HL Deb 29 January 1946 vol 139 cc4-10

2.40 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, In moving the Second Reading of this Bill I feel I am entitled to say that it is largely a non-contentious measure. The Bill deals with buildings erected during the war by private individuals or by or on behalf of the Government for the purposes of the prosecution of the war. They were erected on Crown land, or on land acquired by the Crown under war-time legislation, or upon the land of private persons, usually a manufacturing company. In this war, even more than in the last, because of the need for widely dispersed production and greatly increased output, buildings were erected which may have violated, in one respect or another, various Building Acts or planning controls.

It may be supposed that in normal peace-time conditions the local authorities, which are empowered to ensure that the provisions of such Statutes as the Public Health Acts, the Town and Country Planning Acts, or the Restriction of Ribbon Development Act, and so forth, are observed, would have taken steps to see that newly erected buildings did not contravene such provisions. During the war, in circumstances which are familiar to all of us, the local authorities did not exercise their legal rights and, through no fault of theirs, those legal rights have now lapsed. It is broadly true to say that after twelve months local authorities cannot enforce the Public Health Acts except by resorting to costly proceedings in the High Court. This Bill proposes to restore to local authorities the right of having it determined whether a contravention of the law has taken place, notwithstanding that the ordinary remedy may have been barred by lapse of time. There will, I feel sure, be general agreement that it is both reasonable and desirable that this should be done, both in the public interest and in the interest of proper planning, so that war-time buildings may be made subject to review in the light of statutory requirements and so that where, under existing Statutes, enforcement of building law must take place within a certain time, the war period shall not be reckoned in calculating that time.

It will hardly be necessary to urge upon this House that many of the buildings and works to which this Bill, when it becomes law, will apply are extremely valuable. During the war some of the Supply Departments, notably the Ministry of Aircraft Production, had considerable manufacturing work done by companies on premises belonging to those companies. Where a manufacturing company enlarged its premises in order to complete its war contracts, it might do so at the cost of its shareholders, or by raising new capital, or by loans from its bankers, or it might do so with money advanced by the Government Department interested in the execution of its contracts. In fact, a substantial amount of the taxpayers' money was advanced in this way to manufacturers. It is undesirable that these buildings should be demolished for what are not sufficiently serious reasons, or that any great outlay should be incurred in altering them where they need alteration to conform to the law. At this stage it is impossible to lay down a general rule as to how such cases shall be dealt with; each must be dealt with locally upon its merits, subject to a right of appeal to the Minister of Health.

As your Lordships are aware, under the general law the Crown is not bound by a Statute unless the Statute expressly provides for it. In practice, in normal peacetime conditions the Ministry of Works and other Government Departments concerned with buildings do, as a matter of good administration, consult freely with the local authorities in these matters. It is obvious that during the war such consultation was often impossible, but, as I have said, the general position is that Crown buildings are exempt and if the Crown disposes of property not complying with the ordinary law, the purchaser is also exempt. Under this Bill, the Crown exemption will not continue to apply to war-time buildings which are sold by the Government or leased for a period of not less than ten years. The central principle at which the whole Bill is aimed is that doubts about the legal status of a war-time building or work are to be set at rest by some speedy and generally acceptable machinery, in order that the commercial life of the country may continue without unnecessary risk that a local authority or a private person will take belated action to have a building pulled down or altered.

It is not right that the legal status of a property should be left in doubt indefinitely. The Government propose, therefore, that a five-year limit be placed upon the time during which the fate of any war-time building can be decided in the light of post-war circumstances. During the five-year period, which will commence when this Bill becomes law, application can be made to have it determined whether the building does or does not comply with the law. If it does not, it can then be decided whether or not the building should be treated as if it did comply, either unconditionally or subject to such conditions as the local authority may think expedient. The initiative in making application is with those interested in the building, the owner or occupier, or those desiring to purchase it; but the local authority itself can prevent delay by taking steps to enforce the law as soon as it has made up its mind regarding the building. As you will realize, the local authority itself will have an interest, in its capacity as rating authority and because it desires the employment of its people, in the continuance of buildings which may, on some grounds, particularly that of good planning, be open to objection. The Bill therefore provides, in the difficult case of a contravention of the Town and Country Planning Acts, that the Minister of Town and Country Planning may require cases to be referred to the Minister of Health, notwithstanding that the local authority is willing that a particular building shall remain. The Bill also provides that where there is disagreement between an interested party and the local authority, an appeal can be made to the Minister of Health.

It may be asked, "Why the Minister of Health? "Some of the cases which may arise for decision under the Bill might, if the ordinary law had been left to take its course, have come for decision to the Minister of Health; others to the Minister of Town and Country Planning or to the Minister of Transport, while others, again, could in the event of a dispute have been decided by the Courts alone. Thus the owner might have had to go to three different Government Departments and to the Courts as well before obtaining a decision as to the legality of his building. The Government have decided that the most practical course in the interests of all concerned is to have all these cases determined by the Minister of Health, upon the dual grounds that perhaps the majority of those which might have arisen under the ordinary law could by agreement have been brought to the Minister of Health and that under the similar legislation which was passed in the last war the Local Government Board, whose powers have been passed to the Ministry of Health, acquired some experience in dealing with questions similar to those which will arise under this Bill.

I have covered the main purpose of the Bill, which is unavoidably technical. It seeks to remedy a real problem which has arisen out of war-time action, and to remedy it in a fair, reasonable and practical way. It is a necessary Bill, as was stated by the spokesman of the Opposition in another place. It is not, I think, a controversial Bill. I therefore invite your Lordships to give it your approval, and beg to move that it be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a,—(Lord Henderson.)

2.52 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord has placed the case for this Bill before your Lordships in a very clear and straightforward manner. I rise simply to say that so far as those who sit on these Benches are concerned, I think we are quite safe in accepting the noble Lord's assurance that it is quite non-controversial. We do not wish to do anything, therefore, to oppose the passage of the Bill at this stage. In the quite appropriate rush and hurry of the war, many by-laws and local authority rights and obligations were naturally disregarded, and it is obvious that time will be required to straighten these matters out. Indeed, as the noble Lord said, time must be allowed unless quite unnecessary expense and losses are to be brought about. It is possible that there may be one or two points that we shall desire to raise at a later stage, but they are comparatively of a minor character, and I do not think it is necessary to weary your Lordships with them now.

2.54 p.m.


My Lords, this is a very important Bill on a very important and technical subject. It is said to be necessary. I for my part should not care to give it the completely unqualified welcome which a completely non-controversial Bill should have. I am not proposing to-day to go into the details of such a technical and complicated subject. There are, however, some points in this Bill which I will go so far as to say are absolutely necessary, and therefore I would ask your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading to-day; at the same time, there are some points on which I think the Bill could be improved, and I reserve my right to raise them on the Committee stage.

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, I agree with what my noble friend has just said with reference to this Bill. It is, of course, technical, but it is important. The point about which I should like to be satisfied, if not now then at some future stage, is the precise position where the person who erects works on land has done so with the complete knowledge of the local authority, and in many cases with their assistance in many ways, but has inadvertently not complied with the building laws or with one of the other laws which have been so clearly referred to. What is his position if under Clause 1 the authority choose to take steps to point out that these works have been improperly erected or carried out? Under that clause, they have been given the right to object. My own feeling is that in many of those cases, where the local authority have in effect known all about it, or have actively consented, there should be a great deal of consideration given to the position of the man who has spent, it may be, large sums of money on those works; and I am not satisfied—and this is the point to which I should like attention to be drawn before the matter comes up at a later stage—that Clause 2 (3) entirely covers that case.

As I read subsection (3) of Clause 2, it looks very much as if that applies only if an application is made with respect to any land for enforcing any building law. I am not quite sure what happens if the application is not made. I am inclined to think that in that case the unfortunate owner does not know, it may be for five years, what his position is. It is conceivable that something might be added to the Bill to enable the owner of the land to insist upon the matter being dealt with, and dealt with under terms which I think should include a provision by which, if the local authority have, so to speak, become a party in some sense to the erection of the building or the construction of the works, no complaint should be made. At present I am not aware how many people are concerned, and how many hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent in erecting these works, but my sympathy is very much with the building owner who has quite inadvertently done something which he ought to have been told was wrong. I invite the noble Lord who is in charge of the Bill to see whether he is satisfied that the matters to which I have referred are in fact properly dealt with.

2.59 p.m.


My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken, I have no desire to oppose the giving of a Second Reading to this Bill, but there is a point on which I think that I may want to put an Amendment down when we come to the Committee stage. I have read Clause 2 a number of times, and I find myself quite unable to understand what the real relationship be- tween the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and the Ministry of Health is going to be under that clause. It has been represented to me by the Royal Institute of British Architects that the Ministry of Town and Country Planning ought to have a say in a matter where planning questions are concerned, and I think it may be necessary to ask your Lordships to look at an Amendment to clarify that situation. I have done my best to understand the clause as it stands, and it certainly seems very involved and difficult. That is all that I want to say at this stage, but I thought that I had better say on Second Reading that there is a matter which gives rise to misgivings in quarters which have a right to be heard on the subject.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.