HC Deb 04 February 1955 vol 536 cc1512-20

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. F. P. Crowder (Ruislip—Northwood)

I am glad to have this opportunity of raising on the Floor of the House the problem of the D-ring road, which is a project which, for about five years, has threatened my constituency. It is a problem which reacts and reflects upon large numbers of people, who, if this scheme is persevered with, will suffer either financially or by losing their homes and having to move to other houses.

One of the first letters that I received almost five years ago, when I was first elected to this House, was about this matter, and it has been hanging over many people in my constituency, rather like a dark cloud, for over five years. Perhaps I may briefly mention the history of it. It became the subject of an inquiry almost exactly two years ago, when an inquiry was instituted on the 23rd March, 1953, concerning the county development plan. There was a number of objections to the D-ring road, this was one of the first matters to be discussed, and the discussion on it took about seven days.

It was some months later, after prompting from my urban district council, and, indeed, from myself, that eventually, to the widespread relief of everybody in the constituency who was liable to be affected by that road, the Minister announced his decision. His decision, you may think, Mr. Speaker, was given in terms which could only be interpreted as meaning that the whole wretched project had been abandoned. This is what my right hon. Friend said: The third part relates to the section of the road between Western Avenue and the proposed Aylesbury radial road. On this section, the Minister has taken note of the very strong local objections to the proposal, the high cost, the extensive demolition of modern houses which would be involved, and the suggestions for alternative routes, of which all have not been fully examined. He has also taken note of the fact that an alternative route between the extremities of the section is provided by existing roads"— and the Minister goes on to name the roads. He continued: It seems to him that this existing route is over large parts of its length capable of carrying considerably more traffic than it does at present, and that there is considerable scope for its improvement where necessary at very much less cost in money and property than would be involved in constructing this section of the D-ring road. It is also apparent that should it become necessary at some future date to reconsider this section of the D-ring road, the line of route would not have been prejudiced in the meantime since the districts traversed are either already extensively built-up or public open space. … In these circumstances, the Minister concludes that he would not at present be justified in approving this section of the road, and he therefore proposes to disapprove this part of the application. So it was that I and my constituents, in our innocence, thought that our objections, which were considerable—indeed, there was a petition signed by 7,000 people in the district, which was produced at the inquiry—had completely succeeded, having received from the county council a copy of a letter which they, in their turn, had received from the Minister of Transport. We had not bargained with the tenacity of the Middlesex County Council, which has always supported the plan for this road.

Shortly after our relief, we discovered that the county council had not by any means given the matter up, and was not accepting the decision of the Minister after he had considered the findings of the inspector at the inquiry, which lasted for five months in all. The county council began to refuse planning permission to the building of houses on any part of the line through which this road would run. On three or four occasions its decision has been appealed against, and the Minister has, on every one of those occasions, granted the appeal in favour of the applicant and against the Middlesex County Council. Nevertheless, it was prepared to go on and to use or misuse its powers in what my constituents think is a wrong and irresponsible fashion.

Not content with having been appealed against successfully three or four times, the council has since then bought portions of the land on the route and has attempted to buy other portions. It has adopted—if one may use the expression—a dog-in-the-manger attitude in refusing to allow anybody to build there. I am here today to ask why my constituents who require houses in that area, and have had their names on the waiting list for a very long time, should be held to ransom, in a sense, by the Middlesex County Council.

The problem for my constituents goes very much further and deeper than that. Ruislip-Northwood is about 12 miles from the centre of London, one of the earliest examples of a planned district near London. It has many open spaces and modern houses. It has a delightful setting, and has been most carefully planned. If the road were to be proceeded with, about 200 of these houses, all of which were built in the last 20 years and many only just before the war, would have to be destroyed. It would not be a case of old and dilapidated buildings or slums being destroyed to make this road, but of modern houses, built in a carefully planned district.

The tragedy is that these houses cost £400, or £600 when they were built, and today are inevitably worth more than £2,000. It will, therefore, be appreciated that most of them are occupied by the thrifty type of artisan and nearly all of them, about 95 per cent., have been bought with the aid of building societies. Many of the people in them are living on very small incomes. They decided to save in this way, putting every penny of their savings into homes, for the sake of their families' future and their economic prospects.

Imagine the situation along that proposed road in respect of those 200 houses. The people who live in them know not where they stand. In a sense they have become, as so many others whose cases have come to the notice of the House in the past have become, the victims of the dead hand of the civil servants, of the arguments of the planners in Whitehall and of bureaucracy. They have become the victims of the apparent quarrel between Middlesex and the Minister of Transport, who has already announced his decision and—I say this with great respect, because my hon. Friend is to reply—the apparent lack of co-ordination between the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation and the Department for which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government is about to answer this afternoon.

In the face of this dreadful uncertainty—people not knowing when the road will be built, if it is to be built; not knowing what sort of compensation they will get, whether on the basis of today's prices or of the prices in the future—the clerk of my council and I myself have been trying day after day to get a definite answer so that at least my constituents will know exactly where they stand.

These houses of which I have spoken, about 200 in all, which represent one house in every 100 in the district, could be disposed of in a matter of 24 hours until this problem arose. Now they are virtually unsaleable because no building society will look at the prospect which hangs over them, as it must hang over them with the possibility of their being knocked down and of a road running through the district.

In addition, many other houses which are not due to be knocked down are drastically affected because one of the proposals is that the road should run along a viaduct, in places at roof height, and that is not an attractive view when it is compared with the present open spaces so carefully planned and looked after in the past. Accordingly, in addition to these 200 houses which have fallen in value and the owners of which are left in uncertainty, many other houses, even though they will not be destroyed, have automatically lost the value which could hitherto have been obtained for them.

I only wish that time permitted me to read in detail some of the literally pathetic letters which I have received from constituents whose homes, lives and futures have been wrecked by this project. Imagine the case of a man just reaching retirement age whose life's ambition was to leave his work in the area where he lives and to buy a small cottage by the sea. His whole life's savings are in the house and he finds that the value of the house has dropped to practically nothing overnight. Of course, he is far too old to start buying another house, because no building society would consider his application for a moment. That is the situation in which hundreds of my constituents have been placed as a result of this planning conflict between the two Ministries concerned and the Middlesex County Council.

I have done everything I could to try to get an answer. As recently as 18th November I put down this Question, to ask the Minister of Housing and Local Government if he is aware of the anxiety and inconvenience which is being caused by the delay in making known his final decision with regard to the D-ring road scheme; and when he proposes to make a statement explaining to what extent this road will affect the Ruislip—Northwood area. The answer I received was the answer which I have continually received and which I have come to expect from Government Departments: A decision on this scheme can only be given as part of a decision on the whole Middlesex Development Plan, which is under active consideration."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th November, 1954; Vol. 532, c. 67.] I wonder why the word "active" should be used for the consideration of this matter when that has been hanging over our heads for five years. Does the Ministry require a generation in which to give a decision of this sort?

I do not expect to get a decision this afternoon, but this I think I am entitled to ask from the Minister, on behalf of my constituents, who have waited and suffered long and patiently. If he is unable to give a decision one way or the other—that is all we ask—this afternoon will he give us a date by which that decision will be announced? If the date is two years ahead, at least we shall begin to know where we are. I invite my hon. Friend to give me that reply.

4.15 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Ruislip—Northwood (Mr. F. P. Crowder) has raised a question which is of great concern to his constituents, who have every reason to be grateful for what he has said on their behalf and the way in which he has said it. I hope I shall be able to show that there is no lack of concern on our part and that we are as anxious as he is to mitigate the injurious effects on his constituents.

I find myself in two difficulties. The first is that this discussion would be more easily conducted with a map at which we could both look at the same time, but that is not possible in these circumstances. Secondly, it is true that two Ministries have some responsibilities in this matter, although it is not true to say, as my hon. Friend suggested, that there is any conflict between them. There are undoubtedly two Ministries, and I know he will accept the fact that I can deal only with our sphere of responsibility.

I think it may help to define it and show exactly how far we carry responsibility in the matter if I say a word about its background. As my hon. Friend accurately said, the original idea of the D-ring road was to form a complete circle round London. In 1947 it was decided that there was a proved need for only part of it, and this part would include the Ruislip—Northwood section in which my hon. Friend is interested. The next point of history is the Middlesex Development Plan, to which my hon. Friend referred. As he said, at the inquiry held in March, 1953, there was a tremendous amount of local opposition voiced against the plan. Residents were concerned about the amenities and their own homes and the Ruislip-Northwood Urban District Council was concerned about the effects on past planning in this neighbourhood.

The third event of significance was the recent decision of the Minister of Transport, who gave a decision early this year under the Restriction of Ribbon Development Act after considering the report on the development plan inquiry and decided not to include that section of this road with which we are concerned. In addition to the reasons which my hon. Friend has mentioned, the Minister gave four reasons for his decision—the strong local objection, the high cost, expensive demolition of modern houses and the alternative routes not having been fully examined.

I am aware that representations have been made to the Minister of Transport to reconsider that decision. While I can appreciate the effect on the minds of constituents of my hon. Friend by that situation, obviously I cannot comment on nor anticipate any decision the Minister may reach in response to those representations. So much for the history, we now come to our own responsibilities which I think lie in this—what we include or exclude of this D-ring road project in the final version of the Middlesex Development Plan. The plan, of which this was part, is still before my right hon. Friend and, as my hon. Friend feared and anticipated. I cannot give a firm forecast of finality today.

My hon. Friend questioned the use of the words, "active consideration." This is one of the instances where, I think, that expression is justified. There were 7,000 objections to this particular county plan. The area is one of outstanding complexity. My hon. Friend used the term "generation." I think it will be accepted that to approve a plan for some years, perhaps even to meet the needs of a generation, requires a certain amount of time, particularly after 7,000 objections have been lodged. I assure my hon. Friend that we are not dragging our feet in considering it.

Many people feel, not only in connection with this plan, that where a particularly important project which causes anxiety, such as this, is involved, there should be a piecemeal or interim decision by the Minister as to the part of the plan in question. We simply cannot do that. To announce any county development plan piecemeal would lead to considerable difficulty and might in the end even jeopardise the plan. Even now, therefore, I cannot, as my hon. Friend wishes, unfold this section of the plan which would give him the preview that he would like to have.

My hon. Friend's main and understandable concern is the effect of uncertainty upon many of his constituents whose property lies in the path of this problematical road. It would involve the demolition of many houses. I think that my hon. Friend's figure of 200 houses is quite accurate, and I accept all the circumstances which he described he expressed them with moderation and fairness.

But my hon. Friend touches the fringe of a very large problem: the effect of long-range plans on property and the fact that the existence of long-range projects on the map may have the effect of seriously depreciating the value of the property affected by such plans. It leads, of course, to the question as to how much should be included in a development plan and what term of years it should be allowed to stand. I hope that my hon. Friend will not expect me to discuss that very broad question now. All I would say is that all plans carry that risk, that some planning is indispensable and that, therefore, some risk is indispensable. The difficulty is to find a fair balance.

In these and like circumstances, there is nothing to prevent anyone who wants to develop for himself in the area traversed by a possible road applying to the planning authority for permission and, where permission is refused, appealing to my right hon. Friend. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, in cases where that kind of appeal has been made it has been granted by my right hon. Friend. In that, we have shown consistency and a certain degree of sympathy with the point which my hon. Friend has made. I also appreciate that the majority of people whom he has in mind are not those who wish to develop for themselves but who wish only to defend the value of their own existing property.

I should like to be a little more specific in relation to my hon. Friend's own problem. The decision against the Ruislip-Northwood section of the road has been taken by the appropriate authority, the Ministry of Transport. As the Ministry responsible for development plans, my Department is now left to consider whether such a decision should lead to a final conclusion that the road in question shall be omitted from the development plan or whether there remains a case for including it as a long-term possibility.

That is a point that my right hon. Friend has to decide. All I can say now is that it is helpful to have before him the evidence which my hon. Friend has given today and the feelings of the House generally. It is fair to add that there could arise a subsidiary problem: whether in the event of it being decided to omit such a project from the development plan, it would be right and fair to exercise planning control as if that project were in the plan, simply because it remained a possibility. I can say—and I think that there is no room for disagreement on this—that it would not be right or fair to exercise such planning control. It is what one might almost term "ghost-planning control." In the end it would be discreditable to planning.

My hon. Friend may feel that I have not been able to lift the cover off this corner of the Middlesex Development Plan or been able to go any of the distance which he hoped I should traverse in dispelling the doubts and anxieties of his constituents. Not only are there doubts, but some financial loss is involved. I have, however, sought to give my hon. Friend and his constituents an idea of the issues which are involved and to say that they cannot be lightly shrugged off or dissipated by reassurances. In the area which my hon. Friend represents, susceptible as it is to most of the pressures of the world's largest capital, I am sure that he will accept that it is quite inevitable that repercussions should be felt by the inhabitants. It is quite wrong to say that these have been caused by planning or by planners, about whom my hon. Friend had some rather harsh sentences to utter. The pressure would be greater if there were no planning at all. Events of times past have proved that to be correct.

I hope that I have said enough to indicate that we are far from being heedless of the anxieties of my hon. Friend and his constituents. We are anxious to mitigate them and we shall continue to try to find a fair solution. In so far as the promulgation of the Middlesex Development Plan will contribute to it we shall go on working hard to produce the answer, which requires working out at the earliest possible moment.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Four o'clock.