HC Deb 13 July 1962 vol 662 cc1775-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. M. Hamilton.]

3.57 p.m.

Lord Balniel (Hertford)

In rising to address the House for the second time today, I feel that I must apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, but I make no apology for raising a matter which, although it affects only a few of my constituents, I believe raises issues of fundamental importance. What I want to do during the course of this debate is to call the attention of the House and of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to the clause which the Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield New Town Development Corporations are proposing to insert, and are indeed inserting, in the leases which they are offering for their houses.

These are leases which are to run for 999 years, and I think it would be for the convenience of the House if I begin by quoting in full the clause which the Corporations are intending to insert in their leases. This clause provides that the lessee— shall not without the previous consent in writing of the Corporation to use or let the premises or any part thereof or suffer the same to be used for the purpose of any trade business or profession or any other purpose and not to use exhibit or publish the address of the premises in connection with or for the purpose of any trade business or profession"— and now we come to the important words— but to use the premises as a single private dwelling house only for occupation by one family as hereinafter defined and for no other purposes whatsoever. For the purpose of this clause, 'family' shall mean the lessee, his or her wife or husband as the case may be their children and their children's wives or husbands and their servants, parent and grand parents only. I shall in a moment refer to the reason why the Development Corporations are anxious to introduce this clause, but just before I do so I would ask my hon. Friend to consider far a moment the practical implications of this clause. These houses are being leased for 999 years, and they are being leased as part of the policy of establishing a property-owning democracy in this country. They are being leased at a substantial premium; sometimes £5,000 is being demanded. And yet if a lessee——

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. I. Fraser.]

Lord Balniel

And yet if a lessee wishes to have living with him in his own house, for instance his own brother, he has to go and ask the written permission of an official of the Corporation. Perhaps I can take another example. Suppose there are two maiden ladies who probably have been friends all their lives—possibly even sisters—and one of them, the owner of the house, wishes to have living with her the other, in her house—she has to go and obtain written permission from an official of the Corporation. If, however, she pays her sister or pays her friend, then her sister or her friend becomes a paid housekeeper and, by legal definition, a servant, and then she can dispense with the written permission of the Corporation.

One can think of other examples—where, for instance, a family has taken into their household a niece, perhaps an orphan, and have treated their niece as their daughter, but have never legally adopted the child as their own child. They would have to disclose this fact and obtain the written permission of the Corporation. One can also imagine circumstances in which two people are living together and because of circumstances are not able to get married, or, indeed, may not wish, for various reasons, to get married, and yet, if they continue to live together, they have to go and obtain written permission from an official of the Corporation.

I am quite happy to accept that the objectives of the Corporations are laudable, but, none the less, however widely they may attempt to interpret this clause, to me this clause represents a gross intrusion by a public authority on the personal liberty and privacy of individual people. Why on earth should these people using their houses as purely private dwelling houses—and, of course, I could quote innumerable other examples—have to go cap in hand and seek the written permission of an official of a Development Corporation before they can lead their own lives in their own way in their own houses? I frankly say that if such a clause were introduced by any local authority, democratically elected, I cannot believe that it would be acceptable to the electorate of the area. However widely the Development Corporations may try to attempt to define this word "family"—something which, incidentally, has not been attempted before by any public authority I know of—such anomalies as I have quoted are hound to arise.

I believe that my views on this subject are shared by a very substantial number of my constituents. I have, for instance, sent my hon. Friend an editorial from one of the leading newspapers, the Hertford Mercury, which expresses public opinion clearly and forcefully. I think it is of interest that this is the first occasion during the seven years 1 have represented the Hertford constituency that I have been asked to attend a meeting of representatives of every single legal firm with any significant legal practice in the new towns. These legal firms must have handled the overwhelming majority of the number of leases which have been offered in the new towns, and certainly they handle a very large part of the legal practice in the area. The representatives of every single legal firm in the area are united in their firm opposition to this clause.

I should perhaps mention the sequence of events which has taken place so far. The matter was first called to my attention at the beginning of April this year. I immediately wrote to the Development Corporations asking for information and comments. Information and comments were forthcoming. On 12th April I wrote again to the Development Corporations, letting them know that in my opinion the clause was: an excessive intrusion on personal liberty. Since then some further correspondence has passed between us, and the Board of the Corporations has very kindly con- sidered my views on the subject, but it has not found it possible to withdraw the clause. Indeed, I believe I am right in saying that it met again only yesterday and reconsidered the matter in the light of its knowledge that this debate was to take place. I am led to understand that again it has not found it possible to withdraw the clause.

That leaves me with the sole recourse, as the elected representative for my constituency, if I am to protect what I regard as being the reasonable rights of my constituents, of raising the matter in the House. I do not deny, though, that I am very reluctant to do this. The reason is that the action of the Corporation arises out of a specific problem which is at the moment before the courts. It will be realised that I have, therefore, to be very careful not to refer to the specific case before the courts. Equally, I cannot postpone raising the matter any longer. My constituents in considerable numbers are under great pressure to have these leases signed.

Only the other day I received a letter from one of the firms of solicitors in the area informing me that the Development Corporation are agitating for contracts to be exchanged in a great number of transactions affected by this covenant. While I do not refer to the specific case which is before the courts, the general problem arises because the Development Corporations do not feel that they have adequate powers to prevent their houses being used as common lodging houses. This is not a problem which has arisen through overcrowding. The powers to deal with overcrowding are adequate. It is not a problem which arises from annoyance or public nuisance. Common law redress for annoyance and public nuisance are well known. I accept straight away that it is absolutely right that a landlord—including the Development Corporations—should have the power to restrict the use of his house to that of a private dwelling and prevent it being used as a common lodging house.

My own belief—I have had this confirmed not only by legal opinion within the constituency but also by independent legal opinion outside—is that the old form of lease being used by the Corporations was perfectly adequate to this purpose. It contained a clause stating that the premises were to be used only as a private dwelling house and not for any trade, business, or profession. My advice is that were any lessee to run the house as a common lodging house, that would constitute a trade or business or profession and be a breach of the covenant.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has a great deal more knowledge of legal matters than I have, but I can submit to him ample legal authority which would go to support this proposition. It is interesting that no other new town development corporation has found it necessary to introduce a clause defining a family in this way, though it is specified that their houses shall be used as single private dwelling houses or even that they Should be used for one family. In common with other public landlords in other parts of the country, they are perfectly content to leave the judgment as to what constitutes a family to the decision of the courts.

I do not consider it my duty to assist the Corporations to draft their leases. As, however, they have so far found it impossible to meet the request I have put to them, I have sought legal advice as to what would be a satisfactory clause, which, I should have thought, would go all the way towards meeting the need that the Corporations feel. I will read out this draft clause which seems to me entirely to meet their point. It says that the lessee shall agree Not without the previous consent in writing of the Corporation to use or let the premises or any part thereof or suffer the same to be used for the purpose of any trade business or profession or any other purpose and not to use exhibit or publish the address of the premises in connection with or for the purpose of any trade business or profession but to use the premises as a single private dwellinghouse only and for no other purpose whatsoever and without restricting in any manner the generality of this Clause not to cause or permit the said premises to be used as a common lodging house. This clearly must meet the reasonable needs of the Corporations, which, after all, are no more than the agents of the Government. I am going to be very blunt to my hon. Friend. To me, the Corporations' clause is totally obnoxious in a country where personal privacy and personal freedom are widely respected. I ask him bluntly to instruct the Corporations to withdraw this clause which they have not found possible to withdraw in response to my own requests —and not only to withdraw it but also to execute a deed of variation for those who, in their need for a house, have been forced to sign new leases including the clause.

4.12 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)

My noble Friend the Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel) has raised an important issue of principle and I say right away that in my view the attitude which he has adopted is fully justified.

The Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield New Town Development Corporations build houses for sale which are sold on long leases, mostly for 99 or 999 years. The leases originally contained, as my noble Friend indicated, a provision in common form limiting the use of the property to a private dwelling-house. There is, and there can be, no objection to that.

There have been, as he said, certain matters, which are now before the courts, which led the Corporations to reconsider their policy. I, of course, do not wish to comment on any particular matter this afternoon—I am sure that the attitude my noble Friend has adopted is quite right. What is clear is that there are statutory provisions dealing with overcrowding and other legal remedies available for matters which may be the subject of complaint, like noise or common nuisance.

However that may be, the Corporations decided to strengthen their position in future by introducing a new clause into their leases. No longer do they have a covenant to use the house as a private dwelling-house only. They now ask that the place should be used as a single private dwelling-house only for occupation by one family, which is later defined.

It was, I think, this definition of a family about which my noble Friend complained when he first drew my attention to this matter on 23rd May last. A family is defined, as he says, as being the husband or wife of the lessee, their children or parents, brothers and sisters of the lessee or their spouses, and the spouse of any such child, parent, brother or sister, and the servants of the lessee. Occupancy outside that must not be undertaken without the previous written consent of the Corporations.

At first sight, that seems to be a rather wide definition, but, nevertheless, it does fetter the right of the leaseholder to invite whom he wishes to live in his own home. He is compelled, for example, to obtain written consent if he wants to have an uncle, aunt or cousin living with him. No doubt that consent would not be unreasonably withheld, but I entirely agree with my noble Friend that such a clause is, as a matter of principle, obnoxious. I do not complain of his use of that word.

Accordingly, after some correspondence and discussion, a letter was sent to the Corporations on 28th June saying that, while we appreciated the Corporations' difficulties, we considered that it would be impossible to justify the clause in the form in which they now have it. We said that we thought it would be possible to accept a clause which limited occupation to a single family, provided that no attempt was made to define the family. This, again, is a clause in common form and the courts could be left to interpret it.

We accordingly requested the Corporations to withdraw the clause in its present form. We reiterated the request in a further letter of 3rd July. The Board of the Development Corporations met yesterday and, as I am informed, like my noble Friend, declined to accede to this request. My right hon. Friend will now consider whether to give a direction to them on the subject in accordance with the provisions of Section 2 (3) of the New Towns Act, 1946.

Meanwhile, I hope that I have made it plain to my noble Friend and to all concerned that the Corporations have been left in no doubt of our view about the clause as it now stands.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter past Four o'clock.