HL Deb 15 March 1932 vol 83 cc880-5

VISCOUNT BERTIE OF THAME had the following Notice on the Paper—To draw attention to the proposed sale of certain land acquired by the Wallasey Borough Council for the specific purpose of a rehousing scheme; to ask His Majesty's Government if it is their policy to permit land acquired for a specific purpose by a public body to be disposed of by them for another purpose, and if not, what steps they propose to take to prevent such dealings; and to move for Papers.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, as long ago as the 14th October, 1924, the Wallasey Borough Council obtained an order from the Ministry of Health sanctioning a slum clearance scheme known as the Mersey Street Improvement Scheme, 1924. I am advised that an improvement scheme must be carried out by the local authority and not by anybody else. Having obtained this order from the Ministry of Health, the Wallasey Borough Council, pursuant to the order, took over the lands and houses comprised in that area, in the meantime not forgetting to draw rents from what was described as a disgrace. Only a few weeks ago was the last house pulled down. I have just been informed that the Liverpool Corporation at this very moment are pressing for the conveyance of land in an unhealthy area, although they admit it is some years before they can use it all. In the meantime they propose to collect the rents.

A short résumé of the history of this particular slum clearance scheme in Wallasey is given in the Liverpool Daily Post, which says: A comprehensive scheme for demolishing the insanitary dwellings and rehousing the people on the site, with a neutral open space, was prepared in 1925, but the Ministry of Health decided that the site was too valuable for this purpose, and must be sold for development purposes. That was within a year of a local inquiry which was held by the Minister, who allowed this order to be obtained for rehousing of the working classes, and within one year of that the Ministry says this land is too valuable for them. So it appears that in face of the well-known case ex-parte Davies, the King versus the Minister of Health, where it was laid down that the Minister has no power to vary an order changing the purposes for which land is acquired by a public body for the specific purpose of a rehousing scheme, the Minister is nevertheless conniving at the illegal attempt of the Wallasey Council to sell land acquired at a knock-out price for quite another purpose instead of rehousing or an open space. In short, the Borough Council supported by the Ministry is seeking to make a profit where they have no right so to do.

When I put this Question on the Paper I hoped, and indeed I assumed, that the Ministry would disapprove of a profit being made out of land acquired for the purpose of rehousing the working classes, tout if the history of the affair given by the Liverpool Daily Post is correct they not only do not disapprove but are a willing accessory to what amounts almost to a robbery. Surely it is only just in such circumstances that if the use to which land is to be put is altered as I have described, that the former owners should be compensated at a higher rate than mere site value less the old reduction factor. In this particular area, I believe, shortly before the scheme was sanctioned some of the land was valued for probate at about £580—roughly that is the figure. Taxation was paid on that amount. When the land was acquired by this local authority all the wretched owner got was £380. I suppose there was no rebate from the Treasury. I do ask His Majesty's Government not to encourage local bodies to obtain land under improvement schemes and permit them to make a profit on it by resale. I hog to put the Question which is in my name, and to move for Papers.


My Lords, I do not know anything about this particular Wallasey scheme, but I think we must all feel indebted to my noble friend for bringing this matter before the notice of your Lordships' House. It may be, of course, that when the order was made the Ministry made a mistake, and if they did make a mistake at the time it is quite within their province, it seems to me, to permit the land to be resold. We know that the Ministry very rightly does not allow too much land to be taken for housing purposes. If they did permit that it might entail great hardship upon the ratepayers. We must thank the noble Viscount for bringing this matter to the notice of the House because this is the only way in which questions of this kind can be brought up. As your Lordships are aware, there are no Provisional Orders now. The Ministry of Health can make an order and the only chance the individual has is that six weeks after the order has been made he can appeal. I hope therefore that my noble friend who will reply on behalf of the Government will make quite clear the merits of this ease. I am glad that the matter has been brought forward because it is one of considerable interest and public importance.


My Lords, like my noble friend I have no knowledge of this particular matter, but I gather from the speeches to which we have just listened that what has taken place is this: the local authority having bought land at a particular price because it was intended to rehouse the poor, now find that the land is worth more for other purposes. Having acquired it at a low price because it was intended for rehousing, they propose to resell it and put the difference in price into their own pockets and not to use the land for the purpose for which they obtained it. It may be, as my noble friend says, that the Ministry were quite right in saying that it is not in the interests of the ratepayers to buy land, say in the City of London, and house people on it, but on the other hand it is not right for a local authority, having bought land for a given purpose at a given price, to turn round afterwards and resell it at a much higher price, without, as my noble friend behind me says, compensating the unfortunate owner. I hope that at any rate in this House the rights of owners of property will be given some attention. At the present moment, unfortunately, there seems to be a general idea that the holding of property is a wrong thing and that if you can rob a man who has got property so much the better. I do not hold that idea and I do not believe that that idea, should it grow, would be in the interests of the country. I hope that the noble Lord who will reply for the Government will give us some satisfactory explanation. I am sure that he is not on the side of people who want to take advantage of a legal quibble to put money into their own pockets.


My Lords, I hope I may be excused from entering into a general debate on land nationalisation. I have been asked a specific Question, which I quite agree does arise, and must confine myself to answering that particular Question. The Question as put by my noble friend Viscount Bertie seems to me rather to imply that the Wallasey Corporation acquired this Mersey-street property for the specific purpose of a rehousing scheme. I do not quite follow the grounds on which he bases that contention. The specific object for which the land was acquired was for the purpose of clearing a slum area. I think it is quite true that the Corporation suggested in the first place that rehousing should take place on the same site, but the Ministry objected to that and decided that it might be better if the inhabitants were rehoused elsewhere. Accordingly the order gave the Corporation power to acquire the land and to demolish the buildings, and laid down that 530 persons of the working class should be rehoused according to plans which should be approved by the Minister. It certainly did not specify-that the site for rehousing should be the same as that which was being cleared.

In regard to the land to which my noble friend refers, Clause 5 of the Schedule to the order lays down very clearly the conditions under which it should be disposed of. It says: The Council may, with the consent of the Minister, sell or lease any of the land in the area or exchange any of that land for any other land within the area with or without payment for equality of exchange or appropriate any of that laud to any purpose for which they have power to hold land. The Ministry cannot agree that the Wallasey Corporation have in any way gone beyond the bounds of that order. They have acquired the land, they have paid the proper compensation as laid down in the Act of Parliament and they have demolished the buildings. They have, on another site, rehoused the inhabitants, and I understand from the noble Viscount that they are now proposing to dispose of this land. Actually the Ministry have had no proposals regarding the sale of this land. The Ministry's policy in general regarding land acquired and found to be unnecessary is to approve of the sale of it at the best possible price, unless there is some very special reason to the contrary. In many cases the Minister has no discretion in the matter of land acquired under the Public Health Acts from 1875 onwards.

I think everybody will agree that it is undesirable for local authorities to acquire more land than they need, but it may be in the interests of the owner that they should acquire land. The owner may reasonably say if a local authority intends to buy a particular property that they should buy the whole of it and not leave him with oddments. I hope the noble Viscount will be satisfied that in this particular case the Minister has not misused his power. Actually the Department has no reason whatever to suppose that the Wallasey Corporation have acted ultra vires. If they have done so the correct procedure would be to raise the matter in the Courts. As to the contents of the order and the validity of the order, I would point out that it was made eight years ago and I think this is the first time that the contents of that order have been called in question. The noble Viscount quoted the Davies case. I am informed that that case is not really comparable to the Wallasey Corporation Order because in that case an injunction was obtained restraining or prohibiting the Minister from making an order at all. This order has been made and has been in existence eight years. It gives the Corporation all the powers which they are exercising at this moment and really I fail to see how any question of the misuse of powers or any question of Ministerial policy can arise. I hope the noble Viscount will be satisfied with this explanation.


My Lords, far from being satisfied I am rather shocked that the Ministry should not have looked on these deals as immoral. It is true that under Section 5 of the Schedule power was given to sell this land, but under the Davies case that was an illegal thing to do. The noble Viscount says let them get rid of little oddments, but this is a whole area and the Ministry of Health, having held a, local inquiry, gave permission for a scheme on this site and within one year said in effect: "No, that is too valuable, you must make some, other use of it."


My Lords, the order always specified that this land should be used for a demolition scheme. It never flowed for the land being used for a rehousing scheme.


My Lords, I do not follow the grievance of Lord Bertie of Thame. It seems to me that the two interests concerned in this question are the owners of the slum area and the inhabitants of that area. The owners have received the appropriate compensation laid down by law for the area taken from them and the houses which have been demolished.


Site value only.


They have received the compensation laid down by law. The inhabitants who are living in this slum area are to be removed or are being removed and will receive decent housing accommodation. It seems to me there can be no grievance. The slum owners are receiving appropriate compensation and the people who live in this horrible area are being rehoused.

On Question, Motion for Papers negatived.