HC Deb 01 November 1955 vol 545 cc926-37

7.51 p.m.

Mr. Tudor Watkins (Brecon and Radnor)

I beg to move, in page 2, line 25, at the end to insert: on such terms as the Council with the approval of the Minister, may approve. During the Committee stage the Minister was good enough to invite the Committee to consider certain Amendments, one of which I am now moving. This Amendment concerns unadopted roads. We are not anxious that the liabilities of owners should be lifted by the new subsection which has been brought into the Bill. We do not like the extinguishing of the liabilities. The Minister gave the Committee the objections he saw against accepting our Amendment, in particular the difficulty of finding out the responsible persons. We agree that that may be difficult, but there may be persons who, upon the grant of Crown land many years ago, might have an obligation to maintain highways which may become unadopted roads under the Bill.

We do not want the Bill to extinguish the liabilities of large landowners for making a contribution to the construction of unadopted roads. If the responsible people cannot be found, that is no argument against saying that they must make a contribution, and for extinguishing their liabilities altogether.

The Minister pointed out that in some cases obligations had lapsed because of disuse of the roads, but we cannot understand that. We believe that once a very good road has been constructed by the highway authorities owners will pop up once again, to take advantage of the better roads that have been made. I would not altogether agree that the obligations have lapsed and that there is no liability left.

The Minister referred to the task of getting co-ordination in the crofting counties. As a Member for a Welsh constituency, I am not familiar with what happens in the crofting counties. The Minister said he would look at that matter between the Committee stage and the present stage of the Bill.

People who had liabilities in connection with these highways still have them in many cases. I put to the Minister a point which some of my hon. Friends may not have put during the Committee. What is to happen under our drainage Acts? Are the rights and liabilities of people to be done away with in future legislation? There should be liabilities on landowners when erosion or drainage takes place. The same applies in connection with river boards. I know of cases where local authorities are trying to interest river boards because of the erosion of banks, but the river boards say that they have no responsibility at all and they put it back upon the owners of the land.

The new subsection relieves all these people of their liabilities for maintenance of highways and of any responsibility for unadopted roads. What has been the result of the consultations since the meeting of the Committee? I hope that the Minister is now able to bring forward practical proposals to meet our arguments, which were very earnestly considered and supported in the Committee. If large estates have passed to the Forestry Commission what is to happen about construction of highways there? Is the Commission to be relieved of the responsibility of making a contribution?

In Committee I mentioned the very good example of people who want cattle grids. There has been no great difficulty about it and in the districts I know best there has been a great deal of voluntary co-operation. I hope that the Minister has been able to consider the Amendment and that he will accept it.

Mr. Sidney Dye (Norfolk, South-West)

I beg to second the Amendment.

Naturally, we are disappointed that the Minister has not put down an Amendment for the Report stage, after considering the matter which was most clearly stated in the Committee. We tried to state the case fairly from the point of view of those whose duty it would be, under the Bill, to prepare a scheme. We wanted to see the matter from the point of view of the county councils, who are the highway authorities and will have the duty of preparing schemes. Being responsible to the electors the county councils should do everything fairly. Nobody should get an abnormal advantage out of a scheme to make or reconstruct a road in an area where somebody else previously had an obligation to maintain a road. All previous obligations are to be wiped out by the Bill.

Conditions should be laid down, and known not merely to the people concerned but to the electors, to whom the county councils are under an obligation. It is important, where it is known that an obligation to repair or keep open a road exists, that some means should be found during the negotiations, either by a capital contribution that would wipe out future maintenance costs or in some other way, to come to a private arrangement. It should not just be that the county council prepares a scheme and, with assistance from the Ministry, carries out the repair or reconstruction of the road, while the persons who previously had the obligation to do it get off scot-free.

We want to strengthen the hands of the county councils in this respect in preparing a scheme. We want to give them power in the Bill by which they can make terms on which an owner whose obligation is being liquidated does something towards the maintenance of a road. It is, therefore, important. Had an Amendment which we moved in Committee been carried—that wherever a road is improved under this Bill it should become a classified highway and that the State should then make its contribution to the annual maintenance afterwards—our case would not be so strong.

8.0 p.m.

Under the Bill as it stands, the entire cost of maintenance of the road in the future is placed upon the highway authority. We want to ensure, therefore, that that authority can, while formulating the scheme, arrange that any such owner such as we envisage in this Amendment—and there are numbers of them—shall meet the cost either by a capital grant or by a future annual contribution. It is one or the other—or any other alternative which may occur. Account would be taken of the financial circumstances of a particular owner, who might be in a position to make an annual contribution in the future but not to make a considerable grant towards the reconstruction of the highway concerned.

We regard this as important to the county councils in that we ought not to use this Bill as a means of bringing an improvement to the value of a property—such as occurs when a highway is reconstructed as we envisage here—without that obligation on the part of an owner. As we were disappointed that the Minister had not himself thought of a method of solving this, we are putting forward the Amendment that was debated in Committee, on which the arguments for and against seemed very equally balanced and on which it seemed to us that there was a case for an Amendment of that nature to be accepted.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. D. Heathcoat Amory)

I, too, am disappointed that I have not been able to bring forward an Amendment on the lines of that which has been moved by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins). I should like to repeat what I said at an earlier stage, which is that I go a very long way with the hon. Member in his views on this matter. It would not be unfair, in principle, that those who have been previously liable for the repair of the road should make some contribution. At that time I said that, from a study I had made the practical objections outweighed the advantages of making the proposed change in the Bill. Although I promised to reconsider the matter, I said that I might have to come back to the House to say that I still felt as I did then.

I went away with a distinct bias towards finding a solution on those lines if it were possible. We have looked at this very thoroughly and have taken a good deal of trouble over it. We have considered a number of possible draft Amendments, and I must say that I was, myself, astonished to find that every one of those draft Amendments brought us up against quite a surprising number of technical difficulties. For instance, there was the effect of the application of the capital moneys under the Settled Land Act and the Law of Property Act. As I say, it seemed astonishing that it should be necessary to make such heavy weather—as I am advised it is—in a simple transfer of money from the person liable for the upkeep of the road to the county council.

In spite of those difficulties we went ahead, as I said we would, and consulted the organisations concerned. We consulted the County Councils' Association, the Council for Wales—again, the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association. In the first place, I daresay that the House will not be surprised to know the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association were opposed to the change proposed—but not on grounds of principle. They felt that this change would make those at present responsible for the roads less anxious that the roads should be taken over by the county council. As we know, these roads have been allowed to run down, and it is possible, in some cases, that the liability for the upkeep which has not been carried out would be quite a heavy one. One reason why the roads have run down and why upkeep has not been carried on is that, in any case, the owners responsible have not been able to afford to do it. That was the attitude of those bodies.

The Council of Wales agreed, as I do, that there is something in the principle of the suggested change, but it expressed itself as definitely against compulsory contributions. It thought that there would be some inconsistency if compulsory contributions were imposed under Clause 1 but not under Clause 3. The County Councils' Association was most unenthusiastic about the change. That organisation, again, had no objection to the principle—I do not think anyone can have—but, like myself, it had serious doubt as to whether this proposed change would, in fact, be workable or worth while, The impression it gave us was that it felt that the change would be more trouble than it was worth.

Those are the results. I want to give them quite frankly, because I think that in our discussions before and today the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have dealt with this matter most moderately. The bodies most concerned, and, I think, best qualified to judge, have agreed that as a practical proposition this change is not worth while including in this legislation. There were, of course, other objections which I mentioned at an earlier stage, and to which the hon. Member has referred—the liabilities for upkeep attaching at present to all sorts of people, and, astonishing as it seems, not always to the existing owners and occupiers of the land adjoining the roads. There are, therefore, real difficulties; not only practical administrative difficulties but certain difficulties of justice in discovering the person who really should carry forward this liability. I repeat that there is not any real analogy between these roads, and private streets where the owners and beneficiaries are easily identifiable and well known.

In conclusion, I should like to say that all these objections, and particularly the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the highway authorities, who might be expected to benefit most from this change, have led me to conclude that it would be a mistake to include this Amendment in the Bill. With reference to what was said by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor, I would point out that provision is made in the Bill for voluntary contributions, and I hope that in some cases those will be effected.

I am very sorry that I have been unable to meet the wishes of hon. Members, which I think are essentially reasonable, and I would like to have met them, but I am sure that in this case, in view of the practical considerations that I have mentioned, the conclusion that I have reached is right.

Mr. George Brown (Belper)

I know of no man who can do the wrong thing more regretfully, more sympathetically and more kindly than the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture.

Let us be quite clear what he is doing here. He is making a naked and unashamed surrender to landlordism, and the fact that the Minister thinks that this Amendment is right and fair and he regrets that he cannot accept it makes his surrender none the less complete.

I am astonished at the content of the right hon. Gentleman's answer. What is proposed by this Amendment which was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins) in so cogent a speech and seconded similarly by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Dye)? To none of their arguments has the right hon. Gentleman addressed himself. The Amendment makes nonsense of his reply. The Amendment says that the obligation of the landlord or the occupier to contribute to the upkeep shall be extinguished on such terms as the Council with the approval of the Minister, may approve. "Such terms" includes anything. If the people cannot be found, then there are no terms at all because there is no one to whom they can be applied. If it is not worth the trouble, there is nothing to do. The council can say to the Minister, "We recommend that in this case it is not worth the trouble going after the people," or "The people are too small to go after," and so on and so forth. But in a case where the landlords are available and have substance, it leaves the council in a position to take a contribution from them.

I know there is nobody like a draftsman for discovering why no set of words ever means anything at all. I have been through all this and I know the position. But there are some occasions when Ministers have to say to draftsmen, "This is what I want to do. I want the landlords, where they are available and where they have substance, only to get out of their obligation on condition that they contribute something."

Mr. Roderic Bowen (Cardigan)

I should be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman if he would indicate whether, when he uses the expression "landlord," he includes the Forestry Commission, and, if so, what terms he would suggest a council should make when the Forestry Commission are in the position of landlords.

Mr. Brown

I am not one of the men in Whitehall who know best. The terms are terms for the council to negotiate with the people whose interests they are extinguishing. I certainly think it should apply to the Forestry Commission.

One of the extraordinary things about this attitude of the Minister is that bodies who can well afford to make their contribution are being let off so that the whole burden falls on the ratepayers of very poor counties. That is inevitably so. Montgomeryshire, Merionethshire—in fact, all the Welsh counties—are, by comparison, relatively poor counties. It is bad enough when an ordinary landlord is relieved of his obligations and they are put on the ratepayers. It is even worse when a public authority which can get money for the purpose is also let off and the burden is put on the ratepayers.

What are the Minister's objections? As I was saying, there is the objection about the technical difficulties of drafting anything. This is the sort of thing that a Minister who is not in command of his Department will always find himself hampered with. But there comes a time for every Minister to say, "I am sorry, but this is what I want to achieve. I will spell it out for you as simply as I can. All you have to do is to find the right form of words." My experience is that when a Minister says that, the draftsmen can always produce the form of words.

I do not see what is wrong with our form of words. This matter has nothing to do with the ancient Acts about the transfer of money from a private occupier to a public authority. Although the Private Street Works Act may not be completely analogous in other respects, it is analogous in this respect. Money is transferred without all these difficulties where private street works are concerned.

The Minister then produced a second difficulty. I thought it was fantastic. He referred to the objections of the National Farmers' Union and the C.L.A.—what, I think, used to be called the Country Gentlemen's Association.

8.15 p.m.

Air Commodore A. V. Harvey (Macclesfield)

They are quite different.

Mr. Brown

What they say, as I understand, is that it would make the landlords less anxious to have their obligations taken over. Has anyone ever heard anything like it? The landlords, who, at the moment, are not fulfilling their obligations—that is why the roads have fallen into such a bad state and that is why it will cost £3,000 a mile to improve them—would be less anxious to have their roads taken over and improved so that they or their tenants could farm their land better, if they knew that there was a chance that the council would make them contribute something towards the operation.

What do they prefer to do—to do it themselves? No, they prefer to continue not doing it at all. That is always likely to be the attitude of anybody if he can get away without doing it, which is what is being done at the moment. Obviously, in those circumstances, a man will not be keen to have it taken over by somebody else if he has got to contribute something towards it.

What is the point of the Report of the Council for Wales? The point of the Report is that agriculture and the economy of those rural areas which depend on that industry are suffering as the result of this situation. We are told by this Administration that it has so much more tender regard for the susceptibilities of landlords than it has for other people, that the fact that they have not done their job for many years shall not be a black mark against them and shall not involve any action against them. In fact, their whole obligation is to be taken over by the State, by the ratepayers and the taxpayers, and in case any of these gentlemen who have not done their job should get sufficiently awkward to prevent the ratepayers and the taxpayers doing it for them in the future, they are to be let off contributing at all to the job.

That is not an answer which ought to commend itself to the House. I do not think it is an answer that any Minister ought to accept. The fact that the County Councils' Association put it forward does not surprise me either, because these very gentlemen are not without a somewhat disproportionate representation in most of our rural county councils. I should think that it is very likely that the people whom we should see from the Country Landowners' Association would be the same people whom we should see from the County Councils' Association. We should not get two sets of opinion from them. We should get the same opinion from all these people under two different names.

The Council for Wales and the Minister support the Amendment in principle. We support it in principle and in every other way. We want this work to be done. We do not want to say that everybody must contribute, because we recognise that there would be some places where it would be difficult to enforce and other places where we would not want to enforce it—for instance, where estates have been broken up and people have been induced to buy small parts of the estate, probably at high prices. It would be wrong to visit the sins of their predecessors in title upon them.

We have, therefore, framed a form of words which permits the local authority, which, after all, will not use these powers vigorously but will use them with a great deal of restraint, to use them where it is the right thing to do and where it can be done. We reserve the right of approval to the Minister so that in any case where a council is acting awkwardly or arbitrarily he will be able to disapprove the arrangements.

If the Minister feels as he has said about this, he has every reason to have his arm strengthened. He is by no means the most powerful Minister who has ever occupied that office. My regard for the Ministry is very high, despite all that has happened in recent months—and I say the "Ministry" and not the "Minister". My regard for the Minister and for the Ministry are not interchangeable terms by any means.

My regard for the Ministry and for its administration is such that I am not prepared to see that excellent Department trodden down in this way. I therefore hope that my hon. Friends will decide that this is a principle of some importance

—the duty of a landlord to do his job; if he does not do it, the right of the State to do it for him; and the overriding obligation on his part to make some contribution to his fellow ratepayers when they take over for him, especially as many of them are poorer than he is.

We let this go in Committee without a Division because the Minister came there with his tears and his friendly approach and told us how much he wanted to do it. We relied on him to stand up to the Country Landowners' Association and to the pressure groups of the county councils of rural England. He has not done so. I have no doubt his Ministry wish he had. In that spirit I hope my right hon. and hon. Friends will see this issue through the Division Lobby.

Question put, That those words be there inserted:—

The House divided: Ayes 115, Noes 167.

Division No. 34.] AYES [8.24 p.m.
Ainsley, J. W. Hall, Rt. Hn. Glenvil (Colne Valley) Noel-Baker, Francis (Swindon)
Allaun, F. (Salford, E.) Hamilton, W. W. Oswald, T.
Allen, Arthur (Bosworth) Hannan, W. Padley, W. E.
Awbery, S. S. Harrison, J. (Nottingham, N.) Palmer, A. M. F.
Bacon, Miss Alice Hayman, F. H. Pannell, Charles (Leeds, W.)
Balfour, A. Herbison, Miss M. Pearson, A.
Bartley, P. Hobson, C. R. Popplewell, E.
Blackburn, F. Howell, Denis (All Saints) Price, J. T. (Westhoughton)
Blyton, W. R. Hubbard, T. F. Price, Philips (Gloucestershire, W.)
Boardman, H. Hughes, Cledwyn (Anglesey) Pryde, D. J.
Bottomley, Rt. Hon. A. G. Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire) Pursey, Cmdr. H.
Bowden, H. W. (Leicester, S.W.) Hunter, A. E. Roberts, Goronwy (Caernarvon)
Bowen, E. R. (Cardigan) Hynd, H. (Accrington) Ross, William
Boyd, T. C. Hynd, J. B. (Attercliffe) Royle, C.
Braddock, Mrs. Elizabeth Irving, S. (Dartford) Short, E. W.
Brookway, A. F. Johnson, James (Rugby) Simmons, C. J. (Brierley Hill)
Brown, Rt. Hon. George (Belper) Jones, David (The Hartlepools) Slater, J. (Sedgefield)
Burke, W. A. Jones, J. Idwal (Wrexham) Snow, J. W.
Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Wood Green) Jones, T. W. (Merioneth) Sparks, J. A.
Champion, A. J. Kenyon, C. Steele, T.
Coldrick, W. Lawson, G. M. Stewart, Michael (Fulham)
Collick, P. H. (Birkenhead) Lee, Frederlek (Newton) Stones, W. (Consett)
Collins, V. J. (Shoreditch & Finsbury) Lever, Leslie (Ardwick) Summerskill, Rt. Hon. E.
Craddock, George (Bradford, S.) Lewis, Arthur Taylor, Bernard (Mansfield)
Cronin, J. D. Lindgren, G. S. Thomas, Iorwerth (Rhondda, W.)
Cullen, Mrs. A. McGhee, H. G. Thomson, George (Dundee, E.)
Davies, Stephen (Merthyr) McInnes, J. Tomney, F.
Deer, G. McKay, John (Wallsend) Ungoed-Thomas, Sir Lynn
Dye, S. MacMillan, M. K. (Western Isles) Wade, D. W.
Edwards, Rt. Hon. Ness (Caerphilly) MacPherson, Malcolm (Stirling) Watkins, T. E.
Evans, Stanley (Wednesbury) Mann, Mrs. Jean Wells, Percy (Faversham)
Flenburgh, W. Mason, Roy Wheeldon, W. E.
Forman, J. C. Mitchison, G. R. Williams, Rt. Hon. T. (Don Valley)
Fraser, Thomas (Hamilton) Monslow, W. Willis, E. G. (Edinburgh, E.)
Gooch, E. G. Moody, A. S. Winterbottom, Richard
Grenfell, R. Hon. D. R. Morris, Percy (Swansea, W.) Woodburn, Rt. Hon. A.
Grey, C. F. Mort, D. L. Yates, V. (Ladywood)
Griffiths, Rt. Hon. James (Llanelly) Moss, R.
Hale, Leslie Moyle, A. TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Mr. Wilkins and Mr. Holmes.
Agnew, Cmdr. P. G. Graham, Sir Fergus Mawby, R. L.
Altken, W. T. Grant, W. (Woodside) Maydon, Lt.-Comdr, S. L. C.
Allan, R. A. (Paddington, S.) Green, A. Milligan, Rt. Hon. W. R.
Alport, C. J. M. Grimston, Hon. John (St. Albans) Molson, A. H. E.
Amory, Rt. Hn. Heathcoat (Tiverton) Grimston, Sir Robert (Westbury) Nabarro, G. D. N.
Anstruther-Gray, Major W. J. Grosvenor, Lt.-Col. R. G. Nairn, D. L. S.
Armstrong, C. W. Hall, John (Wycombe) Neave, Airey
Ashton, H. Harrison, A. B. C. (Maldon) Nicolson, N. (B'n'm'th, E. & Chr'ch)
Atkins, H. E. Harrison, Col. J. H. (Eye) Nield, Basil (Chester)
Harvey, Air Cdre. A. V. (Macclesfd) Nugent, G. R. H.
Baldwin, A. E. Harvey, John (Walthamstow, E.) Oakshott, H. D.
Banks, Col. C. Harvie-Watt, Sir George O'Neill, Hn. Phelim (Co. Antrim, N.)
Barber, Anthony Heald, Rt. Hon. Sir Lionel Page, R. G.
Barlow, Sir John Hill, Mrs. E. (Wythenshawe) Pannell, N. A. (Kirkdale)
Barter, John Hill, John (S. Norfolk) Pickthorn, K. W. M.
Bell, Philip (Bolton, E.) Hinchingbrooke, Viscount Pitman, I. J.
Bevins, J. R. (Toxteth) Hirst, Geoffrey Pitt, Miss E. M.
Bidgood, J. C. Hope, Lord John Pott, H. P.
Biggs-Davison, J. A. Hornsby-Smith, Mist M. P. Powell, J. Enoch
Bishop, F. P. Howard, Hon. Greville (St. Ives) Price, Henry (Lewisham, W.)
Bossom, Sir A. C. Howard, John (Test) Raikes, Sir Victor
Braine, B. R. Hughes Hallett, Vice-Admiral J. Ramsden, J. E.
Bryan, P. Hughes-Young, M. H. C. Redmayne, M.
Buchan-Hepburn, Rt. Hon. P. G. T. Hulbert, Sir Norman Renton, D. L. M.
Campbell, Sir David Hurd, A. R. Robertson, Sir David
Hutchison, Sir Ian Clark (E'b'gh, W.) Roper, Sir Harold
Carr, Robert Hutchison, James (Sectstoun) Ropner, Col. Sir Leonard
Cary, Sir Robert Hylton-Foster, Sir H. B. H. Russell, R. S.
Channon, H. Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Schofield, Lt.-Col. W.
Clarke, Brig. Terence (Portsmth, W.) Jenkins, Robert (Dulwich) Sharples, Maj. R. C.
Cole, Norman Jennings, Sir Roland (Hallam) Simon, J. E. S. (Middlesbrough, W.)
Cooper-Key, E. M. Johnson, Dr. Donald (Carlisle) Spens, Rt. Hn. Sir P. (Kens'gt'n, S.)
Corfield, Capt. F. V. Johnson, Eric (Blackley) Stoddart-Scott, Col. M.
Craddock, Beresford (Spelthorne). Keegan, D. Storey, S.
Crookshank, Capt. Rt. Hn. H. F. C. Kerr, H. W. Stuart, Rt. Hon. James (Moray)
Crosthwaite-Eyre, Col. O. E. Kershaw, J. A. Studholme H. G.
Crouch, R. F. Kirk, P. M. Summers, G. S. (Aylesbury)
Cunningham, Knox Lagden, G. W. Sumner, W. D. M. (Orpington)
Dance, J. C. G. Leavey, J. A. Taylor, William (Bradford, N.)
D'Avigdor-Goldsmid, Sir Henry Thompson, Kenneth (Walton)
Donaldson, Cmdr. C. E. McA. Legge-Bourke, Maj. E. A. H. Thompson, Lt.-Cdr.R.(Croydon, S.)
Doughty, C J. A. Legh, Hon. Peter (Petersfield) Tilney, John (Wavertree)
Duthie, W. S. Lindsay, Hon. James (Devon, N.) Touche, Sir Gordon
Eden,Rt.Hn.SirA.(Warwick & L'm'tn) Lloyd, Maj. Sir Guy (Renfrew, E.) Vickers, Miss J. H.
Eden, J. B. (Bournemouth, West) Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh Wall, Major Patrick
Elliot, R. Hon. W. E. Mackeson, Brig. Sir Harry Ward, Dame Irene (Tynemouth)
Emmet, Hon. Mrs. Evelyn Waterhouse, Capt. Rt. Hon. C.
Farey-Jones F. W. McKibbin, A. J. Whitelaw, W.S.I.(Penrith & Border)
Finlay, Graeme McLaughlin, Mrs. P. Williams, Gerald (Tonbridge)
Fisher, Nigel Maclay, Rt. Hon. John Williams, Paul (Sunderland, S.)
Fleetwood-Hesketh, R. F. MacLeod, John (Ross & Cromarty) Wills, G. (Bridgwater)
Fraser, Hon. Hugh (Stone) Macmillan, Maurice (Halifax) Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Fraser, Sir Ian (M'cmbe & Lonsdale) Macpherson, Niall (Dumfries) Wood, Hon. R.
Freeth, D. K. Maddan, Martin Woollam, John Victor
Galbraith, Hon. T. G. D. Marples, A. E. Yates, William (The Wrekin)
George, J. C. (Pollok) Marshall, Douglas
Comma-Duncan, Col. A. Mathew, R. TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Gower, H. R. Maude, Angus Mr. E. Wakefield and Mr. Godber.

Question put and agreed to.