HC Deb 21 April 1959 vol 604 cc329-39
Mr. Page

I beg to move, in page 126, line 15, to leave out subsection (6).

I suppose that the most I can hope for is to stake a claim to a Clause in the amending Bill promised to the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop)—despite the fact that this Clause is to a great extent new law providing for the confiscation of private property without compensation. This is extremely serious. We are asked to put a rubber stamp on a Clause which the Reading Report euphemistically describes as Clause 30 of the Public Health Act,1925, with modifications.

The modifications are very extensive when one comes to consider them. It is true that Clause 159 was intended to be a re-enactment of Section 30 of the Public Health Act, 1925. The Reading Report describes it as drafted … produce in clear terms the results which it is believed were intended by Parliament in enacting the section. I hope that Parliament tonight will be able to say what it intended by that Section 30 and that it did not intend what is now included in Clause 159.

I should like to describe briefly the position with regard to local authority rights concerning new streets. The local authority, of course, can make byelaws governing the level, width, sewerage, etc., of new streets. This may result in land being taken from the private owner and the owner may also be called on to pay for street works. But even in this case, namely, the case of new streets, under Clause 163 of the Bill, if the local authority requires that the new street be more than 20 ft. wider than the normal maximum width described by the byelaws, compensation must be paid for that extra width.

Under Clause 164, if the local authority requires any alteration in plans submitted by the developer of the private street—if the local authority wants it diverted in some respect or its level altered—it must pay compensation. In those cases of entirely new streets, compensation must be paid, but Clause 159 deals with an existing street and it requires the frontager to an existing highway to give up his land if the local authority so requires, by ordering that the street shall be widened. The local authority, of course, has other powers in connection with the widening of the highway and the street. Under Clause 72 it has power to prescribe an improvement line for widening a street. If it does so, it must pay compensation if it is taking the land from the adjoining owners, but if it uses Section 159 it can, in effect, take that land without paying any compensation.

As I said at the beginning, this is intended to be a re-enactment of Section 30 of the Public Health Act, 1935, but that Section provided that where an existing street appeared to be developing into a new street because of building operations, then the local authority could make an order for the purpose of the byelaws that it should be a new street, and when under Section 30 of the 1925 Act an order was made, immediately a frontager began to build on the adjoining land then he was deemed to be laying out a new street within the meaning of the byelaws.

Of course the byelaws may differ from local authority to local authority but normally, I presume, most local authorities have the model byelaws. When one refers to those as to the layout of a new street, there are certain provisions about the width that a new street must be compared with its length and so on. In other words, there are certain maximum and minimum widths for the street. Generally speaking, I find the model byelaws quite unintelligible when applied to the widening of an existing street. They apply to the laying out of a new street, and when one tries to apply either Section 30 of the 1925 Act or Clause 159 of the Bill, they are unintelligible as applied to those provisions.

I agree, from that point of view, that Section 30 of the 1925 Act needed amendment, but when we come to see how Section 159 has amended the law, we find that what it has done is to give the local authority power to decide that because certain developments are taking place in the neighbourhood of a highway, that highway is becoming a new street. On the decision of the local authority, it can be declared to be a new street, although it is an existing highway, and the width of it is laid down as being the minimum width under the relevant bye-laws. Again I find it impossible to construe that and find out what is the minimum width under the relevant byelaws. Nevertheless there it is in the Section.

When the local authority has laid down this width, the result of any frontager starting to develop—starting any building on the land adjoining—is that the appropriate portion of the land—that is the new part for widening—becomes part of the highway and the owner of that portion is obliged to remove any boundary fence or other obstruction situated thereon and bring the level thereof into conformity with that of the existing highway. This is quite new. It was not in Section 30. The result is that the frontager loses his land. He is required to level that part which the local authority has determined shall be thrown into the road for widening, into conformity with the existing highway. Then, although it becomes part of the existing highway, under the proviso it is not maintainable at the public expense, and for that reason the frontager may have to pay road charges as well.

Mr. C. R. Hobson

Does not the hon. Gentleman think this is a matter which he could well pursue on the Adjournment Motion later this evening?

Mr. Page

I said earlier, when the hon. Gentleman was not here, that this was "gag" day. We have been gagged on every Bill so far, and the hon. Gentleman now wants to gag me on a vital Amendment to a Bill introducing legislation which is confiscating private property without compensation. It is a matter which should be raised on this Bill even though it is said to be a consolidation Measure. Although I have not the slightest hope of my hon. Friend accepting my Amendment at this stage, I again say that I am laying a claim to moving an Amendment in an amending Bill as soon as possible.

9.30 p.m

Mr. A. J. Irvine

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page), in the debate on Second Reading, drew attention to this point, and said, perfectly correctly, that what is proposed here in the Bill is an alteration in the law. He rather suggested in the observations he has just made that the Reading Committee rather under-estimated in its Report the extent of the change which it recommended, for, in fact, as will be found on page 123 of the Report in the paragraph dealing with the Clause which was then Clause 158, it referred to the fairly extensive modifications in the draft.

The raison d'etre for this change was the unsatisfactory position arising under Section 30 of the 1925 Act. That Act provided, as the Committee will remember: Where it appears to the local authority that the whole or any portion of an existing highway will be converted into a new street as a consequence of building operations…the local authority may by order declare such highway…to be a new street. That Section of the 1925 Act made provision for the posting of notices, and provided that, after an order had been made, …any person erecting a new building upon land abutting on or adjoining the highway…shall…be deemed to be laying out a new street within the meaning of the byelaws of the local authority…or of any provision in a local Act with respect to the width of new streets. I think that the hon. Member for Crosby conceded, as I understood him, that this was a very unsatisfactory Section, because when we come to the point of discovering what is to be the position of a frontager who is building on land which it is desired to constitute a highway or be a new street, one has to have recourse to complex byelaws, and, at best, to a very complex model byelaw.

What was in the mind of the Reading Committee, if I might speak for it on this occasion and in this respect, so far as I can do so, was, I think, that it was very desirable that the opportunity should be taken to try to clear up what was the considerably inconvenient confusion in the treatment of this matter. It is, of course, for this Committee to form its own impression of the merits or demerits of the proposal that we made, and which the Government have adopted in this Clause. I would only point out two matters arising in this connection.

First, and I dare say that the hon. Member for Crosby will agree with this, the procedure proposed in Clause 159 has the advantage, I suggest to him and to the Committee, of relative simplicity and clarity, compared with the old provisions in the Public Health Act, 1925. The second and rather important point that I would draw to the attention of the Committee in this connection is that any proceedings or any action affecting the frontager in the taking of land without compensation, in the passage in this Clause to which the hon. Member has objected, only arises in the context of two quite distinct matters.

There must appear to the appropriate council that an existing highway will be converted into a new street as a consequence of building operations. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee will appreciate that that at once narrows very much the effect of this Clause and the field of operations to which it will have relevance. There have to be, to the knowledge of the appropriate council, building operations commencing or proposed to be commenced which will have the effect of converting a highway into a new street. Then, additionally to that, before the order is made, a notice giving the effect of the intended order has to be displayed.

What does it mean? It means that any frontager who is to be affected, as I understand it, in the way which the hon. Member for Crosby regards as an unjust fashion, will be taking action which he knows perfectly well is in contravention of the order which has been notified and displayed. He is going to behave on any showing in a somewhat anti-social and anti-civic fashion. We know, and I say this without any disrespect, that the hon. Member for Crosby and the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) both feel sympathy far the owners of land which is subject to compulsory acquisition.

I have had occasion upstairs in Committee to hear something of their representations on that point. I invite them to recognise that in this context the frontager or the owner of an interest in land to whose rescue they are coming is, ex hvpothesi, behaving in a somewhat unreasonable fashion by continuing with building operations on land which the local authority has determined shall be converted into a new street, and in respect of which that owner will have received reasonable intimation by way of statutory notice.

Mr. Page

I am not complaining about the prevention of building on the part to be reserved for widening. I am complaining about the taking away of land by subsection (6) without compensation, and also about placing a charge on the owner to level it out in conformity with the rest of the street, and making him pay street charges.

Mr. Irvine

I appreciate that, but the fact remains that the developer will have received statutory notices which make it abundantly clear what will be the consequences of certain actions. As I understand, the hon. Member for Crosby seeks to come to the rescue of a frontager who has taken action of a kind adumbrated by the notice, knowing what will be the consequences of his action.

The proposal contained in the Clause is a simplification of and an improvement in the law. Further, although it may involve the owner of an interest in the deprivation of his land without compensation, it involves him only to the extent that he has taken steps which previous statutory notices have made it abundantly clear to him he would be very ill-advised to take.

Mr. F. V. Corfield (Gloucestershire, South)

I do not necessarily go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) in this matter. My main objection to the Clause is that it substantiaily alters the law, and I should have thought that the only justification for adopting this procedure, which has not been very enlightening so far, was that this is a consolidation Measure which does not materially alter the law.

As the hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) said, it is no doubt true that the original Section 30, subsection (4) of which was the basis for the subsection that we are now considering, was ambiguous and in many ways thoroughly unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, it has been on the Statute Book for about thirty-five years, and has had a definite meaning ascribed to it. It may be of interest if I read to hon. Members two short extracts from Pratt and Mackenzie's Law of Highways. Referring to the person who builds up to the building line, on page 502 we read: He may or may not, at the time of setting back his fence to conform to the byelaw width of the street, dedicate to the public the strip between the fence in its old position and its new position and if he has dedicated it there may not he acceptance by the public. There is no compulsion to dedicate. If it has not been dedicated and accepted then he may continue in ownership and exercise rights of ownership over the strip and may later re-enclose the strip without committing an offence against the byelaws. On the following page it says: If on building the fence is set back and the strip is not re-enclosed but there is no dedication or acceptance, the authority may make up the strip as part of the street with the same consequences as if it had been voluntarily added and dedicated and accepted but subject to the payment of compensation…If on building the fence is set back but there is no dedication and acceptance and the strip is subsequently re-enclosed then of course the highway authority must purchase the strip to be added and if they do, the strips will partake of the nature of that to which they are added… There is no option as to dedication in the present Clause, and no question of compensation arises in any circumstances. There is an automatic obligation to make a contribution to make up the street when that eventuality arises. I should have thought that that provision went a long way beyond the law which we are supposed to be consolidating. I hope that my hon. Friend will examine this point seriously. Even if the argument of the hon. and learned Member for Edge Hill is valid—and I do not necessarily dispute it—this alteration is a far greater one than those which my hon. Friend has been refusing to make in connection with the Amendments moved by the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) and my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby. It is absurd to be told that this alteration is quite in order, although it is quite a big advance on the existing law, and, at the same time, to be told that other Amendments cannot be accepted because the Bill is an agreed Measure and cannot be altered. I hope that my hon. Friend will look into the matter.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Ede

This is the climax of the absurd position which we have had to occupy this evening. This Clause is an enactment in new form of one of the most complicated sections of the law dealing with the very difficult subject of private street works. It means that a number of small people who happen to be frontagers on a road, or owners of land which may be adopted to go into an old road as a new street, have to face the complications described by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page). Even when my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) was describing what would happen, it still seemed to me a very complicated procedure for the kind of people to whom I have alluded to have to cope with.

Anyone who has been connected with local government knows the problems which constantly arise involving small people in the complicated mechanism of private street works legislation. This is an attempt to deal in a consolidation Measure with a subject—which would not be regarded by many people as germane to the general subject of this Bill—in a form which sounded terrifying when the hon. Member for Crosby was trying—and succeeding—in making it sound difficult. Even when my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edge Hill gave his lucid explanation I thought that it remained something quite beyond the comprehension of many of the people who will be involved in these transactions.

To put a Clause like this into the Bill is an abuse of consolidation procedure. I hope that as a result of passing this Measure we shall get a codification of private street works legislation, and all the things which spring from it, in a separate Measure in which the procedure now being enacted will be considerably simplified. It is not enough to say that people are given notice about this kind of thing. Of course they receive notices and then, if they have the means to do so, the proper action for them to take is to instruct their solicitor to take the advice of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edge Hill on the validity of the notice and whether there is some way to get round it. They should then go to a surveyor and get him to make a proper estimate of the cost of the work. But a great many people who become involved in these difficulties do not employ a solicitor, or if they do, they cannot afford to take counsel's opinion, and they do not employ a surveyor.

Many of these proceedings are carried out after a notice has been affixed on a post which is placed on the land, because at the time the notice ought to be given the person concerned cannot be traced. To add to the known difficulties the complications and the alterations which it is proposed to introduce in a consolidation Measure is an abuse by the Government of the powers they are asking this Committee to give them.

Mr. Page

The right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has mentioned notices which he said are served on people to give them warning. In fact, the notices are not served on anybody, they are posted up at the end of the street—

Mr. Ede

That is what I said.

Mr. Page

But they are not served on the people to give them the necessary warning. They are displayed along with other notices; and who will read such a notice among such notices as those announcing that a fine of 40s. will be imposed on the owner of a dog which fouls the pavement? All these notices may appear on the same lamp post.

I hope that right hon. and hon. Members realise what they are doing by including Clause 159 in the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) read from the textbook on the subject that under the present law this sort of practice cannot be carried out without the payment of compensation. Under Clause 159 of this Bill it can be done without the payment of compensation. That is what is being done under the guise of a consolidation Bill.

Mr. Ede

The notices are placed at each end of the street on the assumption that the frontagers will read them. But the people concerned may not go down that street while the notice is displayed. That may not have been there for thirty years. They may live a long way away. This is a terrible abuse of the power of the Government.

Mr. Nugent

I must apologise for imposing on the Committee the burden of considering this complicated and difficult Measure this evening. I think that the contribution of the hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine), who was a member of the expert Committee, helped my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) to understand what the Reading Committee was recommending in redrafting the Measure in this way.

It is relevant to recall, I think, that the Reading Committee realised that it was dealing with something extremely difficult here. I do not for a moment disagree with the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) when he says that private streets works legislation is most complicated and very often affects small people. Indeed, from time to time, they come to their Members of Parliament and ask us to unravel their problems for them. We should all readily agree that a codification and simplification of the law in this respect is desirable, but those are matters of substance which cannot be dealt with here.

The Reading Committee, realising that it had something of great difficulty to deal with, set up a special sub-committee of impressive constitution to make a special examination of the law on these matters in order to try to simplify it and assist the many people affected by it. The Clauses which we have before us now are the result of that simplification.

I must rely upon the Report of the Joint Select Committee of both Houses which stated that the changes made are not of substance. They can, therefore, be accepted by the Committee tonight. In its Report, the Select Committee said that the changes made were not of such importance that they ought to be separately enacted". I call those words of the Select Committee to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby and my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) in their anxiety on these matters. We have the assurance of that authoritative body that we are not making here substantial changes in the law of such importance that they ought to be separately enacted.

I feel that the assurance of the expert Reading Committee and the, perhaps, even more authoritative assurance of the Joint Select Committee of both Houses throws upon this very difficult problem a light different from that which my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby sought to direct upon it. I do not deny that the law in this respect is complex and unsatisfactory and will, no doubt, have to be changed. Nor do I deny that the consequences referred to by my hon. Friend may occur. The obligation may fall upon the landowner not only to give up his land but to be responsible for maintaining the road afterwards.

As I understand it, I follow the hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill in saying that the main use of the Clause is in connection with development. I think that that puts it in a different light. Rather than argue the intrinsic merits of it, which are complicated and difficult to adduce, I rely upon the independent and authoritative Report of the Joint Select Committee, which said that the changes made here are not of such substance that they should be separately enacted. On those grounds I ask the Committee to reject the Amendment.

Mr. Page

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 160 to 209 ordered to stand part of the Bill.