HC Deb 19 March 1969 vol 780 cc702-12

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

1.18 a.m.

Mr. David Mitchell (Basingstoke)

It is a time-honoured prerogative of Members of this House to raise on the Adjournment of the House a matter involving an unsatisfactory answer to a Parliamentary Question. There is also the duty that a Member should seek to protect citizens from injustice caused by the Government or those who act on the Government's behalf. This is what I seek to do in this debate.

I am indeed grateful to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury that he is here to listen to what I have to say at nearly 1.20 a.m. I should perhaps help him by explaining a little of the background. Basically what we are dealing with here is a long series of complaints from myself that an unsatisfactory situation exists, regular reassurances from the Treasury that all is well and the final denouement of an independent Land Tribunal hearing which has shown that all is very much not well.

I should like to sketch in the background. I have in my constituency two expanded towns. They are the towns of Basingstoke and Andover. In both cases the town centres are having to be pulled down and new town centres built. Land outside is being acquired for housing to bring a large population down from London, and that involves compulsory purchase. Nobody likes compulsory purchase, but everybody recognises that in such circumstances it is essential and there is no way round it.

Shortly after I became Member for Basingstoke I started to receive letters on the subject. Like most hon. Members, I run a surgery in my constituency and constituents come to see me. I have had many painful interviews, and a large volume of complaints, with constituents in tears telling me how unfairly they felt that they were being treated. Without any prompting from me, in 1966 the Chamber of Commerce called a public meeting to protest about the situation. I raised the matter in the House in 1965. I tried to raise it in 1966, Mr. Speaker, but did not succeed in catching your eye. I raised it in 1967 and in 1968.

It seems to me that two of three things are happening. One possibility is that my constituents are raising frivolous complaints which have no basis. A second possibility is that the code of compensation is wrong. A third possibility is that there is bad administration in the Minister's Department at Basingstoke.

I rebut the suggestion that my constituents' complaints are frivolous, for two very good reasons. First, in many cases their complaints are supported by the views of their professional advisers. I have made myself unpopular with a number of constituents by saying to them, "I am not prepared simply to accept the story you tell me; I want to know what your own professional adviser tells you." If they have no case, I tell them so, but many of them do have a case.

The first question which I should like to draw to the attention of the Financial Secretary is reminiscent of the dog in the story about Sherlock Holmes—the dog which did not bark in the night. In this case, all the complaints are at Basingstoke and none is at Andover. But both are expanded towns and both fall under the same compensation code. That is indicative of a situation which is special and peculiar to Basingstoke.

The second possibility is that the compensation code is wrong. In fact, I believe that it is unfair. Basically, it provides that the compensation to be paid in respect of compulsory purchase in an expanded town is that which would have been the value if the town had not been an expanded town. This means, at any rate in theory, that a man who receives compensation for compulsory purchase can take his money, leave the town where he is living and buy an equivalent property somewhere else. In practice, this is one of my reasons for suggesting that something is wrong. Very rarely can he do so with the money he gets at Basingstoke. Nevertheless, the code causes hardship. It means that a man must move away from his family, from the place which has been his home, where his relatives, his friends and his work are situated and from the locality in which he has lived all his life. In my view this cannot be a fair and proper way for compensation to work.

It is a curious code of compensation. I have one case in the constituency in which the district valuer offered £400 for three acres because some other attached land had been sold separately for a higher figure for private development. In one case, still not settled, the district valuer is offering £1 for three-quarters of an acre because some of the land attached to it has been sold at the open-market value. I say no more than that this is a curious code which I believe warrants further investigation. I have raised the matter in the House four times. If the Minister agrees that this is an unsatisfactory code I hope that, if his predecessors have not done so, he will make representations to the Minister of Housing and Local Government to secure a change in it.

A third possibility is that of bad administration at Basingstoke. The compensation code is complex, and I have great sympathy with those who have to administer it. We must not overlook the enormous work load which has fallen on the district valuer's office at Basingstoke during the period of town expansion. It may be that the Treasury has been too tight-fisted in the number of staff it has allowed. I do not know. I am not seeking to attack an individual. I do not have pleasure in raising bad administration in this case, but I have a first duty, as any hon. Member has, to protect the citizens in my constituency.

In July, 1966, I sought to raise the matter on the Consolidated Fund Bill debate, but it was not reached. So in September I wrote a six-page letter to the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury in which I set out the whole case. I am sure that the Minister will find it on his files, but it might be appropriate for me to quote briefly from two passages.

Having set out the situation and said how unsatisfactory it was, I said: Therefore, for the above reasons and in view of the unsatisfactory way in which the Compensation Act operates, I hope you will agree with me it is of even greater importance that the District Valuer should lean over backwards to see that he is fair, if not generous, in the compensation given to those who are dispossessed. I appreciate that the District Valuer in this case found himself in a town in which there was no market value because of the effects of planning blight and therefore had to create a market. The willing sellers who were anxious to retire from business provided the basis of valuation for this market and now this is used as the yardstick against which the unwilling sellers are valued at what seems to me to be an artificially low valuation. I gave two examples—Mr. Nutt and Mr. Alfred Cole. Alfie Cole recently drove to London in his pony and trap as a demonstration to the Prime Minister at No. 10, Downing Street about his treatment. He also, rather ill-advisedly I think, blocked the main street at Basingstoke with lorry loads of soil, which caused a considerable commotion. I say nothing to condone that way of drawing attention to such problems when there is a Parliamentary way. But if the Minister does nothing about the problem when it is raised he cannot blame me for the consequences.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Is not there this justification for Mr. Cole, that his Member of Parliament has raised the matter at least three times already without the Government taking any effective action to redress it?

Mr. Mitchell

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. It speaks for itself.

I went on in the letter: In these circumstances and in view of the fact that in approximately half the appeals which have been made the valuation of the District Valuer has not been upheld by the Lands Tribunal, do you not yourself consider that it might be appropriate for one of your superintendent valuers to look more closely at the situation in Basingstoke? The then Financial Secretary replied that that had been done. He added: As I explained in my letter of 5th April, differences of opinion about value can, in the absence of a negotiated settlement, only be satisfactorily resolved by reference to the Lands Tribunal … clearly the right course … is to get a ruling from the Tribunal. I may add that many people cannot afford this. The letter continues: I am sorry that, in spite of the assurances I have already given, you should maintain your charges about the way the District Valuer is dealing with compensation claims. I can only say that the Revenue tell me that as a result of their investigations they are satisfied that the District Valuer is conscientiously trying to arrive at impartial valuations which will be fair to the claimants as well as to the acquiring authority. The House will not blame me when I say that I took that as a reasonable, positive assurance from the then Financial Secretary. I wrote to my constituent that the Inland Revenue had carried out this investigation but added: I am still not satisfied, but I think the next step must me the reference of further cases to the Lands Tribunal and if this impartial body finds that the District Valuer is incorrect in further cases, then I think the case for an outside investigation will be clear beyond all doubt. We have had that next hearing in front of the Lands Tribunal, which is the situation which has resulted. For the benefit of the hon. Member I have quotations from the Lands Tribunal proceedings, "E. Kaye … and Personal Representative J. R. Sharp. Reference 551966".

The Tribunal was asked to consider three things. The first was a point of law as to whether the valuation should be made one way or another; the second was one method of valuation and the third was an alternative method. The Tribunal found that, on a point of law, the district valuer had chosen the lower when he should have chosen the higher method. I do not seek to raise this legal question but, given a choice between two alternative methods of valuation, the choice was made against the interests of my constituent.

Let us look at the figures which came up on the valuations. On valuation A the district valuer's figure was £100,000; the Lands Tribunal found that the correct valuation should have been £220,000. On valuation B, the district valuer's valuation was £37,000; the tribunal found that a fair valuation would have been £115,000. The hon. Gentleman cannot defend this. The differences are so enormous. He would find the transcript of the hearing interesting reading. I do not wish to be unfair in any way. Anyone can make a mistake. The question is how these mistakes come about. How was such a large difference arrived at? If there were one error of judgment, it would be understandable, but was it perhaps a long series of errors of judgment all to the disadvantage of my constituent? Almost every option which was open was taken to the disadvantage of the man whose land was being compulsorily purchased.

First there was the refusal to take into account a valid offer for the same piece of land made a few weeks before the compulsory purchase order. It was claimed by the local valuation office that this was not valid because it was made under the threat of compulsory purchase. I will quote from the Lands Tribunal's own report on this. It says: Mr. Goodman, cross-examined on this point by Mr. Finer, gave an answer which stemmed logically from his valuation which we confess we find startling. I am sure that the House will find it startling also. Question: I want you to assume that Lyon is saying 'I am very interested in this land. I am offering you £276,000 for it, subject to contract. I know that the local authority want it. Never mind, sell it to me just the same because I am willing to take the risk of compulsory purchase.' It is a big firm and that is the situation…. Your evidence is that if someone else came along and offered to write out a cheque, completion with contract, for £95.000 at that moment you would advise Mr. Kaye in all conscientiousness, to take the £95,000? Answer: Yes. Question: And that strikes you as being perfect commonsense? Answer: Yes. The Tribunal says: With respect to Mr. Goodman, we do not believe that a competent surveyor would have given such advice or, if given, that any man of business would have acted on it. Secondly, he ignored an earlier and similar transaction in which freehold land which was bought by Gaston Marbaix, claiming that it was not comparable. The Tribunal found that it was comparable and commented: Mr. Goodman said the transaction was very complicated, almost too complicated to be of assistance to the Tribunal". —the two greatest experts on land valuation in the country!

Thirdly, they base their valuation on assumptions that planning permission for access would not be likely to be forthcoming, on which the Tribunal found that it was likely to be granted: It is also significant that the area planning officer, in a letter to the district valuer dated 15th July, 1964, said he thought the outline planning permission had lapsed but that, like the district valuer, he was 'of the view that permission might again be granted for a similar access'. Later, it appears that both these gentlemen changed their minds. But, let it be noted, they changed them to the disadvantage of my constituent.

Finally, the district valuer based his calculation on the astonishing assumption that development of this land would have been delayed for 10 years, a delay which the Lands Tribunal did not find justified. So the Lands Tribunal found against the district valuer. This was a big case, but my concern is with the smaller people who could not afford to bring a case lasting 24 days before the Lands Tribunal.

The compensation code is complex. It is essential that it should be administered with scrupulous fairness and humanity, otherwise great hardship and injustice will be caused to those who have their land and property acquired from them compulsorily. In almost every option which was open to him in this case, the district valuer's office exercised that option to the disadvantage of the citizen. It is more like the action of a horse dealer than that of an impartial valuer. I think that that is a summing-up of it which would be generally accepted in this Chamber at the moment.

The very important question that I want to put to the Financial Secretary is to ask if this valuation was unique. Did the local district valuation office behave in this way on just one occasion? Was it only this constituent who, for some reason which I do not understand, caused this horse-dealing approach to be made, or has this been the cause of the continuous stream of complaints that I have had about the operation of the compensation code in Basingstoke since I have had the honour to represent it in this House?

This is a very important question to which I must ask the Financial Secretary to address his mind. Was it unique, or was this his normal method of doing business?

It should not be forgotten that four cases have gone to the Lands Tribunal. In all of them it has been found that the district valuer's valuation was below the amount awarded by the Tribunal. I know that the hon. Gentleman will say that there were 700 odd cases which were accepted and that only four have gone to appeal, so the district valuer must be right. But do not let him imagine for a moment that there are 700 satisfied customers. I assure him that there are not. There are 700 people, many of whom could not afford to take a case to the Lands Tribunal. Many of them, ignorant of the facts, would have said to themselves, "Here is an independent person who is not seeking to drive a hard bargain on behalf of the local authority. He is an impartial person whose job it is to decide between us. He says that that is what it is worth, so that must be what it is worth."

That is not what has happened when cases have been challenged. There are many people with a good case but who could not afford the expense involved if they lost. Having to pay the Council's legal fees as well as their own, indeed they might lose more than the value of the property that they sought to defend. I am sure that the council spent over £10,000 on this case. A small case might have cost only £1,000, but many of the people concerned could not afford that. Take Mr. Alfie Cole, for example. The bank has lent him more on the value of his land than the district value is prepared to pay for it. He cannot afford to risk any money on an appeal because his land will have gone and he will have an unsecured overdraft left standing against him at the local bank.

I want to allow time for the Financial Secretary to reply, and he has been very patient. But the Lands Tribunal has seen that this constituent has got justice. My question is, what about the others, the small people who could not afford to go to the Lands Tribunal?

I return to my original Question in the House on 28th January, when I asked the Minister Would he not agree that this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs? What does he propose to do about it?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th January, 1969; Vol. 776, c. 1083.] There was nothing in the answer which I then got which gave me any cause for satisfaction, but I invite the Financial Secretary to do so now.

1.40 a.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Harold Lever)

I hope the hon. Gentleman the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) will not think me discourteous if I intervene now, because I have the option of either doing that or leaving myself no time in which to reply.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. David Mitchell) has asked me to consider the barking dogs of Basingstoke in contrast to the silent dogs of Andover, and I am well aware of the well-known reference in Sherlock Holmes to the dog that did not bark in the night. But the hon. Gentleman's constituents can congratulate themselves that they have a watchdog who was prepared to bark even in the night, because of the extensive consideration given by our colleagues to business earlier before the House.

I do not complain that the hon. Member expresses himself forcibly in defence of his constituents' rights, because he is dealing with a subject of infinite complexity and very considerable difficulty.

I think I have to say at the outset that the district valuer's job is certainly not an enviable one. He has, on the one hand, not to act as a man anxious to drive the hardest possible bargain. He has to act as fairly and impartially as he can to reach a settlement which achieves a fair valuation of the land. It is no victory for him if he acquires for the public authority land at below its market value. There is no district valuer who is appreciated at head office for achieving such an advantage; that is not his job.

On the other hand, he is in the somewhat difficult position that he is the lone guardian of the public purse. It is very easy to be generous with the public purse. It is his duty, however, to protect public funds at the same time as achieving a fair bargain for the member of the public concerned, not altogether a happy situation for a professional man to find himself in, particularly as the area of judgment concerned in hundreds of cases is not susceptible to scientific estimation but only to calculation and assumption within legal rules of great complexity and great difficulty which involve him in solving conundrums about hypothetical values of what might have been the worth of the land but for the development entering into the computation.

I have a good deal of sympathy with all district valuers in fulfilling this task. They have the satisfaction of knowing that at the public cost any member of the public has the assistance of professional advisers. These advisers are exclusively advising the claimant. They have no responsibility to assess a fair value. They do not have this very difficult task but, without wishing to make an unjust claim, to advise their clients to the best of their professional ability.

Of course, if the district valuer errs in favour of a claimant, there is no appeal by the local authority and the money is paid out. But if the district valuer is wrong in the view of the advisers of the claimant, they have the remedy of going to the courts. I know that the remedy, with small people, is an imperfect one, but this is one of the facts of life against which it is useless to prick. We have the same problem about other domestic matters for the enforcement of civil rights. It is a great pity, and perhaps we should look into the possibility of achieving greater economy in the administrative law which is applied to the Lands Tribunal. But there is an ultimate remedy available.

It is of the highest importance that district valuers should not unnecessarily drive the smaller people to the Tribunal, but should seek to reach a fair and equitable compromise. I think that the hon. Gentleman is wrong in inferring that this district valuer has fallen short of the high standards which I confidently expect from district valuers throughout the country. While they are protecting the public funds, they should seek to give fair play to the citizen affected, particularly the smaller one, where the right to go to the Tribunal has a certain academic quality because of the cost. It is wrong to infer from the volume of complaints that this district valuer, or any district valuer, has fallen short of the standards. I cannot accept that.

Imagine the bitterness in the cases cited by the hon. Gentleman where members of the public were offered what amounts to derisory sums for their land on the ground that they had sold other land to private developers at a high price. I can understand them feeling bitter about this. But this is not the district valuer's fault. It is the correct operation of Section 7 of the Act passed in 1961 when, so far as I know, the party opposite was in Government. It may be that the code is unfair, but this is not a matter for me; it is a matter for the Minister of Housing and Local Government. The hon. Gentleman must speak to some of his hon. Friends about that.

Mr. David Mitchell

I carefully made the point about the £1 offered for three-quarters of an acre in my note on how unsatisfactory the code is and I suggested that the Minister should make representations regarding the code to the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

Mr. Lever

The hon. Gentleman was at no point inaccurate or, although he expressed himself vigorously, unfair; but I cannot accept any imputation of any kind on the district valuer concerned merely because there is a grievance. The code tends to grievance in certain of its workings, and not necessarily just grievance. I will look at that.

In conclusion, it is easy to make errors, in good faith, in valuations. It is no use—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twelve minutes to Two o'clock.