, first of all, to say how extraordinary it seems to me that the hon. Gentleman should have led us all to believe that he was to raise on the Adjournment the conduct of the Parliamentary Secretary, causing speculation in the Press and in the House ever since he gave notice as to what particular misdemeanor the Parliamentary Secretary had been responsible for. It seems an extraordinary thing to have done.

I do know that ever since the firm with which I am associated was retained in this matter it was led to believe by the Dagenham Borough Council that they would support their application, and the correspondence makes that clear.

Mr. Parker

The hon. Member's firm was present at the meeting of which I read out the minute and the matter was discussed.

Mr. Thomton-Kemsley

Since that time the correspondence and the interviews make it perfectly clear that the council were prepared to support the application of the landowner and the builders to get the estate developed with houses, and it seems extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman should have condoned the conduct of the council and say, as he did to the House, in column 1565, that it is quite a normal thing if they want land to support a builder and then turn round, as soon as the builder has done the work and got permission to develop, and step in with a compulsory purchase order. It is a most disgraceful thing, and I am surprised that he should have condoned that conduct.

Mr. Bing

Why does the hon. Member not tell the House, since he is so well acquainted with the area, that in the next-door constituency 74 houses have been built for letting and 759 have been built by his friends for private sale?

11.20 p.m.

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

The original title chosen for the debate was rather misleading, and the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker)—who has always been perfectly courteous to me as an individual—has been rather unfair.

The original title was "Housing: conduct of Parliamentary Secretary." It has not been on the Order Paper, but has certainly been published for over a week. It is misleading because it looks as if my personal conduct is being brought as an issue before the House, and it is unfair because it gave rise to many unfounded rumours about me personally.

The Press have been making daily inquiries at my home ever since the title was published. The title was only amended yesterday, but by that time the damage had been done and rumours were flying round. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman took your advice, Mr. Speaker, and amended the title. I am a little sorry that he has not apologised for putting in a title which has certainly damaged me personally.

One of my hon. Friends interrupted the hon. Gentleman to ask if he had given me notice of what he proposed to raise. The hon. Gentleman wrote to me two days ago and I received the letter yesterday. He said: Dear Marples, I shall be raising points on Wednesday evening on the Adjournment about the correspondence concerning the Eastminster Estate. That was the notice I received. Nothing was specified; nothing was precise. If the hon. Gentleman had given me notice of precise points I should have been better able to give him a reply which was both accurate and precise. I do not consider it was the kind of notice which I have normally received from hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Robert Jenkins (Dulwich)

Does my hon. Friend mean that the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) has not given notice of what he was going to raise tonight? If that is so it is scandalous and monstrous.

Mr. Marples

I have read out the notice which I was given, which was merely that the hon. Member would be raising the matter of the correspondence concerning the Eastminster Estate. There was nothing precise, nothing on which I could give a reasoned reply.

I am glad we were able to give the hon. Gentleman the advantage of seeing the correspondence in this case, and I am grateful to the solicitors and surveyors concerned for enabling the hon. Gentleman to go through their files. He has had the advantage of seeing all the correspondence, though I did not have the advantage of knowing the precise points he proposed to raise.

The question here is simple. I am going to speak bluntly. Were the Dagenham Council guilty of double dealing or not? I said in the previous debate that they were, and I repeat now that in my opinion they were. The matter opens at the end of 1952 and I will try to summarise it. I think it was Dr. Johnson who said that we cannot pry into the hearts of men, but their actions are open for observation. Never mind about the earlier minute, let us look at the correspondence, which was later, and which is on the record. The landowner's agent sent this letter to the Dagenham Council, saying that Mr. England "— that is, the owner of the land— would raise no objection to the proposed acquisition by your Council of the area of about 94 acres for the purpose of controlled tipping and subsequent provision of public open space, provided "— these were the words— that the Council would support his application for the completion of the development of Valentine's Way and Reindeer Chase in accordance with the plans approved by your Council. So they proposed a deal of two distinct parts. The first part was that the owner would not object to the acquiring of 94 acres at Eastbrook End and the second part was the proviso that the Council supported Mr. England's plan to develop Valentine's Way. That was the offer of the private firm which the Council accepted. On 1st January they wrote: I have been asked to point out to you that the Council are always prepared to support an application for the use of land for housing purposes, and I might add that in this particular case they had themselves been pressing for the release of this land for some years. I trust that your client will accept this assurance as sufficient for his purpose. What was his purpose? It was to develop the land himself. It is clear all along that Mr. England wanted to develop the land himself. That was the purpose of his application and any other explanation of it would be ludicrous. The Council cannot claim it did not know that Mr. England was proceeding on the basis of being completely free to go ahead. Mr. England entered into negotiations with Parrish, the builder, and granted him permission to enter on the land for site preparation.

Parrish's agents applied to the Council in January, 1953, for permission to develop the site; and on 17th July, 1953, Kemsleys the agents, and Parrish the builders, were invited by the Council to come to a discussion which, the Council now say, was "purely on the merits of the planning application": but what they did say at the time was that the Council was of the opinion that your application should be granted. "Your application"; I ask hon. Members to note that. They led the private builder up the garden path. The Council should have said to Parrish, "If the planning application fails, we both lose, and if it succeeds, you will still lose, because we shall then put in a compulsory purchase order." But there was no hint given to the builder about a compulsory purchase order, and, on 9th November, Parrish wrote to the Council suggesting a discussion on layout. That letter was acknowleged, and on 17th November they got a letter from the Clerk to the Council which I have called the most cynical that I have ever come across in my 2½ years as a Parliamentary Secretary. This stated that the Council would try to buy the land compulsorily in order to put council houses on it. A week later, the Clerk—and I think that this really is sheer effrontery, wrote As you know, my Council have always had in mind the development of the site for their own housing purposes … It is both monstrous and ludicrous—

Mr. Robert Jenkins

Most dishonest.

Mr. Marples

—to suggest they ever had it in mind. Neither the owners nor the builders knew anything of the kind. Parrish had been led up the garden path, and the Council, in my view—or at least certain members of it, and the Clerk—must have known it, for the writer of the letter felt it necessary to state: When it was decided to support your application for the use of this site for housing purposes it was in accordance with my Council's agreed policy that the land should be used for the erection of dwelling houses. The person who wrote that was the Town Clerk. They supported the application of the builder becuse they expected the builder to build at that time, and then they changed their minds.

Local Government in this country has an enviable reputation for honesty and straight dealing, and I hope and pray that that will always be so. It is a refutation built up by men anxious to strive in the service of the public, and conscious of the fact that to do so is a high honour and a signal mark of public duty. There must be few who are not parties to this matter who will not think that episodes of this kind are not worthy of the high traditions of the British public service; and I say that I think it would be better if the hon. Member for Dagenham let this matter lie from now onwards.

Local authorities have immense powers with their compulsory purchase orders, and such powers should be, and I am very happy to say, except for an instance such as this, always are, used in a wise, discriminating, and fair manner.

Mr. Bing

My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) has performed a great service in raising this matter. The Parliamentary Secretary says he thinks that a most cynical thing has happened, but let me tell him that the most cynical thing—

The Question having been proposed after 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 Twenty-nine Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.