§ 6.5 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ LORD MARLEY
My Lords, I am not claiming that this little Bill has any of the excitement of the removal of the Witchcraft Act, to speeches on which subject we have just listened with such attention. But it is a completely realistic little Bill, because it deals with mud, puddles, dirt and dust in unadopted streets. The object of the Bill is to facilitate the expeditious taking over and re-making of unadopted streets which, under present regulations, need be dealt with only when and if a local authority desire to make up these streets. I myself came across a considerable number of these unadopted streets and saw their undesirability when I was Chairman of an inter-Departmental Committee on garden cities and satellite towns, which reported a good many years ago. In the course of our visits to various parts of the country we saw the evils of the unadopted street. There is one other point which came particularly to our notice. Sometimes streets were not made up because those who had houses with frontages on these streets did not desire to spend money on their making-up, but preferred to put up with the dirt, danger and discomfort of the un-made-up roads.
This Bill is a very small one. It puts no new charge on any individual or council where a liability already exists, but it allows for the payment in advance by the builder or owner of the frontaged property of the estimated cost of making-up the road when the time comes for the road to be made up. And it proposes to get rid of the problem which has arisen in a number of cases in which a frontager has suddenly been forced to meet a claim far beyond what he had ever expected— sometimes amounting to two pounds or three pounds a foot of frontage, when, perhaps, he believed that no such claim would lie. That is a problem which the Bill faces.
Under this Bill, before a building is erected on a new street the owner shall, subject to certain rights of appeal, pay to the local authority or secure the payment of a sum to cover the estimated cost 730 applicable to his particular frontage. One other point arises here. When a new street has been half built up, the majority of the frontagers are to have the right to call on the local authority to take over and make up the street. If the money paid by the frontager is less than the proportion of the actual cost of making up the street applicable to him, when the road is made up he must pay the difference; but at least he is saved from having to pay such a large sum at an unexpected and often undesirable moment. If he has paid more than the cost applicable to him of making up the road, he will receive a rebate. If he has paid the money in advance instead of securing its payment, he has a fairly good investment, because under the Bill the local authority will pay him 3 per cent. on his money until the time that the street is made up.
I am bound to say that—unlike the case of the Fraudulent Mediums Bill with which we have just dealt—there was in the early stages of this Bill some slight dispute in another place as regards the details, but, with the ideas inherent in an advanced democracy, we were, by a spirit of compromise and mutual understanding of the points of view of one another, able to secure complete agreement on both sides of the House in the final stages of the Bill. There was no disagreement. Indeed, one noticed that the Report stage and the Third Reading of the Bill were moved or supported alternately by Members supporting the Government and by Members supporting the Opposition.
At this late hour, I do not think that there is any need for me to deal with the ten or eleven clauses in the Bill, except to say that in Clause 1 the compromises reached and the mutual understandings attained in Standing Committee B in another place were embodied in a number of paragraphs providing for exemptions from the Bill. There were cases in which it was felt that there should be a right of exemption. For example, the Bill is not retrospective, and it does not apply if an owner or builder can reach with a local authority an agreement as to frontage charges. Such an owner or builder is able to contract out of this Bill. It is a Bill of agreement. Then again there is the common-sense provision of a local authority being able to exempt a building which is standing alone in perhaps a small portion of a long road 731 which is never likely to be made up and perhaps will never need to be made up. These are the types of exception upon which agreement was reached. I do not think that I need deal with any of the other clauses of the Bill. Of course, there is a right for the Government to override an application by the majority of frontagers for a road to be made up if something in the nature of a Defence requirement makes it undesirable that such work should be undertaken. I think we may say that there is nothing contentious in the Bill, and that it is accepted on all sides as being desirable. In the hope that it will secure the support of your Lordships, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
§ Moved—That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Marley.)
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ LORD LLEWELLIN
My Lords, I for one am glad that the noble Lord has introduced this Bill into the House to-day. On the whole, it is a good Bill and it was certainly much improved in the course of its passage through another place. This Bill does what the best builders and estate developers have been doing for some time—it is not only the best ones who have been doing it, although it is true that many of the smaller builders have not. I believe that in one or two cases a "mushroom" kind of firm of builders have taken a price for the house which was said to include the road development charges. When, later, the company has been liquidated, or the official concerned has somehow or other absconded, the wretched purchaser, though he thinks that he has paid for that charge, in the end finds that he has not done so. These cases are comparatively rare, but they have occurred. They will not be able to occur again once this Bill is on the Statute Book.
Whether or not those cases have occurred, there are certainly some un-fortunate people, without there being any fraud on any side, who have bought a house on a plot of land and quite genuinely have thought that that was the end of the matter. They have not realised that later on, because they are on an un-adopted road, there will be further charges imposed upon them. They may have thought that in their original purchase price they had paid all that was neces- 732 sary for the ground and for the house in which they proposed to live. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that in some cases it was convenient for people to have what I may call two "bites at the cherry"—to be able to pay originally just for the land and the house, and only later on to pay the development charges for the road. However, I have no doubt that they can arrange to raise the extra money required if they know how to do it, by means of a mortgage on their house. Of course, when the Bill becomes law, the money will have to be found, or a guarantee for it put up, before the building of the house is begun. Indeed, it may be some little time before the local authority decide to make up the road and adopt it, or before Clause 6 (that is, the application of a majority of frontagers) can be applied, because that can be applied, and properly applied, only when a considerable amount of development has taken place.
There are one or two points that I consider it right to raise at this stage, because I think your Lordships should look into them during later stages of this Bill. As one or two of them are fairly substantial, it is as well that we should have them in mind at this stage. Clause 2 (4) takes away the right of an appeal to the court, and substitutes a right of appeal to the Minister against the assessed charge. Whether this is right or wrong may be a moot point, but what is not a moot point is what is summed up in the last three lines of page 3 of this Bill. In those lines your Lordships will see:On any appeal under this subsection, the Minister shall give the appellant an opportunity of being heard before a person appointed by the Minister.That goes some way, but, of course, what is required is not only that the owner shall be heard, but that he shall have a right to cross-examine the representative of the local authority—usually the borough surveyor or somebody from his office—who has assessed either the total charges or the frontage assessment. At present the owner can always cross-examine the local authority representative on these matters.
In passing, I would say that in some cases local authorities tend to make up these by-roads too extravagantly. In some cases they try to build them up on the frontagers' money as though they were main thoroughfares, which of course they 733 are not; and it ought to be permissible for the people who have to pay the bill to be able to cross-examine as to what kind of work is to be put into a road, and why the charges are, say, £3 10s., when in some other locality they work out at only £2 or whatever the figure may be. That can-not be done if only the appellant himself can appear before the person appointed by the Minister. I think he ought to have the right to put questions to the person who has made the assessment. Indeed, without that, and without having them both before him at the same time, I do not see how the person appointed by the Minister can really judge between the two parties. I think that is a matter into which we should look at a later stage.
There is one other point about which I should like an explanation from the noble Lord in charge of the Bill, and that is the wording at line 7 of Clause 3. It says that when the sum has been paid or secured the person doing thatshall … be deemed to be discharged to the extent of the sum so paid or secured.I should like to call attention to the words "to the extent of the sum so paid or secured." I do not know why they are there. I thought the object of the measure was that once an owner has paid the assessed amount he has paid the necessary charge. It is true that if he has overpaid he can get back the amount of the overpayment. But if the work is put off for three or four years with the result, perhaps, that the charges go up, a second charge may be levied because the amount will be deemed to be discharged only to the extent of the sum so paid or secured. I should like the noble Lord to look at that point—I think he has grasped it. I had hoped that once the road charges were assessed and security given, the matter would have been done with, and that the man could then say "I have paid all the charges on this." It rather looks as though somebody may have an opportunity, which I at any rate should not desire, of coming back a second time, and saying, "You are under-assessed, so you have got to pay more."
It seems to me, too, that Clause 6 is somewhat oddly drafted. Subsection (2) reads:Nothing in the preceding subsection shall be taken as requiring or empowering a local authority to carry out any street works for which an authorisation is required under Regu- 734 lation fifty-six A of the Defence (General) Regulations, 1939….The general point about regulations is that they can be altered more easily than a Statute. That is why these provisions are brought about by way of regulations. The whole of this subsection drops to the ground if somebody substitutes some other regulation for Regulation fifty-six A of 1939. Although one often sees previous Acts of Parliament referred to in Bills, or in subsequent Acts of Parliament, I have never yet seen an Act hinge itself on a particular Defence Regulation. That may be a poor or a good point; I do not know. But I think it is certainly a point to which attention should be drawn. Then I see that Clause 9 says:Subject to the provisions of this section, this Act shall only apply to boroughs and urban districts in England and Wales, other than metropolitan boroughs….I do not know whether that means that all the metropolitan boroughs have no new streets to make. I think that may well be the case. But, at any rate, if the Bill adopts that sweeping form, one should glance back to Clause 1 (3) (h), where we find that despite what is said in Clause 9 there is included a metropolitan borough. So I think that little matter also requires attention.
On the wider point, I am not at all sure that I like the idea of the Minister being able to apply this Act to new districts without any kind of Parliamentary control—which I believe is how Clause 9, as drafted, will operate. The Minister can do that in regard to a rural district, and I believe that it is done not by an order which is subject to either affirmative or negative Resolution procedure in Parliament. I draw attention to that matter because by this Bill we are extending to another range of people a liability to criminal prosecution, which is something for which I think Parliament ought to have some responsibility, and which ought not to be in the hands of a Minister. I have made these points because I think that this is a Bill which we do not want to hurry through. We want it to be as perfect as possible when it leaves us, and I am certain that the points I have raised are worth looking into. I have no doubt that the noble Lord who has moved the measure will agree to do so. With regard to the 735 general principle underlying the Bill and the majority of its clauses, I think the noble Lord can rest assured that he will have unanimous support in your Lordships' House.
§ 6.29 p.m.
§ THE PAYMASTER - GENERAL (LORD MACDONALD OF GWAENYSGOR)
My Lords, in view of the very clear and concise presentation of the Bill by my noble friend Lord Marley, and of the sympathetic references by the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin—though he had some criticisms to make of certain of its pro-visions—I think I need say no more to-day than that the Bill also has the good wishes of the Government. As to possible Amendments which have been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, it may well be that, between now and the next stage of the Bill, my noble friend Lord Marley, Lord Llewellin and myself can have conversations regarding the points raised. The Government, as I have indicated, are sympathetic to this Bill.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ LORD MARLEY
My Lords, I am grateful for the reception given to this Bill, and particularly for the very thoughtful speech which has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin. I greatly appreciate his contribution. There is only one point with which I should like to deal now. The fact that it has been raised, is, I am afraid, due to my failure to make it clear that if, when an un-adopted street is subsequently made up, it is found that the cost of the frontage to the frontager is more than the amount of money he has paid, he will have to pay the difference. The reason he will have to pay the difference is that if he does not other people will have to pay for the making up of his street. He would have had to pay that larger sum in any case at the time when the street was made up. Therefore, he is doing what the noble Lord suggested was good in reference to another part of the Bill —namely, having "two bites at a cherry." Having paid a certain sum at the time he built the house, then the frontager has to pay only a small addition when the street is made up. I am credibly informed that it is not believed that the cost of making up streets is, in fact, rising. Indeed, we now have new and more productive methods of dealing 736 with these new streets, and as the result of their employment the cost of making up the roads may be less than would other-wise have been the case. I will not deal with the other points which have been raised, because, as my noble friend has already indicated, they will be looked into.
§ LORD LLEWELLIN
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I should like to put a request to him. I know that it is not in his power to do this him-self, but will he try to press upon the Government that when this original assessment is made by local authorities they should in every case explain to the individual concerned that there may be more to pay afterwards? If this is not done, there will arise in people's minds similar misapprehensions to those which have given rise to the necessity for a Bill such as this.
§ LORD MARLEY
I think that that is a most important point and I will certainly bear it in mind. These people, in my view, should be fully informed of what faces them in the future.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.