HC Deb 08 November 1973 vol 863 cc1325-34

10.56 p.m.

Mr. F. P. Crowder (Ruislip-Northwood)

I shall not detain the House too long this evening on a matter which affects my constituency, but it is a matter which is very important to my constituents since it relates to compulsory purchase orders. These compulsory purchase orders are being made in Northwood, Ruislip and in other places.

I believe that local government should be local. We are a new borough but we do not begin to be "local" because people in Hayes and in the outskirts of Ruislip have not the same ideas and feelings as those who live in Northwood.

I am sorry to have to bring this matter before Parliament, since it is a matter which is a particularly local issue, but I have been into the subject very carefully and have been enjoined by many people to give the matter an airing in Parliament on the basis that the spirit of the Act is not being put into effect by the local council. To give an illustration of the feelings that exist in my area on this subject, a lady in my constituency told me the other day that when she received one of these compulsory purchase orders through the post, she literally shook from head to foot.

Great unhappiness and distress has been caused to a section of my con- stituency by an absolutely callous local council. I say, as a Member of Parliament, that this is something I will not stand for, and that is why I bring this matter to the attention of the House.

The Act was designed on the basis that local councils were responsible bodies, but when one comes across a council which acts utterly irresponsibly, and which takes an extreme view—I do not wish to bring in politics here, but it is difficult not to do so—there comes a moment of time when a Member of Parliament has to come to the House and say so.

I wish to ask the Minister one or two questions. First, how can an owner-occupier defend his land against a council that possesses compulsory purchase powers? Secondly, what action can residents take to avoid the destruction of their environment in relation to the Act? It may be that, thanks to the irresponsibility of the council in whose area my constituents reside, we shall eventually have to amend the Act.

What action can an owner-occupier take if a compulsory purchase order affecting his property is made? Can anything be done to reduce the time taken—and this is very important—to take a decision on compulsory purchase orders? It is the waiting that is such a problem. My constituents are very upset about this matter, and that is why I raise it in the House. I understand that compulsory purchase orders on housing require the confirmation of the Secretary of State in every case—I think under Sections 38 and 39 of the Act. Should not a similar procedure apply to planning applications in respect of a local authority's own schemes? I do not like to bring local matters before the House of Commons, but when I see an Act being misused and misinterpreted in this way I feel that I have a duty to do so.

10.51 p.m.

Sir Gilbert Longden (Hertfordshire, South-West)

I shall not delay my hon. Friend's reply a second longer than I need, because I am very anxious to hear his answers to the extremely pertinent questions which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ruislip—Northwood (Mr. Crowther) put to him. I intervene merely to say that my constituents are close neighbours of my hon. Friend's, and these compulsory purchase orders will very grievously affect them and the value of their properties and the whole character of the place in which they live. They are grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for what he is doing and I strongly support all that he said.

10.52 p.m.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

I am very grateful for the opportunity to intervene briefly in this debate, because my constituency of Uxbridge is immediately adjoining the constituency represented by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ruislip—Northwood (Mr. Crowder).

My constituents, too, are suffering from the policies which are being pursued by the London Borough of Hillingdon. Like many other London boroughs, Hillingdon has a long housing waiting list and it must therefore pursue energetic policies if it is to solve its housing problems. But I believe that these policies should be such as would command the support of all the community. The council is doing much that is worthy of support. It is providing easy and quick mortgages and it is building houses for sale as well as for letting, and these are proper policies for a local authority to pursue. But, unhappily, the council is making what I regard as excessive use of the power of compulsory purchase as a general instrument of housing policy.

The position is that between 1st January 1972 and 12th October 1973 34 compulsory purchase orders have been made. I have been reading the Statute this evening, and I find that the compulsory purchase powers which were originally granted by Parliament under the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation of Procedure) Act 1946 were designed to provide an instrument to help rebuild our cities and rehouse our people after the Second World War. I believe that the excessive use of these powers in 1973 is completely unacceptable to the vast majority of my constituents, in the same way as it is unacceptable to the constituents represented by my hon. Friends. Many of my constituents feel that their homes or land may be suddenly and compulsorily acquired without their consent.

Before I came to this House, I spent 12 years in local government as a councillor in two London boroughs whose housing problems were as severe as—perhaps more severe than—those of Hillingdon. But during that period the compulsory purchase powers were sparingly used, and were used only when some development of very important local or national interest was involved. I believe that that is how compulsory purchase powers should be used. I am quite sure that they are not intended to be used as a massive blunderbuss to acquire almost every piece of land that comes on to the market, or to acquire the homes and businesses of my constituents without their consent.

It is not only the number of compulsory purchase orders involved that is causing concern; it is also the brutal approach made to owners to purchase their properties on the basis that if they do not do so, a compulsory purchase order will be issued.

Concurrently with this policy, my local authority is proposing to purchase up to 500 miscellaneous properties on the open market at a capital cost of over £7. million. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to give me some assurance that if these properties cannot be acquired on the open market he will not look with favour on the use of compulsory purchase.

It also seems to be the policy of Hillingdon Council to drive out of the borough the local private developers whose contribution to the housing target plays an essential part in the building of a balanced and happy community. Developers in Hillingdon, some of whom have been building houses there for more than 150 years, find that if they assemble a parcel of land for building it is acquired by the local authority for municipal housing. If the developer refuses to sell, he has to wait a year or more before my right hon. Friend is able to decide whether he will confirm a compulsory purchase order. Few developers can afford to wait so long with their money tied up in land at today's prices. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend, when he replies, will say that he will discourage wholesale acquisition of land from private developers and will speed up the consideration of compulsory purchase orders.

I hope that this short debate has drawn attention to a very serious local situation in my constituency which is causing much fear, bitterness and division amongst local residents.

11.1 p.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ruislip—Northwood (Mr. Crowder) for raising this important subject and I will certainly do my best to answer the questions which he has raised. I have also noted carefully the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Sir Gilbert Longden).

I am well aware of the controversy in the constituency of my hon. and learned Friend over the London borough of Hillingdon's proposals to acquire and redevelop a number of residential sites in Northwood and elsewhere, and I welcome the opportunity provided by this debate to say something in general terms about the use of compulsory purchase powers and the safeguards provided by the legislation, with special reference to London housing.

My hon. and learned Friend and my hon. Friends who have taken part in this debate will appreciate that because of the Secretary of State's quasi-judicial position in relation to planning and compulsory purchase procedures, I cannot comment in any way on individual cases. But perhaps I should start by sketching in the background of the London housing scene against which decisions on these matters have to be taken.

The House does not need to be reminded that we are faced in London with a very serious and urgent housing situation, reflected in an overall shortage of dwellings, an ageing and deteriorating housing stock, overcrowding, poor housing conditions and homelessness.

The largest and worst London housing problems are to be found within the inner London area, where the authorities cannot possibly meet all their need from within their own areas. They must look outside London and to the outer London boroughs for some assistance, either directly or through the strategic activities of the Greater London Council, and, of course, we expect that a lot of new housing land will be found in the dockland.

It is up to each London borough to work out a housing strategy in terms of its own local needs and circumstances, but the Government ask all boroughs to ensure that they make the best possible use of available resources and, in the case of the outer London boroughs, that they do what they can to help inner London.

How they arrange this is entirely a matter for them, subject of course to any necessary statutory, financial or other approvals. Housing is essentially a local matter, to be dealt with by democratically elected local authorities, within a broad framework of policy laid down by the Government and incorporated in legislation sanctioned by Parliament.

The methods available to a London borough when planning its housing strategy include, for example, the provision of local authority building to rent or for sale; assistance to housing associations; and encouraging the private sector to provide dwellings of the right type and within the right price range. Local authorities, housing associations and the private sector can also work to secure the improvement and conversion of existing dwellings; to ensure that much needed empty dwellings are brought back into use as soon as is reasonably possible; and to see that an adequate supply of existing rented accommodation is retained within the borough.

When there is such a diverse range of policies and activities to choose from, I would hope that all the London housing authorities, whatever their circumstances and political persuasion, will continue to co-operate in a team effort to deal with London's housing problems as a whole.

The Action Group on London Housing, in its Third Interim Report, identified additional land for 24,400 dwellings in 1972–81 as firmly available in Greater London, but this still leaves land for a further 16,000 dwellings to be firmly identified, if the impetus of the drive to eliminate London's housing shortage is to be maintained during this period.

The action group and the Department are continuing their efforts to close the gap, but in this sort of situation it is clearly imperative that the best possible use should be made of the land which has already been identified. One important factor in this concerns the density at which sites are developed, and perhaps I might refer here to Circular 122/73 addressed to local authorities, which pointed out that while the Government do not favour very high densities, a consequence of developing land at very low densities could be to release for housing a needlessly large amount of land which is well suited to its existing use.

Subject to the Greater London Council's strategic planning responsibilities, the House will appreciate that each of the London boroughs is the planning authority in its own area. Where a proposal does not involve a substantial departure from the initial development plan, the borough can, in the first instance, determine the application itself in consultation as necessary with the GLC. This is of course based on the fact that the approval of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, or his predecessor, the Minister of Housing and Local Government, was given to the development plan's provisions; their detailed implementation, whether by private or public agency, almost invariably involves only local issues.

Where, on the other hand, both the borough council and the GLC wish to allow development which involves a substantial departure from the plan—such as housing in the Green Belt—the application has to be referred to my right hon. and learned Friend. If any such application, or, indeed, one which accords with the plan, raises issues which are of more than local importance, my right hon. and learned Friend can use his reserve power to call it in for his own decision. But I must emphasise that he uses this power only exceptionally since he is most anxious that the local planning authorities, who again are democratically elected bodies, should be, and be seen to be, responsible and accountable to their electorate for the day-to-day administration of planning control in their areas.

These procedures apply to proposals for private development and for development by the local planning authorities themselves.

If a would-be developer, whether a private builder or a local authority, does not own the land covered by an application for planning permission, notice of the proposals must be served on the owner and he has an opportunity to make his views known to the local planning authority before it determines the application. Where a substantial departure from the development plan is involved, the proposals must also be advertised in the local Press, and objections can be made to the authority. Apart from this and a few other limited categories where there is a statutory requirement to advertise proposals for development, publicity is a matter for the local planning authorities.

My right hon. and learned Friend issued a circular in June last—No. 71/73—encouraging authorities to give publicity to the more important applications where the general public interest is involved, and they were also asked to give publicity to their own development proposals similar to that for private development proposals. Once planning permission is granted either to a private developer or to a local planning authority for its own development there is no right of appeal by the landowner or nearby residents against that permission. But any landowner can of course refuse to sell his land to a would-be developer, including a local authority, and it can only be taken from him if a compulsory purchase order is made and confirmed by my right hon. and learned Friend.

Where a local authority has a housing need and proposes to acquire land compulsorily for housing purposes, it can proceed under Part V of the Housing Act 1957 to make a compulsory purchase order and submit it for the Secretary of State's consideration. I must emphasise that the making of such an order, or, indeed, a whole series of orders, is entirely a matter for the local authority—the democratically elected body to which I have referred. But its order will have no legal effect unless it is confirmed by the Secretary of State, and such confirmation will be forthcoming only where my right hon. and learned Friend is satisfied that this is in the public interest.

Before submitting a compulsory purchase order to the Secretary of State, an authority is required under the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) Act 1946 to serve notices of the making of the order on all owners, lessees and occupiers—except tenants for a month or less—stating that objections may be sent within a specified period of not less than 21 days to the Secretary of State. The authority also has to advertise the making of the order in two successive weeks in one or more local newspapers.

The Department has urged authorities, in Circular 91/72, to set out at the time their reasons for wishing to resort to compulsory purchase and to supply any other information which may be sought by persons affected where appropriate, for example, the authority's proposals for rehousing occupants who would be displaced if the order were confirmed.

There are, of course, other ways open to a local authority, such as public meetings, exhibitions and so on, to explain to its electorate the background to any proposals involving compulsory purchase. Here I note particularly the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) arising from his local government experience.

If anyone is approached by a local authority, or, indeed, by any other public body possessing compulsory purchase powers, with an invitation to sell his land, or some part of it, by agreement, and he finds the reasons for the proposed acquisition unconvincing, he need not feel under any obligation to sell.

If the authority seeks compulsory powers and there are objections to its order by people with a legal interest in the land concerned, which are not withdrawn, the Secretary of State will hold a public local inquiry, and will have regard to the arguments put forward by the parties in addition to the inspector's conclusions and recommendation, before deciding whether to confirm the order. It is therefore up to those whose land is included in the order to register their objections and to appear or be represented at the inquiry.

My hon. and learned Friend made reference to delays with compulsory purchase orders. The Department is very conscious of the understandable anxieties felt by those affected and is making every effort to recruit additional housing inspectors and to speed up both the holding of public inquiries into compulsory purchase orders and the subsequent decision processes.

It is always difficult to hold the balance between the rights of the private citizen and the broader interests of the community, but I hope that the debate has shown that the statutory procedures governing the use of compulsory purchase powers by local authorities incorporate substantial safeguards.

Mr. Crowder

It seems a bit unfair that, when there is the whole weight of the ratepayers' money and a local council in a public inquiry, legal aid should not be made available as it is in many other instances—as no one knows better than I—because in the face of such immense resources it is very hard for the individual.

Mr. Eyre

I appreciate the validity of that point but it is not possible for me, as my hon. and learned Friend will understand, to deal satisfactorily with it now. But I will ask my right hon. and learned Friend to consider it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.