HC Deb 29 November 1976 vol 921 cc652-62

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

12.1 a.m.

Mr. William Whitlock (Nottingham, North)

There have been various complaints about delays in decisions by the Department of the Environment on compulsory purchase orders for Nottingham —complaints which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Dunnett) will confirm—but since my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction has said that the time taken upon the Nottingham (New Basford) Clearance Compulsory Purchase Order 1975 was about the average national period for processing compulsory purchase orders, I want to speak about the delays which took place before a decision on that order was announced.

In a democracy there must take place a very careful, impartial scrutiny of compulsory purchase orders in order to ensure that they are necessary, that they are for the good of the majority of the community, that they do not ride roughshod over minorities who may have a legitimate point of view, and that they are not just brought into being because some planner with a tidy soul believes that his dream of the future will best be brought to reality by the enforcement of those orders. So, if there is opposition to a compulsory purchase order, there must be a public inquiry, and due weight must be given to what is revealed by that inquiry.

Indeed, I have often urged that there should be public inquiries on important planning matters other than those involving CPOs—as, for instance, when some years ago I three times asked a Minister for a public inquiry into the way in which contracts were awarded by the Nottingham City Council for the building of a district heating plant, which has since given much trouble, and when I asked for a public inquiry into a council decision to set up a gipsy encampment in my constituency in a way which flouted every criterion laid down by the Department of the Environment for the siting of such camps. I was refused those inquiries on each of those occasions, but then in those days we had a Conservative Government and a Conservative-controlled council in Nottingham.

Public inquiries inevitably involve delay, and if delay is the price that democracy has to pay for conducting its affairs in a fair and just way, no one in this House should complain. Whatever the disadvantages of our system, it is far, far preferable to what happens in a dictatorship, where some great and powerful figure makes up his mind on an issue and sees to it that whatever he decides is carried out, regardless of the consequences for individuals.

I accept that all the due processes of our democratic system had to be gone through in respect of the Nottingham (New Basford) Compulsory Purchase Order 1975, but I am raising this matter tonight because I feel that there were inordinately long delays in the operation of those processes—delays which I have difficulty in believing were caused wholly by the need to weigh carefully what the public inquiry evinced.

In this area there were, as my right hon. Friend has remarked to me, two strong and well organised bodies of residents, as well as other interests, taking up completely opposed positions and supporting their differing attitudes with well-reasoned arguments. There were occupiers who had no wish to move, who argued, with others, that the order, if enforced in the form in which it had been presented, would destroy good houses, shops and industrial premises, and that improvement rather than demolition was the most satisfactory method of dealing with a substantial number of properties included in the order.

There were, on the other hand, about 140 persons whose houses would be affected by the order who wished it to be speedily implemented because, they argued, a large number of the houses were dilapidated, lacked basic amenities and had a structural fabric too poor to support worthwhile improvements. The inspector who conducted the public local inquiry on 15th and 16th July 1975 had therefore to face conflicting points of view such as are normal on these occasions, and he had to deal with some involved and complex issues which may perhaps not be normal in the consideration of an area as small as the one involved in the order.

Nevertheless, whatever the complexities of the order, whatever may have been involved in the consultations which followed the public inquiry and the inspector's report, it does still seem to me that 10 months between the date of the inquiry and the date of the announcement of a decision by the Minister is far too long a period, and in that time some angry voices were raised repeatedly.

Inevitably, some of those who were aggrieved by the delay in due course came to me, and in February 1976 I wrote to the Secretary of State for the Environment about the matter. Not having received a reply from him, I wrote to him again on 1st March to tell him of the further representations being made to me and pointed to the fact that it was being said in Nottingham that a spokesman of the Department of the Environment had admitted that papers concerned with the inspector's report had been lost. On 9th March my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State wrote to me to say that careful consideration of the inspector's report was bound to take time, but that the Department would do its best to issue a declaration before Easter. He did not deal with the allegation that relevant papers had been lost.

On 14th April my secretary received a telephone message here in the House to the effect that the decision on the CPO would not now be available until the second week in May, and in the House that evening I buttonholed my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to protest about this. He promised to investigate the matter further and let me know the answer. To be sure that he had a reminder of my approach in his Department I wrote to him again and pointed out once more that someone in the Department had told Nottingham people who had made inquiries about the delay that the papers relating to the matter were lost for several months. Having had no further communication from the Department, I spoke in the House to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction on 28th April, and the next day he wrote to me to say that, while the decision on the order was now ready, he had had reluctantly to decide that this CPO fell within the long-standing convention that controversial decisions should not be issued during the run-up to a local election. He went on, This convention is now in fact tantamount to a constitutional rule and has been adhered to by all governments, of whatever party. He did not refer to the allegation that for a period relevant papers had been lost.

The "long-standing convention", which my right hon. Friend described as tantamount to a constitutional rule, is something of which I had never before heard, and I have found no one else who has heard of it. Indeed, on 22nd April, a week before my right hon. Friend wrote to me, someone on the news staff of Radio Nottingham had telephoned the Department of the Environment to ask whether the confirmation of the order was now being delayed because of local election considerations, and he was told that those considerations played no part in the matter. The Department's spokesman was unaware of this long-standing convention. When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State wrote to me in March to say that the Department would do its best to issue a decision before Easter, was he aware of the convention? If he was, did he not know that Easter would fall only two weeks before the local elections? How long is the run-up to local elections judged to be?

In considering the report of the public inquiry upon the CPO my right hon. Friend had to be impartial and neutral, and I would not have it otherwise. But in adding this final period of delay to what was already an excessively long delay in announcing a decision, who was he being neutral against, if I may ask that ungrammatical question? The delay imposed after a decision had been reached involved further uncertainty for those who favoured the CPO and for those who were opposed to it. All wished to be put out of their misery as quickly as possible, and confirmation of the order would have brought no additional support for anybody. On the other hand, the invocation of a hitherto unknown convention at that point in time added a new dimension to the anger of residents, which was bound to have its impact on the electoral fortunes of candidates representing the party then in a majority on the Nottingham City Council. The further delay was bound to bring from all sides strong criticism of candidates who were in no way responsible for it.

Ten months' consideration of the report of a two-day hearing seems to be much more than was needed and suggests that an inefficient bureaucratic machine ground ponderously forward at a snail's pace, in spite of Ministers' efforts to cut through the red tape. In the significant absence of any denial that papers on the public inquiry were for a time lost, I cannot help feeling that this played its part in slowing the processing of the order. My right hon. Friend said in a letter to me that from the last date for submission of objections to the date of the issue of the decision on this order a total of 55 weeks elapsed. This is certainly a long time, but it is about the average national period for processing compulsory purchase orders. If that is so, it is high time that the cumbersome system received an overhaul. I hope that the Minister will agree with me and say that such an overhaul will take place.

12.15 a.m.

Mr. Jack Dunnett (Nottingham, East)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Whitlock) for raising this matter and for voluntarily shortening his speech to enable me to say a few words on compulsory purchase orders as they affect my constituency.

As little as eight years ago about 70 per cent. of the people of East Nottingham lived in unfit houses. They recognised that the decay of 100 years could not be remedied overnight and they patiently waited for their turn and for their own area to be considered. They also recognised that certain administration work had to be done before the necessary compulsory purchase orders could be made. They recognised that objectors should have the right to go before public inquiries—a procedure that takes time because of the preparation involved. But what they always failed to understand was why it seemed to take so long for Ministers to confirm the orders once the inspector had reported.

I give my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State some examples from East Nottingham. There is an area called The Meadows. To those who do not know it, the name connotes lush pastures and wide open spaces, but the bulk of The Meadows consisted of property about 130 years old. It had the worst houses in Nottingham. It was such a large area that when the council started to make CPOs it had to do it in five stages. Stages 1, 2 and 3 took between four and five months between public inquiry and confirmation. Stage 4 took seven months. Stage 5 took 12 months. If I remember correctly, stage 5 involved 395 properties. The previous stage involved nearly 700 properties but took only seven months.

Another area, called Lindum Grove, involved only 25 properties but took six months to reach confirmation. Clearly there is something wrong somewhere. I hope that my hon. Friend will give us the reasons. I have been critical of the Department, but I take this opportunity of paying a tribute to my hon. Friend. This summer I had occasion to raise the question of delays in three compulsory purchase orders and miraculously, within a few weeks of raising the matter with him, he produced the confirmation orders, one of them for an area called Sneinton, involving 149 properties, which took only five months. I thank my hon. Friend and draw his attention to the Salisbury Street compulsory purchase order, which had its inquiry in July.

12.18 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I am glad to have the opportunity of replying to the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Whitlock) and contributed to by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Dunnett) because I am in entire agreement with them about the importance of reading with compulsory purchase orders relating to slum clearance as quickly as possible. When houses are unfit and owners are so unwilling or unable to do anything about it that the local authority has to take action, the matter is of great urgency. Each order made for such a purpose represents people often living in substandard conditions.

My hon. Friend has, as I expected, referred to a specific example of compulsory purchase that has occurred in his constituency, and I shall have something to say about New Basford and about the overall situation in Nottingham and the East Midlands. However, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for setting the debate in general terms and agreeing in his opening remarks that when we are considering matters of democracy we have to weigh extremely carefully the views of the objectors, the inspector and all who are involved.

Over the years very large inroads have been made into the slum problem, and we all owe a great deal to the local authorities and other bodies, public and private, which have made this possible. Their work has been hard, and much of it has not been pleasant. But the battle is not won yet, as the 500 compulsory purchase orders submitted for slum clearance during the first nine months of this year show. The conditions that they reveal are generally not as horrifying as once they were, but there is no room for complacency. In the Department we are well aware of the need to give our judgment—but it must be our considered judgment—as quickly as possible.

The vast majority of these orders are property made and are confirmed by my right hon. Friend. This remains true, even though our present housing policy, which is to prefer rehabilitation and gradual renewal to large-scale clearance where possible, leads us to look critically at the cases that come to us. As my hon. Friend knows, before we can confirm a compulsory purchase order on land in a clearance area, we must be satisfied not only that the houses are unfit for habitation but that the best way of dealing with conditions in the area as a whole is the demolition of all the buildings in it. This means that the houses and the area are so far deficient, outworn or congested that demolition and clearance offer the only sensible solution in human and economic terms.

We are often asked why we cannot decide CPOs more quickly. We are continually seeking acceptable ways of speeding up the procedure. Any delays are as frustrating to us as they are to my hon. Friend, to the local authorities, and to those affected. We must balance our anxiety to give a speedy decision with the obligation we have to consider the rights of those involved and the eventual effect of the order on the community.

Very often our decision can mean that families have to be moved out of house and home or dispossessed. Compulsory purchase is a confiscatory power, and we must not become so accustomed to it that we take it for granted. It is something that carries enormous consequences for people, and so imposes enormous responsibility on us. Parliament has laid down careful rules for such proceedings and for the protection of private interests. The law of natural justice reinforces and augments that protection. Though we receive many letters from authorities urging us to confirm orders, we receive many others from owners and residents—sometimes the elderly—who are genuinely bewildered and distressed by what is happening to them. So we try to ensure that they receive the consideration that is their due.

Having said that, perhaps I may look at some statistics of current performance for slum clearance. These figures relate to the first nine months of this year, roughly representing the time that has elapsed since the responsibility for preparing individual cases for decision was transferred from the Department's headquarters to its regional offices. It is only fair to add that, though we expect that in the long term this transfer will result in a general speed-up in decision work, it may well have had a contrary effect in the early months.

Unopposed orders are relatively straightforward and 200 such orders have been decided this year in an average time from submission of 25 weeks. We hope to improve on this.

Opposed orders are more complicated, and more difficult. For a long time now, the national average time from submission to decision has been 12 months. We have done better in some cases and worse in others, but the mean has stuck obstinately at that level. This year the average is 50 weeks. In some regions, it is a bit lower, and if I except the North-West, where there has been a formidably heavy influx of work—63 per cent. higher than the next busiest region —it would be 47 weeks. Like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I should like these periods to be shorter, and I think that practice will shorten them a bit. But I do not offer spectacular reductions, because of the circumstances that I have mentioned.

I expected that my hon. Friend would specifically mention the compulsory purchase order in respect of clearance areas at New Basford. This order was, as my hon. Friend knows, confirmed with certain modifications in May of this year. He will recall his correspondence with myself and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction that took place between February and August this year. There was much other correspondence, too, with the local Labour Party and other local interests. I understand the strong feeling that have been expressed and the considerable pressures put upon my hon. Friends as the parliamentary representatives for the area.

I am aware that this case took longer than is usual between receipt of the order by the Department—which was on 24th March 1975—and the eventual confirmation. I am also aware of, and sympathise with, the difficulties of some of the tenants of the properties in the clearance area during this period. I give the assurance to my hon. Friend that papers were never lost. If a spokesman of the Department said that was so I would appreciate a letter from my hon. Friend. The report was delayed. There was a delay while the inspector was preparing a report.

As my hon. Friend knows, this was a particularly complicated and contentious order. A total of 324 properties were included in the order and objections were received in respect of 84 of them. On the one hand a detailed case for the preservation—rather than the demolition—of dwellings was put forward by the New Basford Residents' Association while, on the other, a petition was put forward signed by 140 people whose houses would be affected by the order supporting and backing the council's proposals to compulsorily purchase and demolish the properties. In his letter to my hon. Friend of 21st May my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction emphasised that there was a special need for care in considering a compulsory purchase order where two bodies of residents took up opposed attitudes. It is clear, therefore, that there were exceptional factors in this case.

I come to the cause of a little exceptional delay, namely, the fact that the decison could not be published until after local elections had taken place in the area. I know how strongly my right hon. Friend, together with people in the area felt about this. In delaying the issue of the decision my right hon. Friend was following a convention which is universally arhered to, namely that controversial decisions should not be issue in the period immediately preceding a local election. But I should like to emphasise that, in the event, this convention caused only a slight delay in the issue of the decision. When I wrote to my hon. Friend—he referred to the letter—I was not thinking about any particular date. I was hoping then to get a decision before Easter. Unfortunately, it could not be done.

The New Basford case should not be allowed to distort the broader position on compulsory purchase for slum clearance in the region. I am happy to say that the performance there is very close to the national norm.

During the period I have taken, 27 opposed orders were decided in an average total period of 52 weeks. The average period for bringing such orders to the public inquiry is the lowest in the country—only 21 weeks. From the city of Nottingham itself, nine orders have been received for decision, of which seven have been decided, and the remaining two, I should tell my hon. Friend for Nottingham, East, ought to be decided during the next six weeks. This seems to me a reasonable performance for the first year of regionalisation, and I am pleased to note that the chief executive's report to the housing committee, after noting delays in confirming slum clearance orders during the early part of 1976, goes on to say that since the decision work was transferred to the regional office, orders have been confirmed aproximately in accordance with the timetable, and recent confirmations should result in the recovery of the rehousing rate early in 1977". I welcome the jog, to call it that, which my right hon. Friend has given, and I hope that, in the short time available to me, I have been able to show that we are concerned about the speed of processing slum clearance compulsory purchase orders, and that we are constantly striving for improvement. But speed, unfortunately, is not the only consideration. My right hon. Friend would be failing in his duty to ensure that due regard is had to the interests of all affected by a CPO if he allowed the natural desire to bring cases to a decision as soon as possible to jeopardise the proper consideration of all the issues involved.

I assure my hon. Friend that, as a result of his representations and the representations of other hon. Members, and our own desire to get ahead, we are speeding up as much as possible the decision making, but, of course, we have all the other circumstances, to which my hon. Friend properly paid regard, to take into consideration before we can give our judgment.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Twelve o'clock.