HC Deb 17 February 1970 vol 796 cc225-30

Any power of a highway authority under section 29, 30, or 31 of this Act to acquire land by agreement for a purpose therein mentioned shall be exercisable in respect of any land which, in the opinion of the highway authority, may be required for that purpose, notwithstanding that the land is not immediately required for that purpose.—[Dr. Dickson Mahon.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.5 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Dr. J. Dickson Mahon)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

The Amendment, as you suggested, Mr. Speaker, is consequential upon the new Clause.

So far as the Secretary of State is concerned, this Clause is pure re-enactment, because he already possesses powers to acquire land in advance of requirements by virtue of Section 46 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act, 1959, which refers back to his previous powers to acquire land under the restriction of Ribbon Development Act, 1935, as read with the Trunk Roads and Special Roads Acts.

The purpose of the clause is not really to deal with the re-enactment of the Secretary of State's position, but, as a new matter, to give express power to local highway authorities to acquire land in advance of requirements for certain roads purposes. This is a power which local authorities already possess in relation to virtually all their other functions. For instance, Section 143(3) of the Housing (Scotland) Act, 1966, authorises acquisition in advance for housing and Section 157 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1947, authorises acquisition in advance of requirements for local authority purposes generally, though not for roads purposes.

This enabling power applies only to land acquired under Clause 29 for the construction and improvement of a highway, under Clause 30 for purposes connected with trunk and special roads, or under Clause 31 for the provision of building or facilities needed for the discharge of the highway authority's functions. It does not seem appropriate for the other powers of land acquisition—that is to say, Clause 32—land to provide a new private access—or Clause 33—land for works on side roads in connection with constructing or improving a classified road. Prior knowledge of the need for land in these cases seems unlikely.

The power to acquire land in advance of requirements is a very reasonable one for highway authorities to have. It could, for instance, be used if land comes on the market which, the authority knows, will in some years be needed for highway construction or improvement. This could be particularly useful in urban areas. Another possible use is where single carriageways are being constructed, but it is expected that after some years the road will be improved to dual carriageway standard. In such a case, it may be desirable to acquire all the land at the same time. There can be no hardship to property owners, since the power applies only to land acquired by agreement.

We have, naturally, consulted the local authority associations about this, and they will be grateful for this parliamentary favour if the House so wishes.

Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (North Angus and Mearns)

We on this side of the House certainly accept the new Clause in principle and the reason why the Government are bringing it forward. The Clause gives local highway authorities extremely wide powers indeed, particularly if we refer, as the Clause does, to Clause 31 of the Bill, which says: … the highway authority may acquire by agreement or compulsorily land wherever situated …". That does show to the House what we are doing if we pass this Clause. Obviously, when we are giving highway authorities powers as wide as these it is right that we should ask them how they will use these powers and in what circumstances and I am grateful to the Minister of State for the explanation he has given.

It is my understanding of the Clause—and I think that it is confirmed by what the Minister of State said—that this power is already available to the Secretary of State, both in relation to trunk roads and to special roads, under the Acts of 1946 and 1949. But even in those Acts it seems that the powers are fairly well circumscribed. First, they are circumscribed in relation to what they may be used for—construction and improvement. Secondly, they are confined to land within 220 yards of the road. Thirdly, there are even tighter restrictions under Section 5 of the 1946 Act which deals with preventing buildings interfering with views and one or two other very specific restrictions of that nature.

This goes back to what I said earlier. It appears to me that while the Secretary of State may have these powers already they are confined to trunk and special roads. The circumstances in which the powers can be used are very restricted indeed.

While we are not opposed to this in principle, I should like to have heard a little more—if my interpretation of the previous Acts is correct—about why, in relation to the highway authority and not to the Secretary of State, is it necessary, to extend these powers, very much more widely than they are at the moment? In particular, what safeguards are there to ensure that these powers are exercised responsibly by the local authorities?

Earl of Dalkeith (Edinburgh, North)

My suspicions are always aroused when the Government produce a new Clause like this after the Committee stage of a Bill and I wonder what has prompted them suddenly to bring this one forward. Perhaps the Minister of State will tell us what request there has suddenly been for this power, which is fairly extensive, although, in presenting the case for the Clause, he made it sound very innocuous and innocent. No one could object to what the Clause aims to do, but we must know more about it.

Is there a demand from the highway authorities for this power? If so, is it not surprising that they did not think of it sooner? It would give the authorities scope for buying up enormous areas of land should they wish to do so, although it would admittedly be by agreement and not by compulsory acquisition. We must remember that 220 yards on each side of a road stretching for one mile means a total of 170 acres, and this could make quite a hole in someone's farm, even though it would be by agreement. One wants to be sure, when giving authorities powers to do these things, that such powers are not likely to be abused.

I understood the hon. Gentleman to say that the power was already available in previous legislation, and if this is just a tidying-up operation there is no harm in that. But, in the context of the Bill, which aims to speed up the process of getting new roads built and ready for driving on and at encouraging everyone to be co-operative and drop their objections virtually before they start, I wonder whether this power will not arouse some feeling which will discourage people from being as co-operative as they might otherwise have been.

I give an example where this sort of power is not perhaps necessary. Only two weeks ago, I signed a deed selling a piece of land belonging to a company with which I am associated to a local highway authority. Having signed the deed, which enabled the authority to buy the land, I said to a friend, "Let us look at the site". He replied, "The work is already done. It is a lay-by". The lay-by was built before the deed for sale was actually executed.

This is an example of where co-operation by private individuals can speed up the process of getting roads or lay-bys where they are wanted. I wonder, therefore, whether the new Clause is really necessary. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give more justification for it.

Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North (Earl of Dalkeith) in asking whether the new Clause is necessary. I do not want to see acres of productive land lying fallow while highway authorities are deciding whether to build a road or are waiting for Government approval for the finance. In a case where the highway authority, and through that the Scottish Development Department, buys land for a highway, but eventually decides that it is the wrong land and does not wish to use it after all, may we have an assurance that the original owners will have the first opportunity to buy back that land for their own farms?

4.15 p.m.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I agree that, in the exercise of this power, the local authorities must be sensible and must not take over too much land in advance of what their needs are. I agree that, if they have land in their stewardship which they cannot use at the time—and there will be free negotiation—then the tenant farmers or others concerned should be allowed to carry on farming as long as it is administratively practical for them to do so. This is a matter of judgment by the local authorities concerned. What we are debating is the principle of allowing local authorities to do what they do in regard to every other function they discharge. Neither party has dissented from that principle at any time. We are seeking to correct an anomaly.

I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North (Earl of Dalkeith) that the Government deserve a great deal of praise for their ability to bring in Bills and add very few new Clauses to them on Report, but even this Government are not completely perfect and occasionally we do find, on second thoughts, that it is worth while trying to set an anomaly right. So, with some modesty, we put forward new Clause 1 in the hope that the House will agree that this should be done before the Bill goes to another place.

On the general principle, as paralleled by the powers of the Secretary of State, there is no difference between the nature of his powers here and those we are seeking to extend to the local authorities. I confirm that we are taking here a power which applies only to land acquired by agreement and therefore with good will. Whether I should compliment the Border county concerned in the example given by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North on the speed with which it carried out the work he described, or should seek to condone his reluctance to sign over the deed because lie was busy on parliamentary duties, I cannot say on the facts at present. But that transfer would not have happened without the consent of both parties, and I leave the matter there.

On the question of the figure of 220 yards, I do not want to anticipate Amendments Nos. 44 and 45, although I note that the hon. Gentleman has not added his name to them. It is a matter for further argument later. I think that I have covered all the other points raised in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second tune and added to the Bill.

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