HC Deb 20 October 1954 vol 531 cc1215-23

3.33 p.m.

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

I beg to move, in page 41, line 43, after "applicant," to insert: within twenty-eight days of the receipt of the application. On something like 44 occasions during yesterday's proceedings we made Amendments to the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Bill to bring it into line with the corresponding legislation for England and Wales. The English Bill provides that when local authorities are approached by applicants who desire to buy land they shall, under the terms of the corresponding Clause, be required to reply within 28 days. The purpose of this Amendment is to bring the Scottish Bill into line and to require a reply within that time.

The House by now will be aware of the purpose of Clause 38. It is designed to give protection to prospective purchasers. Before a man buys land he can go to the local authority and ask whether it or any other public authority has any proposal to acquire the land, or part of the land, which he proposes to buy. If the answer from the authority is "yes," then quite clearly he is not likely to go ahead with the purchase, and the owner of the land will be in the unfortunate position of having lost a sale without any guarantee that his land will be acquired within a reasonable space of time.

On the other hand, if the local authority answers "no," then the prospective purchaser can go ahead and buy the land. If he gives notice to the planning authority in the requisite form and within the requisite time that he has contracted to buy that land, and then the authority buys the land within a period of three years, as at present—five years if my right hon. and gallant Friend's Amendment is accepted and if I understand it correctly—then the planning authority has to compensate the purchaser not only by paying him the existing use value of the land but the existing use value, subject to planning permission for the purpose for which he acquired the land. That is irrespective of whether he has established a Part V claim or no.

The framers of the 1947 Act intended that the designation procedure should cover such cases. The House will be well aware that the 1947 Act provided that where a public authority desired to acquire land, it should designate its intention and that that designation should be clearly shown upon the development plan. This Bill, seeking to be fair to prospective purchasers, in fact gives public authorities statutory options at bargain prices over all land whose development value has increased since 1947.

By this Amendment we seek to prevent a planning authority from hawking round the land. This is a valuable option which the authority has and we want to prevent the situation from arising in which a prospective purchaser goes to the authority and says, "I have a proposal to buy this land for certain purposes. Do you want to buy it yourself or is there any public authority which wants to buy it?" If that happens, we want to be quite sure that the planning authority will not at once write to regional hospital boards, education authorities, Government Departments and other bodies which have powers of compulsory purchase, and say "Here is this land in our area. Would it be suitable for you? If so, we can make the necessary arrangements for you to have it on advantageous terms"—advantageous since, whether it is a Part V claim or not, all the development value which had accrued since 1947 would be excluded. We want to prevent the planning authority from hawking the land around. Therefore, what we have done is to ask that the reply shall be made in writing within 28 days. It is not an absolute protection, but it is some protection.

There is another reason for this request. We are in a great difficulty in cases where land is proposed to be offered for sale by public auction. Very seldom are the auction particulars and the conditions of sale published more than about three weeks before the time of the auction, so that the prospective purchaser will be in a difficult position if he has to wait a long time before he gets a decision from the planning authority. I regret that we have proposed a period of 28 days. I would much prefer to see something like 14 days, but we have yielded to advice in this respect. We want to bring ourselves into line with our colleagues south of the Border, and so we have suggested a period of 28 days.

We had an opportunity upstairs of making some reference to this matter. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate advanced two reasons upstairs for his unwillingness to accept an Amendment on these lines. I want to deal briefly with those two reasons. First, he said—I am paraphrasing roughly what he said—that if we put in a period of 28 days, local authorities, being human, as they are, will wait until the 27th day before sending a reply. I thought that remark was very derogatory to local authorities. I know of hundreds of cases in which local authorities are empowered by Act of Parliament to do things within a certain time, to give a reply within 21 or 28 days, and I have never yet known of a local authorty which has waited until the 20th or 27th day before making a reply. I do not believe they do that, and I do not believe that my right hon. and learned Friend knows of a local authority in Scotland which has behaved in that way.

My right hon. and learned Friend also said that if the planning authority failed to reply in 28 days, it would be saddled with liability to pay to the prospective purchaser planning permission value instead of the existing use value. I hope he does not mean that he is siding with local authorities which are anxious to get land for a good deal less than they ought to pay for it. In those circumstances, there might be a prospective purchaser who would act in good faith on the word of the planning authority that it does not require to buy the land and that, so far as is known, there is no other public authority which requires to buy the land. Acting upon this information, this prospective purchaser would pay the full mar- ket value for this parcel of land, and then the planning authority would go back on its word and would require to buy the land back. All that the authority is required to give is the existing use value, subject to planning permission—

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Commander T. D. Galbraith)indicated dissent.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

My right hon. and gallant Friend shakes his head. If I am wrong, I hope he will say so. The authority gives the existing use value subject to planning permission, and that is the value which it ought to give. I do not think it ought to try to avoid giving that value because it failed to answer a letter within 28 days.

I have made rather a long speech about what may seem to be a rather unimportant matter, but I think it is important, and I see no reason why in this case we should be different from our colleagues south of the Border who decided to insert this provision in their Measure. We ought to do likewise.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

I beg to second the Amendment.

3.45 p.m.

Mr. A. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

We on these benches have listened with interest to the argument of the hon. Member for North Angus (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley). I think that if his assumptions were correct and his apprehensions were well founded, there might be some justification for accepting this Amendment; but, so far as I can see, a great many of his assumptions are on the basis that all local authorities are villains who are trying to do somebody down. Local authorities are not really like that at all. Local authorities, in the main, try to do their duty by the community and to protect the community. If there is to be a choice between protecting the community and protecting people who speculate in land, we on these benches would naturally come down on the side of protecting the community.

I can see the possibility of a local authority, without any ill-will at all, procrastinating and keeping somebody waiting for months, and there might be some argument for trying to find some method of expediting such matters. On the other hand, if a period of 28 days were put into the Bill it would put a weapon in the hands of somebody who wanted to purchase land by which he could bulldoze a local authority into giving an answer to his question, whether it was right or not.

I can see no reason why local authorities should not consult other public bodies as to whether the land is to be purchased compulsorily or not. It is better to have the matter settled finally than to have somebody purchasing the land and then a local authority compulsorily purchasing it at a later date. It is also true that a local authority might not be able to decide such a question immediately, and I do not see why it should be forced to do so.

May I suggest another reason why it would be unwise to tie the matter down in such a fixed manner? My experience is that if people are forced to answer questions before they are ready to do so, those who force them to give an answer very often get the answer they do not want. It is very unwise to force somebody to give an answer, because that answer may be the wrong one. It is better to rely on good will, a little patience, and perhaps a little pressure, and get the right answer.

On the basis of good sense, and in view of the fact that local authorities are, on the whole, reasonable people, I suggest that some other method of preventing procrastination might be adopted. It would be wrong to tie the period down to 28 days, because it might not be possible, with the best of good will, to complete the matter in 28 days. Why tie it down to such a fixed minimum?

This House has often debated the different penalties that judges should impose in cases of criminal offences. I remember sponsoring a Bill designed to protect the country in relation to atomic energy secrets. I think the fine suggested was up to £500, and everybody seemed to assume that every judge was so stupid that he would immediately impose a fine of £500 in every case, no matter what the offence was. Her Majesty appoints judges to our courts of law—I understand that we pay them quite well nowadays—and we expect those judges to be able to judge, upon the evidence brought before them, what the penalty should be. I think we must also allow local authorities—who, to a certain extent, have to judge the circumstances of the case in this connection—a reasonable time to consider the matter before coming to a decision. It would be a mistake to provide for a fixed period of time such as 28 days.

I have no reason to doubt that many decisions could be come to within 28 days: I am also quite prepared to believe that some local authorities would be inclined to procrastinate and be a nuisance, but, because the odd occasion may arise, I do not think that we should make a provision which might do a great deal of harm. I should require many more arguments to be put forward before I supported the Amendment.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that local authorities are not required to come to decisions; they are simply required to say whether there is a proposal to purchase the land? That surely does not take 28 days.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

It would be quite wrong to tie a local authority down to a period of 28 days. Nevertheless, I have a good deal of sympathy for some of the arguments which have been adduced by the hon. Member for North Angus (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley). It was precisely because I was anxious to prevent any delay in dealing with applications that I moved my Amendment yesterday—which, incidentally, the hon. Member did not support.

Much of this delay could be prevented if a local authority were assisted in its job by providing that the applicant for information should make his application in a prescribed manner, with details of the exact character of the site that has been bought. If that were done, it would prevent much of the delay which arises from discussions taking place between agents and local authorities concerning the exact site, and also a considerable amount of the delay which arises through discussions between local authorities and other public authorities which might be interested in the land. While I do not think that we should lay down a specific period such as 28 days, I nevertheless feel that the Joint Under-Secretary of State should look at the matter again with a view to assisting local authorities to expedite replies.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Commander T. D. Galbraith)

If I may say so with due deference, I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) went into arguments which were somewhat outside the scope of his Amendment. All the Amendment does is to ask that an applicant shall receive information within a period of 28 days. It seems to me that my hon. Friend's remarks have more relevance to a later Amendment, in line 45. My hon. Friend was worried about the hawking round of parcels of land. I would point out that not only local authorities but all authorities with compulsory purchase powers have to decide whether or not they wish to purchase a piece of land, and I can say that administrative arrangements will be made for the local planning authority to be given up-to-date information on the demand for land by other public authorities in its district. Therefore, there will not be any need to hawk around any parcel of land.

Mr. Willis

That was precisely the point of my last Amendment. Do I understand that arrangements will be made in the Bill, or already exist, for local authorities to be given this information?

Commander Galbraith

Arrangements will be made for all Departments to inform the local authority in their vicinity of the land in their area which those Departments may have need of. Local authorities will have a complete record before them, and I hope that that record will be up-to-date.

My hon. Friend thought that it was very derogatory to local authorities for my right hon. and learned Friend to say that they might wait until the 27th day before replying. I would ask my hon. Friend whether it is not equally derogatory to suggest that local authorities would not reply within 28 days if no time limit were fixed. He proceeded to demolish his own argument by suggesting, in a question to the right hon. Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn), that local authorities would surely not take 28 days to decide the matter.

That is the whole point. We think that there is a risk that if we stipulate a period of 28 days local authorities will say, "We have 28 days within which to reply." As my hon. Friend says, it does not necessarily take all that time. I think it is much better to leave the matter to the good sense of local authorities. I believe that they will answer as quickly as possible, because they are responsible bodies. That is exactly the reason the Government found it impossible to accept a very similar Amendment in Committee, and it is the reason I find it unacceptable at this stage.

Amendment negatived.

Commander Galbraith

I beg to move, in page 41, line 43, to leave out: the authority propose to acquire, and to insert: or not the authority propose to acquire within the next five years.

Mr. Speaker

I think that this Amendment can be taken with the Amendment in page 42, line 4. They seem to cover the same point.

Commander Galbraith

Yes, Mr. Speaker. I should like to refer the House to the present position in this matter. As the Clause is drafted, the payment of planning permission value to a private purchaser upon his land being acquired within three years for public purposes depends upon whether the local planning authority gives him a negative answer to his inquiry whether such land is intended to be acquired for public purposes. The private purchaser is not so protected in cases where he is given an affirmative answer, no matter how far in the future the prospective public acquisition may be.

The Amendment provides that local planning authorities will be called upon to answer whether or not there are proposals on the part of a public authority to acquire the land within the next five years. If the answer is to the effect that there are no such proposals, and the prospective purchaser buys the land and is bought out within the next three years, he will receive planning permission value.

Mr. Douglas Johnston (Paisley)

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman mentioned the case of the purchaser being bought out "within the next three years." Does he mean that?

Commander Galbraith

Yes—within the next three years. There are two periods connected with two quite different things. One is the period within which a local authority has to specify whether or not any public authority intends to acquire the land. That is the five-year period. Full planning permission value has to be paid if an authority acquires the land within three years. That is the three-year period. If the acquisition takes place after three years, the payment is on the basis of an ordinary compulsory acquisition—in other words, the existing use value plus claim.

The Clause has been criticised on the ground that an intention on the part of a public authority to acquire land at some time in the future will be sufficient to exclude the payment of planning permission value, which might tempt public authorities to safeguard themselves against the development of land which they might want, though not in the immediate future—land which they may want to have at some considerable, possibly some indeterminate, time in the future. The Amendment meets the criticism in that it compels public authorities to answer the question as to what their immediate proposals are in relation to the land. I hope that has put the matter clearly to the House.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 42, line 4, after "acquire," insert "within the next five years."—[Commander Galbraith.]