HC Deb 16 February 1973 vol 850 cc1717-28

4.1 p.m.

Mr. William Shelton (Clapham)

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for being present on the Front Bench. I wish to draw attention to a situation which, though superficially trivial, is, in fact, causing much anxiety and distress to many people in my constituency and elsewhere. The remedy calls for no legislation and the expenditure of but little money. I refer to the procedures which local councils follow when they let people know whether their houses have been affected by compulsory purchase orders. I wish to discuss how they do it, when they do it, and in what form they do it.

I am not for this purpose interested in the rights or wrongs of compulsory purchase orders which have been issued or which may be issued, although I must say that it is my belief that after a generation or so, when we look back on the destruction of many of our communities, we may well regard what has been done with the same sort of detestation as we now accord to some of the high rises in council estates. But, as I say, that is not the burden of my case today.

I have been in correspondence with the Department of the Environment and I understand that the Government's view is that they have a role to give authorities broad guidance on planning and other policies and to advise on the steps that may be taken to improve the operation of these policies. I hope to convince my hon. Friend that there is a case here for some guidance and some improvement.

As I understand it, the only statutory duty which a local council has towards the owner-occupier of a house threatened by a compulsory purchase order is to advise him that such an order is being considered, but only when it goes to the Secretary of State for final judgment. In other words, apart from that, there is no time limit placed on when the advice should be given. Neither, I believe, is there any statutory obligation to advise tenants living in houses which may be affected by such orders.

My proposition is that all councils should go beyond the letter of the law, that they should go beyond the requirements which I have outlined, and take a great deal of care in advising people whose homes are threatened. I need not emphasise the great importance of a person's home, representing as it does probably the largest single item of family expenditure and an important factor in holding the family together.

I acknowledge that there are great differences between local authorities in the way in which they approach this problem. I am advised that, for instance, recently in Telford new town, where a compulsory purchase order was passed by the council, within a week every person affected was visited by a council representative who called at each house, answered questions, allayed anxieties and explained the matter. One person told me that he actually wrote to the council seeking information, and the next day he received a telephone call from a member of the council answering the queries in his letter.

On the other hand, I must regretfully speak of Lambeth Council, I say "regretfully" because it is a council which is excellent and thoughtful in so many ways, but in the case of compulsory purchase orders in my recent experience in my constituency it has been both thoughtless and callous in the way that it has approached the problem.

The subject is of special importance in Lambeth in 1973, because, if my figures are correct, over the last five years the average number of compulsory purchase orders has been between four and five each year affecting an average of about 24 or 25 acres each year. But I am advised that in 1973 39 different compulsory purchase orders are envisaged affecting more than 200 acres—a tenfold increase. Hence the increasing importance of the procedures that the council follows in telling people affected by the orders being immaculate.

I have two examples of recent cases. The first was in the Rectory Grove area. The order was passed by the council last August, but it was not until 11th January this year—a delay of six months—that a Section 170 form dropped through the letterbox of the people affected. The letter that accompanied the form was a cyclostyle letter starting off: The Council has passed a resolution to make a compulsory purchase order under Part V of the Housing Act for the acquisition of certain lands…". That is not exactly the most sympathetic way of advising someone for the first time that his house will be threatened by a compulsory purchase order. In that period of six months there were paragraphs in the newspapers, rumours, extreme distress and anxiety for many people who, as it turned out, were not affected.

The second case concerns Ively Road and Wandsworth Road. The compulsory purchase order was passed through the council in October 1971, but it was not until five months later that a Section 170 form dropped through the letterboxes of those affected. It was not even accompanied by a letter. It simply had typed across the top—I have a sample here: London Borough of Lambeth (Wands-worth Road) Compulsory Purchase Order 1971". That is the only information that this group of householders received that their homes were being threatened, although in the five months since the council meeting rumour had been rife.

A letter I received in October 1972 went as follows: Dear Sir, My wife and I are in our 81st year and in view of our failing health the prospect of being turned out of our home fills us with anxiety and distress. The matter was taken up, there was a reference to it in the local Press, and I am glad to say that in January they received an assurance from the council that they would be allowed to spend the remainder of their years in their house.

The question arises why this couple were not told this information in October or before that in August when the compulsory purchase order was passed. The other question is how many more people are in similar circumstances but have not approached their Member of Parliament, still have not received any such assurance, and are suffering grave anxiety because of this matter.

Of course, Lambeth council must be aware of these difficulties. We might ask why it does not have at least a leaflet or booklet, as so many other councils have, to send to people threatened by compulsory purchase orders. The answer is that it has such a booklet. I have never seen it, and none of my con- stituents to whom I have talked has ever received or seen it. But it has been received by someone to whom I spoke the other day, who lives not in my constituency but in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton), who I know is very interested in the matter. I welcome his presence this afternoon.

On 9th February the lady in question received such a booklet. It had a photostat plan at the back and it came with the form and a reply-paid envelope. It was excellent. The only slight flaw was that it referred to a compulsory purchase order approved by the council on 2nd February 1972, exactly a year and a week before she received the booklet. The booklet promised that someone would visit her shortly. Will she have to wait another year before that happens?

The fact that such a booklet exists in the borough and is not used is more of a condemnation than if the council had never thought of having such a thing.

Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister might be persuaded to send a circular to councils suggesting various procedures which should be followed in such a situation. It is really a matter of the time scale involved. I do not see why people should have to suffer anxiety because they are not told for months and months. The burden of almost all the large number of the letters that I receive is not so much to ask why there should be a compulsory purchase order, although that is asked again and again, but to ask "How will it affect us? Can you tell us when it will happen? If it affects us, what are our rights? Shall we be re-housed?" All this information should be given as quickly as possible.

I should like humbly to suggest five points that councils should follow in such circumstances. First, when a compulsory purchase order is approved by a council it is public knowledge. Therefore, within a week every householder affected should receive the kind of booklet that the lady I have mentioned received a year late from Lambeth. It should contain a cyclostyled plan and so on. It should tell householders their rights and it should go to tenants as well as to owner-occupiers.

Secondly, those affected should receive a personal visit within four weeks at the latest. That should not be impossible.

Thirdly, if a number of residents require it, a public meeting should be arranged within, at most, two months of the council's approving the compulsory purchase order. In the case of the Rectory Grove development area the residents have been pressing for three or four months for a public meeting, but the council has not arranged it.

Fourthly, any changes in timetable should be notified to the people involved as soon as the change is made. We all know that there are such changes. People should be told when the public inquiry is to be held, when the matter goes to the Secretary of State and when work might start if the order is approved.

Fifthly, and perhaps most important, all inquiries from people affected by compulsory purchase orders should be dealt with in an informative, friendly and helpful way.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

The hon. Member for Clapham (Mr. William Shelton) has raised a number of considerations that have long concerned me as Member for the adjoining constituency. More consideration should be given to the anxieties of tenants and owner-occupiers in areas to which a compulsory purchase order may be applied.

In one instance in particular, Landor Road, tenants have formed an association to protect their interests. The council decided upon a compulsory purchase order last October. For some reason that I do not know, information leaked out about the council's intentions before the council meeting occurred, and many people became anxious as a result. The council passed a resolution in favour of the compulsory purchase order last October, and ever since the tenants' association has been trying to arrange a public meeting to be addressed by an official representative of the council to explain exactly what has happened.

As a result of prolonged correspondence, I understand, the council has agreed to hold a public meeting in March. But there is a time lag between October, when the CPO was decided by the council, and the date when the council is to hold a meeting to inform the tenants of what is going on. That is a major problem. The anxieties of ordinary people ought not to be prolonged a minute longer than necessary. It is not only the immediate problem of a time lag, but the time lag between when the council passes the CPO and its holding of a public inquiry.

There are shortages all round. Lambeth Borough Council, for instance, has a shortage of staff in its housing department, although it is faced with a housing task among the most difficult of those of all the London boroughs. There is a time lag after a CPO has been passed and the results of the inquiry have been sent to the Minister, and between that and when the result is conveyed to the tenants. We should do all we can to minimise the anxieties of ordinary people, to tighten procedures and to let people know as soon as possible what effect the plans of a council will have on their future.

4.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Mr. William Shelton) for raising this subject today.

It is interesting that less than a month ago, in a debate on the effect of planning permissions on the individual, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development said that the aim of local authorities should be that opinion should be enabled to declare itself before any decision is taken on proposals of wide concern or substantial impact on the environment; and that this should be so whether the proposal is that of a Government Department, a local authority, statutory undertakers or a private developer."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th January 1973; Vol. 849, c. 1127.] It is, I believe, helpful to have this statement of general principle before us as we turn to the points raised by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton). I congratulate my hon. Friend on extending the debate on public relations aspects of redevelopment into the area of compulsory purchase.

I should like to think aloud about some of the great practical difficulties faced by local authorities in this respect and to discuss some possible solutions. We must, I believe, start from a recognition that many areas of our older housing stock, built about 100 years ago, are now approaching the point at which a choice must be made between rehabilitation and redevelopment.

Indeed, in a circular last May the Secretary of State urged all housing authorities to join him in a drive to deal with all the remaining unfit or substandard houses in England within a decade. He pointed out that: As many authorities reach or approach the end of clearance programmes for houses now unfit, it becomes increasingly important for slum clearance and house improvement to be seen and considered together in combined strategies for the improvement of the existing housing stock as a whole, set against the needs and wishes of people in the districts concerned. In deciding which approach to adopt, local authorities have been given every encouragement to rehabilitate their older housing stock, particularly by means of declaring general improvement areas, in districts not destined for early redevelopment or major structural change; where the houses are not yet at the end of their useful life; where there is scope for environmental improvement; and where residents and owners are likely to welcome and co-operate in a scheme of area improvement.

I know that Lambeth Council has shown a keen interest in improvement programmes and is very much alive to the consideration that, in general improvement areas, persuasion and voluntary action must be the guiding principles, comulsory purchase—whether to secure house improvement or the demolition of fit houses for environmental improvement—being viewed as a last resort.

Not all houses can be dealt with by means of improvement. And, for many people throughout the country, it so happens that compulsory purchase becomes necessary for one reason or another. This debate is essentially concerned partly with the way in which local authorities arrive at their housing policy decisions but mainly with how they then explain their decisions to the people most affected.

The hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) asked for consideration of the feelings and anxieties of people affected by these orders. I agree entirely with the sentiments he expressed. One thinks of the old-age pensioner who has lived many years in the same house, perhaps from birth. Its threatened loss seems to such people the end of the world. Others, faced perhaps with difficult financial schooling and other choices, need to know with reasonable certainty whether to spend money in improving their present house or whether to cut their losses and move.

The young couple, purchasing their first house, must be able to rely on their solicitor's searches. Speaking from personal experience, I know that this type of situation poses real problems for solicitors too.

There are also communal concerns. The local conservation society may wish to save the buildings. The residents' association may be striving to keep the neighbourhood together. There may even be differing views among local councillors as to the appropriate action for the area.

Passionate arguments about rehabilitation versus redevelopment may continue until the public local inquiry into the compulsory purchase order. This may well add to the general uncertainty of the residents, but we must recognise that this is one of the prices which have to be paid for proceeding—rightly—on democratic principles in this very complex and highly personal area of social concern.

As I have already mentioned, housing authorities were asked in circular 50/72 to work to a 10-year strategy for their unfit and substandard housing stock. This suggests to me that any council needs a clear policy, known to all its officers and therefore reflected in all the council's dealings with the public, covering four situations: first, areas where no redevelopment is envisaged; secondly, areas destined for eventual redevelopment, but probably not within say 10 years; thirdly, areas programmed for redevelopment within say 10 years but where no statutory action has yet been started; and fourthly, areas already involved in statutory action.

The second and third of those situations are perhaps the most difficult since a council's plans for a particular area may undergo many changes over the years for political, financial, technical or social reasons.

Nevertheless the council will receive various inquiries, for example for improvement grants or from would-be purchasers. Unless its replies are both accurate and carefully qualified, it could become a fruitful source of misleading rumour. My hon. Friend referred to this as did the hon. Member for Brixton. I appreciate how misleading rumour can spread in heavily populated areas. There is no easy answer to this problem. But, for example, where a property may be affected by redevelopment within 15 years, could not the council qualify approval of an improvement grant to the effect that it has been made without prejudice to the council's future freedom of action, or some similar wording?

Alternatively, where an application is rejected because redevelopment is contemplated within 10 years, perhaps the applicant could be given an assurance that there are no proposals for action against his property within the next, say. five years or whatever period is reasonable.

Even when an area has been programmed for redevelopment it must be a matter of judgment whether the council makes any formal announcement and, if so, whether in general or specific terms.

Certainly it becomes important to consider how far the wishes of the people living in the area should be ascertained. Should not these wishes be taken fully into consideration before the council reaches any firm decisions?

As I said earlier, what is important is that the authority should make its policies clear to its own officers, because nothing can prevent residents in the area drawing their own conclusions from the terms in which council officials reply to inquiries from would-be purchasers and applicants for improvement grants, and nothing is more worrying than an apparent conflict between different parts of the same local authority.

I now come to those properties directly affected by statutory clearance procedures.

The redevelopment of older residential areas may be undertaken under planning powers or, particularly in London, under Part V of the Housing Act 1957. There may be a time lag, in some cases of six months or more, between the formal resolution and the actual making and submission of the order, owing to the difficulty, particularly in London, of identifying all the interests in the order land.

The statutory requirement to advertise the making of the order and to serve personal notices on owners, lessees and occupiers—other than tenants for a month or less—does not apply until the CPO is actually made.

Because of the inherent complexities of the procedures, delays between the date of the council resolution and that of the actual making of the CPO may not be the result of dilatoriness or inefficiency on the local authority's part. After all, the drafting and notification of a compulsory purchase order is governed by statutory rules properly laid down.

It is, clearly, essential that anyone with an interest in any part of the land comprised in the CPO must be given due notice of its making. Interests can be many and varied, particularly in a closely-developed urban area; boundaries between properties may be obscure. While some of these can be identified at the outset, others can be discovered only by way of formal inquiry appropriate after an order comes to be made. Naturally, interested parties do not have much incentive to deal promptly with such inquiries.

In some cases owners cannot be traced by the normal inquiry methods and a "dispensation" by the Secretary of State can be given to permit site notices to be used instead of formal personal notices; but this is not given lightly.

No CPO can be made until each and every interest has been identified. As I have said, statutory notices of the making of a compulsory purchase order are required to be served on owners, lessees and occupiers on a monthly tenancy or more. I have noted the comments that have been made about the method of giving such notices. I hope that councils will take account of my hon. Friend's reasonable comments, and I assure him that my Department will give serious consideration to his suggestions.

The Department has urged local authorities in Circular 91/72, first, to include in their statement of reasons for making the order other information which may be sought by persons affected—for example, their proposals for rehousing occupants displaced from the order land —and, secondly, not necessarily to await objections to the order but, wherever practicable, to serve the statement at the time of making the order on all persons having an interest in the land and also on short-term tenants.

Local authorities have also been asked to ensure that their case for slum clearance compulsory purchase orders is supported by evidence on the question whether demolition of all the buildings in the clearance area is the most satisfactory way of dealing with it, and on the need to acquire the order land.

The Government for their part have proposed a number of practical improvements for owners and residents affected by redevelopment in the Land Compensation Bill currently before the House. I should have liked to stress some of these, but in view of the time I had better pass on to the rest of my speech and the specific situation in Lambeth.

I gather from my hon. Friend that delays have occurred in Lambeth between the council's resolution to declare a clearance area, or to make a CPO, and the actual making and submission of the order. I have earlier outlined the problems facing authorities here, but I am led to believe that Lambeth is not unsuccessful in its attempt to satisfy most of my hon. Friend's requirements. Certainly, when a resolution has been adopted it is Lambeth's practice to make an an- nouncement in the local Press, and I had understood that it was sending a special booklet to all occupiers in the affected area.

The booklet, in simple language, describes why CPOs need to be made in Lambeth, details the procedure leading to confirmation and taking possession—the possibility of partial or complete rejection by the Secretary of State is not discounted—and explains the arrangements for rehousing and compensation entitlement.

I understand that Lambeth also arranges a public meeting in the area. I note the points made during the debate, and one recognises how important it is for the council to explain its redevelopment proposals and allow those against the scheme to voice their opposition. The council also urges any person with unresolved problems either to discuss these with a "visiting officer" of the housing department when he calls or to take them to the Housing Advice Centre at Brixton.

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.