HC Deb 03 August 1965 vol 717 cc1556-67

5.37 a.m.

Mr. David Mitchell (Basingstoke)

Although the hour is late, I am glad to have the opportunity of drawing the attention of the Government to the hardship and unfairness caused by some aspects of expanding town development in Basingstoke and Andover. I am delighted to see the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government is here to reply, and I hope not only to reply but also to take note and to take back to his Ministry some understanding and some sympathy with the problems which we have in these two towns.

I know the Parliamentary Secretary will realise that I am raising this subject in a constructive spirit and not to create party political controversy. I believe that the Minister, on his recent visit to both towns, was very impressed with the progress which was being made under the expanded town procedure under the Town Development Act, 1952. I think he will probably find that it is a more economic procedure than building new towns. He may wish to expand this and make more use of it in the future, but he will be able to do this only if the earlier towns, such as Andover and Basingstoke, are seen to be successful and are approved of by their existing population. If these people find that they have put their heads into a noose, then others are not going to follow suit. There are three points I wish to make.

First, I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify what will be the effect of the Chancellor's announcement last week. I assure the Parliamentary Secretary that I will refrain from the obvious comments about suffering the effects of an incompetent government's economic policy. Secondly, I want to draw the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to the growing burden facing ratepayers if no special financial assistance is forthcoming, and, thirdly I wish to draw the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to the hardship and unfairness arising from the compensation for displaced householders, farmers and shopkeepers. I have given the Parliamentary Secretary advance warning of the fact that I was raising these particular items, in order that he would be able to be informative in his reply, and I have already deposited with him a map which shows some of the affected areas, which I propose to talk about later.

Naturally, there is widespread anxiety about the effects of the cuts announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He said that The Government intend to slow down the rate of expenditure on capital projects … Loan sanction and grants will only be given to local authority projects which are urgently required. If I may make a plea straight away to the Minister, right at the top of his "in" tray, the Andover by-pass is urgently required. The chaos in the town at the weekend has to be seen to be believed.

I hope that after this debate has concluded the Minister will be looking forward to the Recess and, perhaps, taking himself and his family down to the West Country for his holiday. If he does, he may travel through Andover, where he will probably be held up for half an hour, when the problem which we often see there will be brought home to him clearly and firmly. It is like a blockage in a main artery right through the centre of the town. One can neither go one way through the centre of the town nor, without great difficulty, cross the town the other way.

The Basingstoke-North trunk road has been designed to fit in with the housing and other developments of the current major town expansion. This is all part of a jigsaw puzzle. It is wrong to give approval for housing and factories but not for roads, because they are essential. When the factories and the housing are there, we must have the communications around them. The starting date had been fixed for early 1966 and I ask the Minister specifically whether he can give an assurance that there will be no interference with that starting date as a result of the cuts announced by his right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

The Chancellor said that non-industrial capital projects would be postponed. I wonder this includes teacher-training colleges—I gather that it does—because we are to have no less than 22 new schools in Basingstoke in the whole of the development and I cannot imagine how we will find the teachers to staff them if there is any hold-lap in the building of the teacher-training colleges.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his announcement: In particular, sanction will not be given except in special circumstances to loans for expenditure on land purchases in advance of requirements, on civic buildings, offices and a variety of miscellaneous projects which, though desirable in themselves, are not essential at this time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th July, 1965; Vol. 717, c. 228–9.] This is disturbing when one is concerned with the comprehensive development or redevelopment of a major part of a town. I hope that "special circumstances" will include Basingstoke.

The population of 33,000 is increasing at the rate of 4,500 a year. One cannot simply dump down a large number of people with inadequate facilities for social, cultural and recreational activities. A sports centre, a swimming pool and things of that sort are all an essential part of the overall picture of the town. There are churches, "pubs" and shops, and shopping facilities are urgently needed with the enormous increase in the population. A town must have a heart. It must have more than simply factories and houses, and I ask urgently that this aspect should not be forgotten. I hope that we may have reassurance from the Minister that we in the town will be regarded as a special circumstance.

I should like to draw attention to the growing burden which faces Basingstoke's ratepayers. Many people do not seem to realise just how big the scheme is. Four years ago, the population of the town was 26,000, it is now 33,000 and in ten years' time, it is estimated that it will be 76,000. The all-in cost of this—I do not think I am revealing anything which is secret—will amount to some £126 million.

Here we have an immense project, which is helping to solve a major national social problem, the problem of moving people out of London and providing work and housing and other things away from the capital. I would pay humble tribute to the skill and efficiency of those who are responsible in the towns for doing this, Hampshire County Council and Basingstoke Council, which has done a tremendous job, and the development group themselves, who are carrying out so much of the work.

Over the next four years Basingstoke Council will need to borrow £18 million, a very substantial sum, and it is out of all proportion to the size of the population now, or to the resources of the town. Already the servicing of loan charges accounts for 23 per cent. of the total rate fund expenditure, and next year it is estimated it will rise to no less than 30 per cent. High interest rates will increasingly reflect themselves in demands on the local ratepayers, and this is what is causing me and a great many ratepayers very considerable concern. One has had a raised Bank Rate now for a very long time. No doubt I shall be corrected if I am wrong, but I think it has been as high as this longer than at any time since the war, but if one takes only ½ per cent. increase on £18 million it will cost £90,000 a year, and for a population the size of ours it is a very serious burden.

So my first call is for money at a reasonable rate of interest, and also its availability. It is not only the interest rate; it is the problem of finding the money at all. We are particularly disconcerted, therefore, at the Chancellor's statement that local authorities will be subjected to more restraint in the timing of their borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board. I interpret that to mean—no doubt the Minister will tell me whether I am right or wrong—as Treasury jargon for saying it will be darned tight-fisted in the next few months. If that is so, how will a town like Basingstoke deal with the problem with which it is faced?

I said at the time of the Budget, it has been said by Basingstoke's Council to the Treasury, and also, I believe, to the Minister of Housing and Local Government, and I say it again now, that a town in specialised circumstances of this sort, where expansion amounts virtually to a new town being built, ought to have something like 50 per cent. access to the Public Works Loan Board. I hope that will be considered.

There are three choices in front of us: the ratepayers will suffer; or the scheme will be slowed down; or the money will be made available. I would urge the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to ask his Minister to try to melt the heart of the Treasury, if such a thing can be done, in order to see that this scheme of reconstruction is not slowed down and that the ratepayers do not suffer; because if they do, there will be no more willing lambs for the slaughter in future in would-be expanded towns.

The third and final point to which I want to draw attention is that of compensation. The basis of compensation, in my view, is not working fairly; I do not think it is working in the way in which it was originally intended it should. A number of cases of hardship have come to my attention. Under the Act, the system which is used for compensation in towns such as Basingstoke and Andover is that the council pays what would have been the value if it had not been an expanded town under the Act.

Perhaps I might quote a concrete example. The property in question was worth £2,800. The compensation offered was £2,300, on the basis that that is what it would have been worth had Basingstoke not been an expanded town. The constituent concerned accepted £2,300 and he was then faced with the problem of finding somewhere to live. He found himself an almost identical house to the one in which he had been living. This house cost him £2,800, which I said was the value of his original house. Having received only £2,300 by way of compensation, he is £500 worse off because he is one of the unfortunate citizens affected by the expanded town position and by the compensation provisions.

That sort of case seems to bring in a degree of hardship which it is unfair for a citizen to have to bear. I appreciate that if the man concerned took his money and went to Romsey, or Devon, or somewhere like that, he would be able to buy a similar house, but one cannot expect people to uproot themselves from their houses, their families, their friends and their jobs and move out of an area. If they remain in the area, they have to pay the house prices reigning there at the time, and the values reigning in Basingstoke now are the values which ought to be paid in compensation to a person who is going to stay there.

The basis of town development seems to be, "You buy cheap today and tomorrow you sell dear". I can appreciate that this can be very profitable, but in this instance it seems to be a case of, "We buy at yesterday's prices and sell at tomorrow's", which is even more profitable. In these circumstances, it is essential that people get the compensation to which they are entitled.

It is very difficult to decide the amount to which a man is entitled. I presume that the district valuer's figures are not the best bargain that the council can get. They represent what is fair and impartial between the two parties—and I would value the hon. Gentleman's confirmation of that—but many people think that they are very hard done by. I have received many letters on this subject, and many people have got in touch with me about it, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are genuine misgivings about the matter.

What advice can I give? What advice would the hon. Gentleman recommend me to give? One can say, "If you do not think it is a fair offer you have the right of appeal to the lands tribunal", but this will cost a man perhaps £100. If it is a big case and leading counsel are engaged, it may cost anything from £100 to £1,000 a day to fight the case, but in a small case a man who has received £2,300 by way of compensation will think very seriously indeed before he risks spending £100 of it because the district valuer has stated what he considers to be a fair price. Joe Snooks or whatever his name is may not feel that he should risk £100 on that sort of basis, and it is therefore very important that the compensation should be fair.

To my knowledge there has been only one appeal in my area, and that was on 10th July, 1964, in connection with 63½ acres of land. The price offered was found to be £19,000 below what the lands tribunal thought was a fair price. That gives one cause to pause and think. Two big cases which are regarded as test cases are shortly to be heard in the area. These are the cases of Lord Camrose and the Honourable Douglas Vivian. They are now before the Lands Tribunal, and it may be that it would not be proper for me to comment on them at all. But a lot of people are watching this.

I ask the Minister specifically to answer one important question. Should the district valuer's figures in thise case be found not to be supported by the Lands Tribunal many cases which are coming up for hearing, or which are in the pipeline, will be altered, and the district valuer will presumably increase the basis of his valuation. If, on the other hand, the district valuer is found to be right, many people who have been holding out, expecting better terms, will accept what they have been offered. But what happens, if the district valuer's figure is not accepted, to all the people who during the past months have carried out a private bargain with the council on the basis of the district valuer's figures?

Will they just be regarded as having lost? Is it to be just their bad luck, in not being wealthy enough to fight the case as to the Lands Tribunal? I am concerned about the small people, not those who have plenty of funds and large estates, who will be able to argue their cases very effectively. It is the small shopkeeper and small farmer about whom I am concerned.

I want to mention tenant farmers briefly. They do not just lose their homes; they lose their livelihood, and they are entitled only to tenants right and a discretionary payment. There is extraordinarily little known about how much this is to be. There is no appeal against the amount when it is decided. At the moment there is a lot of delay in the agreement of some of these discretionary payments. If the Minister reexamines the situation he will see that some farms have been cut in half, others reduced in size and still others have had pieces taken out of them.

Farming is like any other business, with overheads, building, machinery, tractors, and so on. The large farm is more economical. If we start taking bits of a farm away we do not reduce the overheads correspondingly. The profits are reduced far more than the amount of land which is taken away. There is therefore a strong case for saying that there should be generous discretionary payment in those circumstances.

One sees the effect of this particularly in Old Basing. The land has been interfered with very badly. Land has been broken up. Mr. Snook, of Chineham Farm, has had a great slab taken out of the centre of a field, making it extremely difficult to work the remainder of the land. There are other farmers, one of whose farms has been completely chopped up and ruined. In these circumstances I ask that the discretionary payment which is now being referred to Whitehall should be on a fair and generous scale.

I want the expanded town developments to be a success. We want it to be fair on the ratepayers and on the displaced occupiers. We want the Government to bear their share of the burden of solving the national problem of reconstruction that is going on. We want clarification from the Minister of how much damage the Chancellor's cuts will do to the plans which we have in hand. We look to the hon. Gentleman, as the Minister responsible, to help us by regarding expanded towns as a special case, which is exactly what they are.

5.59 a.m.

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

I agree with the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Mitchell) that expanded towns in general, and Basingstoke in particular, are playing—and, I hope, will continue to play—a very important part in the work of rehousing overspill population, especially from London and other overcrowded conurbations. I share with him his appreciation of the work done in the expanded towns. As he said, when my right hon. Friend went to Basingstoke he was very impressed with what was going on, and by what could be done in them. We owe a tribute to the people who are co-operating in making them a success.

I must make it clear that, like other towns which are going in for town development, they have to make some contribution towards the savings on capital expenditure for which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has asked. This is part of the common sacrifice which we all have to make to save the economy of the nation, something we have been discussing exhaustively under rather more congenial conditions than those of the debate to-day. They will be affected in the same way as other local authorities.

While industrial development, housing and school-building will continue, capital expenditure which is not essential for these purposes will be cut back. Housing will continue within the existing programme. Housing proposals in the schemes will go forward as at present. Other essential public schemes, such as water supply and sewerage, essential for town expansion, will be looked at carefully, and will go forward if they are shown to be urgently needed. Less essential projects—shops, offices, town centres and civic amenities, must be deferred, though I recognise that this will be a disappointment to everyone. We cannot exempt places with town development schemes from these necessary restrictions. So much for investment by local authorities.

Private investment connected with town development schemes will be subject to the licensing procedure referred to by the Chancellor. That control will not apply to houses and factories.

The Minister will be issuing a circular to all local authorities in the course of the next few days explaining in more detail the effect on particular forms of local authority investment. If after local authorities receive this circular they want to find out how the proposals affect them in more detail and want to argue their case the Department is at their service and will be glad to discuss details and clarify the issues. On the second point—

Mr. Mitchell

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the first point, could he say something about the two roads—the Andover bypass and the north trunk road which is an integral part of expanding new town development at Basingstoke?

Mr. MacColl

I cannot possibly give further undertakings. Roads are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. They will be covered by what I said about consultations with the Departments concerned.

The second point was about the burden which falls on the ratepayers, and I would not deny the fact that if one undertakes schemes of this sort they impose financial burdens and capital commitments. But in return there are great increases in rateable value as a result of development. On the other hand, so far as I have been able to ascertain, there is no evidence that at the moment Basingstoke is suffering. Its rate poundage is not noticeably higher than the average, and it is receiving very substantial help under the town development agreement from both the planning authority, the Hampshire County Council, and the Greater London Council.

The grants which they receive under those agreements include capital loans. For example, the Greater London Council provides the initial capital for the purchase of land for housing or industrial development, and the borough council repays them when the houses and factories are let. In the case of the development of shops and other places, when the private developers take over responsibility, they have to be reimbursed. In other words, a good deal of the extra "dead" capital which arises out of development and on which there is no return is supplied under the agreement.

My right hon. Friend has not shut his mind to this problem. If there were evidence of a serious situation, he would of course look at it and watch it carefully, but at the moment he has no evidence that Basingstoke is suffering more than any other town engaged in similar activities. The point about access to the Public Works Loan Board is very much involved in what might be done if, in future, it is discovered that there is an unreasonable burden upon the town.

The final point concerned the assessment of compensation and hardship caused. The hon. Gentleman challenged the whole basis of assessing compensation on market value, without taking into account increases due to the expansion of the town. That principle is entrenched in the legislation which applies to these towns and I should be very sorry to see it go—

Mr. Mitchell

It would appear that this was designed for the new towns, because we have a totally different situation. There is a great deal of difference between considering a piece of blank countryside with nothing on it and saying, "We will not give an immense increase in value to the farmer or estate owner", and the situation of an existing town where people are displaced from their houses and have to find somewhere else to live, which they often cannot find at an equivalent price.

Mr. MacColl

That is a good point, but it is difficult to assess. It is true that, in a substantially built up town with its own life and activity, it is very difficult to assess the impact of a new development scheme, but it is not true that all new towns are small. Hemel Hempstead started as a town of about 25,000 people, and Runcorn is the same size. These problems have arisen with the new towns as well. However, the principle remains the same—that an enormous amount of public money is being sunk in the development of the new and expanded towns and the people in those areas will benefit very much from the increase in value due to the attraction of people and the consequential development of the town.

Therefore, it would be altogether wrong in principle that that betterment should be taken into account in assessing compensation. This was discussed exhaustively when the last Town and Country Planning Act was going through the House, and it was accepted by the last Government. Similarly there is no doubt that where there is a comprehensive development scheme one cannot take into account the increases in value due to that development for the purpose of compensation. That is the principle, and it would require legislation to alter it.

The other point concerned how it is being administered, and there the hon. Gentleman asked the question and answered it himself. He said, quite rightly, that the district valuer is there to fix a value which is open to negotiation, between the land owner and the acquiring authority. If they feel, at the end of their negotiations, that they are not getting a fair figure, they can go, as he said, to the Lands Tribunal. He pointed out himself, quoting a particular case, that the Lands Tribunal does its job effectively and factually. It does not hesitate to disagree with the district valuer if it thinks that he has erred in fixing the value.

I do not agree with the hon. Member in suggesting that this is necessarily a very complicated, expensive and terrifying business. It depends to some extent on the size of the property and the expertise required. While waiting patiently for this debate I was reading of a case in which someone had gone to the Lands Tribunal, without assistance, and had argued his case and won it. Indeed, the Lands Tribunal have a very high reputation as being a cheap, efficient and competent tribunal. If the hon. Member asks what advice he should give a constituent, I would say, "If you do not think that you are not getting the right value, go to the Lands Tribunal".

The hon. Member touched on the problem of the tenant farmer. Here I have nothing to add to what was said in the debate of 15th February. The Government are considering the whole problem of landlord and tenant relationship in agriculture, and as part of that they are looking at the special problem whether in certain cases more can be done for the tenant farmer. Many of the difficulties arising over tenant farming come from the fact that the tenant himself does not get a very great share in the compensation. The land owner gets the larger share. But one cannot just increase the tenant's share without taking into account what is the balance between the landlord and the tenant, on the one hand, and the owner-occupier-farmer on the other hand. It is not an easy problem, to be immediately solved. But it can be eased by discretionary payments, and a circular has been sent to local authorities urging them to make such payments where they think that that will help.