HC Deb 10 April 1989 vol 150 cc714-20

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

1.3 am

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

I apologise for keeping you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and my hon. Friend the Minister up so late tonight, but the subject of the debate arises from a serious problem in my constituency which I understand occurs elsewhere and requires stronger action by Government and local authorities. I have been fortunate in the results achieved by my previous Adjournment debates, and I hope that this debate will prove to be successful in drawing attention to and doing something about this problem. It is ironic that, at a time when everyone is so concerned about amenity and the environment, I should have to raise a matter of deliberate dereliction.

A constituent of mine, Mr. Robert Horrocks, is a property developer. The filed accounts for his companies are not all up to date, but there is no doubt that he must be one of the wealthiest property developers in the country. Through one of his companies, Metrolands Investments Ltd., he controls a shopping precinct in Harwood, which is in most other respects a very pleasant part of my constituency. The precinct was developed 25 years ago by Metrolands, the freehold being owned by the Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society. Development approval was given by the then Ministry of Housing and Local Government in 1963 to provide what Metrolands called much needed shopping facilities, where these facilities are virtually non-existent. The precinct opened in 1965, when it was described as "a housewife's dream". At the time of my election in 1983, it contained about 30 different shops as well as a library. Deficiencies in the structure of the building led to disputes between the tenants and the developer. Those disputes became worse after the freehold was sold in January 1984 by the Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society to Metrolands, accompanied by rumours of redevelopment as the new landlord acted in anything but a friendly way to the tenants.

Later that year, residents in the adjacent Lynwood grove came to see me about the rapidly deteriorating state of the precinct and the provocative and high-handed way in which they were being treated about rights of way at the back of their properties, where boards with sticky black paint had been erected.

On 10 August, I sent the first of many letters and telephone calls to Metrolands. I also wrote to the council and the police. I received a reply from the police, but not from Metrolands.

The following year, the condition of the precinct continued to deteriorate. The traders were refused extension of leases, despite the acknowledged lack of alternative premises. Mr. Horrocks ignored my repeated requests for a meeting. I asked the council for its help in setting up a meeting, again with no response from Mr. Horrocks. I wrote to Mr. Horrocks again in May 1986, referring to compulsory purchase of the precinct. He did not reply, but called without notice here at the House on 21 May, when I was in Bolton for mayor making. I wrote yet again to him on 1 October asking to meet, again with no reply. Later that month, the council granted an application for outline planning permission for redevelopment, with an additional 2,300 sq ft supermarket.

Early in 1987, I received further complaints from shopkeepers who were concerned about the increasingly neglected state of the area. They were also especially concerned about efforts to obtain vacant possession of the shops by the landlord. Notices to quit were being served on traders whose leases had expired. I endeavoured to obtain a meeting with Mr. Horrocks, but yet again with no success. I then arranged a public meeting in April 1987. Over 200 people attended—but not Mr. Horrocks.

As my hon. Friend knows, following that public meeting, I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 14 May, and I quote from that letter: Metroland Developments have put in a planning application to redevelop part of the site, but are not prepared to give any assurances to the existing tenants that they can have continuity of trading in the new development, nor are the owners prepared to give any assurances to the community at large that the provision of services such as a post office and a chemist will be able to continue. Please find enclosed copies of newspaper articles from the Bolton Evening News for the 15th and 16th April which indicate the concern expressed by the people of the town. I should be grateful if you would see a delegation of Councillors and traders in order to discuss the need for some change in legislation or other assistance in order that the traders themselves can have some assurance for their future livelihood, and the residents some equal assurance about the provision of future services. Unfortunately, Mr. Horrocks has not been prepared to meet anyone to discuss this issue which has led to demands for a change in the law". After the general election on 11 June I received a reply from my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey) in his capacity as Minister responsible for planning. He declined to see a delegation, maintaining that these were commercial matters rather than land use planning matters and that his Department could not, therefore, intervene.

I was disappointed by his reply, since the commercial arrangements between landlord and tenant in the scheme are clearly not satisfactory. I have a copy of a lease dated 13 August 1968 between Metrolands Investments Ltd. and a tenant of a shop in the scheme. The lease is full of legal obligations binding the tenants. Any transgression threatens retribution. On the other hand, there is no specific obligation on the landlord to maintain the area, only a provision under clause 1 for the tenant to pay an annual service charge towards the costs and expenses of maintaining, cleaning and lighting the service roads and pedestrian ways, yards, garden areas and common space included in the Harwood shopping centre. It is patent that the arrangements for maintenance are implied, but it is equally obvious for all to see that they are not being complied with. For a shopkeeper to take action to prove that the landlord has a legal obligation would be slow and costly, with no certainty of success.

The possibilities of legal and commercial action by the occupiers are tenuous. For neighbouring residents they would seem to be non-existent. Since Metrolands obtained the freehold of the land five years ago, there is now no superior interest to which an appeal could be considered. We have to consider whether any avenues for action are available through the current planning Acts, despite the Minister's claim that land use planning matters are not involved.

A section in the Housing and Planning Act 1986 may be relevant to this case. Section 46 of that Act expands section 65 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. Section 65(1) gives the local planning authority powers to serve a notice on owners and occupiers of land and buildings where it appears that the amenity of an adjoining area is adversely affected by the condition of land in their area.

Such a notice should set out steps for remedying the situation and a time scale for complying with the requirement. I would welcome the Minister's clarification of whether the clause applies to all land within a local authority's overall area or only to land that it owns. If local authorities have power to take action under that legislation, they should do so. If the powers in that section are not wide enough, as Bolton council has previously feared, I urge the Minister to extend them to cover these appalling and unacceptable circumstances. Could he ascertain whether that can be done by order or, if not, by inclusion in the earliest relevant Bill?

If not, can he legislate for improved rights for tenants whenever planning permission for a redevelopment is granted? Should compulsory improvement and purchase powers be extended? Twenty-one years ago, in April 1968, the then Bolton Conservative councillor, Robert Horrocks, said: If the voluntary system fails, improvements should be enforced by the making of compulsory improvement orders. This would prevent areas being spoiled by odd houses being allowed to decay. Late last year, I succeeded in meeting Mr. Horrocks. appealed to him not to underestimate the strength of local feeling about the state of the precinct, and to pay proper regard to the wishes of tenants and residents. He told me that he was doing all that he could to make progress on the matter.

Unfortunately, my constituents still do not see any sign of progress. After a lone shopper, Mr. Norman Lockton, suffered a severe injury after falling into a large hole which put him off work for seven weeks, the editor of the Bolton Evening News published an open letter to Mr. Horrocks, entitled "Precinct Disgrace". He said: Derelict, dilapidated and defaced, it is a scandalous monstrosity in one of Bolton's prettiest districts. In 20 years, the housewife's dream has turned sour. The editor went on to say in his open letter: Harwood Precinct these days is a desolate deserted ruin. Premises are boarded up, windows are covered with graffiti. It is gaining an unwanted reputation as a haven for glue sniffers and people are afraid to walk through it at night. If a district such as Harwood is to retain its identity, shops and business must be allowed to prosper. People should be encouraged to shop locally rather than be forced into Bolton. Harwood precinct is at the heart of the community and should be thriving, yet it is being slowly strangled to death. Constituents gathered to meet me at the precinct last Friday. They impressed on me their disgust that one man could so flout the wishes of the community by preventing shopkeepers from trading in premises for which planning permission had been granted. The most seriously inconvenienced are the elderly and the handicapped, who chose to live near the shops, never dreaming that they would then be forced to shut, leaving no immediate facilities.

I should like to know what Mr. Horrocks would have to say to three of my constituents—Mrs. Cummings, Mrs. Styles and Mrs. Fairbairn. Those three mothers have severely handicapped children and went to live near the shops but they are now in considerable difficulties because of the lack of shops. What has Mr. Horrocks to say to the 30, 40 or more people who have lost their jobs as a result of the traders being evicted?

Bolton metropolitan college sends parties of building students to see how a building should not be put up. Perhaps students of psychology should go to ponder over why one wealthy man should so wish to hold the community in which he lives to ransom, and students of politics go to see such a glaring example of failure of public policy.

I call on the Government to do all in their power to end this scandalous dereliction, to seek new powers if necessary, and to give local authorities the strongest possible directions.

I call on Mr. Horrocks to end this war of attrition in which he is using his wealth as a battering ram. I appeal to him to remember his own words as a councillor 20 years ago which I have just quoted, and to heed the words of the Prime Minister in May 1979: The Britain I want is a land which cares for the weak, the old and the sick. Perhaps he might then gain the respect which he fought for, and lost, in the House of Lords 15 years ago.

Must the Government stand by while developers taint their gains with the suffering of the weak, and say that it is just a private matter between landlord and tenants? Is this what the Government gave approval for in 1963? The Minister may say that this is just a little local problem, but that is not how my constituents see it.

1.16 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) is an assiduous campaigner on behalf of his constituents and I am aware that his success in securing Adjournment debates and action as a result of those debates has been the subject of recent well-deserved favourable comment in the Bolton Evening News. In that context, I congratulate him on once again achieving an Adjournment debate and on raising a subject that is of concern to many of his constituents.

For reasons which I know my hon. Friend appreciates, I am unable to discuss the details of this particular case. But what I can do is to set out generally the powers which exist under both section 46 of the Housing and Planning Act 1986 and the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954, part II.

Section 46 of the 1986 Act is the subject of the debate. Section 46 was merely a vehicle for substituting a new version of section 65 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. The latter is the substantive provision and I shall therefore refer to that, rather than to section 46.

Section 65 of the 1971 Act enables local planning authorities to secure the tidying-up of land which is adversely affecting the amenity of a neighbourhood by serving a notice on the owner and occupier obliging them to remedy the condition of the land". Such provisions have their origin in Acts of local application and have been incorporated in general legislation since the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. The intention has always been to enable authorities to deal with unsightly, small plots of open land—seriously overgrown gardens, vacant plots, fly tips and perhaps sprawling scrap yards and the like.

The wording of the provision was widened in 1986 to overcome difficulties in enforcement, but this did not affect the basic intention that the provisions were to be used in respect of small, untidy plots of land and a circular on the 1986 Act explained that the changes had been made in response to difficulties experienced in enforcing notices served under the previous powers; and expressed confidence that authorities would continue to use the powers with discretion, as a means of dealing with relatively isolated, severe cases of neglected or unsightly land.

There are two particular features of section 65 and its supplementary provisions which I should mention. First, the law requires notices to be served on both the owner and the occupier of the land; and secondly there are grounds for appeal to a magistrate's court against a section 65 notice, including the ground that the condition of the land is attributable to, and such as results in the ordinary course of events from, the carrying on of operations or use of land which is not in contravention of planning control. In other words, it provides a protection for the reasonable effects of activities or land uses which have planning permission, whether expressly granted or deemed. That is in accord with the respect which planning law generally accords to existing and established users.

Central Government have never monitored the extent to which local authorities have used these provisions. Given the limited scope of the provisions, there has been no need to do so. We are not talking about large sites of strategic importance, and the tidying up of gardens or small vacant plots has properly been considered a matter of purely local significance.

It is entirely for local authorities to decide where and when to use the powers of section 65. It is not for me to say whether those powers have any relevance to the situation which my hon. Friend has described. If my hon. Friend wishes to pursue the possible use of section 65 powers he should approach the local authority.

Representations made in the context of a current departmental review of derelict land policy have suggested that a new power might be introduced to allow local authorities to improve or reclaim derelict land themselves and to charge the owner. Such a change would amount to a strengthening and wider use of authorities' existing powers to take action themselves in default of compliance with a section 65 order. The idea will be considered, along with other ideas which have come forward, in the derelict land review.

We will need to bear in mind, however, that a power limited to clearing up situations other than those reasonably resulting from activities covered by planning permission would be little different from authorities' existing default powers in relation to section 65 orders; and a power which extended to clearing up the reasonable incidential effects of activities with planning permission would obviously impinge on the long-held respect of planning law for existing users. Such a power would therefore need very strong justification.

It may also assist my hon. Friend if I explain that my Department is responsible for the policy on landlord and tenant business lettings. The main legislation concerning the rights and obligations of business landlords and tenants is set out in part II of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954. Under the 1954 Act, business tenants have security of tenure and a right to apply for a new tenancy. Unless the tenant has failed to pay the rent, or broken some other condition of tenancy, the landlord can bring the tenancy to an end at or after the end of the current tenancy only if he is entitled to possession of the property. The Act specifies a limited number of grounds for entitlement to possession; these include demolition, reconstruction and redevelopment.

In addition, under the Act, special forms and strict time limits apply if the landlord wishes to seek to end the tenancy. The tenant has the right to request a new tenancy from the landlord and, thereafter, to apply to the court, using special forms and following the time limits laid down by the Act. If the landlord can satisfy the court that he is entitled to possession on one or more of the specified grounds under that Act, the court must grant him possession. If he cannot do so, the court must order a new tenancy for the tenant.

Having listened to my hon. Friend's comments, I have the impression that it is around enforcement and implementation of the provisions of the Landlord and Tenant Act that much of this dispute arises. The landlord wishes to obtain possession so that he can undertake redevelopment. From what my hon. Friend says, it appears that some, or all, of the tenants either are holding out for new tenancies, because they do not believe that there will be development, or wish to remain where they are for other reasons. In the meantime, with some of the tenancies terminated, there are a number of boarded-up properties and general deterioration in the environment.

But I have to say to my hon. Friend that that happens when a large number of tenancies are reaching the end of their period, and the landlord seeks repossession for purposes of redevelopment. It happens in particular when tenancies do not all expire on the same day so that the landlord takes possession over a period.

My hon. Friend may be familiar with what is happening in Horseferry road at present. I refer to Great Westminster house, where a number of shops have been closing down over a period of several months. That is an example of the effect of the Landlord and Tenant Act in practice. If my hon. Friend is asking us to change that Act to provide a different balance between tenants' interests and landlords' interests, I have to disappoint him. As recently as 1985 we carried out a review of the working of the Act, with particular reference to small business men—both landlords and tenants—and we concluded, after wide consultation, that the Act continues to work well, protecting both tenant interests and landlord interests, and maintaining the balance between landlord rights and tenant rights enshrined in the Act.

If, as it appears from what my hon. Friend is saying, this is largely a dispute over the terms and conditions of tenancies, that must be a matter between the landlord and his tenants. If the tenancy agreement does not contain sufficient provision to protect the quality of the environment until the expiry of the tenancy, that is unsatisfactory. It is not something that the Government can become involved in. It is for the individual landlord and the tenant to negotiate.

I hear what my hon. Friend says about the state of affairs that pertain in this particular part of Bolton. I sympathise with him and his constituents, but I cannot offer any Government solution. I know that my hon. Friend believes that, if there is a problem, the Government should be able to solve it, but I must disappoint him. This is a private contractual problem, not one which the Government can solve.

I am sure that my hon. Friend's speech will have brought this issue to the attention of a larger audience in Bolton. If Mr. Horrocks is not listening to the debate today, he will certainly hear of it. It may well result in pressure being put on him, as my hon. Friend wishes. I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this issue, but I have to disappoint him in saying that the Government cannot solve this problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past One o'clock.