HC Deb 09 November 1954 vol 532 cc1156-68

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

9.45 p.m.

Mr. E. Partridge (Battersea, South)

I have been watching the clock with some anxiety and I am glad to notice that a little more time than usual is left for the Adjournment debate because I wish to raise a matter of real interest.

We live in an age in which certain sections of the community pay too little attention to the moral virtues, and among the worst offenders are Government Departments and local government authorities. It is not my object to draw attention to the failings of Government Departments, except in so far as it should be necessary to do so to complete my argument, but I wish to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to some shocking affairs which affect his Department. I hope that as a result of what I say tonight he will find himself able to give me reassurance and, through me, to reassure many of those who live in Battersea, South, the constituency which I have the honour to represent in this House.

I hope that my hon. Friend is appalled at the widespread use of compulsory purchase powers generally, and I hope that he asks himself, as I ask myself, whether it is always necessary to use such a merciless, brutal and offensive weapon to acquire property. Why cannot a local authority first try by ordinary negotiations to induce the owner of a property which the authority thinks necessary for its purpose, to part with his property and also to arrive at a mutually satisfactory price?

As I understand, a local authority is empowered to buy land and property for the purpose of developing such land or property in the public interest, but can it ever be in the public interest to bludgeon an owner and take his property from him almost by force and then give him a derisory sum by way of compensation? Such conduct makes a mockery of the term "compensation." Such conduct is not only an affront to the victim, but a gross affront to all decent citizens of a borough the council of which uses this method of exercising its will. In a moment, I shall call my hon. Friend's attention to a letter that has been sent to me and to a resolution which, I believe, has been sent to his right hon. Friend on this subject.

I do not believe that it was ever the intention of Parliament that gross injustice should be inflicted, nor that local authorities could or should with impunity ignore the Tenth and Eighth Commandments. That is exactly what Battersea Borough Council has sought, and now seeks, to do. I should like to quote three compulsory purchase orders made under the Housing Acts. One was made nearly two years ago. Of the other two, one has been sent to the Minister for confirmation and the other has not yet been served by Battersea Borough Council on one of my constituents, though one knows well from minutes of the council meeting that a compulsory order will shortly be served.

In the two latter cases I do not expect my hon. Friend to commit his right hon. Friend, because I recognise that he may have to act in a quasi-judicial capacity in those two cases in certain circumstances; and I am fairly confident that those circumstances will arise.

The first case I quote is one which took place about two years ago. There were four houses on the west side of Clapham Common; old Georgian houses, good, well built and accommodating a large number of people. For a reason which escapes me, Battersea Council cast avaricious eyes on these houses, desired to acquire them, pull them down and erect new dwellings on the site. As a result of the outcry—both locally and nationally, because these Georgian houses were rather "pets" of the Georgian Society—such representations were made to the then Minister that he refused to confirm the compulsory purchase order.

The council, however, was not to be put off by that but thought up another method of dealing with this matter. It desired to pull down one of the four houses which the Georgian Society agreed was not quite up to the standard the Society regarded as a good Georgian house. The council was to run a road through to the land at the back and build a block of flats on the gardens of the other three houses. The people who were to live there would have a very poor outlook. The only view they would have would be of the back gardens of the Georgian houses, the gardens of the houses at the back and the gardens in the street which ran alongside them. If my memory serves me correctly, the four houses housed 18 separate families and the new dwellings were to house 20 families. This huge development was to take place, at a cost of thousands of pounds, in order to be able to house two more families.

The estimates of the council at that time were rather suspect to me and, apparently, they were suspect to the Minister because that compulsory purchase order was not confirmed. That was to the relief of vast numbers of people, not only those intimately concerned, not only those who would have been turned out of houses they liked and wanted to continue to live in, but to the vast majority of people in South Battersea.

I recognise that the second case is rather more delicate, because the Minister has the order in the Department and is being asked to confirm it. I quote this case, not to try to prejudice his judgment in the matter, but to try to show the attitude of a local authority which seems to override the rights of individuals. This is a case in which, 27 years ago, a man bought a house and next door there was a vacant plot of land designated 26, Altenburg Gardens. From inquiries, I have failed to ascertain whether a house ever stood on that plot of land or whether a house originally stood there and was taken down for one reason or other. I am assured by residents that this was a vacant plot of land for many years before 27 years ago, when my constituent acquired this piece of land and built garage premises thereon. He has enjoyed a livelihood from carrying on this business and he hoped to continue to do so.

During the war a bomb fell on the next-door house, 28, Altenburg Gardens, and partially destroyed it. It appeared that the house would have to be dismantled and, therefore, Mr. Stevens, the owner of 26, Altenburg Gardens, acquired that land by purchase in the hope that he might extend his business after the war. But when I tell my hon. Friend that this man is now 78, he will understand that even eight years ago there was reason for him to have some misgiving about whether, at that age, he ought to increase his business operations. He decided against it. The land lay fallow and nothing was done until about two months ago when, in my view quite properly, the Battersea Borough Council asked whether he would be prepared to sell the land in order that new dwellings might be erected upon it.

Mr. Stevens very gladly consented. He said that he did not want the land and that nothing would please him better than that houses be put on it to attempt to alleviate the grievous housing problem which exists in Battersea today. It was then said that a surveyor would come to see the property, I presume with a view to making an offer. The surveyor measured up the property. He also measured up the land on which the garage premises stood. That seemed a little odd to Mr. Stevens, but he did not take much notice. He asked the surveyor how much it was proposed that he should be paid for the site on which the bombed house had stood and which he was prepared to sell. The surveyor said, "That is nothing to do with me. I have to report back to the office and you will hear in due course."

Imagine the amazement of Mr. Stevens when he received a letter same time later from the council in which it was said that they proposed to acquire 26 Altenburg Gardens, where he carried on his business, and the vacant site, on which the bombed house had stood. He was asked whether he was prepared to sell. His natural answer to that—and I hope my hon. Friend will be sympathetic to it— was, "Certainly not. This is my business. I do not want to sell my business, but I do want to sell the vacant land."

Thereupon, the borough council served him with a compulsory purchase order to acquire the land, as stated in the schedule, the land and motor garage at 26 Altenburg Gardens, and the land believed to be the site of No. 28 Altenburg Gardens.

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

Mr. Partridge

I come to the third case. It relates to a number of houses in Thurleigh Avenue. I shall refer to Nos. 1, 3 and 5. No. 3 is occupied by a constituent of mine who is threatened that a compulsory purchase order will be made for the property. When he bought the property some years ago there was a sitting tenant and he knew that he would not be able to get that tenant out.

A few weeks ago the tenant gave notice of his intention to leave because he had bought a property in the country. My constituent was in the position of having a house which, apart from that portion which he occupied himself, was vacant. He and his wife came to the conclusion that the house was too big and they did not want to have tenants in it again. They decided to sell it and to have a new one on vacant land at the rear in a street with no houses in it except the backs of the three houses in question.

My constituent sent the plans for this house to the London County Council, which passed them with a proviso about the building line which was to be settled within a few days. The council indicated when returning the plans, that it had heard—and this was very generous of them — that the Battersea Borough Council had certain designs on the land.

Meantime, my constituent had advertised the property for sale. He received, among other offers, one of £3,950. The intending purchaser proposed to approach the council, as he was entitled to do, with a view to obtaining a mortgage. Instead of getting satisfaction at the town hall, he was told that certain inquiries had to be made, that a surveyor would examine the property and that he would hear more in due course. The surveyor did not come because, I presume, the council had it in mind that it would itself acquire the property.

We can see now what the development was. According to the minutes of the council for 29th September, 1954, there was a report from the housing committee that it had been offered the freehold of No. 1 Thurleigh Avenue for a sum of £3,100. The housing committee recommended: That the unencumbered fee simple of No. 1, Thurleigh Avenue be purchased, for the sum of £3,100, subject to contract… During this time my constituent was asking the council why he could get no satisfaction from them. They would not tell him that they were going to issue a compulsory purchase order. Neither would they say anything about the mortgage to his would-be purchaser. My constituent could get no satisfaction at all. He wrote a number of letters to the borough council to which he got no answer. He got really angry on 27th September, and wrote: I enclose herewith copy of my letter dated 20th September and would be grateful if you would reply to this forthwith. No reply has been received to this date.

Instead, at a meeting of the council on 27th October, a report was to be received from the housing committee in these terms: We have considered the acquisition and development of Nos. 3 and 5, Thurleigh Avenue, which together occupy approximately 5 acre. If the two existing houses (one of which is partly requisitioned) are demolished it appears that it will be possible to build 10 new dwellings and in view of the shortage of suitable sites we consider that this development should be undertaken. In our opinion the cost of acquisition should not exceed £4.250. The recommendation was that an order should be made and sealed under the Housing Acts, 1935–1952 and the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) Act, 1946, for the acquisition of Nos. 3 and 5, Thurleigh Avenue required for the proposed development and that the order should be submitted to the Minister of Housing and Local Government for confirmation.

That was on 27th October. The order has not yet been received by my constituent. Neither has he had, so far as I know, any communication at all from the council. He is aware of the contents of the minute, but he has had no correspondence from the council itself.

I understand that the minority party on this Socialist-controlled council has asked what the nature is of the new buildings to go on the site of No. 1, Thurleigh Avenue, which has already been purchased by the council. It could get no satisfaction. All that was said was that Nos. 3 and 5 are to be developed with 10 dwellings. My information is that there are eight dwellings in the two large houses now there. Therefore, for an increase of two dwellings, these houses are to be pulled down and replaced by new ones. It seems to me to be crazy.

It is not only to me that it seems to be crazy. I have here a letter from the Battersea Ratepayers' Association. I ask the House to believe that I had no knowledge that that letter was coming to me until it arrived. It says that the Association passed a resolution which it was sending to me, and it goes on: In doing so, I am further instructed to bring to your notice a proposal by the Battersea Borough Council to compulsorily acquire the property at No. 3, Thurleigh Avenue for development purposes, and to tell you that a letter condemning this action has been forwarded to the right hon. D. Sandys, M.P., the Minister of Housing and Local Government. The proposed demolition of this property has quite rightly insensed the members of this Association, and they are of the unanimous opinion that the proposed acquisition constitutes a threat to all privately owned property in the borough and is a glaring example of the irresponsible abuse of the powers vested in the local authority. The property is in a perfect state of preservation and its destruction can only be regarded as an act of sheer wanton vandalism. I am to ask you to use your good offices with the Minister to prevent this blatant case, of confiscation of private property. It is signed by the secretary, M. Johnson. The resolution that was included with the letter reads: That this Battersea Ratepayers' Association, whilst recognising the need for responsible use of compulsory acquisition, views with grave concern the excessive use of the powers delegated to local authorities to issue compulsory purchase orders and urges that steps should be taken to prevent the irresponsible application of these powers on sound properties, thus causing unnecessary depreciation of values and real hardship to property owners. And that where compulsory purchase is necessary adequate compensation must be paid. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will realise that this conduct on the part of the Battersea Borough Council in these matters is causing a great deal of consternation in the borough. It will cause still more consternation when I tell the House that if the properties that are to be put on these sites which it is proposed to acquire by compulsory purchase order, are anything like those which have recently been completed in Saloon Road, Battersea, then we shall view it with all the greater horror because the dwellings that have just been erected, and into which tenants have to go, are shocking examples of the worst buildings that can be put up. They are not homes, they are dwellings; and there is something fundamentally wrong in their design.

The person who designed these houses should never be allowed to design even a coal shed in future, because he knows nothing about his job. Not only that, these buildings were built by the council's direct labour force and the workmanship is shocking. I am not going to go into details but I can assure the House that the tenants do not like these houses. They are paying a very high rent for something which is not a home but which is certainly four walls and a roof over their heads.

It is bad business for the tenants themselves and it is bad business for the ratepayers of Battersea. These maisonettes have, in some way or other, to be made more congenial for the tenants. Every penny that is spent on them has to come out of the pockets of the ratepayers, so the further we go on the worse it becomes. That being the case, I suggest that the Minister should be greatly influenced in the confirmation of compulsory purchase orders by what sort of development or redevelopment is proposed. If the development is to be what I have already described, then the Minister should refuse to confirm the order. Arguing from the particular to the general, I would not ask the Parliamentary Secretary to say anything in detail about the cases I have quoted—other than the first one.

I think the Minister can do something. He can refuse to confirm compulsory purchase orders from local councils unless they come with clean hands and can state that they have tried to purchase the land or the property by negotiations and have failed. He can refuse to confirm a compulsory purchase order unless and until he is completely satisfied that no injustice is to follow his confirmation of the order. Thirdly, the Minister can instruct the officials in his Department who are in any way engaged with compulsory purchase orders to do nothing that will violate the principles and philosophy of the present Government.

I say this without fear of contradiction. People are entitled to expect something a great deal better at the hands of this Government than they ever received or expected to receive from the Socialist Government, which, after all, believed in confiscation. Socialists have shown that so many times in this House. The Minister has it in his power to see that the people are not disappointed, and I hope that, by his statement tonight, my hon. Friend will bring comfort to many people, not only in Battersea but elsewhere, who now live in fear and dread of their property being taken from them without mercy, without justice and without compensation which in any way measures up to its real market value.

10.17 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Partridge) is no doubt aware that a great deal of what he said was not aimed directly at this Box, but possibly at a point further to the south. He ventilated a number of matters to not all of which it lies with me to provide the answer. Indeed, I do not think he expects me to do so. I am not prepared, and I do not think he would expect me, to accept all his strictures on compulsory purchase orders as of general application, but I am anxious to be as helpful to him as I can. I think the most helpful thing that I can do is to give the general picture of Battersea's housing problem, and the background to the compulsory purchase orders in question.

First, I should like to stress one point to my hon. Friend. He is aware—indeed, he showed by what he said—that in respect of orders for compulsory acquisition and in respect of inquiries subsequent to local objections, my right hon. Friend has to act in a quasi-judicial manner, and neither he nor I can be expected to anticipate the findings or to comment upon such orders or inquiries, still less to comment upon orders which have not yet been received, which applies to one case in particular.

That reservation applies most emphatically to the case to which my hon. Friend referred of numbers 26 and 28, Altenburg Gardens. This compulsory purchase order was made on 21st July, and submitted for confirmation on 4th October. I am not going into any further particulars, because it would be very difficult to do so without prejudice, but I can tell my hon. Friend that Mr. Stevens has only today submitted his objections, which will, of course, mean a hearing before an inspector and the Minister's decision following upon that hearing. In those circumstances, obviously, I cannot comment on the merits of the case. Still less can I say anything about the case of Thurleigh Avenue, because the compulsory purchase order to which my hon. Friend referred has not yet been submitted to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Partridge

It cannot be.

Mr. Deedes

My hon. Friend will, therefore, not expect me to make any comment upon it.

May I now say something in general about Battersea's problem? The population is 114,000 or nearly 115,000, and there are about 1,650 permanent dwellings on housing estates, 277 under construction, 23 in tenders approved but not started, and 2,400 families are housed in 1,783 requisitioned buildings. Added to that are 3,470 new applications, which make a waiting list of 5,870.

Battersea have built up their larger bomb-damaged areas and, excepting for a few very small sites, have very little left to develop. Their future long-term plans include the Battersea Park Road area of about 60 acres, where there is a great amount of property and where, for the moment, it is not possible to see the best use which can be made of it. In any case, completion is unlikely to take place within the next decade. The problem will be, as in many other places, whether, even with a density of 100 to the acre, more than two thirds of the families can be re-housed on the area where they are living now and where, very often, they wish to remain.

In the circumstances, there is a very natural inclination for Battersea to work on smaller sites, which may seem exceedingly small in relation to Battersea total rehousing problem. Altenburg Gardens is just another one of these sites. Numbers 73, 75 and 79, Albert Bridge Road, for which a compulsory purchase order was submitted in March, 1953, and which is subject at the moment to negotiation with the London County Council, has a future which is rather uncertain.

In view of what my hon. Friend has said, let me say what our part is in all this. We have had to consider five com- pulsory purchase orders this year in respect of Battersea. To four of them, totalling 1.458 acres, there was no objection, and we therefore confirmed the orders. To one of them, relating to Dagnall Street and covering an area of about 1.77 acres, there were objections, and an inquiry was held. The order was confirmed in May, 1954. In the last two years the council have submitted two compulsory purchase orders for which confirmation was refused. One of these was in relation to Vardens Road, and the other was for the place to which my hon. Friend has alluded, Numbers 82–85, West Side, Clapham Common. My hon. Friend recited the circumstances, I think accurately. Numbers 82–84 were scheduled as of architectural interest. There were many objections, some of them third party. After a local inquiry early in 1953, the order was not confirmed.

My hon. Friend referred to the demolition or the taking over of property and its replacement by housing which did not show any increase in the housed population. It is very dangerous to argue from the general to the particular, and I do not apply this argument necessarily to the property under discussion. Nevertheless, it is a general problem. Frequently, when congested property is demolished, fewer people are housed on the rebuilt site than were there before. That may not apply to the case in point, but it very often happens. It is one of the problems in dealing with Altenburg Gardens.

I have tried to give my hon. Friend an indication that we wish to hold the balance between the very pressing housing needs of Battersea on the one hand and such considerations as my hon. Friend has raised tonight on the other. I hope that my hon. Friend appreciates that it is by no means easy to hold the balance in such areas as Battersea because there is the pressure of population, the waiting lists, and the requisitioned houses which, in Battersea, may themselves constitute a great injustice to certain individuals. There are of course the undeniable rights and livelihood of small and large property owners to be considered, and very often there are places of historic value which must be safeguarded.

Mr. Partridge

I recognise the point about there being a balance, but is there any question of balance at all when the two, four or six extra houses are going to cost £15,000 each, because that is what it amounts to? We are not only inflicting an injustice on the victim who is ejected, but on the whole of the ratepayers of Battersea. I am speaking on behalf of the two bodies tonight, not only the immediate victim, but the whole of the ratepayers of Battersea.

Mr. Deedes

I am not without sympathy for my hon. Friend's point, but he is asking me to comment upon a particular case, which I cannot do because it is still sub judice.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that in holding this balance he ought to attach a lot of weight to the opinion of what is, after all, the democratically elected council of the area?

Mr. Deedes

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, when inquiries are held, and when the inspectors' reports and the results are submitted to the Minister, those are precisely the considerations which the Minister bears in mind.

As I was saying, there are two sides which must be balanced. My hon. Friend has questioned the efficacy and justice of the whole machinery by which compulsory purchase orders are made and inquiries held, and by which orders are confirmed or otherwise by the Minister. I am well aware that there are strong feelings on the subject, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will not expect me to deal with such a subject within the scope of the Adjournment debate.

I would end by assuring my hon. Friend that in respect of Battersea and, indeed, of anywhere else, we have every reason to be aware that to hold the balance which I have stated requires constant vigilance. I can only assure my hon. Friend that in respect of what he has said tonight and in respect of the wider aspect of the matter, we are doing our best and shall continue to exercise that vigilance.

Mr. J. E. S. Simon (Middlesbrough, West)

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that considerable disquiet is very widely felt over the fact that the inspectors' reports are not published? Therefore, a great many property owners are left with the feeling that the Minister may have disregarded matters which were emphasised in the report, and may even have made up his mind on a false assessment of the facts. Indeed, as long ago as the early 1930's, the Donoughmore Report recommended the publication of inspectors' reports. Will my hon. Friend give weight and thought to that aspect of the matter?

Mr. Deedes

indicated assent.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.