HC Deb 29 January 1982 vol 16 cc1168-76

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

2.32 pm
Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich, East)

I am glad even on a Friday afternoon to have this opportunity of drawing attention to the real hardship being caused to my constituents as a direct result of the proposed East London river crossing. The section of the scheme about which I am concerned is the planned dual carriageway road that will run from a new Thames bridge at Thamesmead through Abbey Wood, Plumstead and Welling to join the A2 at Falconwood.

My constituents and I have lived under the shadow of this proposal for almost 15 years. It first saw the public light of day in 1967 as a major section of what was then called the "C" ring road. It was then planned to be an eight-lane motorway scything through a pleasant residential neighbourhood and through vital public open space. I then lived in the area directly affected. I had also just been elected to the council of the London borough of Greenwich in a by-election. I had rapidly to become an expert on the "C" ring road and, even more important, on the problems of planning blight that came in its wake.

Many of my constituents living along the line of the preferred route were involved in persuading the Greater London Council, then the sponsor of the scheme, to purchase their homes at full market value and in getting the benefit of disturbance allowance. Subsequently, the road changed its name to become Ringway 2 and was eventually dropped with the collapse of the GLC's ill-fated and ill-judged inner London motorway scheme.

But relief for my constituents was comparatively short lived. Although the full concept of Ringway 2 was scrapped, the planners were singularly reluctant to give up the stretch from Thamesmead to Falconwood. No sooner had we finished cheering the burial of Ringway 2 than we heard with horror about the birth of the East London river crossing. Although it was no longer an urban motorway, the scheme followed the same route and the threat of widespread demolition was left hanging over the whole area. By now, the impact of the planning blight was all too obvious. The GLC purchased a substantial number of homes along the line of the original preferred route. Because these were regarded as "short life" properties, many were relet to housing associations under licence. There have been considerable difficulties in getting essential repairs and improvements carried out in these homes because of the continual uncertainty.

Housing associations and the GLC have naturally been reluctant to spend large sums of public money on homes that might be under the bulldozer within a few years. As a result, property has inevitably deteriorated.

Similar problems have faced owner-occupiers living in the immediate area of the proposed new road. Faced with a substantial bill to renew a roof or to tackle serious damp penetration, or even faced with the need to undertake extensive internal or external redecoration, home owners have had to ask themselves "Will we be here long enough to justify the expenditure, upheaval and hard work involved?"

The uncertainty has taken its toll throughout the area. What was designated as short-life property is still standing after 13 or 14 years and is likely to be with us, in a declining state, for some years. There is also the problem of property that, because of the threatened road scheme, is not regarded as being worth repairing and, as a result, stands empty and boarded up.

I have set out the brief history for two reasons. The first is so that the House and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport can understand something of the doubt, uncertainty and downright depression that the road scheme has brought in its wake and which have affected the daily lives of a substantial number of my constituents for up to 15 years.

Secondly, and much more important, the long history of the scheme has produced a system for dealing with hardship among owner-occupiers which has become widely understood and regarded as basically fair. Until the past year or so, owner-occupiers who were unable to sell their homes, because they lived on the line of the road or so close to it as to make the houses unsaleable, were able to serve purchase notices on the GLC. Where they could clearly prove that, as a direct result of the road scheme, they could not sell their houses, they could require the GLC to buy them. That has been well understood by owner-occupiers, estate agents and solicitors in the area concerned.

However, the situation has changed. The Department of Transport has taken over responsibility for the East London river crossing and is pursuing a different policy. The Secretary of State and his officials are saying that they can purchase only those properties that are physically affected by the scheme—in other words, when all or part of the property is required for the building of the road.

That means that a constituent in Wickham Lane SE2, who will have the new road running a few feet from his rear garden boundary, cannot persuade the Department to buy his house. His estate agents tell me that they have introduced several prospective purchasers to the property, but all of them have withdrawn once they have seen the proposed route. The Department's approach in such cases, which is apparently dictated by section 248 of the Highways Act 1980, is causing great resentment and genuine hardship. Those are not my words; they are contained in a letter from a well-known local firm of estate agents who have considerable experience of the problem. Those agents, Messrs Jackson Property Services, tell me that they have been instructed to sell a number of properties in the area, but have been unable to find buyers because of the road scheme. In some cases buyers drop out as soon as they discover the existence of the scheme. The firm says that as a result properties within 200 yards of the proposed road are becoming unsaleable and no compensation for the owners can be obtained. It even quotes the fact that one local building society have even refused to grant a mortgage on a property 100 yards away from the route. For those not wishing to move that means an inevitable fall in the value of their homes, which may depress the area still further. However, the worst hardship will be felt by owners who need to move for good personal reasons and find themselves "locked into" a house that cannot be sold. I have come across several such cases and other local estate agents have drawn my attention to still more. I will quote just one—the case of Mrs. E. Moulton of 222 Marmadon Road, Plumstead.

Mrs. Moulton is elderly, registered disabled and effectively housebound and lives alone. She suffers difficulty in breathing and is anxious to move out of London to the Essex area where, she believes, her health would improve. She has great difficulty in maintaining a house which is much too big for her. She therefore put her house up for sale in May 1981 and agreed a price quite quickly with a potential buyer who was granted a building society mortgage with little difficulty. However, as soon as the intending purchaser heard about the route scheme he immediately withdrew from the purchase. It has not been possible to interest anyone else in the house.

When I took the case up with the Minister he was sympathetic but could do nothing. In a letter to me on 15 October 1981 he stated that the scheme although running very close to Mrs. Moulton's house does not physically affect it; in view of this we simply cannot buy the property. What assistance does the Minister offer Mrs. Moulton and the other owner-occupiers in the area who suddenly find that their homes have become unsaleable millstones around their necks? Not a lot. In a written parliamentary reply to me on 18 November 1981 he stated: At later stages, once the work is going ahead, it will also be possible to consider purchases of property that are not on the direct line but would be seriously affected by the construction or use of the road."—[Official Report, 18 November 1981; Vol. 13, c. 173.] The Minister seems to be saying to Mrs. Moulton and others like her who are trapped because they cannot sell their houses simply "Sorry. It is hard luck, but you will just have to stay put for another six or seven years and then we shall think about buying your home." That is not much help to Mrs. Moulton or to my other constituents who may need to move on health grounds, because their house is too big or too small or because their job takes them away from the area. In any case, some of them will be too old to obtain a new mortgage in a few years and will find that the option to move is no longer open to them.

The Department of Transport's attitude will strike most people as singularly unfair and a callous way to treat people who are in real difficulty through absolutely no fault of their own. It is not acceptable for a Government who proclaim their belief in the virtues of owner occupation to treat people in such a way that the savings tied up in their homes become unrealisable.

Why does the law apparently require the Department to act so much less sympathetically than a local authority? The GLC did not have a reputation for being wildly generous in its treatment of owner-occupiers affected by the road scheme, but it was regarded as reasonably fair. Is it fair and reasonable that two owner-occupiers affected by the same road scheme should be treated in totally different ways, just because one served a purchase notice when the project was being undertaken by the GLC and his neighbour waited until the Department of Transport had taken over?

I ask the Minister to consider one further issue. As a result of the recession and the policies of his right hon. and hon. Friends in the Treasury we are now experiencing what had not been thought possible in Greater London—a decline in house prices and the growth of a buyer's market. Those who can buy are now in the fortunate position of being able to pick and choose where they buy. It therefore seems unlikely that buyers will be attracted to an area threatened by a fairly major road scheme. One local estate agent tells me that there is fear in the minds of potential buyers. It is hardly likely to disappear in the next few years as the scheme is worked out in detail and argued before a public inquiry, with all the publicity that that involves.

If the scheme proceeds and a firm route is finally agreed, the blight may be narrowed down to properties in the immediate vicinity of the road, but they will be even more seriously blighted and impossible to sell at anything approaching a realistic price.

That is the problem that I urge the Minister to recognise. He and his colleagues frequently proclaim their anxiety to support the individual against the overwhelming power of the impersonal bureaucratic machine. He has a chance to put that worthy principle into practice. I beg him to cut through the red tape and the legal jargon and to offer genuine hope to my constituents who face hardship as a direct result of his Department's actions.

2.43 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright) on obtaining his Adjournment debate on a matter which I know is of considerable importance to him and his constituents and about which he has been assiduous in pursuing me in correspondence and in parliamentary questions.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the case that he put forward. He related in detail—I need not repeat it—the long history of projects for the east London river crossing and the associated routes which have had such a blighting effect on part of his constituency for so many years.

It is true that the proposal goes back to the 1960s. In colloquial terms, one could say that there has been a great deal of messing about over the last 15 years with first one version of the scheme and then another. The trouble with such a process of road planning, when it is extended for so long, is that it has an appalling blighting effect upon the area and causes personal hardship to many people.

The Government came into the picture only in June 1979 when, as a result of discussions between the Government and the Greater London Council about the means to develop the docklands area, we took the east London river crossing and associated roads into the trunk road programme. Therefore, the Government have been working on the scheme only since June 1979.

One of the first reactions that we received when we published the details for consultation recently was from the docklands urban development corporation, which urged that we should get on with the scheme as quickly as possible and questioned the time that it takes to carry out capital projects. I agree with that, but we must go through the processes of statutory procedures and public inquiries and carry out engineering design.

There is everything to be said, in major schemes, for quick progress and clear decision-making, in the light of all the representations, whether to build a road. If the decision is not to carry out the scheme, it should be dropped. That is the approach that we intend to adopt.

We have produced the plans for public consultation. We are promoting the road because of the substantial benefits that we believe it will bring to industry in London and to the environment of many people living north and south of the river. Together with the associated South Woodford to Barking relief road, the scheme will extend the existing North Circular trunk road across a new bridge over the river to link up with the A2.

The road will help docklands. The development of docklands would be difficult without better access to the trunk road network. It will also help industry located at Beckton and Thamesmead. There is a 17-mile stretch of the Thames between Tower Bridge and the Dartford tunnel that contains one of the largest and most concentrated industrial and commercial complexes in the country. A better road network, as an adjunct to the overloaded and inadequate Blackwall tunnel, will be of great assistance to workers and industry in that area.

The road will also assist buses by permitting additional routes across the Thames and attracting traffic away from the congested residential roads that the buses use. It will also affect the environment when it is completed. A well-designed bridge will be a welcome feature in that area of the Thames, which is drab and industrial at the moment. The new road will take the traffic, particularly the heavy industrial traffic, out of many shopping and residential roads both north and south of the river, particularly the roads in and around the Blackwall tunnel, the Woolwich ferry and the South Circular road. That is the basis upon which we are consulting. I accept that the consultations have drawn people's attention yet again to the blighting effect on people who have houses along and near the route.

The public consultation that look place in October 1981 was an important first step towards the announcement of a preferred scheme for the trunk road project. We are consulting because there are areas where we genuinely want the opinions of the public about deviations on the route. We are now receiving the responses. It is important that we take the decision about the preferred route as soon as we have evaluated the views; of the public.

I am anxious that the announcement of the preferred route should be made as soon as possible, because only then will much of the present uncertainty be removed and the statutory legal blight entitlements for those who are on the line of the road be formally established. Those whose land will be needed for the scheme will then have a legal right to oblige the Government to buy their property and houses at market value if they wish to leave. That will be a considerable relief to the many people whose houses and property lie along the route.

The hon. Gentleman has gone into considerable detail. He realises that, although that is fine for people who live along the line of the route, a number of associated problems remain unresolved. It is inevitable that such schemes will affect a lot of property. The amount of property affected has varied over the years, largely because the GLC proposed a dual four-lane motorway. That meant that the route that it was protecting was along a very wide swathe of property. Until 1979, when the GLC formally abandoned safeguarding its proposed route, it had acquired over 200 properties, including shops and residences. The properties that it purchased stretched from the north Kent railway line to Dryden road in the south. The proposal that the Government put out for public consultation is for a dual two-lane carriageway, which has limited the amount of land and the number of houses required. We have limited the number of properties eventually required to a maximum of 260. The GLC had acquired 200, but the amount that its road would finally have required would have been substantially more. What we now plan will require a maximum of 260 houses, and the area of land affected has been reduced. Under our scheme no homes north of the Thames are affected. South of the river, 140 of the properties already purchased by the GLC are likely to be required for the Department of Transport's proposals. We will dispose in the usual way of the properties already acquired by the GLC which eventually prove not to be needed.

The Department has also bought nine properties and is in the process of acquiring another 23, under the discretionary power of section 248 of the Highways Act 1980. Thus, about 172 of the 260 properties that may be required are, or soon will be, in public ownership. Once we have chosen the preferred route, the people living in the balance of the properties can require us to buy at market value at any time they wish.

I have already mentioned the discretionary powers under section 248. I shall now describe those powers more fully. During the formative planning stages of a road scheme of this kind—up to the announcement of a preferred scheme—land can be acquired in advance of requirements only under the discretionary powers in section 248(1). The wording of the Act is such that the powers are restricted, first, to purchase by agreement, which in practice means at the instigation of the owner, and, secondly, to land which may be needed for the road scheme or for works necessary to mitigate the adverse effects of the proposed highway. That means that no land can be acquired which is not likely to be included in the eventual compulsory purchase order for the scheme. That is the law—the legal restriction upon our ability to use public money to acquire properties. It comes under the Highways Act 1980; that was not a new law, but a consolidation measure. The broad measure of our present legal power and our policies for acquiring property go back to the First World War with one major review about 10 years ago which did not affect the question in this respect.

The hon. Member for Woolwich, East has referred to the apparently more generous purchasing policy adopted by the GLC when safeguarding its route. As far as I am aware, the GLC has no wider powers than we have to acquire property. The reason why the effect of its purchasing policy appeared to be more generous was probably largely due to the fact that, as I have explained, its original proposals were for dual four-lane carriageways. That meant that the GLC's proposals affected a much wider area of land each side of the line of the proposed road scheme. That led to it apparently buying houses within 100 yards either side of any road likely to be built.

Mr. Cartwright

I accept that, but does the hon. and learned Gentleman accept that in a number of cases the GLC purchased property which was not on the line of route and not physically affected by the road? The houses would not have had to be demolished for the road, but inevitably the value of the property would have been affected and the owners would have been unable to sell in the market. When they proved that, the GLC was prepared to acquire.

Mr. Clarke

I accept that from the hon. Gentleman, because his knowledge of the details of the scheme and the properties in the area is greater and far more extensive than mine. He sounds as though he is describing a situation where the GLC was able to acquire houses affected by, to use the planner's jargon, blight by proximity to a road scheme. As I have explained, the Government, as every previous Government, are quite clear that they have no legal powers to do so. The law under the previous consolidation Act in 1980 does not give us the legal authority to expend public moneys, nor the discretion to buy such houses. We may from time to time review that long-standing policy, but there is no ready or easy way of departing from it.

The hon. Member for Woolwich, East has referred to cases. He quoted Mrs. Moulton's case during his speech. He has written to me on behalf of other constituents in a similar position where the owner-occupiers of property are experiencing difficulty in selling due to the proposals. In the cases that he has described, the land is not required for that scheme or for any associated works and never will be. I must conclude, most reluctantly, that the powers granted to Ministers by Parliament do not permit any action to be taken by the Department to buy houses.

There are other statutory provisions, and Parliament has given better protection to owner-occupiers than that. In addition to the discretionary powers of purchase under section 248 that I have already described, other statutory provisions will eventually cushion the then owner-occupiers from the effects of a road scheme. At the appropriate time, which is when the road begins to be constructed and is opened, benefits are normally available to those who own and occupy properties affected either by the road itself or by any works carried out to mitigate the effects, such as noise barriers, or which are affected by conditions that may be caused by the construction or use of the new highway. There is also provision for the payment of compensation for loss of value stemming from the new highway.

The benefits are available, first, under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, as extended by the Land Compensation Act 1973, for when statutory blight has been established, secondly, under the Land Compensation Act 1973 for noise insulation and loss of value emanating from the construction or use of the new highway, and, thirdly, under section 246(2) of the Highways Act 1980 for the purchase by agreement of properties deemed to be uninhabitable by reason of construction works or use of the road. Taken together, those provisions provide much protection and compensation for owners of property affected by road schemes at the time when the scheme is being carried out or after the road has been brought into use.

The hon. Gentleman said that was little consolation to Mrs. Moulton, who at the moment—she is an elderly lady—is trying to dispose of her property. However, it can have some effect on the housing market, even at the stage that we have reached on the east London river crossing. Some of the purchasers who are being frightened away now, when they discover that a road scheme is proposed quite near to the house that they are considering buying, often do not realise that the road is not likely to arrive for some years yet, even if we make good progress. We shall do well if we can build the road before 1990. Secondly, if they are still living in the house when the road is finished, they will probably be eligible—they can make inquiries—for various forms of help and compensation. So when the road is built and comes near to their house, they will have lived in it for some years and will receive compensation for loss of value. They will get noise insulation and the other benefits that I have described.

It may well be that purchasers can be found for some of the properties. Someone may not mind the fact that a road is being built, if he knows that it will take a few years for it to arrive and that he will receive compensation anyway. Such a person is then less sensitive to the effects of the road than other people might be. I cannot disguise the fact that it means that the choice of purchaser is restricted because one is not selling on the open market. However, it is worth exploring and no doubt will be explored by the estate agents, who have great expertise in explaining to people who might wish a home only temporarily that they will be compensated if the road ever comes and that it is not all bad news if they take a house in the present circumstances.

I realise that, at the present public consultation stage, there is a danger that the process, although important in itself, can give rise to renewed uncertainty. It tends to set off a fresh wave of people wishing to move from the area and prospective purchasers of property tending to look elsewhere. I recognise the difficulty and the special problems, but, as I have explained, unless the property is likely to be required for the scheme, the Secretary of State does not have the power to purchase it or to assist in any way.

Laws of any kind can be changed at any stage. We consider constantly our compensation arrangements and powers of purchase. When an opportunity arises to review and change them, no doubt the Government and Parliament will be interested in doing so. I have described the position, and I do not wish to raise false hopes that it is likely to be changed in future.

I can say that, because of such difficulties, we embark on a major capital scheme only when we are satisfied that the overall benefits justify it. We also consider the industrial, traffic and environmental benefits of the scheme. We shall press on with the scheme as quickly and as sympathetically as we can to try to minimise the individual difficulties that are caused during the consultation, planning and inquiry stages as the work goes ahead.

Greenwich has suffered from years and years of uncertainty, pointless debate and different lines being drawn on the map as people contemplate what they will do. The Government have proceeded with this scheme. They are now consulting and will soon publish a preferred route. Then we shall have a public inquiry. I hope that we shall have a public inquiry. I hope that we shall make reasonable progress and use our legal powers to the full to compensate and help the householders who are affected.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.