HC Deb 22 March 1955 vol 538 cc1949-93

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

7.9 p.m.

Mr. Derek Walker-Smith (Hertford)

I beg to move, to leave out "now" and at the end of the Question to add "upon this day six months."

When a Private Bill is presented by a local authority, naturally it is necessary that it should be considered long and anxiously before it is called in question on the Floor of the House. If, as a result of such careful scrutiny, it is shown that challenge to the Measure is desirable in the public interest, then the duty is the greater by reason of the size and importance of the authority. The London County Council is, of course, a great local authority and one which we all respect.

The Bill contains six parts, 41 Clauses and three Schedules. It is only in respect of three Clauses that a specific challenge is made. I do not say that some of the other Clauses may not be other than impeccable, but the specific challenge is restricted to three Clauses which raise clear points of general principle. Two of the Clauses, Clauses 24 and 26, are in Part V, which deals with public health. The third Clause is in Part VI, which is the miscellaneous part, and this Clause, in the view of my hon. Friends and myself, is the most undesirable of the three. It will not come as any matter of surprise to the House that the most objectionable Clause should figure in the part of the Bill which is labelled "Miscellaneous," because that is not seldom so.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

On a point of order. It might be for the convenience of the House, Mr. Speaker, if you would indicate whether you are proposing to deal at the moment merely with the Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith). It appeared that the hon. Member was also speaking about the three Clauses which he has specifically mentioned in the Instructions. Would it be possible to discuss the three Instructions at the same time as the Amendment, or is it your intention that we should have four separate debates?

Mr. Speaker

I called the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) to move his Amendment for the rejection of the Bill. That places before the House the whole of the contents of the Bill. It is open to hon. Members to pay particular attention to any features even though they are covered by the subsequent Instructions, which, of course, cannot come before the House until the Bill has been read a Second time. However, I should say that if the hon. Member for Hertford devotes his time on the Second Reading to the Instructions it will not be competent for him to make the same speech again on the Instructions.

Mr. Walker-Smith

I was hoping to avoid trespassing on the indulgence of the House, Mr. Speaker, and to make my case with regard to the Instructions in my speech on the Amendment in the hope that it might then be possible, if the question were taken generally and other hon. Members followed my example of self-denial, not to have a protracted debate on the Instructions. I thought I was meeting your convenience and that of the House by adopting that method.

Mr. Speaker

The points to which the hon. Member draws specific attention, by the Instructions which he has placed on the Notice Paper, are in order on the Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

With regard to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, in view of what has been said, would it not be for the convenience of the House if the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) withdrew his Amendment for the rejection of the Bill and we proceeded immediately to a debate on the Instructions?

Mr. Speaker

I think that the course which the hon. Member for Hertford proposes to follow is the more convenient.

Mr. Walker-Smith

I was saying to the House that the third of the three Clauses to which specific exception is taken by my hon. Friends and myself is Clause 32, which is in Part VI of the Bill. It is concerned with the vexed question of the compulsory acquisition and use of land by public authorities. The first paragraph of subsection (1) reads: The Council may (with the consent of the Minister) lay out and develop any land within the county for the time being belonging to them and not required for the purpose for which it was acquired or has been subsequently appropriated and may on any such land erect and maintain houses shops offices warehouses and other buildings and construct sewer drain pave channel and kerb streets … There then follows a proviso, to which I will refer in a minute, and subsection (2), to which I need not refer.

As will be seen from those words, Clause 32 does not confer new powers of compulsory acquisition in law on the London County Council, but it gives a wider general power to develop commercially sites which are acquired for noncommercial purposes than exists or is bestowed in any other public general Act, and to that my hon. Friends and I have three main objections.

The first objection is that the Clause puts a profit motive into the compulsory acquisition of land by enabling the London County Council to treat surplus land as a means of swelling revenue. The second objection is that it puts the London County Council, as a local authority, into business as a commercial developer of offices, shops and warehouses, with the possible implications of increased staff and so on necessary for those activities. The third objection is that it provides a standing temptation to the London County Council to over-estimate the amount of land required for statutory purposes in compulsory purchase orders in order to have the possibility of revenue from surplus land which remains over when the actual statutory purposes have been met.

I think that the principle governing one's approach to these matters of compulsory acquisition should be this. My hon. Friends and I fully concede that compulsory acquisition is a necessary power and provision for certain defined statutory purposes, but at the same time we consider that it is desirable and important to limit its scope to the essential minimum, more particularly as now the procedure for compulsory purchase of land by the promotion of Private Bills is rare and has very largely been superseded by the compulsory purchase order, which, in broad effect, is not really subject to Parliamentary control and has a very limited and technical right of access to the courts. For these reasons, it is obviously desirable that these powers should be carefully scrutinised and kept to a reasonable minimum.

That principle is especially important for this reason. Once a compulsory purchase order is confirmed and notice to treat is given, there is no means by which an owner of land can legally insist on the recovery of that part of his land which has been taken under statutory powers but is actually surplus to requirements.

It is, of course, obvious—I want to be reasonable about this—that a local authority cannot in all cases exactly assess and define the precise area of land which it will require for the execution of a statutory purpose, and land may turn out subsequently—it often does—not to be needed for the statutory purpose for which it has been acquired. As the House will appreciate, the public law provides for this situation by giving a local authority in those circumstances power to appropriate such surplus land to another statutory purpose for which there is a need or to dispose of land which is surplus to its requirements.

The position of London in regard to the general law is broadly the same as the rest of the country. It is true that it is governed by a different Act, but the effect of the provisions is generally the same. The position in London is governed by Sections 106 to 108 of the London Government Act, 1939. In the country as a whole the position is governed by Sections 163 to 165 of the Local Government Act, 1933. I will not weary the House with a recital of those provisions, but the House will, I hope, take it from me that they are virtually identical in effect. Section 106 of the London Government Act gives power to appropriate certain land to other statutory purposes, Section 107 gives power to lease land which is surplus, and Section 108 gives power to sell or exchange surplus land. In my submission, these powers are, or should be, enough. The general powers correspond very nearly in London to what obtains under the Local Government Act, and there is and must be a heavy onus on any authority which comes to Parliament to seek powers over and above that.

It is right that I should refer for a moment or two to the proviso of Clause 32 of the Bill to which I said I would return. The proviso reads: Provided that nothing in this subsection shall apply to land acquired by the Council under section 38 or section 40 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, or to land appropriated by them for the purposes for which land can be acquired under those sections. Section 38 of the Town and Country Planning Act gives powers of compulsory acquisition to a local authority in certain specified cases. I do not think that the House need trouble about Section 40, which merely extends that to acquisition by agreement for the same purpose.

Section 38 gives power of compulsory acquisition, which is in order to secure appropriate redevelopment in areas of comprehensive development and, secondly, to secure the use of land in the manner proposed by the development plan. It is quite true that Sections 19 and 20 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1944, which are now incorporated in the Eleventh Schedule of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, give local authorities power to develop land for non-statutory purposes in those two cases under Section 38. It may well be said that there is here an analogy and that because a public general Act has given these powers in respect of this sort of land, there should be no objection to giving this very wide power in this private Bill.

To that I say: there is no real analogy between these two cases for the following reasons. The first is that the powers of Section 38 are limited in scope and only obtain where certain considerations apply. The areas of comprehensive development are, in the main, areas of extensive war damage. The power to secure the use in the manner proposed by the plan is the sort of final sanction of town planning very rarely encountered in practice. Section 38 is not dealing with surplus land, but with land which has been considered in regard to the development plan and of which the Minister, after inquiry, has expressed himself as being satisfied that it is necessary for the purpose of appropriate comprehensive redevelopment. The third reason is that Section 19 (6) of the 1944 Act gives a right of pre-emption in the case of disposal of land to people who are living or carrying on business thereat, and that again is a safeguard not reproduced in this Private Bill.

Therefore, I submit that Sections 19 to 20 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1944, do not constitute an analogy, precedent or argument for the powers sought in Clause 32 of this Bill, because they provide special powers for special purposes with special safeguards, whereas here a general power is sought without those safeguards.

I want to make a very brief reference to Clauses 24 and 26. I will be very brief, because, at any rate in my view, although others of my hon. Friends may not take the same view, the point of principle here is not so important as with Clause 32.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Before the hon. Member leaves Clause 32, will he not agree that the power sought to be exercised under this Clause will be exercised with the consent and approval of the Minister of Housing and Local Government? I do not think that he made that as clear as he should have done.

Mr. Walker-Smith

I am sorry that the hon. and gallant Member does not think that I made that clear. I did hon. Members the compliment of assuming, when I read out the provisions of the Clause, including the words "with the consent of the Minister," that that would make some suitable impact on their minds. If it did not, may I make it clear? It is quite right, as the hon. and gallant Member said in his helpful intervention, that it is subject to the consent of the Minister, but, nevertheless, my argument stands.

With Clauses 24 and 26, as I was saying, the point, although important, is not of such basic importance as that of Clause 32 with which I have been dealing. Nevertheless, these two Clauses constitute a departure from the general law in that they lessen and limit the right and power of a house owner to remedy defects himself by carrying out works at his own expense.

Mr. Walter Edwards (Stepney)

Does the hon. Member agree that the slums should be left as they are when the house owners are not doing anything at all?

Mr. Walker-Smith

If the hon. Member will look at the Public Health Act, 1936, at or about Section 219, he will see that there is provision for all these things—and expensive provision—under public health law. Nobody is seeking to go back on that. We are here on a comparatively narrow point. It is that these Clauses in substance, or to some extent, take away the right of the owner to execute the works at his own expense.

Mr. C. W. Key (Poplar) indicated dissent.

Mr. Walker-Smith

The right hon. Member shakes his head, but I have not finished. I will deal with the Clause in a little more detail in a moment. Both Clauses to some extent take away or diminish the right of the owner to remedy defects at his own expense and impose upon him the necessity and liability of being billed for it by the local authority. Such is the way of local authorities, unfortunately, very often, that the remedy may be more expensive than would be the case with the private householder.

It is, of course, quite true that there is a distinction between the provisions of these two Clauses. Clause 24 takes away the opportunity of the owner to remedy defects himself at his own expense in all cases where the work costs less than £250. That is the vast majority of cases

Mr. Key

Would it not be right and fair to say first of all that this happens only if the owner does not do it within a specified period? It does not take away any power. All that happens is that if he does not do it within the appropriate time, the local authority may do it. It is right to put that before the House.

Mr. Walker-Smith

Yes, but at that stage, under the existing law, he is able to remedy those defects himself if he so prefers. That right has now been taken from him—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—if the cost is less than £250. [Hon. Members: "No."] It is contained in Clause 24 (2), which says: If upon an inspection being made under Section 40 of the Act of 1936 any drain (not being a disused drain) appears to be in bad order and condition or to require cleansing or repair and the borough council by whom or on whose behalf the inspection was carried out are of opinion that the cost of carrying out such works as they consider necessary for putting the drain in proper order and condition or for cleansing or repairing the drain (as the case may require) will not exceed two hundred and fifty pounds the borough council (in lieu of serving such notice as is referred to in subsection (4) of the said section 40)"— that is the point that I am on— may (after giving not less than seven days' notice to the owner and occupier of the premises in respect of which the inspection was made) carry out such work and (subject to the provisions of this section) recover from such owner or occupier the expenses incurred by them in so doing so far as they do not exceed two hundred and fifty pounds. That is a departure from the general law of Section 40 of the Public Health Act, 1936. If there is a case for making the Amendment, it might well be that the figure should be a good deal less than £250, which is so high as to catch virtually all cases.

Clause 26 (2) constitutes a deviation from the existing law, in that it fastens on the owner a new liability of serving a counter-notice if he wishes to remedy the defect himself. It may be that the London County Council can show a case for altering the procedure in regard to these Clauses and that there is a case for a more speedy procedure in regard to the Clauses. [An HON. MEMBER: "Hear, hear."] I say that it may be, but we have not yet heard a case. No doubt it will be deployed and we shall be able to consider it. In any event, the minimum figure in Clause 24 looks very high. Even in a small way these are encroachments on the right of the individual and should not be lightly granted by Parliament, or without reasonable excuse.

That is all I intend to say on Clauses 24 and 26. I go on to Clause 32 and to the main objection that we make to the Bill. It is not an academic objection. I understand that at the present time the Council holds a large amount of property surplus to its statutory local government requirements. The House may be told, as no doubt is the case, that other local authorities have the same or a similar Clause and that it is a model Clause deep-rooted in the antiquity of 20 years. The House should know whether this Clause has ever been fully debated in this House and whether the claims of expediency made on behalf of it have been weighed against the probable ill effects it will have in increasing compulsory acquisition.

This we do know: if this House does not make its protest against these provisions now it will be very difficult for us to make it at a subsequent time, because we shall be met with the comment in triumphant tones, "Ah, it must be all right, because the London County Council has it in its Bill."

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

It is a model Clause.

Mr. Walker-Smith

It may be, but we shall be interested to hear from the hon. and gallant Member whether the Clause has ever come under the scrutiny of the House of Commons.

At this time public sentiment is keenly anxious for a limitation of the powers and processes of compulsory acquisition to a reasonable and inescapable minimum. It is the proclaimed Government policy to hand back land compulsorily purchased by Government Departments which turns out to be surplus to their requirements. Our submission is that to put on the Statute Book at such a time and in such circumstances a Clause making it, in the case of the London County Council, easier and more attractive to retain such surplus land, is a paradox and a retrogression which should not commend itself to the House.

7.35 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)

I beg to second the Amendment.

As I wish my speech to be reasonably brief, I shall confine it entirely to the main gravamen of the objection to the Bill, namely the provisions of the first part of Clause 32.

Before I come to the contents of the Clause, I should like to draw the attention of the House to the fact that some of the normal safeguards that apply to Clauses of this kind inserted in Private Bills have not been applied to this Clause. Section 151 of the London Government Act, 1939, prescribes a fairly complicated procedure of resolutions of the Council and public notices which must be complied with for the promotion of a Bill by the London County Council. There is, however, an exception from these provisions of which the Council has availed itself in respect of this Clause.

I am not clear, incidentally, that the exception can apply simply to a Clause and not to a whole Bill; but be that as it may, the exception is contained in Section 150 of the London Government Act. It says that where a Bill is promoted for the purpose of: (a) any work for the improvement of the county or public benefit of the inhabitants of the county, the safeguards prescribed in the next following section shall not apply. It seems at least debatable whether a Clause enabling the Council to develop surplus land instead of restoring it to private ownership is necessarily and always work coming within that description. At any rate, upon the ground that it is, the main safeguards applying to Clauses promoted in London legislation and embodied in Section 151 of the London Government Act, 1939, have not been applied to this Clause. Nor have the internal safeguards of the London County Council contained in Standing Order 214 of the London County Council for private legislation. The Standing Order says: No proposal involving the promotion by the Council of legislation …shall be made to the Council … later than its second meeting after the Whitsun Recess …except in regard to matters of urgency. Clause 32 was first brought before the Council on 2nd November, six months after its resolution to promote almost all the rest of the Bill had been taken in the normal course. This was justified upon grounds of urgency. The General Purposes Committee, sitting on 18th October, decided that it was so urgent that the Clause should be included in the 1955 London County Council (General Powers) Bill that the normal safeguard to allow time for deliberation before a Clause is rushed into a Private Bill ought to be ignored.

The House is entitled therefore to view the Clause with even more care and scrutiny than usual, bearing in mind that two of the major customary safeguards, an internal safeguard and an external safeguard, have not applied to it.

I come now to the contents of the Clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) drew attention to the proviso which excludes from the Clause the powers which the County Council already possesses under the Town and Country Planning Act to acquire compulsorily, and if need be develop, land in order to secure that it is used in conformity with the development plan. I must say that this proviso seems to me to be the strongest possible argument against the Clause. It is an overt recognition of the fact that, wherever the use of land by the council is necessary to secure development in accordance with the development plan as part of a comprehensive scheme, the Council has the powers already. So, ex hypothesi, power is now being sought where it is notnecessary in order to secure conformity with the development plan.

I know that many hon. Members will have in their hands a paper produced by the solicitor to the London County Council. He refers to this proviso in the following very significant terms. He says: There are cases, however, where it would not be possible under the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, to use land in the Council's ownership for such purposes"— Then follow the significant words: now the Development Plan has been approved, and that is one major reason why the Council wishes to be armed with the powers of this Clause, so that any proper case can be dealt with on its merits, and need not be dealt with otherwise for some purely technical reason. The idea behind this Clause, therefore, is that after we have gone through the whole procedure of approving by complicated stages the development plan for London, after we have armed the County Council by a public general Act with the necessary powers to secure conformity with that development plan, the County Council can still come later and say whenever it thinks fit: "This was not in the development plan, we did not at the time the development plan was drawn up think it necessary to have this particular power in regard to this particular land; but we have changed our minds and think so now." It seems to me that the very existence of that proviso calls in question the need for the subsection.

Recognising, as we must, that this use by the council of surplus land is not for the purpose of securing conformity with the general development plan but is ad hoc use in a particular case, let us look at the arguments which the Solicitor advances. He says: The most satisfactory method of dealing with any surplus land belonging to the Council must, of course, depend on the circumstances of each particular case, but the Council considers that both from the point of view of the financial advantage to the Council and the ratepayers of London and from the point of view of securing the proper economic planning and development of a site, it would often be advantageous for the development to be carried out by the Council itself rather than that the Council should be compelled to sell or lease the land to a private developer. There is a well-known and deep difference of opinion between the two sides of this House as to whether a local authority is likely to promote the financial advantage of itself and of the ratepayers by undertaking commercial development. That, I think, can be treated as a debat- able matter. It can also be regarded as a matter of difference between the two sides of this House whether, apart from the development plan, apart from the planning powers of local authorities, development by a local authority of a particular site is necessarily—or even often—the way to secure the best economic use and development of that land. It will normally, subject to the overriding pattern of the development plan, be by means of the market and commercial enterprise and the best economic development will be secured.

Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)

I think this is the sort of problem to which the House might address its mind. Supposing the local authority has land earmarked for a particular purpose and it then becomes quite clear that, for the original purpose, the land is not required—and the best-laid plans, human factors being what they are, do not always in every particular work out as originally planned—but the Council ultimately wants the land, it may be for an extension of some activity. Is the hon. Member suggesting that, in the meantime, the Council should lose control of the land because it may not want it for 10 or 15 years?

Mr. Powell

No. Supposing land is acquired for housing and is then found not to be required for that purpose but is expected to be required for educational use in five or 10 years, there is nothing to prevent the Council from appropriating it to that use whenever it wishes to do so. If it so appropriates it, the land is taken outside the scope of the Clause.

Mr. Skeffington

But it remains sterile. That is the point.

Mr. Powell

Is the hon. Member suggesting that if the land is to be required in five or 10 years' time the County Council should develop it commercially with … houses shops offices warehouses and other buildings … That is the power in this Clause.

The hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) made the point, quite rightly, that this power of development of surplus land by the council cannot be exercised without the Minister's consent; but, of course, before conferring the power at all, Parliament must first satisfy itself that that power is necessary and desirable—whether or not the Minister's consent is to be required. Indeed, there is no point in inserting the requirement of the Minister's consent, if one does not consider that this power should properly be exercised at all. Therefore, for hon. Members who believe that this Clause is misconceived and that there is no justification for it in principle, the fact that it can only be exercised with the Minister's consent is of no assistance.

The hon. and gallant Member for Brixton also referred in an interjection to the fact that the Clause is a model Clause; that is to say, one which has been so frequently inserted in Private Bills that for the sake of securing uniformity of drafting it has been published in a collection of model Clauses under the authority of the Chairman of Ways and Means and the Lord Chairman of Committees. Nevertheless, in 1955, I think that we are entitled when confronted with this Clause to look on it at its face value. After all, public policy, and indeed public opinion, on these matters does change from time to time, and we in this House are supposed to reflect those changes in policy and opinion and have a right to take them into account in considering the provisions of Private Bill legislation.

It is much less than a year since the Government established, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford reminded us, a new principle and a firm principle in regard to land compulsorily acquired by a Government Department. For the establishment of that principle, a respected and well loved member of this party sacrificed his office. Let me remind the House what were the terms of that Government decision. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale) said: The Government have decided that where agricultural land"— he was referring specifically in this case to agricultural land: which was acquired compulsorily or under threat of compulsion"— and, of course, all land acquired by a local authority in the exercise of its statutory powers is acquired under threat of compulsion, if not acquired compulsorily: is no longer wanted by the original acquiring Department or immediately by any other Government Department possessing compulsory purchase powers for a purpose for which the use of those powers would be justified, then the land will be sold. This means that transfers of such land from one Government Department to another will not be made in future unless at the time of transfer the receiving Department could and would have bought the land compulsorily if it had been in private ownership."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th July. 1954; Vol. 530, c. 1190.] The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington) will see that the rule established by the Government is even stricter and narrower than that which I ask should be insisted upon in the case of the London County Council.

I suggest that it would be wrong for this House, which has approved a Government decision that land compulsorily acquired by a Government Department for one purpose and not immediately required by another Department for another similar purpose should be sold, to confer upon a local authority the power to retain and use commercially land surplus to its requirements for its statutory duties. For that reason, I think the House would be justified in marking its dissatisfaction with the inclusion of Clause 32.

7.52 p.m.

Mr. Walter Edwards (Stepney)

I presume that the matter under discussion at present is the complete defeat of the Bill. Earlier speakers have referred to various Acts, but I am sure they will have to agree that the Amendment under discussion proposes that the whole of the Clauses shall not be accepted, despite the fact that they have referred only to Clauses 24, 26 and 32.

As a member of my local authority, I want to say that the attitude of the two hon. Members who have moved and seconded the Amendment is typical of the attitude of the Tory Party. It is typical of the Tory Party to support the landlords against the interests of the tenants of slum dwellings. In my own borough we sometimes find it extremely difficult even to trace a landlord in order to serve a notice on him, and even after we have traced him it is extremely difficult to ensure that the people living in slum property can have suitable drains in that property.

I should like to know whether any of the sponsors of these Amendments have ever lived in slum property. I happen to be one who has. It is noteworthy that no Conservative Member who has associated himself with these Amendments represents a London constituency.

What is wrong with Clause 24? If a person is living in a slum house—and there are still plenty of them—why should not the local authority get on with the job of clearing the drains if the landlord does not do so and if previous Acts of Parliament allow the landlord so much time before he can be compelled to take action?

What is wrong with Clause 26, which deals with defective premises? If the landlord is not doing his duty by the tenants, surely somebody has to make him do it. The only bodies in this country who can do this are the local authorities. The trouble is that the people behind this opposition are afraid of the local authorities because there happen to be so many Labour local authorities. They would never have dreamed of doing this sort of thing years ago, when there were few Labour local authorities.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Has my hon. Friend taken note of the fact that not a single hon. Member opposite who has put his name to any of the Amendments is a Member representing a London constituency?

Mr. Edwards

Yes, I have already referred to that fact. I am very glad that the Chairman of the 1922 Committee has declared the policy of the Tory Party. Obviously, the policy is: landlord first and slum tenant last.

Mr. Walker-Smith

If the hon. Member will be good enough to refer to Clause 24 (2) he will see that it refers to the occupier as well as to the owner. He will perhaps not be aware—although perhaps other of his hon. Friends can so inform him—that there is a definition of "owner" for Public Health Act purposes which excludes a ground landlord if there is an intermediate lessor. In other words, the long-term absentee landlord whom the hon. Gentleman seems to be aiming at is not within the provision of "owner" in any event.

Mr. Edwards

The hon. Gentleman can come out with his legal jargon as much as he likes, but the fact is that the sole purpose of the London County Council in bringing this Bill before the House is to make conditions better for those who are living in very bad conditions. The purpose of the two main Clauses, Clauses 24 and 26, is to benefit the health of those who still have to endure those bad conditions.

In Clause 32, we again have the landlordism of the Tory party as against public interest. What is wrong if a local authority does retain property which has been acquired by compulsory purchase in the interests of the people in that local authority area? The difference between us is that when a local authority acquires property, it does so in the interests of the people in its area, as a service and not at a profit, whereas hon. Members opposite prefer profit to service. It is clear that hon. Members opposite are more and more determined to do all they possibly can to support private profit and landlordism as against the improvement of slum conditions in which so many people live.

I challenge hon. Members opposite to divide the House on Clauses 24 and 26. I hope they do. In the county council elections and in the General Election, which, we understand, will take place in the near future, it would let the people know exactly where the Tory Party stands. It has recently taken the line of saying that it more or less agrees with what the Labour Party has done, but there is a big gulf between us, and that gulf is showing itself tonight in the case of those living in slum conditions.

8.0 p.m.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham, East)

I wish to address my remarks to what has been said about Clauses 24 and 26. We should notice at the outset that these Clauses can worry only a landlord who has already to some extent neglected his responsibilities. A landlord who is fully cognisant of his responsibilities does not wait for the sanitary inspector to be called in because a drain is defective or the roof is leaking; he acts immediately on the tenant's complaint. If the Clause comes into operation, there has, therefore, already been some degree of neglect, whether wilful or unavoidable, on the part of the landlord.

What has worried tenants for a long time is that even when events have reached such a pitch that the public authority is intervening, under the present law, and in the circumstances which have prevailed since the war, there is, from the tenant's point of view, a very long delay. In the case of a stopped-up or defective drain, from the time when the public authority has begun to take the matter in hand it will probably be at least three weeks before the repair is effected. In the case of other defects, such as a leaky roof, the delay may be at least three months.

This situation has been becoming more acute in recent years because of two difficulties. First, there is difficulty in some cases in finding the landlord. I assure the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) that that applies in the matter which we are discussing and applies only too frequently, as he would know if he had a constituency like mine or those of many of my hon. Friends. Even when the landlord is found, he often pleads that, for one reason or another, he cannot do the necessary work. The extent to which legal delays can be spun out is of very great concern to tenants.

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

Is it not a fact that when these landlords are found they are often fictitious people, worse than "phoney" companies, and that we cannot serve notice on them because, in law, they do not exist?

Mr. Stewart

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. They are the kind of corporation which has neither body to be kicked nor soul to be damned.

The reason why these Clauses are necessary, and why Clauses like them have appeared in a number of local Acts, is that in recent years we have been faced with the practical breakdown of the private landlord system, which has been incapable of fulfilling the responsibilities which ought to go with the ownership of house property. To deal with this situation these Clauses make quite modest and reasonable proposals—that if there is a stopped-up drain, then, from the time the public authority takes the matter in hand, it must be attended to within 48 hours—and about time, too; if it is not a stopped-up but a defective drain, the time is seven days; and if it is another defect, then from the time the public authority takes the matter in hand the landlord is still given nine days in which he can get to work. Only after that is the public authority empowered to do the work at its own expense.

At the end of all that, if it does the work itself and tries to recover the expenses, it is still open to the landlord to plead in court in his defence that it was not reasonable for him to have been asked to do the work or that he was proceeding with it himself with all reasonable expedition.

These are quite modest and reasonable proposals for dealing with a serious matter. The hon. Member for Hertford made the astounding statement that these Clauses limit the power of the landlord to do the repairs himself. They do not limit or restrict that power in any way. Indeed, they encourage him to use that power and to use it quickly. What these Clauses limit is not the landlord's power to do the repairs, but the landlord's power to neglect the repairs—and a good thing, too.

Of old and for many centuries the law of this country was made exclusively by owners of property and, in consequence, it still bears the stamp of law made by property-owners, which is much more tender to the ownership of property than to the lives and happiness of individuals. There are certain kinds of property ownership which can be treated as private. If I choose to keep the papers on my desk untidily, that is nobody's business but mine. If I wear my clothes untidily, although convention may reprobate me, the law must not interfere. But when we speak of property such as houses, particularly houses in which other people live, the question of how I discharge my duties as a property owner is not merely a private matter but is a social matter affecting the lives and happiness of other people.

Since this country became a democracy—and that is quite a recent development—much of our law has been beginning to pay more and more attention to life and happiness as against the claims of mere property, and these Clauses are a modest example of that very necessary and desirable development.

The hon. Member for Hertford said that people were becoming very alarmed about the public acquisition of land. I must say that the number of my constituents who are alarmed that some public authority will take away their landed estates from them is quite limited, but what a great many of them are alarmed about is the length of time it takes to get ordinary, decent repairs done to their houses. In the years after the war there were inevitable reasons which we had to accept, such as a shortage of labour and materials, but the position has not improved as it ought to have improved now that we are ten years after the end of the war.

If Londoners, many of whom are worried about the law's delay in this matter at present, were to learn that the House, at the instigation of certain Conservative hon. Members, had interfered with a very necessary and useful Measure which will help to get decent living conditions for them a little sooner, they would be extremely indignant and would take the first opportunity of showing their indignation.

8.7 p.m.

Mr. John Parker (Dagenham)

I want to make it clear that in supporting the Amendment I do not agree with any of the arguments advanced so far in its support. My main criticism of the Bill is not what is in it but what is not in it.

In a London County Council (General Powers) Bill provision should be made for the handing over of out-county L.C.C. estates, at least those built more than ten years ago, to the local authorities on the spot, and it is because the Bill does not include powers for making such a transfer, either now or in the future, that I criticise it.

Many of us who represent out-county L.C.C. estates have very big housing grievances amongst our constituents, and in Dagenham I have particularly large grievances, because nearly two-thirds of the houses in my constituency belong either to the L.C.C. or to another outside authority, West Ham Council. In fact, over 17,000 houses out of 30,000 belong to the L.C.C.

That produces a very serious position in a borough such as mine, because there is hardly any room for the building of new houses in the borough. We have room for perhaps 2,000 more, and the last thousand of those which can be built by the borough council have now been started. At the same time, we have a housing waiting list of over 4,300 families.

Most of the houses on the L.C.C. estate in my constituency were built between 1925 and 1933, twenty to thirty years ago. When vacancies occur on that estate, the L.C.C.'s policy is that it gives tenancies to the eldest son or daughter living in a house when parents die or become too old to carry on, but when complete vacancies occur on the estate they are given to people brought in from London and not to people who have lived and grown up in the area.

A very large number of vacancies are now occurring in the area. In 1953, there were 461 and, in 1954, 374. Some of these vacancies arise owing to exchanges between tenants of L.C.C. houses in Dagenham and elsewhere, but our local civic centre estimates that the total number of true vacancies occurring on the L.C.C. estates in Dagenham in any one year is about 270. That is quite a large number of houses falling vacant in a year and which might be allocated to local people. The result of filling these vacancies with people from the L.C.C. area is that local people are forced out of the borough.

After the war the sons and daughters of L.C.C. tenants were placed on the L.C.C. list and houses on the new L.C.C. estates were frequently filled in this way. As the list for London grew, however, that concession was cancelled and was replaced by another by which 50 houses were allocated yearly by the L.C.C. to Dagenham Borough Council in return for a financial contribution. Some houses were thus made available, but it was on estates outside Dagenham. A little time ago that concession was also cancelled, but so great has been the feeling in the area that it has been renewed for a year. Thus, 50 houses are now made available and where elderly tenants are transferred to smaller accommodation provided by the Dagenham council their houses are also made available for Dagenham people. I understand that some of the 50 will be allocated in Dagenham, but a large number of them will be on estates outside Dagenham.

We certainly very much welcome the renewal of this concession which is a very real concession, but I should like to point out the social consequences of this policy as a whole. It means that it is extraordinarily difficult to build up community life in a new town if first people are brought in and then practically the whole next generation are forced out to another place. One can never build real community life in that place. That is our main criticism. The problem exists anywhere where there is an out-county estate which is fairly old and where the second generation is growing up, but it is a particularly serious grievance in a town like Dagenham, where two-thirds of the houses are owned by an outside authority and people are still brought in from the owning area.

We take the view that a solution should be found on the lines adopted for the new towns. Very sensibly indeed, in a new town as it grows up and becomes a running concern property is transferred to the local borough council concerned. Some such provision should be made for out-county L.C.C. estates. From the national point of view the same position arises over out-county estates in other parts of the country. Certainly, financial difficulties would arise and they would be particularly large in the case of a borough like Dagenham, where so many of the houses belong to another authority. We feel that the financial problem should be fully investigated and discussed round the table preferably between the L.C.C. and all the local authorities concerned and some attempt should be made to thrash out a solution.

I would offer a temporary solution here and now. It would be a very good idea if all the houses on the L.C.C. estates as they became vacant were handed over to the local authority to fill the vacancies and make arrangements to purchase the houses for their own ownership. That would mean a gradual transfer of estates from the L.C.C. to the local borough council concerned.

Mr. W. R. Williams (Droylsden)

Does that mean that the L.C.C. would continue to build houses for its own people only to see, at the end of a certain period, the transfer of those houses to some other authority?

Mr. Parker

Certainly, yes. That is what the L.C.C. is proposing when collaborating with expanded towns as it develops new estates there. It is certainly wrong that a large part of another borough should continue to remain a property of the L.C.C. or any other outside local authority for many years after it is established. I think that ten years is a reasonable period in which the building authority should continue to fill the vacancies with people from the original area. After that, when people locally are growing up and want houses for themselves, it becomes reasonable to transfer on the lines I have suggested. I hope that, sooner or later, we may have a discussion on the lines I have suggested or on wider lines.

Growing up in Dagenham and on other out-county estates there is a feeling that we are no longer a colony of the L.C.C. and do not want to be treated any longer as a colony. In a lesser degree it is the same problem which arose in regard to Canada and Australia and other countries which, while wishing to remain on friendly terms with the Mother Country, wanted to run their own affairs. We do not want to create the feeling which led to the Boston Tea Party. We want to be masters in our own house and we should like to reach an agreement with the L.C.C. for a friendly settlement of this problem and to take over their estates in due course.

I therefore hope that discussions will take place, if not under this Bill then in a future general powers Bill, to enable the L.C.C. to transfer out-county estates in due course to the local authority concerned.

8.17 p.m.

Squadron Leader A. E. Cooper (Ilford, South)

I do hope that the House will support the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) in what he has said. I remember meeting him for the first time on a Sunday night in June, 1945, when we were opponents in the General Election of that time. Then he beat me by 26,000 votes, but now we find ourselves supporting each other on a serious problem affecting our constituencies.

The Becontree Ward, in my division, has 10,000 people, most of whom were transferred by the L.C.C. from various parts of London. We have a serious housing problem, with about 3,000 people still on the housing list. Practically the whole of our land is absorbed, yet we are faced with the very serious problem caused by the L.C.C. continuing to feed into the Becontree area people from outside the borough. That is a situation which Ilford Borough Council cannot tolerate and, as the hon. Member for Dagenham said neither can the Borough of Dagenham tolerate it. This is a question which must be faced by the House in the very near future if a solution is to be found.

Recently, the L.C.C. decided that it could accept no responsibility for housing the sons and daughters of existing tenants and that responsibility, when they married, must devolve on the authority in whose area they live. It is obvious what happens; the son or daughter gets married or the family moves away and, instead of Ilford Council, Dagenham Council, or any other borough council which has L.C.C. out-district estates, being able to feed into the empty properties people from its own housing list, it suddenly finds itself confronted with an influx of people from the London County Council area, whether from Bermondsey, Stepney, or any other London borough.

I know that members of the London County Council have a very serious problem in housing their own people. No one would seek to minimise the difficulties under which they operate, but it is really no help to the country if, in solving their problems, they impose further problems on boroughs outside the area of London County Council.

A solution to this problem must be found, and found fairly quickly. I do not know whether the proposals put forward by the hon. Member for Dagenham would prove to be the best methods of dealing with it, but, certainly, some machinery must be evolved by consultation whereby a local authority can acquire the housing estates which have been developed by the London County Council within that local authority's boundaries. I mean that the machinery for the acquisition should be on a proper financial basis. I am not suggesting that there should be expropriation or anything like that. Alternatively, it should be within the power of the local authority, which is, after all, the housing authority within its own boundaries, to deal with London County Council property within its boundaries when it becomes vacant.

Because of the policy being adopted by the London County Council, one could almost say the intransigent attitude of the Council in this matter, the housing problem in Ilford, indeed in Dagenham and Barking and in other areas, can never be solved. The London County Council may solve its own housing problem, but it is creating severe problems for boroughs in the county of Essex and elsewhere.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Would the hon. and gallant Gentleman seek to impose the same sort of restriction or liability upon privately built housing estates around London?

Squadron Leader Cooper

So far as I know the problem is not the same. It may be the same to some minor degree, but we are not dealing with questions of 20 or 30 houses which may be developed by a private speculative builder or contractor. We are dealing with thousands of houses. I wonder whether the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) fully appreciates the problem in the constituency of his hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham. It has an electorate, I believe, of about 70,000, and two-thirds of all the houses in it are owned by the London County Council. That is a housing problem which the Dagenham Council finds insuperable.

We have our own problems in Ilford which arise from the same attitude and policy adopted by the London County Council. To those members of the Council who are also Members of this House, I say that there is no desire on the part of boroughs such as Dagenham and Ilford to expropriate property which the London County Council has developed in its own or other areas, but there is an earnest desire on the part of those boroughs to seek negotiations with the Council by which a solution of this difficult problem can be reached. That is all we ask at present, and I submit that, in the circumstances in which we live, it is not asking too much.

8.23 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)

Apart from the two very interesting speeches by my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) and the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Ilford, South (Squadron Leader Cooper), I should not have thought that this was an appropriate or wisely chosen time for the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) and the hon. Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) to move their Amendment.

County Council elections are taking place, and it would not be unreasonable to say, after listening to this debate, that Conservative candidates, in addition to standing for Conservative Party principles as enumerated by the present Prime Minister when he was a Liberal, such as the principle of patriotism by the Imperial pint, and so on, they also stand for the preservation for as long as possible of bad or defective drains, on the sacred principle that we must not interfere with the owners' rights to deal or not to deal with them, otherwise than through the elaborate procedure under the Act of 1936. I am quite certain that this House and the people of the County of London—I should have thought the public as a whole—can give a pretty clear answer to the arguments we have heard from the benches opposite tonight.

It is very significant that with only one exception, I see no Conservative Member of Parliament here who represents a London constituency. I see one Conservative Member for a London constituency, but he, no doubt, has a majority so large that whatever happens, and whoever may be the Tory candidates in the L.C.C. election in the constituency, no very great difference can be made to that majority. Certainly, however, none of the Conservative Members for the London constituencies that can be described as marginal constituencies is to be seen here. We know that the town clerks of Hampstead, Westminster and Kensington have all asked their Members of Parliament, all Conservative, to support Clauses 24 and 26 of the Bill. It will be very interesting to see what happens should this matter unwisely be pushed to a Division, although I do not think it will be.

Mr. Albert Evans (Islington, Southwest)

Would that information apply also to the hon. and gallant Member for Chelsea (Commander Noble), the hon. and gallant Member for Norwood (Brigadier Smyth), the hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Sir A. Hudson) and the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. H. A. Price)?

Mr. Skeffington

I regret to say that I cannot give my hon. Friend further confidential information of that kind, but I think that it may be likely that similar action was taken in these places, because this matter was discussed by a body which one would think the most appropriate to discuss it, the Standing Joint Committee of the Metropolitan Boroughs, and it was at the request of the Standing Joint Committee that Clauses 24 and 26 were inserted in the Bill. It was not at the request of the London County Council at all, although it is the London County Council which has been attacked by hon. Gentlemen opposite. On the Standing Joint Committee there was complete unanimity on this matter. Therefore, one would suppose that, whether those boroughs were Labour controlled or Tory controlled boroughs, at any rate they did not indulge in some of the academic arguments in favour of landlords failing to attend to drains that we have heard from Conservative Members here tonight. All honour to the Standing Joint Committee for that.

There is one matter which has not been referred to by hon. Gentlemen opposite, and the fact that they have not referred to it makes us on this side more suspicious than we should otherwise have been. It is that all the powers in subsections (1) and (2) of Clause 24 and in Clause 26 have been given already to a large number of local authorities. For instance, the powers given in Clause 24 (1) to remedy stopped up drains were given to Slough, Crewe, Bradford, and West Bromwich in 1949. Leyton, Manchester, and Bristol Corporations and Eton Rural District Council got them in 1950. Sutton and Cheam and Worcester Corporations and all the local authorities in the West Riding and Nottinghamshire got them in 1951. Winchester, Leamington, Tottenham, Nottingham and Kingston-upon-Hull Corporations, the Fareham Urban District Council, and all the local authorities in Essex got them in 1952. Huddersfield Corporation, Belper Urban District Council and all the local authorities in Berkshire and Cheshire got them in 1953.

We on this side should be better able to believe in the sincerity of the arguments hon. Gentlemen opposite have advanced against these Clauses if they had developed them against any of those other authorities on any previous occasion, but I cannot discover a single case in which these present objections were made against those other local authorities by hon. Gentlemen opposite.

As to Clause 24 (2), dealing with the repair of drains and sewers, Wakefield got the power before the war, in 1938. Southend, West Bromwich, Bristol, Don-caster, Leyton, Sunderland, Sutton and Cheam, Worcester, Nottingham, Preston, Rochester and Winchester, amongst others, have all had that power since the war. But there has not been a single objection from hon. Members opposite even to the powers under Clause 24 (2). As to Clause 26, dealing with defective premises, 11 authorities have already been given these powers. They include Birmingham, Slough and Wolverhampton. No doubt the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, if he were here, would tell us what action he took when Wolverhampton received that power. It may be that he was not in the House in 1950. In that case, perhaps he could explain what action he would have taken.

Sutton and Cheam, and Worcester, in 1951, Tottenham, Nottingham and Preston in 1952, were also given these powers and not on one single occasion have we had-an objection from the other side of the House. Therefore, we are inclined to feel that the present opposition is because the Bill is presented by London County Council. Unfortunately, we still remember that ill-considered partisan action of the Conservative Government in 1934 when it refused loan sanction in the case of Waterloo Bridge. That was entirely a decision on political grounds.

Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)

Can my hon. Friend say whether Hertford has these powers?

Mr. Skeffington

I cannot say.

Mr. Walker-Smith

I think that they have not.

Mr. Skeffington

We are dealing here with large urban centres and with progressive communities. We do not expect to have the same standards in the rural parts of the country, which in these, as in other matters, are comparatively backward.

Squadron Leader Cooper

Would the hon. Member not admit that Hertford County Council is perhaps the most progressive county authority in the matter of education?

Mr. Skeffington

We are not discussing education. I think that we should be out of order if we did.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, East (Mr. M. Stewart) has dealt fully with Clauses 24 and 26. It is, of course, true that great difficulty is experienced in tracing the owners in many of the areas which were subject to bad bombing and those which have much old property. The owners are either unwilling or, in some cases, unable to carry out the necessary repairs. The purpose of these two sections of Clause 24 is to speed up the time in which repairs should be effected to drains, water closets and pipes. The Clause does not alter the rights of the owner in any way. He will not be charged any more and he can go to court and challenge whether the procedure was right and whether it should be taken under these subsections or under other more leisurely powers.

We say that stopped-up drains are such a very serious matter—and the House has obviously agreed because it has given these powers in other cases—that they should be put right in 48 hours. We know the evil consequences that can flow from this elementary failure of sanitation, yet in 1955 we actually find some Tory Members who are opposing the provision of these powers. I have been greatly surprised. I must admit that some of my hon. Friends who say that a Tory never changes are much more correct in their estimate than I had hitherto thought they were.

Power is sought to deal with drains in bad order within seven days, instead of the present long procedure under which one has to serve notice and to wait for an appeal in the magistrates' court, which must take place in 21 days—and most authorities do not like to proceed until they have waited 21 days. Weeks go by when there is a defect which, apart from the nuisance and smell, may have serious consequences to the lives of men, women and children who live in the locality. Yet our attempt to obtain these powers is regarded as a solemn betrayal of some principle of landlordism. I hope that the House will come to an affirmative and quick decision on this matter tonight.

Mention has been made of the fact that a borough council can only carry out work on defective drains if the cost is not more than £250. I understand that in the negotiations which the County Council had with property owners this was the only point on which the property owners expressed any difficulty. It is a Committee point. If specific reasons were given that the £250 was too high, that matter could always be considered. Having regard to current costs, I would have thought that was a very reasonable sum. Whatever the expense, it is still subject to adjudication in the courts as to whether the borough council has acted correctly and, indeed, whether or not it should have used these powers or whether, if the matter was not sufficiently urgent, it should have been dealt with under the old 1936 public health procedure. It seems that at every turn the landlord is safeguarded in that respect. The great advantage is that where there is a remedy, the remedy will take place a little sooner. I am surprised that any one has opposed it.

With regard to Clause 32, which deals with the development of land by the Council, the arguments advanced were more in the nature of those which I should have expected to hear from the other side of the House. We heard some of those arguments in the debate on Friday when we were discussing the question of leasehold reform. It is important to realise what is the object of this Clause. The Clause does not authorise the L.C.C. itself to carry on any trade or business on the redeveloped site. The purpose of the Clause may be said to be twofold. I should have explained earlier that the powers sought by subsection (1) are not exercisable in respect of land which had been acquired or appropriated under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947. Under Section 20 of the 1944 Act, the Council already has powers to develop such land.

There are, however, cases in which it is not possible to deal with the land as the Council may require to do under the 1947 Act now the development plan has been approved, approving some other use of land. Cases are bound to arise in which something put in the development plan and approved is not going to work out exactly as intended. Fresh factors may have arisen, the population movement may have been different from those anticipated. There are all kinds of possibilities.

In this sort of case, the alternative to not having these powers is to try to get an amendment of the whole plan, which is a most costly, technical and lengthy process. I think that the hon. Member for Hertford knows only too well what the procedure would be to try to amend the development plan. Perhaps he does not want to see this alternative power given to the County Council because of its speed and ease compared with the technical difficulties now, which drive so many people to seek his very valuable advice and services.

The hon. Member knows only too well that to amend an approved development plan one has to advertise, give notice and have an inquiry. The matter has to go to the Minister, and there are various technical consequences in the form of orders before the plan can be amended. Is it suggested that the local authority, with public responsibility for carrying out a statutory duty, and also subject to the control and influence of public opinion, should not have an easier method of modifying the use of land than by having to comply with the whole of the technical processes I have described.

Another example is of land required for one purpose which is not needed immediately, but building can go on until required by the Council. The kind of practical example which could be given, although fortunately this was dealt with before the development plan went through, was the extension to the new London Sessions. In that case, there was surplus land which was not required for the Sessions, but it was thought desirable to put up a coroner's court, which was greatly needed. At the same time, instead of having the remainder of the land derelict, it was thought desirable to put offices on it which could ultimately be used by the Council, and which until they were so used would bring in valuable rent to the County Council. Why cannot that be done? It would not be sensible to sell small portions of that land, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West suggested, or to lease it.

Under the Landlord and Tenants Act, it might be very difficult in many cases for the County Council to get back land which it had leased in those circumstances. Consequently this power would mean that instead of the land being sterile, it would be remuneratively used; it would be valuable space wanted in the district for occupiers, and it would bring in revenue to the County Council. I would have thought that everyone would agree that this was a brilliant solution, because it would bring something in for the ratepayers. But no, this offends against the sacred canon that a public authority is going to get a little out of it, and, therefore, it is wrong and ought to go back to private enterprise. I hope again that the House will give very strong affirmative approval to what the London County Council wants to do on behalf of the citizens of London.

In this connection, I would point out that no less than 120 other authorities have got the actual power in Clauses 32. I may be wrong and will be challenged no doubt if I am, but I am not aware that on any one of those occasions hon. Gentlemen opposite objected to these 120 authorities getting this power. Why then should the London County Council be singled out? On 7th February Bills to give the local authorities of Crosby, Nuneaton and Sandown-Shanklin the powers which are in Clause 32 were given an unopposed Second Reading, and I think it is scandalous that exception should only be taken in the case of the London County Council. The people of London are entitled to draw their own conclusions from the speeches of the hon. Members for Hertford and Wolverhampton, Southwest.

8.42 p.m.

Sir Harold Webbe (Cities of London and Westminster)

As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington) did me the honour of mentioning me especially, I feel I ought to say a word or two on this Bill although the case has been amply and completely made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, Southwest (Mr. Powell).

I find it difficult to follow the speech to which we have just listened. It was full of misunderstandings and mis-statements; indeed, the general argument first used in this debate by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) was that if two blacks do not make a white at least a hundred blacks do. That is nonsense. Because other authorities have been given these powers seems to me to be no reason whatever for denying the House the right to consider the request by the largest local authority to have these powers, as it already possesses a great deal of surplus land. Therefore, we are not legislating for the odd case.

Mr. Skeffington

That is a very valid argument, but the point I was making was why, on the occasions when the powers in Clause 32 were given to no fewer than 120 other authorities, no action was taken by hon. Gentlemen opposite to move an Amendment similar to the one moved by the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith)?

Sir H. Webbe

I cannot answer for my hon. Friends. I can only say that, for my own part, I missed this particular Clause—[Hon. Members: "All the 120 of them?"] I am not ashamed in the least to say I do not know about every single thing that comes before this House. If hon. Members opposite claim that they do, then all I can do is compliment them on their assiduity. But I am quite well aware that Clauses 24 and 26 were inserted in the Bill at the request of the Standing Joint Committee of the London boroughs. I know that the authorities wish to have rather stronger powers than they possess at present to deal with this particular problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford was at pains to show—and I agree with him—that there is no vital question of principle involved in these two Clauses, at least not to any serious degree. But when proposals are brought before this House which, in fact, do take away from the rights of individual citizens, then it is our duty to look at them.

Whether the powers which the London County Council now seek are absolutely necessary for their purpose, I do not know. My own feeling is that this is a Committee point and I should be sorry if this Bill, after receiving a Second Reading, went to the Committee and that Committee were tied by a direction in regard to these two Clauses. It seems to be eminently a case where a discussion should take place between the promoters of the Bill and the objectors to it in order to arrive at a reasonable tightening up of local authority powers.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman has looked at this one of the 120 instances where these powers were sought. Would he not give the House the benefit of his conclusions and say whether, having looked at them, he thinks that the Clauses are right and proper, instead of shelving his responsibility by saying that this is a Committee point?

Sir H. Webbe

I am quite willing to say what I think. In the first place, the powers are too tight. On the evidence given to me I agree that there is a case for giving the authority more effective powers which would enable it to act faster. However, my opinion is that the Bill goes too far. It is a matter which should be decided by the Committee, which will have the advantage of hearing counsel or spokesmen on both sides, and which can reach the conclusion, for example, as to whether £250 is the right figure.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington seemed to indicate that he would not die in the last ditch for £250. That is my own view. For the reasons already given, I think that £250 is too large a figure, but these points should be thrashed out in Committee.

Mr. M. Stewart

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—he is most generous in doing so—because I would like to get this clear. He is saying that these Clauses ought to be considered by the Committee. It is common ground that, if his Amendment is accepted, the Bill will not get to the Committee. Is the hon. Gentleman advising us to vote against the Amendment of his hon. Friend the Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) so that the Bill can go to the Committee?

Mr. Walker-Smith

Before my hon. Friend answers that question, may I put the following point to him? I opened on Clauses 24 and 26, as the House will recall, in an interrogatory way and not in the same way as I opened on Clause 32. Having listened carefully to the debate, and especially to what my hon. Friend, with his long record of service, has to say, may I say that on Clauses 24 and 26 I would not press the Amendments for the Instructions to the Committee.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)

Order, order. I must remind the House that we are now discussing whether the Bill should be read a Second time.

Sir H. Webbe

I apologise, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if I have strayed beyond the bounds of order, but I have been following other speakers. As I understood the discussion on this formal Amendment, it was hoped that it would cover the ground to be covered later by the formal Amendments for Instructions to the Committee, with the understanding that there would not be further discussion on those Instructions.

I am glad to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford has said. It would be unfortunate, indeed wrong, if a point of this kind were dealt with by the House issuing Instructions to the Committee which, after all, will be much better able to reach a proper judgment than we can without having the advantage of hearing the cases argued at length. The hon. Member for Fulham, East (Mr. M. Stewart) is quite right: if the House carries this Amendment, the Bill will not receive a Second Reading and will not go to a Committee. I am assuming, perhaps wrongly, that the form in which this Amendment has been moved was a device to enable the debate to be on sensible lines without wasting the time of the House. I hope very much that there will not be any pressure by my hon. Friend to refuse the Bill a Second Reading. I hope it will go to Committee.

I should like to say a word or two about Clause 32. There, I agree entirely with what has been said. However many local authorities have powers of this description, none of them should have them. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said that there was no question of the London County Council going into business on the sites. There is not, of necessity; but there is very definitely the intention to give the authority power to go into the business of land development, and that is just as much a business as selling boots and shoes. There is no question whatever that if local authorities are given broadcast powers of this kind there will be a temptation to them to invest in land by trumping up some statutory need as a justification for acquiring it under compulsory powers and then lightheartedly turning it over to something else, using it not for some other statutory purpose, which they have the power to do without the Bill, but to enter into the business of land development.

This is where we find the political difference between hon. Members opposite and myself. I do not believe that the London County Council or any other authority is competent to enter into the business of land development. I have never seen anything to indicate that it could. All the years which I have spent on the London County Council have simply shown me, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, that the London County Council, like every other body of the kind, is quite incompetent to undertake trade. Whenever it touches it, it loses money. We have seen many instances in the last year of ratepayers' money being poured down the drain through the London County Council trying to carry out commercial operations. It is not competent to do it. It is not right that it should do it; it is not right that it should be vested with powers by this House to over-ride the private citizen in order to take the land out of his control and then enter into the business of land development.

Mr. Skeffington

Might I put two points to the hon. Gentleman, who has had very great experience on the London County Council? First, is he aware that Clause 32 was unanimously agreed by the General Purposes Committee of the London County Council, which includes a powerful representation of his own friends? Secondly, has he no faith at all in the Minister, who has to give his sanction in any case where the Clause will operate?

Sir H. Webbe

I am not impressed by the unanimous decision of the London County Council, which, on both sides, has always been greedy, unduly greedy, for power, like most of the big authorities and some of the small ones as well. Frankly, my opinion of the value of Ministerial control over matters of this kind is very low. Whatever party is in power, I do not believe that, effectively, Ministers can control the position except by laying down general principles. I hope that in connection with this Bill the House will repeat the general principle that public authorities are not to use surplus land of this kind in the way suggested.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington seemed to have a marvellous vision of how one could use land productively for a year or two. Surely he does not mean that the L.C.C. should be allowed to acquire several dozen or several hundred acres of land in the expectation that at some time in the dim and distant future it might be able to use it for a statutory purpose. If he does not mean that, then his suggestions make nonsense.

During the debate the special case has been put of land acquired for, say, housing purposes which might not be so required when the time came but might be wanted instead for education purposes. Under its present powers and this Bill the L.C.C. can retain land for educational purposes, but these educational purposes must be something that will be in sight within three, four or five years. Does the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington seriously consider that it would be sensible for the L.C.C. to erect a block of flats on a site it would need in five years, so that it could get some income from it in the interim? If land is in that position, it must remain virtually sterile. The most that can be done with it is to use the existing buildings on the site and do the best one can. One cannot go in for development for three or four years.

I hope that the House will give a Second Reading to the Bill and that it will accept the recommendation that an Instruction be given to the Committee to delete Clause 32. I am glad to have been fortunate enough to have been noticed by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington as having been present for the debate.

8.56 p.m.

Mrs. Freda Corbet (Peckham)

The hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Sir H. Webbe) has encouraged me to point out to the House how very technical Clause 32 is and how much it merits, with Clauses 24 and 26, very patient, detailed consideration with the help of eminent counsel on both sides in order to ascertain in the Committee whether there is a genuine case for the L.C.C. carrying out these local powers. The case the hon. Member was suggesting is absurd. Obviously, offices will not be built to last eighty years if, in ten years' time, it is desired to build a school on the site.

Sir H. Webbe

That was not my suggestion. That suggestion was made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington).

Mr. Skeffington

I did not refer to a school. The example I gave was the extension of the London Sessions, which would have been absolutely within this Clause. A decision about it had been delayed until after confirmation by the Minister, where land was surplus and was to be used for a coroner's court and offices, instead of the land being left sterile and bringing in no revenue.

Mrs. Corbet

I have not found it extremely easy to find what the Clause would mean to the London County Council.

As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith), very considerable powers are possessed by local authorities to allow them to buy some land for one purpose and use it for another. There are very wide powers in the Town and Country Planning Acts. Nevertheless, as I understand, there are gaps, small gaps, but they have been acknowledged by the Ministry which thought that the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, would give the local authorities every possible power they would need. We should allow the passage of this model Clause which has been exhaustively considered by the County Council and by the Department, which has been incorporated on a great number of occasions since 1947; for instance, Merthyr Tydvil and Cromer, in 1948; Huddersfield, in 1949; Manchester and Eton, in 1950; the West Riding and Sutton and Cheam, in 1951; Winchester, Leamington, Essex and Glamorgan, in 1953. The reason for that is that these authorities found a gap, even though they had these extensive powers.

I want to assure the House that the London County Council has no idea of trying to set up a land development corporation to build offices to get so much profit that it would not be necessary to levy a rate in London. There is no such idea. The County Council does not intend to set up in business. I should like to ask hon. Members opposite to allow the Bill to go to Committee, because this is so technical and must have very careful examination. I am sure that they would not want to put any great difficulty in the way of this great authority—the London County Council—which still exercises power very well in the case of so many other Acts, as everyone agrees.

If the case is a fair one, I am sure hon. Members would wish to grant us these powers, provided that the case is made out in Committee. That is the important thing. We are asking that we shall not be fettered by these Instructions. We are quite willing to have the whole thing out in Committee and to abide by its decision.

I listened with very great interest to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, Southwest (Mr. Powell). I could not conceive what prompted him to deny to the London County Council the powers possessed by a great many Conservative authorities. I do not know about his own local authority, but Ilford operates this model Clause, and is a Conservative local authority.

Reference was made to the decision of the Minister about Crown surplus land resulting from the Crichel Down affair. In that case, the land is agricultural. The Clause applies to land in London. There is no possibility of returning it at any time to the owner, because there might be thirty or forty separate owners. I would correct the hon. Member in regard to the Clause which he quoted. The right of pre-emption was no more than an offer of priority to business men to have new shops and offices on the site concerned. If the hon. Member feels that this case was analogous to Crichel Down, I reply that it simply was not so. The land was built up, in the county, any small parcel of it belonging to a large number of owners. It was not possible to return it.

Having given an assurance that the London County Council does not wish to enter into business as such, having disposed of the argument that there is an analogy to Crichel Down, and having tried to convince the House that this provision deals only with some small gaps—I know this is difficult, because the matter is very technical—I now ask the House to give the Clause the same passage as has been promised in the case of the other two Clauses.

I will give a small illustration, on the lines chosen by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington). We all have a deep respect for the one-time leader of the London County Council, the hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster. It fell to my pleasure to knock him out of his London seat in 1934.

A local authority would not have much chance of falling into the sort of temptation outlined by the hon. Member for Hertford, of deliberately seeking to acquire more land than it needed. As everyone knows, there is all the procedure of an inquiry, all the Council's needs have to be substantiated and the plans set out and the Minister has to be satisfied that the land is required for the purpose. The County Council does not deliberately acquire more land than it needs. It is doubtful whether the Minister would allow it.

There are exceptions. I think that the hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster will remember the Kingsway improvement scheme, under which the County Council was empowered to acquire not only the land for the improvement itself but certain surrounding land as recoupment land on which it could erect properties and use the rents to make the scheme pay.

Sir H. Webbe

That was a specific Order.

Mrs. Corbet

It was a specific case, but it does show that there have been occasions when councils have been allowed deliberately to acquire land which they did not require in order to make a highly desirable scheme workable and bring it within the scope of the finances of the council concerned.

We should not seek to acquire land that we knew would be surplus, but we do get genuine surplus land. In certain areas schools become redundant. In the East End of London today, where the population is drifting away, there are quite a number of schools which will in time become redundant. Old people's institutions become redundant. As soon as we can get the old people away from them we shall be glad to see those institutions redundant. We might very well have a school side by side with the divisional education office. We know very well that in about ten or fifteen years that office will need to be enlarged.

Mr. Powell

But his Clause would not be required to do that.

Mrs. Corbet

I am not so sure. If we appropriated the land to that purpose we should have to build offices though we might have no use for them for another ten years.

Meanwhile, the land is sterile. That is the kind of case we have in mind—the opportunity to use land to erect a building which we shall use eventually for our own purposes. Without this Clause we could not do that until the necessity was there and would, therefore, have to leave the land sterile and thereby lose revenue which would be useful to the rates.

We could, of course, do it by amending the plan under the Town and Country Planning Act but, as has been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, that is a very long process and would gobble up the years which might be used for getting on with the job and producing revenue to the relief of rates. I ask the House to realise that this is a technical business, but that it does merit very firm consideration. I ask the House to be kind enough to let this Clause go through without an Instruction, satisfied that there has been this debate and, I hope, satisfied with the assurance that members of the London County Council have been able to give to allay fears of the County Council entering into business on a wide scale.

I was grateful to hear the hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster express the hope that the Bill would receive a Second Reading, because there are provisions in it which we should not like to be delayed. I remember having an interest in the Glasgow Corporation Bill some years ago, and expressing my objection to it. I was set upon by every hon. Member from Glasgow, begging me not to object, so that the Bill could go to Committee. Fortunately, I have not got to make that plea tonight. I am convinced that the Bill will receive a Second Reading.

I am glad to know that Clauses 24 and 26 will be allowed to go to Committee, so that they can be properly examined, and particularly so that the figure of £250 can be dealt with. I should be grateful if Clause 32 could also be allowed to receive examination in Committee to see whether it serves any useful purpose for the statutory needs of the local authority.

9.12 p.m.

Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)

I want to draw attention to one matter which should be considered by the House in connection with the Bill. As hon. Members will be aware, there is a great problem in certain areas outside London, such as the Borough of Ilford, of which I represent a part, in which there are large estates of London County Council houses the tenancies of which are allocated by the London County Council to people on their housing lists. I believe that it would have been a good opportunity in this Bill to have made some provision of renunciation whereby houses in these estates might be allocated to people on the housing lists of the boroughs concerned.

Sir Frederick Messer (Tottenham)

We have had all this before.

Mr. Iremonger

I want to make this plea, and I hope hon. Members opposite will bear with me if I choose to make it on behalf of my own constituency.

We should put a higher value than this upon the community which is being deprived of part of its community life by the fact that these houses are being occupied by tenants who have no connection with the locality. We know that the country as a whole faces a housing problem, and London itself faces a very great problem, but I do not feel that London's problem can be properly solved by taking action to the detriment of other places.

I believe, therefore, that we should give more consideration to the communities which are suffering from an infiltration of strangers. We have in the Borough of Ilford, for example, a comraratively new community, as communities in this country go, but it is a community which I would describe as a happy ship and one which benefits from a condition of general eupepsia. It is desirable that the children of Ilford people who have grown up in the borough should be able to find their homes there within reach of their families.

I think, therefore, that this Bill is lacking in that very desirable element, which should take the form of a renunciation by the London County Council of what amounts to a usurpation of the right of people to chose to live within the boundaries of their own boroughs.

9.15 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

I should be failing in my duty if I did not register the strongest possible protest against the attempts which have been made by hon. Members opposite to delete certain Clauses, in particular Clauses 24 and 26.

Mr. Walker-Smith

I have already explained to the House that we have no intention of pressing that.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Whatever the explanation is, the fact remains that these two Clauses are of vital importance to my constituency. In the Brixton division there has been operating for some time a big slum property racketeer—one of the most elusive racketeers in the property-owning business. We have been trying to get at him for years and tonight, even though the attempt has been abandoned, an attempt was made to make it easier for those property racketeers to escape their obligations.

I very much hope that the Bill will be given an unopposed Second Reading, because if hon. Members opposite intend to play party politics in these matters then the chance of a Tory majority at County Hall will disappear for ever.

9.17 p.m.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I intervene in support of the Bill for only a moment or two and because I want to add a little to what was said by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton).

The House should know that a provision has been introduced into the Bill which is of the highest importance for the protection of tenants of small houses, not only in London but elsewhere. This provision can act as an excellent example for similar provisions to be inserted in other Bills to protect similar persons in other districts. My hon. and gallant Friend was not over-emphatic about Clause 27. Hitherto, in spite of the provisions of the Rent Acts, which make certain conditions imposing the disclosure of the ownership of properties, it has been possible to have an elusive and perhaps imaginary individual, such as "Mr. Brady," who can be described as the owner, or as the agent of the owner or in some other capacity in the rent book but the authorities are unable to trace him at all when it becomes necessary.

The House will recollect that there are still a large number of houses in London the ownership of which is in doubt. Local authorities have persevered in attempting to trace the owners to an extent which has cost a lot of money but which has had no result at all. Summonses were in some cases issued against this "Mr. Brady," but the authorities were unable to serve him. They served the occupiers of the houses, and then even went to the extent of issuing warrants for this "Mr. Brady"—but nobody knows whether there is such a person.

This provision will deal with that situation in a practical way. In future: A sanitary authority may for the purpose of enabling them to perform any of their functions under this Act require the occupier of any premises"— as a rule the occupier knows nothing about it— and require the occupier of any premises and any person who (directly or indirectly) receives rent in respect of any premises to state in writing the nature of his own interest therein and the name and address of any other person known to him as having an interest therein. … The effect of this will be that any rent collector can be called upon to give the name of the actual owner of the premises. If he does not do so, or if he gives false information, he will be liable to a penalty.

That is not a small point. For example, when the Finsbury Council called together the other councils in London to inquire into the position, it found that something like 22 of them attended the meeting, having been placed in precisely the same difficulty as Finsbury in consequence of their inability to trace the owners of property in their districts. The Bill in general is acceptable to us, but this Clause is particularly necessary in order that the councils' and ratepayers' monies shall be protected and that, instead of local authorities having to go to poor tenants who have no effects at all in order to get the position remedied, the actual owner can be pinned down. In Brixton, so very well represented by my hon. and gallant Friend, who has taken a considerable interest in this matter in his district, the difficulties which hitherto have prevailed should thus be overcome to some extent.

9.21 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

It is usual on a Private Bill, particularly of this importance, for some guidance to be given the House by a member of the Government. That is particularly the case tonight when the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) has based his opposition to the Bill on the grounds of high Tory policy, that we were now living under a new dispensation and that while these things might have slipped through in years gone by, this Clause 32 involved us in certain implications which brought party differences to an acute crisis when the Bill was presented.

During the evening, for a short period, we have had the presence of the Minister who, presumably, might have advised us. We also have had the advantage of the presence of the Lord Advocate, who probably would find himself as much at sea in dealing with the problems of London local government as I do. I have had no experience of London government, which is almost entirely different from the set-up of local government in other parts of the country.

As I see that the Minister has now arrived, if he desires to give the House any guidance on this Measure, particularly on Clause 32, I am quite willing to give way so that he can tender us the advice which is usually given to the House when an important local government Bill is before us.

I hope the House will give the Bill a Second Reading so that the points of difference—and some are the kind of points which ought to be discussed upstairs—may be discussed where we have the supreme benefit of having the discussion carried on under oath, which is not the case on the Floor of the House. I sincerely hope that the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith), having given us the advantage of having a very considerable and interesting debate, will feel that after the Minister has spoken he can withdraw the Amendment he moved.

9.25 p.m.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Duncan Sandys)

I do not think, with all respect to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), that it is usual in debates of this kind for a member of the Government to express a view on such Measures as this, for the simple reason that there is a procedure provided, which is that the Minister concerned presents a report to the House expressing his views on the proposals contained in Bills of this kind. Under Standing Orders these reports are referred to the Committee upstairs. I should have thought that all these matters which have been discussed tonight were matters which would have been appropriate for discussion in Com- mittee on the Bill and that that was the right procedure. In accordance with the well established practice, I do not intend to express tonight an opinion on these proposals.

Mr. Ede

Could the right hon. Gentleman just tell us this? Clause 32 is a Clause which has appeared in 120 previous Bills. Presumably his Ministry, or the Ministries which had its responsibilities in these matters before it was established, raised no objection at the Committee stage of those Bills to that Clause. Is it proposed to vary the policy of the Ministry in this case?

Mr. Sandys

I do not think that anything I said should indicate that there is any variation of policy involved. I am considering all the proposals in the Bill, not only those in these Clauses, and I shall be presenting a report, as is customary, to the House.

Mr. Walker-Smith

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.

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