HC Deb 06 July 1961 vol 643 cc1849-57
Mr. Mitchison

I beg to move, in page 5, line 29, to leave out from the beginning to the second "the" in line 30.

Tine Temporary Chairman

I think that it will serve the convenience of the Committee if we discuss at the same time the Amendment in the name of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), in page 6, line 4, at end insert: (3) Without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing subsection, the Commissioners with such consent as aforesaid and without consideration or for such consideration as they think fit, may dispose of the foreshore or of any Hart of the foreshore or of a right or privilege over or in relation to the foreshore to any public or local authority and the Commissioners shall so use their powers under this section as in course of time to dispose to public or local authorities of so much of the foreshore as is under the management of the Commissioners and as they are not precluded from disposing of by any direction given under subsection (4) of section one of this Act.

Mr. Mitchison

That would be convenient, Mr. Thomas. I will put this as shortly as possible. This is a Clause about grants for public or charitable purposes, and it begins by saying that whatever is done under it can, as I read it, be done only For the development, improvement or general benefit of any land of the Crown Estate … I understand these words as limiting the whole scope of the Clause. The Amendment I have moved would leave those words out. The other Amendment would introduce a specific case to which I shall refer later. I should have thought that when one was dealing with the question of giving or selling cheap—if I may put it that way—land for public purposes such as those of a public or local authority, or for road construction or watercourses or reservoirs, or, under Clause 4 (1, c) for providing, enlarging or improving a place of religious worship … and so on, one should not limit oneself by words of that kind.

I said at the beginning of the debates on this Bill that it seemed to me that what the Government were trying to do was to give the Commissioners the character of good Tory landlords, and that I did not think that that was good enough. Some of the things that have been said since then make me wonder, if these are good Tory landlords, what on earth bad Tory landlords are like.

1.0 a.m.

Be that as it may, I should have thought that even on that rather narrow view of the matter the words ought not to be left in. This ties up too tightly what ought to be a public duty in the case of the Commissioners of Crown Estate with the business of estate management. If the words were literally enforced—if they are capable of being enforced—a great many things which a reasonably good person would do—to use that broad phrase—it would be possible for the Crown Estate Commissioners to do. Partly on the ground that my hon. Friends and I feel that that concept of the duties of the Commissioners is too narrow, and partly on the ground that even on the narrower view the words are still too narrow, I should like to see them out.

Now I come to the specific case and I must refer again to my seaweed. I still feel a little hard put to it having to pay 2s. 6d. a year for the privilege of having to remove seaweed from the foreshore. The Lord Advocate knows as I know that along the coast of Scotland people take seaweed from the foreshore and use it for fertilising the fields. That is done mainly in the wilder parts of Scotland—I should not think that they do a thing like that in Edinburgh, but they do on the West Coast of Scotland—and it is an instance of the sort of thing in which the Commissioners get involved in connection with the foreshore.

Under the law of England, no one has any right to go on the foreshore at all, except fishermen for the purpose of their craft. The Solicitor-General will remember a case of the lord of the manor who wanted to put some bathing machines on the foreshore, but the Court of Common Pleas decided by a majority that he could not do it and had no right to do it. The only dissenting judgment dissented on a very interesting premise. It was thought proper to have bathing machines in those days, and it was said that the practice of bathing ought to be encouraged because it enabled the citizens of an island State to rescue shipwrecked mariners.

In spite of all those considerations, the case confirmed or decided that no ordinary citizen had any right to go on the foreshore, except fishermen in the pursuit of their craft. In Scotland there is a curious thing called jus spatiendi, which in English or Scots means "right of walking" and which to some extent, apparently, enables the Scots to go on the foreshore.

There is a third aspect to this matter of the foreshore and I mention this with some feeling. We hear a good deal about really messy beaches covered with oil discharged from ships. That oil is a nuisance to everybody. I should have thought that it was a legal nuisance, too, but a nuisance in the ordinary sense of the word it certainly is. It is on the land belonging to these gentlemen, the Crown Commissioners. Do they ever do anything about it? I have never heard so. I dare say that the Solicitor-General will be able to give instances when the Commissioners have been found patiently scratching oil off the foreshore, or taking steps to prevent it accumulating there.

Seriously, whether it is a question of dirty beaches and oil on the foreshore, or a question of the rights of individuals to use the foreshore, or a question of having things like my seaweed, surely the Crown Commissioners are not the right people to own the foreshore. I have suggested that they ought to be able to dispose of the foreshore and that it ought to be their duty—not with any time limit and an actual date—to hand it over to the local authorities. Local authorities do not own it at present. It is not within their jurisdiction. I should have thought that they were the best people to do it.

The Government may say that they have consulted the local authorities and that they do not want to have it. I could understand that objection, because the foreshore is rather a liability, but if it is not going to be handed over to the local authorities what are the Crown Estate Commissioners going to do about cleaning it up? The answer to that question would really be interesting, but it is too late to develop this fascinating subject a little more closely. We shall never know, for instance, about the king and the 49 casks of brandy, the case that the Solicitor-General will remember. The king got the 49 casks, and died soon afterwards.

Mr. van Straubenzee

As one who is, in a Parliamentary sense, a neighbour of the Crown Estate Commissioners, I have very much sympathy with what the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) is seeking to persuade the Committee to accept. I have no idea what advice the Solicitor-General will give us, but I should be very glad to feel that he would be able to concur, at least in spirit, that they should follow the advice of the hon. and learned Gentleman. There are most excellent powers given in Clause 4, and it is a thousand pities that some hon. Members who have castigated the Commissioners earlier have now left us. It is particularly unfortunate that the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris), who clearly had not studied the provisions of the Clause when he addressed us, has gone to bed.

What may be a real point in my constituency is that if, in an area, the Commissioners are invited, and feel it wise, to make land available for the provision of a school, they must by their statutory duty be sure that it is For the development, improvement or general benefit of any land of the Crown Estate, and not for the benefit generally of the area or for the benefit of the surrounding land. It is the Crown Estate that must benefit.

I should have been glad of some explanation of their power in that regard. We have great confidence in their ability to administer an estate in their hands, and they could surely be given a certain discretion in that matter. While I would not necessarily seek to press the matter tonight, if the Solicitor-General would suggest that this aspect—one of good neighbourliness—will be looked at again, however briefly, it might remove some anxiety which is quite non-party and which is an anxiety to make the Bill workable.

The Solicitor-General

Clause 4 gives power to the Commissioners to make grants for a number of wide public or charitable purposes, but as the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) pointed out, all their powers under subsection (1) are governed by the opening words that it must be For the development, improvement or general benefit of any land of the Crown Estate, Those words are rather wider than my hon. Friend, the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) might have suggested. For example, there have been two very recent cases where similar powers have been exercised—because this is largely recapitulation of existing powers. The first was land leased for the siting of a village hall at Oxshott, which is by no means exclusively taken up with the Crown Estate, but the Crown has a substantial estate in the neighbourhood. The other is of more immediate interest to my hon. Friend and is where land was licensed for the construction of a reservoir on the Windsor Estate. The Commissioners have considered that the general improvement or general benefit of the Crown Estate can properly be construed in a wide sense, and I should have thought that they were right in that.

The hon. and learned Gentleman in his Amendment goes further, because by eliminating these words what he is doing is to enable the Commissioners to make grants for any public or charitable purpose whatsoever whether or not it is for the general improvement or general benefit of any land of the Crown Estate.

Mr. Mitchison

It has to be done with the consent of Her Majesty, and that imports the Government's responsibility.

The Solicitor-General

Nevertheless, the point remains that what one is doing is to allow the Crown Estate Commissioners to make grants for any public or charitable purpose at less than the best consideration, whether or not it redounds to the advantage of the Crown Estate even in the wide sense that I have suggested.

One should remember that we are dealing with public property. This is in effect the property of the nation. It reverts, constitutionally speaking, at the end of each reign to the Sovereign, and the settlement which has habitually been made for the last two hundred years is made at the beginning of the new reign. But this is public property; therefore, if general grants for public or charitable purposes are to be made, they should be made by the appropriate organ of Government. The Commissioners can properly be given wide powers to make grants for charitable purposes, as long as in the most general sense it can be said to redound to the advantage of the Crown Estate, but it would be wrong in the circumstances to go further.

The second Amendment deals with the foreshore, and I can deal with it quite briefly. The foreshore is part of the Crown Estate and is capable of producing very valuable revenue; revenue far in excess of the 2s. 6d. a year by which the Exchequer benefits from the hon. and learned Gentleman. One has only to think of sand and gravel extraction. Where people are going to extract sand and gravel commercially to derive a profit, should not they pay a proper consideration to public funds? It is the public fund, the national fund, since it is part of the Crown Estate, which should benefit in such a case.

But, says the hon. and learned Gentleman, what about the amenities of the foreshore? That is a perfectly fair point, but that is already taken care of by existing practice. What the Crown Commissioners do is to encourage local authorities to take regulating leases of the foreshore adjacent to their areas. They can then regulate the use of the foreshore, control the use of materials, and in other ways regulate the activities of the public on the foreshore—to which as a matter of grace which has developed into custom—they have access and preserve the amenities. Great areas of Crown foreshore are already on such leases, particularly in the neighbourhood of the more popular resorts. As I say, the Crown Estate Commissioners are anxious and willing to encourage more local authorities to make use of those powers.

Mr. Mitchison

I rise only to say that nothing could be less satisfactory than that reply.

Amendment negatived.

1.15 a.m.

Mr. Pavitt

I beg to move, in page 5, line 36, at the end to insert "for the purposes of".

This is only a tidying Amendment. I will not delay the Committee long with it or with the next Amendment. We have paid much attention to the Clause because after the rather harsh commercial landlordism which seems to animate the rest of the Bill, the Clause is one in which a little of the milk of human kindness starts to flow. We feel that the insertion of these words makes the Clause much clearer, and I hope that the Solicitor-General will accept them.

The Solicitor-General

There is perhaps a little ambiguity in this paragraph, as it might be read for the purposes of any public or local authority … exercising powers conferred by or under any enactment for the supply of water. I imagine that that is the point which exercises the mind of the hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt). It was not the Government's intention so to limit the purposes of any public or local authority. The Amendment makes it plain that it is not intended to be so limited, and I advise the Committee to accept it.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Pavitt

I beg to move, in page 5, line 39, to leave out "or improvement" and to insert "improvement or maintenance".

This deals with only a small point. I hope that we shall have the pleasure of hearing the Solicitor-General accept this Amendment, too. It concerns a principle very well argued by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) on Second Reading. What we sought to do throughout that discussion was to preserve the principle of stewardship on the part of the Commissioners. There would be a constant responsibility not only for the matters which we have mentioned previously but also for maintenance—a responsibility to maintain the property in the best possible condition.

The Solicitor-General

When the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) earlier said that he agreed with a great deal at the end of my speech, I began to be very nervous, and I determined to see what I had said which had drawn that tribute, because I felt that I had probably been extremely incautious. I was even more nervous when the cheers of hon. Members rang in my ears a moment ago, but it is a very sweet sound in the ears of any Minister and very unexpected. Encouraged by what happened then, I advise the Committee to accept the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Sir E. Boyle

I beg to move, in page 6, line 7, to leave out from "Estate" to the second "or" in line 8.

Subsection (2) empowers the Commissioners to make grants in money out of income for religious or educational purposes connected with the Crown Estate or for hospitals or other purposes tending to the welfare of residents or employees. The words we seek to omit were first inserted because they appear in Section 5 (2) of the Crown Lands Act, 1894. I do not think that the words are necessary and the subsection would run very much better if it simply read: The Commissioners may, out of the income of the Crown Estate, make contributions in money for any religious or educational purpose connected with land of the Crown Estate or for any other purposes tending to the welfare of persons residing or employed on any such land. In other words, it makes it perfectly cleat that the contributions in money must tend to the welfare of persons resident or employed on the Crown Estate. I think that this is a reasonable departure from past precedents and the word of the earlier Act. I commend the Amendment to the Committee.

The Temporary Chairman

I omitted to mention that it would be convenient to discuss with this Amendment the Amendment in the name of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) in page 6, line 8, after "infirmary", insert: library, community, centre, village hall".

Mr. Mitchison

This is a somewhat doubtful procedural trick by the Government. They have at the last moment inserted an Amendment which causes my Amendment in page 6, line 8, to fall. Theirs is a starred Amendment, but they are the Government and so it appears on the Notice Paper and is called. If they take that criticism seriously, I assure them that I have much more fundamental criticisms of their conduct. I see what the hon. Gentleman intends by his Amendment. I think that I am right in saying that the objects I had in mind, that is to say, contributions to a library, community centre, or village hall, would all come within the language of the subsection as it will be when certain words are deleted by the Government Amendment. It may be possible to think up an ingenious case in which something would be welfare but not a religious or educational purpose. Even so, it is all covered. Therefore, the procedural trick has succeeded. The Government have no doubt taken this wise and sensible step because I pointed out to them the difficulties of contending that a cemetery tended to the welfare of persons residing or employed on the land. It may do many things, but not that.

Mr. Parkin

I hope that the Solicitor-General will bear with me. I want very briefly to say how much I welcome this device of his, which will sweep away archaic phraseology and the conception of the old-fashioned institution. By the omission of these words the whole Clause will be much more up to date and comprehensive. It will be more in line with modern welfare services.

Sir E. Boyle

I am glad that the hon. Member thinks that. I am reminded of some words used by Lord Amory at one point in his Budget speech last year, when he talked about being inspired by reforming zeal and moving from one bold expedient to another.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.