HC Deb 25 November 1955 vol 546 cc1871-83

Order for Second Reading read.

2.50 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

May I first say, quite briefly, what this modest little Bill intends to do. It intends to give local authorities in Scotland discretionary power to contribute towards the cost incurred by frontagers in making up private streets and private foot paths to the standard specification of the local authorities before they are taken over. I would emphasise that this is a discretionary power. The Bill does not seek to force town councils or any other local authority to do this if they do not desire to do so. It is a permissive power, and not a mandatory power.

Secondly, the Bill seeks to bring the law of Scotland in this matter into line with the law of England and Wales. In England and Wales, the position is that local authorities, if they want to do so, may contribute towards the costs incurred by frontagers in making up the streets before they are taken over by the local authorities. In Scotland, the local authorities, outside the counties or cities, have no such powers, and we wish to give them those powers at the present time.

Why do they need those powers? Why do Members on both sides of the House, sitting for Scottish constituencies, unanimously want to see those powers given to them?

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

Why did the hon. Gentleman say, "unanimously"?

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

I said "unanimously" because I am very glad to have the support of Scottish Labour Members of Parliament in equal number to hon. Members supporting me on this side, and because one of my supporters is the Scottish Labour Whip. He assured me that his supporters, sitting for Scottish constituencies, wished to see the Bill carried into effect.

I am sorry if the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) either does not regard himself as owing allegiance to his own party Whip or was not consulted in the consultation which has gone on for some time behind the Chair about this Bill.

Mr. John Taylor (West Lothian)

May I say that, as the hon. Gentleman has mentioned my name, or rather the office which I have the honour to hold, that I support this Bill personally because I think that it is a very useful and necessary piece of legislation, but I do so entirely as a private Member. I have not asked for the opinion of my colleagues officially on this matter at all.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

I certainly withdraw the statement which I made. I did not intend to infer that the hon. Gentleman, who has the honour to be the Whip for Scottish Labour Members of Parliament, supported me in an official capacity. I am very glad to have his support in a private capacity. I hope I may have the support of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire, too.

Why is this Bill wanted? It is wanted, first of all, because there has been since 1892, when the present position under the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act was brought into being, an enormous increase in the volume and type of traffic upon the roads. That traffic passes over private streets as well as public streets, and it causes a great deal of damage to the public streets as well as to the private streets.

Also, these private streets are very often a means of access to new housing schemes. They are, therefore, a convenience to the general public, in that public traffic passes over them, and they are a convenience to the general public in that they are used as a means of access to other parts of the burghs. So it seems to me, and to a number of other hon. Members, to be clearly unfair that the whole cost of making up these private streets to the councils' standard specifications should fall upon the frontagers and that the burghs should have no power to contribute towards that cost.

There has been a very large increase in the cost of making up these roads and paving streets. Not only that, but the standards of construction required by the local authorities have increased enormously since 1892 and these altered standards of construction have led to a very great increase in the cost of making up streets. That means, of course, that frontagers are faced with very real hardship when they are required to have the streets made up in order that they may be taken over by the local authority.

I can assure the hon. Member for South Ayrshire that since I was fortunate enough to win a place in the Ballot for Private Members' Bills last Session—I was unable to proceed with the Bill then—and since I have been fortunate enough to win a place in the Ballot in the present Session, I have had an enormous amount of correspondence from all over Scotland wishing me luck today and hoping that the House will pass this Bill so that the position may be relieved.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

If there has been such a great deal of correspondence from Scotland, about which I am entirely ignorant, and such an enormous demand, why has not this matter been taken up by the Government? Why has it been left to the chances of a Private Member's Bill?

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

The answer probably is that the Government have had so many other things to do that they have not had time to turn to this very small Measure. It is a very important part of the duty of back bench Members to see that wrongs of this kind are redressed and that we use these opportunities to bring forward Private Members' Bills to the advantage of our constituents.

It would result in very real hardship were frontagers required to pay the whole cost of making up streets so that they might be taken over. The effect is that very many town councils, which are the authorities principally concerned, as I shall show, knowing the hardship which would be caused to individual frontagers to be assessed at £60, £70 or £80 because their gardens abutted on a private street, are allowing the streets to remain private rather than taking them over because they have no power to contribute towards the cost incurred by frontagers.

I have mentioned town councils. I do not want to make a long speech, but I want to make this point clear. I had hoped that the Bill might apply to all local authorities in Scotland, and the Long. Title was so drafted. However, the four counties of cities in Scotland do not want it. Glasgow and Edinburgh have their own legislation by which they are able to make contributions, if they wish, towards the expenses of frontagers, and Dundee and Aberdeen prefer, for other reasons, to remain outside the provisions of the Bill.

I had hoped that the county councils would want to come within these provisions. However, they have said that they do not wish to support the Bill unless two things can be done. They say, first, that it should include provision on the lines of the English New Streets Act, 1951, to require developers to construct new streets to the proper highways standard. I should like to meet the county councils if I could, but I understand that that purpose is outwith the scope of the Bill, and I think I should be wrong to include such a provision.

Further, the county councils think that the power to contribute to the expenses of frontagers ought to be made conditional upon the owners agreeing that the streets, when made up in accordance with the local authority standard specifications, should be taken over and dedicated to the public. My answer is that that requirement is unnecessary because the Bill provides that the power given to the local authorities is a discretionary one and it would be open to any local authority to impose whatever condition it desired before taking advantage of the provisions of the Bill.

However, the Long Title of the Bill has been drafted so that it can apply to any local authority, and I have great hopes that at a later stage the county councils will feel that they would like to join in.

After what I have been saying, it is probably hardly necessary to stress that this is a purely Scottish Bill. If it is given a Second Reading, as I hope it will be, it will go to the Scottish Grand Committee, where we can talk about the points of detail which may arise. Thus, it will not hold up other legislation. Also, it has the support of all parties, five supporters being hon. Friends of mine, five being hon. Members belonging to the Labour Party, and the other being the only Scottish Liberal Member of Parliament. I hope that the Bill will be supported unanimously this afternoon.

3.4 p.m.

Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)

I beg to second the Motion.

I would associate myself with what has been said by the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley). The Bill is permissive and imposes no obligations upon local authorities. It is regarded as a necessary and desirable Measure by hon. Friends of mine with whom I have discussed it, and it is supported by all of them who have given the matter consideration. I am not prepared to say that there may not be an hon. Friend of mine who objects to it, but all my hon. Friends with whom I have discussed the Bill support it. Even hon. Members representing the cities which are not covered by the Bill have no objection to the Measure.

In my constituency, which is a single-borough constituency, it is strongly felt that the Bill is needed. There was recently a great deal of ill-feeling when many of my constituents were compelled by the local authority to pay large sums of money towards the making up of street frontages in common usage by anyone and everyone inside and outside the borough. The local authority itself wanted to pay the money and did not want to impose this charge on the house owners, but it was compelled by the law as it now stands to make the house owners pay their share.

The local authority, in its endeavour to make things as easy as possible, tried to arrange that the payment could be spread over an almost indefinite period, such was its concern to meet the needs and difficulties of those of my constituents who were asked to pay. I was asked to support the Bill, and knowing the desire of my own local authority to see the Bill passed. I have very great pleasure in supporting it.

3.6 p.m.

Mr. John Taylor (West Lothian)

I wish to say a few words in support of the Bill, particularly in view of the qualification in the first line of Clause 1 which says that a local authority … may, if they think fit, at any time contribute the whole or a portion of the expenses … incurred in making up the roads. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson), this is entirely a permissive Measure. Like my hon. Friend, I have a constituency interest, because my constituency contains built-up areas with many thoroughfares which at the moment it is no one's responsibility to put in a state fit for traffic.

I should, perhaps, take a rather more jaundiced view of the Bill if it were concerned only with culs-de-sac, private roads and owner-occupied property, because I think that the owners of such property, when they purchase or build it, expect a certain amount of road charges to be added to the cost. There is then some reason for saying that citizens at large in the local authority should not be expected through the rates to pay a contribution to the costs of a private road leading only to a restricted number of houses.

However, in Scotland and particularly in central Scotland a number of towns have, behind their main streets, little wynds which are increasingly used nowadays by traffic and which lead to large numbers of working-class houses. They are used by such transport as the travelling shops of the Co-operative societies, by dairymen, butchers and other traffic. During a summer such as that we have just had the dust that has gone into houses, because of the unmade roads, has provided the housewives with a considerable problem.

The cost of making up these roads would be impossible for anyone to meet. At the moment, there is no responsibility for large stretches of roads leading to groups of cottages and working-class houses. They ought to be the responsibility of the local authority, because of the local conditions which only we in the constituency can understand and which I shall not detain the House by attempting to describe. There are large numbers of people in my constituency who will welcome the Measure.

It may well be that a local authority will still say that it does not feel that it ought to incur the expense and place it upon the rest of the citizens throughout the country—because these are county council responsibilities—but the Bill will provide the citizens concerned with a kind of lever to enable them to make some progress and perhaps to achieve an agreement for a partial payment towards the very considerable costs involved. There are generally throughout Scotland a fairly large number of small burghs in which this problem exists. The Bill will help towards a partial solution. It is a piece of legislation which ought to be on the Statute Book and, for these reasons, I support it.

3.11 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I am not quite so enthusiastic as some of my hon. Friends are about this Bill. For a long time I have been a member of a local authority, and I cannot understand why the Bill is considered to be so necessary. My suspicions were aroused when I saw that it was presented by the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) who, in all our deliberations in the Scottish Standing Committee and in the House, speaks emphatically and strongly for the property owners and the landlords. When he promotes a Bill I look upon it not so philanthropically and benevolently, or so innocently, as some of my hon. Friends.

I should like to repeat the question which I put in my intervention. Why, if this is such a tremendously important matter, have successive Conservative and Labour Governments overlooked it? I presume that the Government have not introduced a provision of this kind in one of their innumerable Bills because they thought that there was a snag attached to it. I concede that there may be no snags in some of the town councils which are dominated by Labour majorities, but most town councils in Scotland are still dominated by property owners and landlords.

It is true that the Bill gives a discretionary power, but potentially it gives property owners in small burghs a free hand to hand over considerable sums of money to local property owners and landlords. Not merely small property owners are concerned; there are some large landlords and property and estate agents whose case the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns usually pushes in this House. I am rather surprised that, at a time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer is urging local authorities to keep down expenditure, a Bill should be introduced from the Conservative back benches to give power to local authorities to increase public expenditure on behalf of the landlords.

The Bill gives discretionary power to landlord-ridden authorities. Therefore, I look upon it with a certain amount of suspicion. I am glad to know that it will go to the Scottish Standing Committee if it is given a Second Reading, but why, if there is this enormous enthusiasm for the Bill in Scotland, are there only about half a dozen hon. Members from Scotland present in the Chamber today? I hope that when we consider the Measure in the Standing Committee we shall subject it to a most careful scrutiny which will make sure that we safeguard the interests of the public as well as those of the property owners.

3.15 p.m.

Mr. Douglas L. S. Nairn (Central Ayrshire)

I wish to support the Bill. I am sorry that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) was not able to keep his suspicious mind from discovering snags which I do not think exist in this Measure. The people whom the Bill is designed to help are the owners of small property and small houses in the towns.

The Bill is something which was equally necessary twenty years ago when I was serving on a town council. In those days, town councils hesitated to take over footpaths and small roads, because they knew that the small property owners and householders could not afford to put them in proper order before they were taken over. If such property owners could not afford to do that twenty years ago, the situation today is very much worse owing to the increased cost of road repairs and the making up of footpaths.

I am particularly interested in the question of footpaths because in many places, when the weather is bad and the street lighting not good, people stagger about in the dark, falling into pot-holes full of snow and slush and water. The authorities in every small town are anxious to get good roads and footpaths established. I am only sorry that the Bill does not go further and include the county councils, because in some small villages this matter is even more important than in some of the burghs. I hope that at a later date we shall be able to include the small villages. Even in small villages there are many owners of small properties, who might find themselves suddenly faced with a bill, it may be for £30, to put roads and footpaths in order, and the county council would hesitate to ask them to pay such an amount. As a result, footpaths and roads continue in a terrible state.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I understand that the hon. Member is in favour of a means test for housing. Is he in favour of a means test for this sort of property owner?

Mr. Nairn

I knew that the hon. Member had a tortuous mind, but how he can find any reference to a means test in anything which I have said completely defeats me.

3.18 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Niall Macpherson)

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) on his good fortune in having won a place in the Ballot for the second year running, and to wish him better luck on this occasion. I do not think that my hon. Friend can complain about the reception of his Bill today. It is true that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) has his reservations; in fact, he describes them as his suspicions. I hope I may be able to allay those suspicions, even though the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) and the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. J. Taylor) have not been able to do so.

The hon. Member for Motherwell and the hon. Member for West Lothian both stressed the fact that the powers in the Bill are permissive, and I think that that is an important point for us to consider. The Bill does not compel local authorities or even lay a duty upon them to do anything under this Bill and that was not the intention of my hon. Friend in drafting it. It may be for the convenience of the House if I set out a little of the background to the Bill.

In Scotland, the responsibility for the repair of a private street in a burgh rests with the owners of the property in the street. Town councils may require frontagers to repair a private street and may take it over as a public street, but so far as I know there is nothing in the Bill which would necessitate a local authority taking over a street as a condition of making a contribution. Indeed, it also gives powers to contribute to the making up of footpaths as well as streets.

The town council may take over a street, but, if it does, it is only on condition that the frontages are first brought up to something like highway standards. This, of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Nairn) has made quite clear, is one of the main difficulties with which burghs have been faced in the past.

Local authorities have developed a growing reluctance to order frontagers to make up streets, because they know that this places a very serious burden upon those who may not be able to bear it. Some city local authorities have already sought to meet that condition. For example, the Glasgow Corporation may take over private streets on such conditions as it prescribes, and the normal condition is, of course, that the streets shall first be made up by the frontagers. But this is not essential in Glasgow, and similar provisions apply to the taking over of private footpaths.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns put forward several reasons why he thought it a good thing that town councils, at any rate, should take over these private roads and make a contribution towards them. He referred to the convenience of the general public and to the use made of these roads by general traffic. In this context, one should make a distinction between the purpose for which private frontagers originally construct a road and the purpose for which it may be required in the future.

The hon. Member for West Lothian quite correctly made the point that, in many cases, the roads are now required as thoroughfares. Indeed, in my constituency, Dumfries, there was recently a case where the burgh required a private road for a thoroughfare, and, therefore, of course, required it to be made up to the standard of a thoroughfare and not just to a sufficient standard suitable for the purpose of the private frontagers. As a result, the matter was tested at law, and it was found that the burgh had power to do this. The burgh called for a standard of bottoming of the road which was far higher than would normally have been contemplated by owners of a private road, and the Sheriff Principal decided that the burgh was entitled to do that. That, obviously, places a very serious and a quite unlooked for burden upon owners of houses frontaging on such streets.

I would say to the hon. Member for South Ayrshire that many of these people have very slender means indeed. They may be buying their houses on instalments. The figure of £80 has been mentioned, but I know of cases in Dumfries where amounts of as much as £240 or more may be required.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I quite understand the argument about the small property holder, but the Government are committed to the policy of a means test [...]n regard to houses. Are the Government prepared to apply a means test to people before they receive grants from local authorities?

Mr. Macpherson

The Bill does not lay down in precise terms how any grants are to be made. It is left to the discretion of the local authorities themselves. The House would do well to take into account the very serious burden which, in some cases, may remain upon individual frontagers when the local authority requires the road for public purposes. On the other hand, when there is no such requirement, the tendency is for the local authority not to require the road to be made up, out of compassion for those very people—and the road continues to deteriorate.

Mr. Hughes

I can understand the local authority being asked to treat a small property owner with generosity, but in my constituency I have a large landowner who owns much of this property, namely, the Marquess of Bute. Am I to understand that the Government are in favour of allowing local authorities to give public money to a big land-owner like the Marquess of Bute?

Mr. Macpherson

I can only say, once again, that this is necessarily a matter for negotiation between the local authority and the owner or owners concerned. The local authority will no doubt be guided on the question whether it makes a contribution at all, or what its contribution should be, by the circumstances of the case. I am sure that it would not be right to be more specific than that—and my hon. Friend who introduced the Bill would not wish it to be. Certainly, the Government would not wish to encourage him to ask that it should be so. We think that this is essentially a matter which should be left to the discretion of local authorities.

The Scottish Standing Committee, in its wisdom, might well introduce Amendments imposing conditions of one sort or another. The hon. Member for West Lothian made it clear that where a road was to be used only for private purposes—he mentioned a cul-de-sac—he was not in favour of any contribution. Without expressing any opinion on the matter, I would only ask him to take into consideration the fact that such roads are nowadays commonly used for parking, which was certainly not a use contemplated at the time when the houses were first put up. A case was brought to my attention a short time ago—again in Dumfries—where a horrifying number of Royal Air Force lorries and heavy trailers were being parked down one single private street. That is some indication of the way in which circumstances have changed since the original provisions were introduced in 1892.

My hon. Friend said that he did not see why county councils should be unwilling to be included in the Bill. He correctly expressed the reasons which they have given for not being willing to do so. The Government would have no objection to their also being included, if my hon. Friend can persuade them, but it certainly commends his judgment in not wishing to incorporate them in the Bill unless they themselves agree that that should be done.

There is already in the English law the power that my hon. Friend seeks to introduce by means of the Bill, the discretionary power to contribute to the cost of bringing a private road up to a standard which would justify the council in assuming responsibility for its future maintenance. Local authorities already have this power under Section 81 of the Public Health Act, 1925. The cities, with the exception of Dundee—which does not desire to have such power at the present time, I understand—have powers of varying degrees enabling them to contribute to the making up of private roads.

The general support that the Bill has received reflects the disquiet that is felt at the present state of the law. The Government certainly would welcome the Bill as a step in the right direction, and I can say without reservation that the Government will give my hon. Friend every assistance in further stages of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;

House counted, and, 40 Members being present