HC Deb 09 February 1955 vol 536 cc2022-30

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

10.2 p.m.

Mr. Græme Finlay (Epping)

I am very grateful for this opportunity of raising a subject tonight which, I think, is demonstrably a case of great potential hardship to a subject of the Crown as the result of the compulsory acquisition of his land for the purposes of housing.

Theydon Bois, where the land concerned is situated, is a most attractive village on the edge of Epping Forest, which forms part of Greater London's very necessary Green Belt. It has many charming buildings, but not the least is the house known as Pake's Farm, where my constituent, Mr. William Giblett, lives. The amenities of the farm are dangerously threatened as a result of a compulsory purchase order made by Epping Rural District Council in 1953 and confirmed by the predecessor of the present Minister of Housing and Local Government in September, 1954, after a public local inquiry.

The amenities of this house are quite considerable. The farmhouse is Georgian and in part goes back to the sixteenth century. My constituent, Mr. Giblett, comes of yeoman farmer stock and farmed this holding of about 65 acres from 1890 until the end of 1939. At the end of that nearly 50 year period Mr. Giblett's family became in a position to purchase the agricultural unit. This was a recognition of many years hard labour on the land, where they had to milk 40 to 50 cows daily. The whole village of Theydon Bois was supplied with milk from the farm.

In the First World War Mr. Giblett, who is now nearly 60 years of age, served with the Queen Victoria's Rifles for three and a half years and was severely wounded, losing a leg. He is by nature a modest and reticent man who, in normal circumstances, would not make any parade of these honourable circumstances. The loss of his leg severely handicapped him in farming and up to 1939 when, as well as his other disability, he had a severe attack of coronary thrombosis, he was forced to let out the land to a leading farmer in the district.

After the war, Theydon Bois started expanding again and in 1948 the local housing authority, Epping Rural District Council, compulsorily acquired about nine acres near the farm for housing purposes. On that piece of land the council housed 100 families. It was the local housing authority's first bite at the cherry. What was left to Mr. Giblett after that was the farmhouse with a small plot of four acres and an isolated 57 acres away across the railway line which runs through the village. In those circumstances Mr. Giblett, with his bad health, his coronary thrombosis and only one leg, felt that it was best to sell the isolated 57 acres to a nearby farmer, so he was left with the small island of four acres around his farm which forms the subject of the present compulsory purchase order.

It might well be thought that a man who had already lost so much for his country and who had suffered the loss for housing purposes of nine acres of his best land might be left to spend the rest of his days enjoying the remaining amenities of his farmhouse, the farmhouse in which he was born and which his family had acquired as the result of continuous hard work on the land. Unhappily, that was not to be, because the local housing authority came once more in search of further land in pursuance of its public duty of rehousing people at Theydon Bois. The housing authority's choice of sites was not, however, an easy one. Theydon Bois is already nearly fully developed and is surrounded by Green Belt land on the edge of London into which no housing must trespass. In substance, however, the housing authority had two possibilities from which to choose.

First, there was a site of 11 acres on the Baldock Estate, not far away—that is, an estate of about 26 acres—and then there was Mr. Giblett's four acres, together with a small site of about half an acre in Avenue Road belonging to a Mr. Manning. The local authority made a compulsory purchase order upon both these sites and upon another site also, and ultimately, after a local inquiry, my right hon. Friend's predecessor confirmed the order made upon Mr. Giblett and upon Mr. Manning's half acre. There are circumstances of hardship in the case of Mr. Manning, but it is upon the case of Mr. Giblett that I desire to concentre. The Minister did not, however, take the same course in the case of the Baldock's land and decided not to confirm the order.

This particular piece of land forms part of a much larger site upon which private house building development was projected but as yet has not taken place. I appreciate that the Minister must be careful not to discourage private developers. Private development of this kind has excellent virtues, no doubt. For one thing, it has the beneficial result of people owning the houses in which they live, and it releases the Exchequer and the local ratepayers from the burden of housing subsidies. At the same time, land acquisition for public purposes can, and often does, result in hardship and injustice for individuals. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. Friend the Minister would be the first to desire to minimise this hardship as far as possible.

At present, at any rate, Mr. Giblett is legally in danger of losing the last amenities of his patrimony; for if the compulsory purchase order is enforced to the hilt, all that he will be left with is a tiny plot of land around his farmhouse and a little bit of orchard. In fact, it will mean virtually the end for him.

Mercifully, however, a spirit of compromise has always been a patient characteristic of the local authority in question and I understand that at present it does not wish to do everything which it has the legal right to do. Incidentally, it would not have selected this site as a first choice. It has a number of building disadvantages and is also likely to be uneconomic. However, the local authority is prepared to compromise. Notwithstanding the uneconomic development, it will leave to Mr. Giblett the small paddock at the side of his farm, which is a very necessary component of the milk dairy unit which is being run from the farm. They will also build in such a manner that the best views from his farm are kept intact.

We must be grateful for this measure of mercy, but, at the same time, recollect, when we consider the public interest, that Mr. Giblett has made considerable personal sacrifice in the public interest, first when he lost a leg fighting for his country in the First World War; and, secondly, when his land was compulsorily acquired on a previous occasion in 1948 for housing purposes.

Private house building is no doubt a fine thing. It lifts a financial burden from the taxpayer and the ratepayer, but let this not be done at the expense of a man like Mr. Giblett, who has already sacrificed so much. No monetary compensation could be completely adequate in a case like this when a man's family sentiments, patrimony and amenities are at stake. I am glad I have had an opportunity to call public attention to a case of undoubted hardship, to which I know the Parliamentary Secretary will devote his most sympathetic attention.

10.11 p.m.

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

I think I should begin my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Finlay) by saying that this is a most difficult case. It is one of those problems in town and country planning which arise from time to time when a difficult choice has to be made, and whatever the decision is it is liable to provoke criticism.

I should first like to stress the care which was taken to attempt to reach the right decision. Cases of this kind, and much of what my hon. Friend has been saying during the last 10 minutes, tend to lead a great many people to think that this is a case in which authority has trampled without feeling over the rights of a private individual. That is not so, and I should like my hon. Friend, and, above all, Mr. Giblett, who is after all the person most concerned in this, to realise that it is not so.

Perhaps I had better begin by saying something about the background against which this decision was taken. Theydon Bois is an old village in the Green Belt, administered by the Epping Rural District Council. It has grouped itself round a very pleasant village green tightly enclosed by what is called an "urban fence." There is a very limited amount of land for housing development either by the council or by private enterprise. I stress this, because my hon. Friend has already admitted it is a major factor in the difficulty which has concerned us in this case.

There are, in fact, six plots available in the village, two of them very small sites, each big enough for two or three houses; and the third is a market garden, the use of which for housing was subject to strong agricultural objections. That leaves three sites in respect of which compulsory purchase orders were made. One was the site in Avenue Road, which comprises .65 of an acre, the second was that on Pakes farm which is 4.93 acres in size—this is in dispute—and the third is the Baldocks Farm Estate of 11 acres.

At the start the council was in need of 10 acres of land for its housing, and early in 1954 it made Orders in respect of the three sites which I have just mentioned. There followed two hearings. One was held by the Ministry's inspector on 29th June, 1954, about the land on the Baldocks Farm Estate, and the second, which was held on 4th August by another inspector, was into the Pakes Farm site and the Avenue Road site. They were considered together. The council made it clear in advance that, to an extent, these were alternatives; that is to say, given the 11 acres of Baldocks Farm Estate it would not press for the combined 5.58 acres of Pakes Farm and Avenue Road.

The next point I should make is that a consequence of these hearings was a reassessment of the council's needs. I think that is worth mentioning, because it is very often thought that these hearings or inquiries are loaded in favour of the land-seeking authority. One consequence was that the demands for land were trimmed back to five or six acres—instead of 10 acres—for about 32 houses. The issue came to this that, within this very tight ring of the village, five acres of land had to be found somewhere for these council houses. Accepting the housing need, which we did, that meant that Pakes Farm or Baldocks Farm Estate were the alternatives.

The evidence in regard to both was fully deployed at the two hearings. It was studied before the Report was made, the Minister studied it again before making a decision, and I have studied it since. The objection to building on Baldocks Farm Estate was substantial. This is an area of 90 to 100 acres which has been extensively developed, leaving 26¼ acres undeveloped on the north-west.

As my hon. Friend knows, there is a long history to this case which time precludes me from reciting now; but, at the time of the hearing the land was in the hands of a private enterprise firm—Daniel Jackson and Company Limited—which bought it for £26,250, and was proposing to develop it. The firm had put its plans in. Much evidence was produced at the hearing to the effect that were the estate broken up by a compulsory purchase order to include council houses it would lose its value as a private estate. In fact, this private enterprise firm made it clear that it would have no further interest in the matter if that were done. I think that my hon. Friend would agree—in fact he did agree—that there would have been a considerable grievance if a private housing estate, already planned and in process of development, had been subject to an Order which carved a slice out of it and jeopardised the whole enterprise.

The evidence on Pakes Farm was considered at the second hearing a month later. I do not dispute the facts about the farm or its owner, which facts I think my hon. Friend deployed with absolute fairness and moderation. This is a charming old residence, part of it 16th century, where Mr. Giblett's family have lived since 1890 and where Mr. Giblett was born. In 1948, most of the land was sold to a leading farmer in the district, and part of what was then sold to that farmer has since been acquired for housing. I think that is somewhat at variance with what my hon. Friend said, but that is the fact. About four acres were left and they were let as a dairy and poultry smallholding.

I must agree that, other things being equal, if there is a reasonable alternative, there are strong objections to taking land twice from the same man. I quite see the force of that. In fact, that was not done. In the first place, Mr. Giblett had sold the land and, therefore, it was no longer, as it were, connected with him. In any case it is fair to say that things were not quite equal here, due to this total embargo on any development outside the ring fence round Theydon Bois. My right hon. Friend's predecessor, therefore confirmed the Order last October. I am aware that Mr. Giblett feels that his surroundings will be ruined by the development which will now follow.

As that is a most important issue in this matter, I have gone into some detail on the point. We have been in touch, as I think my hon. Friend has been, with the council. I entirely agree that the council has taken a most sympathetic and helpful view, and with it we have examined the prospective lay-out. It is not the final lay-out, though I have no reason to think that there will be any substantial changes. It is quite clear that the council is as anxious as we are to safeguard what is left to Mr. Giblett. Our regional officers intend to keep in touch with the council and to work with it over this matter.

As my hon. Friend said, the poultry land, which is a small paddock, and the orchard, will be left. I do not over-rate what that is in the way of a safeguard, but it will be left. The question of a price has not been discussed yet and, therefore, I do not want to say anything about it. Notice to treat was served on Mr. Giblett on 29th December, and the next step is for the owner to submit his claim. I cannot usefully make any comment on that in advance.

I do not deny the loss of amenity to Mr. Giblett, and I do not seek to minimise it. He has suffered, or will suffer, a considerable loss of amenity, which any one of us would consider in his own case was grievous. I think that it can be mitigated, and, in conjunction with the council, we shall make every effort to see that it is mitigated. I want to make clear to my hon. Friend that a great deal of time and trouble has been spent, quite rightly, on going into all this matter and in sifting the alternatives.

Nothing in this difficult case has been skimped or guessed at or rubber-stamped. It has all been gone into in very considerable detail more than once. As my hon. Friend realises, the Order is final, and we shall adhere to it. The only thing left for me to say is that, after reading the papers relating to the matter over and over again, I am absolutely satisfied that the decision was reached on fair and reasonable grounds.

10.22 p.m.

Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary rose earlier than I expected and prevented my supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Finlay), which I wish to do in relation to a matter which does not concern the personalities in this case. It is a matter which the Parliamentary Secretary did not touch upon in his reply, but which is vital to those of us who are interested in the preservation of the Green Belt. This land is Green Belt land. To those who are interested in Green Belt land the idea of compulsory acquisition for housing purposes is one to which, whether at 10.30 at night or at 10.30 the following morning, we would never submit.

Here Green Belt land is taken for housing. How can the Parliamentary Secretary possibly excuse that, or say to the House that he is going back on a policy which was so well supported by his predecessor, and is allowing Green Belt land to be compulsorily acquired for building purposes? If it happens in Epping it can happen elsewhere. The Parliamentary Secretary should say that if there is a desire to build on land which is not built upon at present those who build must go outside the Green Belt.

Mr. Deedes

My hon. and learned Friend is under a misapprehension. As I stressed, the difficulty in this case was that we were dealing with sites within the ring fence of Theydon Bois, which is there to prevent the Green Belt being built upon.

Mr. Doughty

But this is Green Belt land. I want an assurance that Green Belt land will be preserved, whether it be in Theydon Bois or elsewhere.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Ten o'clock.