HC Deb 27 April 1956 vol 551 cc2135-43

As amended (in the Standing Committee) considered.

11.5 a.m.

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

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

If I have my way I shall not delay the House for more than a few minutes from its consideration of the Bill which follows mine—which, like mine, deals with local government but, unlike mine, deals with major matters of policy.

You will have observed, Mr. Speaker, that nothing is certain in politics. One would have thought that a small Measure which had the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House, and which sought to bring the law of Scotland into line with that of England and Wales, and whose purpose was simply to give permissive powers to local authorities to contribute, if they so desired, towards the expenses incurred by frontagers in making up private streets to the standard specification of local authorities before they were taken over and dedicated to the public at large, would not have taken long in the Scottish Standing Committee.

I would not have thought so—but I reckoned without the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes). On his first Amendment to the Bill in Committee he spoke for 80 minutes. At the second sitting of the Committee he spoke for 70 minutes, and at the third sitting—would you believe it, Mr. Speaker?—he took up the whole time of the Committee, from half-past ten in the morning until One o'clock in the afternoon—although not without interruption.

That sort of thing could not be allowed to go on. Fortunately, there then inter- vened the Christmas Recess and, inspired, I hope, by those charitable feelings which we all ought to feel, especially at such a season of the year, he and I had some consultations together. As a result of our agreeable discussions we came to an agreement upon two compromise Amendments—one of which he put down and I accepted, and the other which I put down and he accepted—which facilitated the progress of the Bill. I am glad to say that thereafter the Committee managed to finish with this little Bill—which has only one effective Clause and only two Clauses in all—in a total of five sittings.

Looking back upon those somewhat prolonged proceedings, I expect that one might be tempted to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst), who, the other day, described the Scottish Standing Committee as just about the craziest Committee in the House. There is no doubt that, as a result of the consideration which the Standing Committee gave to the Bill, it has been greatly improved. We have now provided that county councils shall be given permissive powers to make contributions towards the expenses incurred by frontagers in making up private streets.

The Association of County Councils did not particularly want these powers, but it was felt by Members of the Committee that there could be no harm in giving county councils permissive powers, which they need not use if they do not wish to do so; and I am glad to say that on a free vote—the Whips were off on all the Divisions we had on the Bill—the Committee decided by the substantial majority of 26 votes to 2 that the county councils ought to be brought within the ambit of the Bill.

Secondly—I come now to the first of what I call the compromise provisions—it is now provided in the Bill that local authorities shall not make any contributions to the expenses of frontagers unless, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, including the financial circumstances"— of the recipient— they are satisfied that it is inequitable … to allow the frontager concerned to bear the whole of his proportion of the cost of making up the street.

Thirdly—this is the second of the compromise provisions—it is now provided in the Bill that a local authority shall not contribute towards the expenses of frontagers unless the street is to be used thereafter as a public thoroughfare or unless the local authority decides—in this, the Committee was indebted to the advice of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis)—that the street ought to be made up in the interests of public safety.

Fourthly—this is the final improvement we made—the Committee decided the Bill ought to cover not only future works, as was originally provided, but that it should, if a local authority so decided, cover any street works which may be unfinished at the time when the Bill receives the Royal Assent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pollok (Mr. George) had some anxiety about the exact meaning of this provision. He contemplated putting down an Amendment on reconsideration of the Bill which would have had the effect of altering this little provision. But in deference to the wishes which had been expressed, and with which we all agree, that the House should as quickly as possible proceed to the next Bill, he decided not to put down his Amendment.

I should, therefore, like to repeat the assurance I gave in Committee, which is in accordance with the best advice I have been able to obtain—it is, I think, an authoritative legal opinion—that the Bill, as it is amended, will enable local authorities to contribute towards the cost of works executed after the passing of the Bill.

Those words are in the Bill. I am advised that they cover works approved but not begun before the Bill becomes law and works which are in progress at the time when the Bill is put upon the Statute Book, but which have not been completed at that time. In short, the word "execution" in the Bill means completion. I hope that, with this explanation, my hon. Friend will be satisfied.

I am sure, as I have already said, that the Bill has been improved in Committee, and I want to express my thanks to hon. Members, on both sides, who have co-operated with me in seeking to place upon the Statute Book a more up-to-date code than that contained in the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act, 1892, whose provisions with regard to the making up of private streets it amends and in some cases supplants. I hope that with this explanation the House will give a Third Reading to the Bill.

11.15 a.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

Neither you, Mr. Speaker, nor the House need have any apprehensions that I intend to make a long speech. It is true that in the process of the Committee stage, particularly with the view of improving the Bill, it was necessary to examine it in some detail. There is a misapprehension that the Scottish Standing Committee is the penitentiary of this House for recalcitrant Members, although any additional Members who arrived in the Committee when we were proceeding to discuss this innocent Local Government (Street Works) (Scotland) Bill might have felt that their apprehensions were not unfounded. The Bill, however, proved to be more technical than was anticipated, and a detailed examination of rather complicated Sections of a fairly old Scottish Act of Parliament was necessary.

On Second Reading, I had detected what I thought were certain flaws in the Bill. Being an old member of a Scottish local authority, I recognised that this might result in local authorities being asked to find substantial sums of money for streets owned by private landlords. Knowing the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) as I did, I thought there might be a faint possibility that he was thinking of the landlords just as much as I was thinking of the people who paid the rates.

During the process of discussing the Bill in Committee, there was a frequent clash of these ideological attitudes. However, the hon. Member saw the point of my objection and after a detailed examination we came to the conclusion that, in view of the necessity of proceeding with Government business, we could come to some kind of compromise, which, from my point of view, made the Bill less innocuous and, from the point of view of the hon. Member, made its passing into law a practical possibility.

I do not hope for great things for Scotland as a result of the Bill. What Scotland wants is not more Bills, but more money, and there is not the slightest possibility—the spokesman for the Government will confirm this—of getting one bawbee out of the Treasury in pursuance of the objects of this Bill.

When the local authorities, with all their other obligations, come to consider the possibility of having to spend more on private streets, they will say, "Where is the money coming from?" The Treasury will reply, "There is no money from us." The Treasury is already telling my own local authority that it cannot borrow comparatively small sums of £800 and £1,000 for sanitary works. When the local authorities realise that there is no money in the Bill, they will perhaps consider it advisable to carry out the instructions of the Secretary of State for Scotland and not spend any money, especially if it would have to be borrowed at a possible interest rate of 6 per cent.

These are our difficulties in the matter of street construction in Scotland, and he would be an optimist indeed who contemplated an outbreak of street construction in Scotland as a result of the passage of this Bill. Still, if it does help some small, indigent property owners—I am one myself—to have necessary street works carried out, I have no objection.

My objection to the Bill arose from the possibility that big landlords, big property owners, might get something out of poor, poverty-stricken old-age pensioner ratepayers. Now the Bill has been amended to obviate that possibility, and the safeguard is in the proviso to Clause 1 (1), which says: Provided that a local authority shall not make a contribution under this subsection to any person unless, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, including the financial circumstances of that person, they are satisfied that it is inequitable that he should bear the whole of the expenses incurred by him as aforesaid. That was the matter which I believe I discussed for about three hours in Committee. I am glad that the length of my eloquence, if not its cogency, impressed the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns and induced him to incorporate this safeguard in the Bill.

The county councils in Scotland are not enthusiastic about the Bill. I do not think that they will operate the Bill, because they have other things to think about; and, because they have no money, and because there is no possibility of getting any from the Treasury, it is not very likely that they will indulge in an orgy of works on private streets.

We had apprehensions that a big landlord might dominate a local authority in some remote part of Scotland and might be able to get private streets made to his own large residence. I am glad that when, in some detail, perhaps, I pointed this out in Committee, we decided to make this provision in Clause 1 (3): A local authority shall not make a contribution under this section towards any expenses incurred in connection with the execution of works in any street unless they are satisfied that the execution of those works is in the interest of public safety or that the street will be used as a public thoroughfare. With these safeguards I can see no objection to the Bill.

I hardly think that it will be operated, but if it is ever operated it will operate with the maximum safeguards we are able to obtain for the poor, suffering ratepayers, who now will not be exploited in the interests of the landlords. With these comments and reservations I support the Bill. I found the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns most amenable in the later stages of our proceedings in Committee. We co-operated through what I would call the unusual channels, and that is a lesson to the usual channels how to get a controversial Bill passed through the House.

11.23 a.m.

Mr. J. C. George (Glasgow, Pollok)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) for clearing up the question which, as I have indicated, exercised my mind. I was not at all sure that the words execution after the passing of this Act of the street works covered works begun and completed before the passing of the Bill.

This is a permissive Measure, so it is not likely that it will have to be interpreted by legal minds to resolve disputes over its meaning or operation. It will almost certainly be studied and decided upon by town and county clerks, and it is essential that it should be clear and definite, so that it may be easily understood, and I thank by hon. Friend for the statement which he has made. I imagined circumstances in which the "execution" of the works meant without a doubt completion of the works, but I was afraid that there might be some doubt in the minds of local clerks. I hope that my hon. Friend's statement will make quite clear what the position is intended to be.

Our warmest thanks are due to my hon. Friend for bringing in this Bill, and congratulations upon the way he steered it through the Scottish Standing Committee in spite of the "few" remarks made by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) during those proceedings. In my own experience of local government, I have seen old people saddled with great financial burdens because the local authorities had not the power which this Bill will give them. In my local authority we adopted subterfuges to assist such people in such circumstances. I have had occasion to obtain agreement to spreading over sixty years ahead the financial burden of street works of a frontager over 70 years of age at the time he had to incur it. That was extremely reasonable and extremely acceptable, but now it will no longer be necessary to engage in subterfuges to help such people in need of help.

Because local authorities have not been able to help with the expense of making up these private streets there are many which have lain unmade a long time and which have become or could become dangerous. The poor property owners who built their houses along them spent all they had building their houses and could not then afford to make up the streets to the standard required by the local authorities. Streets have remained unmade for years, and they constitute a danger, and they detract from the appearance of town and countryside. It is with pleasure that, knowing that those dangers will be removed in future I support the Bill and I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing it before the House. I hope it will be passed today.

11.26 a.m.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

As one who also contributed towards amending the Bill, I should like to make one or two observations before we leave it. It was introduced in the belief that it was non-controversial and that it would be passed rather rapidly. I think that the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) for- got that there was opposition to the Bill in Scotland by the Association of County Councils. The Association of County Councils is, after all, a fairly influential as it is a widely representative body. It represents a considerable body of local government opinion. There can be no doubt that the fears expressed by the Association were not groundless.

Not only were fears expressed by the Association of County Councils. Many small burghs were not very enthusiastic about the Bill. In my own division there is the small Burgh of Musselburgh, and I can assure the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns that it was not enthusiastic about the Bill because it appeared that fairly substantial burdens would be placed upon the local authority by the passing of the Bill.

It is true that the Bill is permissive, but once a local authority has a power and proceeds to use it, and it is being used in one place, it is very difficult to say to other people elsewhere that that power shall not be used for their benefit also. Therefore, once the local authorities embark upon the work which the Bill will permit them to embark upon, they will be faced with very considerable capital expenditure.

There is no doubt that we improved the Bill considerably in Committee, and that we have put in a number of safeguards. However, we have to face the fact that, with the development of public transport, the making up and maintenance of roads and streets is becoming increasingly a national, instead of a local, burden, because roads and streets are not today used as they were years ago, that is, mainly only by the people living in them, but as thoroughfares by people from all over the country.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), I do not think that very great use will he made of this permissive Bill. I believe that local authorities will find it difficult to make use of it at the present time; because of the Government's attitude to local government expenditure I cannot believe that they can make much use of it. However, the Bill gives them a power which is useful, and for that reason I think we can give the Bill our blessing. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns on having successfully steered it through in the face of very great difficulties in Committee. I hope that it will bring some benefit to people in Scotland.

11.30 a.m.

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

In a few words, I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) on having chosen this Bill and for his success in piloting it through the House. It has required quite a degree of skill to do so, and quite a degree of compromise and give and take on both sides.

The Bill is a very simple one. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pollok (Mr. George) said, there have been many streets which have not been made up simply because of the absence of a Bill of this sort. The Bill will remove one of the handicaps to the making up of streets of that kind, and I think it is right that it should have the universal assent of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Third time and passed.