HC Deb 15 February 1966 vol 724 cc1281-8

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

11.37 p.m.

Mr. Brian Harrison (Maldon)

I am glad to have the opportunity of raising in the House, even at this late hour, the refusal of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to grant loan sanction for the purchase of Braintree Cattle Market. I do not do so from any form of regional partisanship but because I believe that a genuine mistake has been made here which should be rectified.

Braintree is an attractive rural market town which has adapted itself to an influx of industry and population such as nobody could have imagined prior to the war. Despite this influx and increase, the character of the town has been largely preserved and the central precinct maintained so as to keep the atmosphere of a market town with good, up-to-date shopping facilities. This has been done partly through the magnificent gift of the Courtauld family to the town, but also through the thoughtful planning and development of housing and other development by the Braintree and Bocking Urban District Council. It is in order to continue on these lines that the council sought loan sanction for the purchase of the cattle market, which forms a vital part of the central development area of the town.

In its desire to do this the council was following the instructions of the last Minister of Housing and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) who said, as reported in HANSARD of 18th November, 1963: It is a corollary of regional planning and development that land planned for major development should be bought well in advance by a public authority for disposal to private enterprise or to public enterprise as required, both to control and phase the development and to help in meeting the cost of bringing it into development."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th November, 1963; Vol. 684, c. 656.] The same principle appeared in the second section of the White Paper on the Land Commission, Cmnd 2771, brought forward by the Minister of Land and Natural Resources. He gave as his objectives in paragraph 5 in the second section, first, to secure that the right land is available at the right time for the implementation of national, regional and local plans, and, second, to secure that a substantial part of the development value created by the community returns to the community and that the burden of the cost of land for essential purposes is reduced.

The piece of land in the middle of Braintree falls exactly within the categories described in the second part of the White Paper. Braintree, unfortunately, has already had an unpleasant experience in not being able to purchase part of the land that it needs for developing the centre of the town in time. A block of property, though smaller than this piece, was sold for redevelopment not long ago for about £35,000. The property was gradually cleared of shopkeepers and then sold again. The ownership of the block changed hands three times, and finally it was sold for over £80,000. So the townspeople have to face the position that a private development company is taking nearly £50,000 out of the town for nothing, but, of course, the private profit will ultimately be reflected in the rents shopkeepers will have to pay in the redevelopment of the area which is now taking place. The council, naturally, does not want to see this happen again, and hence its proposal to acquire the Cattle Market site now and ensure that the site does not suffer a similar fate of being sold between development companies at ever-rising prices, which can ultimately only place an intolerable burden on the community.

The site I refer to, which is called the Cattle Market, is of 1.183 acres, and immediately adjoins the Market Square. There is only a collection of old wooden buildings on the site apart from the small office buildings of the owners, Messrs. Balls and Balls. It is of vital importance to any redevelopment of the town centre, and it is the aim of the council to make this into a first-class pedestrian shopping precinct.

The firm which owns the market realises that, because of the new town plan, it must ultimately leave and that it will have to provide a new cattle market on the edge of the town should such a market be proved necessary. Realising the interest of the council in improving the site, it came to an agreement on 23rd March, 1965, nearly 12 months ago, to sell the site to the council subject only to the granting of loan sanction. At this stage it did not seem likely that this would present any difficulties. The price has been agreed by the district valuer. From my experience, I regard it as a very fair and reasonable price. A less conservative and responsible firm might easily have asked considerably more.

The council wishes to purchase the site now. The auctioneers who own it have agreed to sell it now, and in order to assist the council, they have further agreed to rent it back from the council at a rent sufficient to pay for the interest on the loan which the council will have to raise for the purchase money. In this way it would have seemed that all would have been satisfied. The vendor receives a reasonable price for his land, the council pays a fair price for this vital site, and at the same time it costs it nothing as it has a tenant to occupy the site until it is ready to utilise the land. The council is getting land at a reasonable price, or a price that was regarded as reasonable last year. It can then go ahead with the development when it is ready.

Local Government Circular 6265, published six months ago, prohibited the purchase of land in advance by local authorities. Under this circular the Minister has refused to make loan sanctions. Braintree Council has entered into the spirit of this circular very fully. A special meeting was held to review all the council's expenditure and, as a result, it has deferred seven schemes involving capital expenditure of approximately £100,000. For this reason it feels, and I agree with it, that it is entitled to special concessions so that a large burden will not be inflicted on the community of Braintree and Bocking at a later date when it could be saved now by the purchase of this site on advantageous terms.

There is a further reason. Braintree Council is in an advanced state of negotiations with the Greater London Council for the provision of overspill. Already a meeting has been held at officer level and the financial provisions have been discussed. These have been reported to the council and a further meeting of members has been arranged. It is obviously vital, if the other areas which Braintree now holds for building are to be developed either for ordinary council building or for overspill, that the Braintree Cattle Market should be obtained for adequate development for the community.

Tomorrow morning the hon. Gentleman has, with his usual courtesy, agreed to meet a deputation from the Braintree Council to discuss this matter. I realise that he has a very busy morning and I know that he is extremely hardworking at all times. If he feels that the Braintree and Bocking U.D.C. has a strong case and that he can say "yes" to its request for loan sanction, I am sure that I can arrange, even at this late hour, to cancel the deputation, so that he will have one less engagement tomorrow. For the reasons which I have outlined, I hope that he will look sympathetically at the case for the granting of loan sanction to the Braintree and Bocking Urban District Council to enable it to purchase this vitally important site in the centre of Braintree.

11.49 p.m.

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

It will help to explain why I cannot yield to the plea that the Braintree Urban District Council should be given loan sanction to acquire this site if I fill in some of the background. In recent years there has been a great surge of interest in rebuilding town centres. Many plans have been prepared and some implemented. Characteristically, the rôle of the local authority has been to acquire the land and set the planning framework, while the rôle of private enterprise has been to acquire land either under freehold or leasehold from the local authority and undertake the building. Building of this kind has been in preparation up and down the country, and anxiety has been expressed that in total it would have led to a substantial over-provision of shops. In anticipation of this redevelopment there has been a very rapid increase in the acquisition of land by local authorities with a view to its redevelopment.

The call for loan sanctions for acquisitions under the general powers which local authorities obtained in 1963 to buy land for the benefit and improvement of their areas rose from some £7 million in 1962–63 to £21 million in 1964–65, and would have gone much higher this year but for the Government's measures of last July. These acquisitions were to a considerable extent in town centres, and there were also similar acquisitions under planning powers. It is plain that, as things were going, the demand for loan sanctions under these heads would have continued to rise steeply. These schemes also represented a significant prospective load on the building industry.

In the Government's measures of last July, we called a temporary halt and deferred, except where there were very special reasons against doing so, the purchase of land in advance of requirements and town centre redevelopment projects. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor told the House last week, these Measures have achieved their purpose, and we can now return to more normal methods of control. But, in reprogramming our investment, it is still necessary to keep expenditure within limits which we can afford. This means that we must continue to keep a tight rein on these particular forms of investment. At the same time, we have introduced the Building Control Bill which will bring under licensing most of the private investment in these redevelopment schemes, in order to make sure that demand and supply in the construction industry keep in step and that social needs—for example, for housing—have priority.

We must recognise the plain implication that the scale of expensive reconstruction of town centres will have to be regulated by priorities. Of course, that cannot be done on a short-term basis. Redevelopment schemes take a long time to carry through, and local authorities must be helped to know where they stand. My right hon. Friend therefore intends to construct a forward programme of redevelopment schemes selected on tests of priority, and he will shortly issue a circular to local authorities about this, after consultation with the local authority associations.

I am afraid that it will mean a continuance of severe restriction on the purchase of land in advance of requirements and a very critical examination of proposals for central urban redevelopment. As I said, the details will be set out in the circular.

The only real comment that I have to make on the fair deployment of his case by the hon. Gentleman is that everything that he said is perfectly reasonable, but that everything he said can be said for so many other local authorities which are in the same position and which have perfectly good schemes which they are anxious to carry out. The problem is how to sort them out.

I do not in any way reflect at all on the prudence and competence of the urban district council, nor do I suggest that the price is in any way an unreasonable one, nor that it would not be a wise investment to buy the land in anticipation of requirements. The trouble is that the cumulative effect of individually prudent purchases can be inflationary and can place an intolerable burden on the finances of the country. We have had the unpleasant job of having to say "No" to quite a number of local authorities who would, quite rightly from their own point of view, like to go ahead because of the advantages of buying the land before development values accrue, so that they know that they can lay out their plans.

All that I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that certainly this scheme is not killed. If the opportunities come in the future to give loan sanction, we will give it. I recognise that that does not meet the point that the local authority wants to take advantage of buying it now. On the other hand, it would be buying in advance of requirements. There is no question of its being used immediately, because I understand that the owners are still in occupation and that, even if it is sold, it will remain in their occupation for some time.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of overspill, and this again is a matter which would affect the situation. If a town development agreement were made with the Greater London Council, undoubtedly it would come into consideration.

What I have to say to the hon. Gentleman is what one has to say to many local authorities with equally strong cases, that in sorting out priorities somebody has to be disappointed. This is the sad task which faces my right hon. Friend, who is not by nature a person who wants to stop people from doing things. He is anxious to see a great development in this work of improving towns, and he would like very much to be able to say to everyone, as his predecessor did, "Go on and do what you can", but we have reaped the consequences of a lighthearted approach to, and easy control of, this problem. We are just beginning to emerge from the difficult situation which arose as a result of that policy, and, as I said at the beginning, I hope that as a result of the new review of priorities it will be possible to produce a coherent programme of priorities to which we can work. I am therefore sorry to have to say that my right hon. Friend cannot see his way to change his decision on this matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Twelve o'clock.