HC Deb 08 July 1980 vol 988 cc460-7
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Norwood)

I beg to move amendment No. 171, in page 59, leave out lines 6 to 17 and insert— '(1) The Secretary of State may authorise a local authority to whom this section applies to acquire compulsorily any land within their area if he is satisfied—

  1. (a) that the land is suitable and is required for one or more of the following activities, namely, development, redevelopment and improvement having regard to—
    1. (i) the provisions of the development plan, so far as material,
    2. (ii) whether planning permission for any development on the land is in force or has been refused, and
    3. (iii) any other considerations which, on an application for planning permission for development on the land would be material for the purpose of determining that application,
  2. (b) that it is necessary to acquire the land immediately to achieve a purpose in the interests of the proper planning of an area in which the land is situated having regard to the matters mentioned in subsection (a) above.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we can discuss Government amendments 172 to 175 and Government amendments 177 to 180.

Mr. Wilkinson

I shall be brief, and I shall be blunt. We do ourselves no credit in debating a subject as important as compulsory acquisition at 0150 hours, with hon. Members reduced to ashenfaced zombies on the Benches.

However, in the background to this amendment there is an experience of the abuse of powers of compulsory purchase which was perpetrated for many years by the former Socialist administration of the borough of Hillingdon. These powers were abused to pursue housing programmes which amounted to no less than municipal vandalism and which were promoted out of petty spite for political objectives and amounted to no less than social engineering. The House should be aware of what transpired in Hillingdon in case powers of this kind are sought to be abused again.

No home owner could feel safe in the borough. People feared the arrival of an official brown envelope from the civic centre with the morning mail. They feared even more the news that, perhaps, a house down the road had been compulsorily purchased, because they knew that if that was the case blight would descend on values within the road and they would not be able to sell their houses to anyone else except the local authority, and probably then only at depressed prices. We in Hillingdon at that time witnessed the most monstrous and unscrupulous exploitation by a local authority of powers of compulsory acquisition.

Even a planning inquiry afforded no redress to owner-occupiers. Sometimes the reports of the inspector would be overruled by the Secretary of State and, anyway, local residents had no confidence that the Secretary of State would act independently over appeals because he probably shared the same political aspirations as the Socialist local authority, namely, aspirations that municipalisation should be extended as widely as possible in housing. It was as a result of this that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) introduced his Compulsory Purchase Appeal Tribunal Bill which sought to ensure that an independent tribunal would be set up which would adjudicate in appeals on compulsory acquisition questions.

The amendment was drafted by a constituent, and I pay tribute to his diligence and the wise professional advice which I received from him. I recognise that the Government have tabled two amendments, Nos. 175 and 180, which are almost identical to my amendment. I am grateful to the Government for receiving a deputation comprising myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge, and for moving so far towards what we have sought to achieve in our own amendment. However, I must point out that our amendment aims to ensure that the land which a local authority seeks to acquire compulsorily is really required for development, redevelopment or improvement and not just for social engineering or political motives. Secondly, it is not good enough that the opinion of the local authority should be sufficient for compulsory purchase schemes to be proceeded with. These schemes must be in line with the development plan and with existing planning permission as far as is practical.

Mr. Shersby

I apologise for detaining the House at this late hour, but I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the House that there is no subject which has such importance for my constituents in Uxbridge or for those of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) as that of compulsory purchase. Our constituents have gone through the most terrible period of intimidation by a Socialist council in the past and they have vivid memories of that situation which will take many years to disappear. If my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood and myself have any duty to our constituents, it is to acquaint the House of these matters and to explain the importance of the amendment which my hon. Friend moved.

I therefore crave the indulgence of the House for a few moments while I elaborate on this very important matter which I am sure is important also to other hon. Members for Greater London constituencies and for constituencies in other big cities.

When I first studied the clause I was deeply concerned, because it appeared to me that, in their laudable desire to simplify the law, my right hon. Friend and his colleagues were unwittingly making it even easier for a local authority to acquire land by means of compulsory purchase without there being adequate safeguards for the citizen. Consequently my hon. Friend and I made urgent representations to my right hon. Friend and his colleagues that the clause be amended and that what we regard as absolutely essential safeguards be introduced. I therefore welcome warmly the Government's amendments, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood referred and which go a very long way towards providing the safeguards which we believe to be so important.

It is a very important lesson for the House and for Ministers in the Department of the Environment to learn that, when we are discussing provisions which confer upon local authorities the ability to deprive citizens of their home and their land, for the purposes of redevelopment, it is necessary for us to pay great attention and ensure that what we are doing is such that the British citizen's home remains his castle. As the clause is drafted, that would no longer be the case.

Section 112 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 specifies four criteria for compulsory purchase. The compulsory purchase can go ahead only if the Secretary of State is satisfied that it is necessary because one of those four criteria has been satisfied. The clause as drafted reduces the number of criteria to two. Unfortunately, it means that a local authority acting on its own opinion would be able to acquire land which it considered suitable for development or for what is called proper planning in the area, without the safeguard of the Secretary of State's approval.

I shall not detain the House by going into detail about the iniquities of clause 75 as it stands, because the hour is very late. All that I should like to say is that the amendment that my hon. Friend has moved and the amendments that the Government have tabled remove our main objections to the clause. They insert in its place some very important criteria which will give substantial safeguards to the citizens. That is welcome, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his courtesy and consideration in dealing with this important matter.

2 am

I appeal to my right hon. Friend to look again at the machinery which exists to enable the citizen to appeal against a decision taken by a local authority, and confirmed by the Secretary of State, to dispossess him of his home and his land for the purposes of redevelopment. The present appeal mechanism is inadequate, because it is open to the suspicion that there has been collusion between a local authority and the Secretary of State. Most of us in this House would believe that that was not so, but many citizens who are in the position of being dispossessed of their land find that very hard to accept.

I have urged my right hon. Friend on several previous occasions that some form of independent appeal mechanism is required so that anyone who is dispossessed of his land or premises for the purpose of redevelopment—perhaps in the national interest—will have the opportunity to submit his case to an independent tribunal, and only if the tribunal confirm the decision of the Secretary of State will it go ahead.

If that were to be done, a great deal of misery which afflicts people who are dispossessed would be removed, because they would know that the decision had been taken on an entirely independent and semi-judicial basis, and at least they would feel that in giving up their home or land they were doing so in the overriding national interest. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend will examine that point.

The Bill is not the only piece of legislation which affects compulsory purchase powers. There are, for example, the Housing Acts. I hope that my hon. Friends will not feel that by amending the clause we shall be dealing with the evil which exists, namely, the power of local authorities—and, indeed, the Government—to dispossess the citizen of land or property without proper appeal and without their being taken from him on proper grounds.

I ask my right hon. Friend to institute a departmental review of the statutory powers which enable a local authority compulsorily to acquire land, and to introduce in due course amending legislation to tighten up the procedure for compulsory purchase. It should be on the statute book in a form which is very much more acceptable to the citizens of our country. This is a vital and important matter; it goes to the basis of freedom and democracy in our country as we understand it.

Our constituents in the borough of Hillingdon have had good cause in the not too recent past to recognise that their abiliy to live undisturbed in their homes can be threatened by legislation which is still on the statute book and will not be affected by the amendments to the Bill.

I apologise to the House for detaining it at this late hour, but I feel that this is such an important matter that it has to be aired in the House tonight.

Mr. Rippon

I do not think that my hon. Friends ought to apologise for the signal service that they have rendered by raising this matter. I entirely agree with what they have had to say about the nature of the clause as it stands.

We ought to contemplate for a moment the process by which legislation is prepared in such a way that a clause of this kind can be put into a Bill and go right through the Committee stage and be closely looked at, as far as I can see, by my two hon. Friends only at this late stage on Report. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services suggests that I should read the Official Report of the Standing Committee, but I should have thought that the amendments could be accepted at that stage. It may be that I am being unfair to my right hon. Friend and that undertakings were given that I have not carefully considered.

There was no doubt that the clause, as originally drafted, contained wide powers from which I should have thought the Government would recoil immediately and with horror. It is difficult to imagine a wider power that did not authorise a local authority to take any land at any time for any purpose.

I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Minister if I am being unfair in not taking sufficient notice of the undertakings that he evidently gave in Committee. But it is valid to consider how, in the process of drafting legislation—and a lot of care should be taken before it is put before the House—such a clause could ever be included in a Bill presented by a Conservative Government. I can only suggest that it is because the sheer volume of legislation that is now before the House is too great to be digested.

Mr. Hattersley

I wish to give the Minister credit. The right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) wondered how such a provision could be included in the Bill without the Government recoiling. I must say on behalf of the Minister that he did recoil the moment I pointed out in Committee what his Bill meant.

Mr. Fox

I must tell my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) that the clause now presented is different from that initially presented in Committee. I am glad that in their brief observations my hon. Friends the Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) paid tribute to the considerable progress that we have made towards improving these measures. Compulsory purchase orders are always a matter of last resort. On many occasions they have caused considerable hardship. I assure the House that I shall constantly consider these matters. If there is any need to take action, I shall obviously contact my hon. Friends again.

Four Government amendments have a bearing on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friends. Having gone so far to meet them, I believe that it is only a difference on a matter of words that stands between us. In practice, many of the evils that they have drawn to my attention will be resolved. I hope, with those few remarks, that my hon. Friend will ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Wilkinson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I pay tribute to the outstanding contributions made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) in the earlier debates and also this morning. His wisdom and experience have been invaluable to the House. I think that the other place should address itself to clause 75 and consider it further. There are major issues involved. We are grateful for the help that we have received from our right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 172, in page 59, line 9, leave out 'in their opinion'.

No. 173, in page 59, line 10, after 'for' insert— 'and is required in order to secure the carrying out of'.

No. 174, in page 59, line 13, leave out 'in their opinion, it is expedient to acquire' and insert 'is required'.

No. 175, in page 59, line 17, at end add— '(1AA) A local authority and the Secretary of State in considering for the purposes of subsection (1)(a) above whether land is suitable for development, re-development or improvement shall have regard—

  1. (a) to the provisions of the development plan, so far as material;
  2. (b) to whether planning permission for any development on the land is in force; and
  3. 467
  4. (c) to any other considerations which, on an application for planning permission for development on the land, would be material for the purpose of determining that application.'.—[Mr. King.]

Clause 76