HL Deb 29 November 1949 vol 165 cc1041-50

4.27 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I hope your Lordships will not regard this as an anti-climax to the other proceedings, because although modest this is a useful and, in its way, valuable Bill. I do not think it is likely to raise the temperature of the House as the other Bill has done. There may be different points of view as to some of its details, but it may safely be assumed (at any rate, I hope so) that its objects will be welcomed by your Lordships.

There can be few members of your Lordships' House who have not been shocked at the appalling condition of many bomb-damaged sites, especially in those towns and cities which suffered extensive devastation during the war. An occasional view of the jagged ruins in the extensive battlefield of the City of London and in other centres may serve to remind us of "our finest hour" and to impress visitors to our shores with the ordeals which we endured. But there is another side to the question. In many of our towns and cities, there are islands—some quite small; other more extensive—which, by the process of time, have become eyesores, and militate grievously against the general amenities of the districts in which they are situated. Bitter complaints have reached the Ministry of Health from people who are compelled to live in close proximity to such sites, which as the days go by become more and more derelict. Many have become dumping grounds for all kinds of rubbish, and if it were nothing more than a question of the danger to health from the dust blown from noxious deposits, the nuisance would demand some action. But many of these sites have become fruitful breeding grounds for flies and rodents, and others are made use of by undesirable characters. Regard must also be paid to the physical danger to children, who find in some of these derelict sites all the risks and excitement so vividly portrayed in the records of the exploits of Dick Barton. The danger to life and limb of these little ones is very real.

I need not remind your Lordships that the real solution of the problem lies in the permanent development of the sites. That leads me to emphasise, if emphasis be needed in your Lordships' House, that this Bill does not attempt to offer a permanent solution to the problem. The objects of the Bill are essentially of a temporary nature. If I may be permitted to say so, it authorises the ratepayers to do a bit of cleaning up, a little mopping up, dusting and polishing on their own doorsteps Experience has proved that existing powers are neither adequate nor suitable for dealing with these derelict sites on the purely temporary Oasis which this problem needs. Neither the Defence Regulations nor the nuisance provisions of the Public Health Acts provide even a temporary solution. The time has arrived when something must be done to mitigate the evils of which I have spoken It is fully appreciated that responsibility for the creation of a nuisance does not always lie with the owner of the site, and many owners will welcome the opportunity which the Bill affords for their voluntary co-operation with the local authority.

No doubt your Lordships will have seen in the Press—I think it was yesterday—a notice of the publication of a book entitled Beauty and the Borough, written by a Mr. Cleary. I have a copy of this book, which has a number of illustrations of the way in which bombed sites have been dealt with by the local authority in Hornsey, a borough in which I have had an interest for many years as my bench meets these. I would commend this book to noble Lords who may be interested in the subject. They will see how much can be done, and has been done, even without this legislation, by a local authority which is progressive and has attempted to deal with this problem. This Bill has been brought in to increase the powers of local authorities in this connection, and it will be accompanied by efforts to have the permanent redevelopments set going wherever this can be done consistently with national economic policy. In another place the Bill was given a Second Reading, and there was little contention about it.

May I deal shortly with some of the details of the Bill which may interest your Lordships? It is contemplated that local authorities will either take leases of untidy war damaged sites which they wish to put in order or seek authorisation from the Minister to acquire them compulsorily. It is felt that usually the authority must proceed in one or other of these ways in order to have some control over the site after they have put it in order, lest it relapse into the nuisance state in which it was originally. The local authorities cannot take power under this Bill for more than five years in the first instance, but they can renew their tenure from time to time if they think the site would otherwise relapse into a bad state, so long as the whole period of tenure does not exceed ten years. Clause 3 provides that the compulsory taking of possession depends upon a written authorisation of the Minister. It was essential to Rive some expeditious procedure here. It would be out of place that there should be long-drawn-out machinery for the acquisition of sites for such a short period, in circumstances where there is no taking of the ownership and, moreover, where the site can revert to the owner so soon as he is in a position to develop it. There are differences between this procedure and that of requisitioning. First of all, there is in this method an opportunity for the owner to object, and the Minister has the statutory duty to take such representations into consideration. Secondly, the Minister may not authorise compulsory taking of possession if it appears to him that the person interested can and will put the site in order himself. The Minister may postpone his decision in order to give such a person an opportunity for carrying out the necessary work.

When local authorities have taken land under the Bill, they must put it in order. They cannot take possession now and leave it as it is. Subject to that duty, they must use the land for purposes of their statutory functions or let it to others on conditions designed to preserve the amenities. A point of interest to be noticed here is that the works which local authorities are authorised to carry out may include the making of gardens—not necessarily public gardens. One of the illustrations in the book to which I have referred is of a site which has been turned into a small garden. Where local authorities take the land compulsorily, compensation is payable on the basis of the Compensation (Defence) Act, 1939, which, as your Lordships will be aware, means that the local authority will pay a market value rent plus compensation for damage at the end of their term of possession. There is a third method which local authorities may adopt. In cases where they do not consider it necessary to take and hold a site to make it non-injurious to amenity, and where amenity considerations would be satisfied if the site were cleared of useless remains and left in the possession of the owner, the Bill gives the authorities clearer and better powers for action than any powers they have under the Public Health Acts. Any person interested may claim compensation for damage suffered by depreciation or disturbance due to the exercise of this power.

Clause 10 secures that when land held under the Bill is given up, any planning permissions for activities instituted during the period of tenure come to an end. This means that the owner can resume the previous use of the land without planning permission, but cannot continue the use instituted during the period of tenure without a further planning permission. Clause 11 deals with sites on which a cost of works payment is appropriate. Local authorities will be expected to consult the War Damage Commission about the war damage category of all sites with which they propose to deal. On any of the sites which are cost of works cases the Commission may find out whether the necessary permits for reinstatement could be obtained by the persons interested in the site.

The next provision is very important. Where the Commission find that permits for immediate reinstatement can be obtained, but for some reason of his own the owner is not prepared to have the work carried out, they will have power to change the payment from a cost of works payment to a value payment. Where, however, they find that although the owner wishes to reinstate he cannot at present obtain the necessary permits, the kind of payment will remain on a cost of works basis, for it would be obviously wrong that his interests should be prejudiced by something beyond his own control. Where a local authority make a proposal for clearing useless remains of war damage on a site held under the Bill, whether it be a cost of works or a value payment site, and the proposal is approved by the Ministry of Health and War Damage Commission in consultation, the cost of removal will rank for reimbursement from the War Damage Commission. It should be noted that this means, the removal of war damage remains only, and not any extraneous matters that have been dumped on the site. Secondly, it would not include any structures that could have formed part of a building when reconstructed. Although there is no specific Government grant for the purposes of the Bill, local authorities will be able to obtain a good deal of assistance where they are carrying out such work.

Finally, a word may be said about the Festival of Britain. The tidying up of war-damaged sites fits in with the campaign for brightening up in preparation for the Festival. It may be an unspectacular part of the preparations, but it will I be none the less useful. The present economy measures will mean that local authorities will not be able to do as much under the Bill as they might otherwise have done. The extent of action will depend on economic circumstances, but a good deal can he done without heavy expense, and in appropriate cases charges can he spread by raising short-term loans with the Minister's approval. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

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

4.39 p.m.


My Lords, at first sight this Bill appears both attractive and simple, but after closer examination some of its attractiveness still remains and little of its simplicity. A large number of important and complex Acts of Parliament are referred to in this short Bill. In some cases they are, in fact, amended by the Bill. The main purpose of the Bill, which has been well set out by the noble Lord who introduced it, is fairly clear; but whether this measure will be the means of attaining the purpose in view is quite another matter. In the first place, I would suggest that it is a good example of a bad system which is creeping into all our legislation—namely, legislation by reference. No less than eighteen Acts are referred to or amended by the Bill. Whatever may be said in favour of the Bill, it is clearly only a makeshift measure. I would suggest that the proper way to get rid of these war-damaged sites is to get the right sort of development going. We must not allow this Bill to conceal the real problem which ahead, which was mentioned by the noble Lord when he said that this measure does not provide a permanent solution of the problem. I do not wish to cast depressing gloom in regard to the Bill, but I feel it is doubtful if much action will be taken by any local authority, in view of the fact that no grant—in my view, rightly so—will come from the Exchequer the work to be carried out.

There are one or two questions I would like to put to the noble Lord who introduced the Bill. If your Lordships will turn to the Schedule, where procedure is laid clown whereby the Minister of Health may authorise the compulsory taking over or retention of war damaged sites, you will find that no provision has been made for an inquiry or a hearing in the event of any objection. The Minister merely has to come to his own decision and notify the objector by registered letter. Surely, the owner of a site should have the right of an inquiry or a hearing if he objects to the compulsory acquisition, and should not be at the mercy of the Minister. In fact, it would appear that the objector is not even entitled to know the reasons upon which the Minister's decision is based. If my interpretation of the Schedule is correct, it looks to me very much like the streamlining of a Bill for administrative convenience and without proper consideration and justice for the owners of the sites. In the definition clause "works" are defined as including: the demolition, repair, or erection of buildings and the laying out and cultivation of gardens. I would suggest that local authorities are unlikely to erect anything but temporary buildings, temporary hutments, and so on, when they have a maximum possession of only ten years. If they are permitted to erect temporary buildings, it may well mean that improvement in the amenity value of a site will be very doubtful indeed—in fact, the reverse my be the case. Under Clause 9 of the Bill it appears that powers are given to local authorities to carry out all the objects of the Bill without obtaining a lease of the land and without taking possession of the land compulsorily. Therefore, I do not see the necessity for Clause 1 of the Bill. Further, under Clause 9 the period of notice for entering a site is to be only twenty-four hours. Surely that is a most inadequate period. I hope the noble Lord will deal with some of these points in his reply. We welcome the principle of the Bill, but its method of application raises a number of points which will have to be dealt with in Committee.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, one of the weaknesses of His Majesty's Government, as it seems to me, is that they are not very good at guessing the psychology of other people. This Bill has been brought forward, apparently, to tidy up London for the visitors' who are coming here. Do visitors want London to be tidied up in this particular way? I very much doubt it. The visitors will want to see historic London, and our bomb holes are now historic. All over the world they are saying: "We must go and have a look at poor old shattered Britain"; and if they come here and find all round St. Paul's one vast rock garden they will be disillusioned. Of course, we want to show our visitors an alive, up and coming, virile Britain. Do we give that impression by covering our bomb holes with rock gardens? No, my Lords. The way we can give that impression is by covering them with the foundations of buildings. These are the most valuable building sites in our Island, and it is a positive public disgrace that in the vast majority of cases, in spite of our great lack of space for building, we have made no attempt to get down to rebuilding. Moreover, not only have we not done our duty in that respect, but we bring forward a Bill which leads one to believe that for another five years, and for five years beyond that, we still do not anticipate being able to build on those most valuable sites. I feel that such action exposes us to charges of grave ineptitude.

Then, again, the letting in of a temporary occupier is often a permanent process. I well remember after the First World War going up to Cambridge and being told that my college had the finest cricket ground in the place, but that unfortunately it happened to be a military hospital at the time. I had hopes that during my sojourn there I might one day play cricket on that beautiful ground. However, I believe that to this day it is still occupied by a military hospital or its successor. In other words, a "temporary occupant" is never temporary in this world; and the temporary rock garden, I fear, will become a permanent palm court, or something of that nature. On the technical points that arise under the Bill I am quite incompetent to speak, but I should like to know the position in regard to change of user. At the moment these sites are a trap and playground for children, and I think the noble Lord also said a playground for rodents—they used to be rats when I was young.


I purposely avoided the word.


When you change them into gardens, and so on, is there a change of user involved, and a development charge under the Town and Country Planning Act? If so, the local authority will have paid out good money in development charges, and they will obviously want to hold on to the land in order to get that money back in some way or another. With those few remarks, I would say that I do not particularly welcome this Bill, hut I do not propose to vote against it.

4.49 p.m.


My Lords, I agree with what my noble friend Lord Teynham has said, that this Bill may contain some useful provisions, but it ought to be examined in more detail in Committee and I do not oppose it. I am interested in one point only—namely, its application to Scotland. I notice that Clauses 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 15 and the last subsection to the Schedule have all special provisions applying the measure to Scotland. Most of these are references to existing Acts. I wondered whether it would not have been better to have a separate small measure for Scotland, rather than to tie on to the coat-tails of this one. I think I can see what has happened. There were some money and some useful powers going, and the Secretary of State may have thought it wise to seize those things while they were in the air. Mercifully, Scotland escaped most of the heavy bombing, but there are sites, particularly on the Clyde, which will require treatment, and the Bill may be useful. I do not expect the noble Lord to he able to say more at this stage, and no doubt the Secretary of State gave the question careful thought. But other things being equal, for the ease of those who are to administer it, a separate Scottish Bill might have been preferable.

4.50 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the House for its reception of this very modest Bill. I was particularly interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Clydesmuir, say that there was some money going, and that that was why Scotland was interested. The general criticism has been that no money is provided under the Bill, and that there ought to be. Perhaps he will not be so anxious to have a separate Bill when he has gone through it. I was rather surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, should be willing to leave these disgraceful sites as they are until circumstances are such that we can rebuild. Surely something must be done, and it is suggested that this simple method of dealing temporarily with these sites—always remembering that the real solution is that suggested by the noble Lord—is all we can do at this moment.

A point was raised as to the local authorities being able to go on to a site at twenty-four hours' notice to clear it. The purpose of that clause is merely to enable the site to be cleared of the foul rubbish which may be on it; the authority will not take possession at all. Therefore, there is no need for all the machinery which is needed in the other case where, as the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, mentioned, fourteen days' notice has to be given. We admit at once that this is, in the noble Lord's words, a makeshift measure, but in dealing with this matter it must be remembered that someone—in many cases the owners of these sites—has permitted them to get into a disgraceful condition. Because of that, I suggest that we need not be too squeamish in seeing that the job is done now. Clause 1 lays down clearly that local authorities cannot enter into this agreement, or apply to the Minister for authority to go in, unless the amenities of the district are interfered with by the condition of the site. That is a prerequisite to the whole machinery being set in motion. The other matters which were raised could profitably he raised in Committee, and because of that, and having regard to the general sympathetic reception which has been given to the Bill, I think we might leave it at that.

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