HL Deb 01 July 1952 vol 177 cc522-37

2.45 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill to which I ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading this afternoon marks the opening of yet another offensive against the problem of congestion and over-population in our great cities. As we all know, the growth of their populations has made it increasingly difficult for them to meet their housing needs within their own areas and as a result there has been an increasing expansion of these large cities into areas which are adjacent to, but outside, their own boundaries. For a number of reasons, this kind of expansion was the most convenient way for local authorities to deal with this problem. In particular, by spreading out in this manner they avoided the difficulties which would have been involved in shifting industries, since workers could continue to travel to and from their usual work from their new homes in out-county estates.

It was the most convenient method, but I do not think that in every case it was the right one. The process has created very considerable transport problems and it has created, I think, as many new social problems as those which it attempted to cure. Indeed, I think it is generally agreed that before the war the disorderly expansion of our great cities into the countryside had gone too far, and for some time it has been the object of the various planning authorities to prevent this bulging put on the fringes of already overcrowded communities and to provide some kind of green belt round them. Yet in itself the prevention of further encroachment on the green belt is only a negative policy. It may stop the continual sprawl of our great cities, but it does nothing to solve the problems of congestion and over-population which continue to confront them. Some positive attack on these evils therefore was clearly necessary.

There are obviously two ways in which such an attack could be launched: first, through the expansion of existing towns and, secondly, through the creation of new towns. The New Towns Act was passed as recently as 1946, and it is too early yet to expect any spectacular results from that measure. All new developments need a good deal of preliminary work before results begin to flow in, and the new towns are no exception to this rule. But they are making steady progress, and I feel convinced that in due course they will make a substantial and increasing contribution to our housing needs. All the same, I think it would be a mistake to imagine that, by themselves, the new towns can provide the only, or even the main, contribution to our expansion.

Let me remind your Lordships that the Abercrombie Plan for Greater London envisages the accommodation of three times the number of people by means of town development as by means of new towns. Therefore it is high time for us to embark on the first of these two methods, and that is why this Bill is before your Lordships this afternoon. Broadly speaking, the purpose of the Bill is to assist large cities who wish to provide for their surplus population to do so by exporting them, under orderly and friendly arrangements, into the areas of neighbouring authorities. It is our intention and hope that these arrangements will be reached through friendly negotiation and not be imposed by arbitrary power. We shall certainly try to do everything we can to promote friendly relations between the authorities concerned. Here let me say that it is absolutely fundamental to this whole conception that, where a population is to be exported, either its industry should be taken with ft or, alternatively, fresh industry should be attracted, so that a balanced and healthy community is created in the receiving area. As in the case of new towns, of course, we cannot compel industry to move, but we must try to ensure that every inducement is offered to industry to play its essential part.

Moreover, the Bill is intended primarily to assist receiving local authorities to build up their own areas. Clauses 5 and 6 give them certain extensions of their powers which are necessary if they are to do this. The growth in the past of what one might call "absentee landlordism" on the part of one great authority in the area of another has not been a healthy development. I am sure that it is much better that the receiving authorities should be encouraged to do the job, if they are able and willing to do so. After all, they are on the spot; they are responsible for what goes on in their areas. And if they carry out the development we may hope to avoid some of the difficulties which have arisen in the new towns where a Corporation is nominated and not publicly elected.

Nevertheless there may be occasions when the receiving authority, particularly if it is a small one, would be wise to make use of the building organisation and the special experience of the exporting authority. Such an agreement might take several forms. The exporting authority or authorities—because under Clause 12 two or more cities may, if they wish, join together in a joint body to carry out a scheme—might act in their own right in agreement with the district council or as the agent of the district council. Nor must we forget the council of the county in which the receiving authority is situated. As planning authority, they are responsible for seeing that the development is properly planned, and, quite apart from the planning aspect, they may be able to help, either by the loan of technical staff, or in some cases, where they have a large building organisation of their own, by active participation in the development. Special provision has, therefore, been made in the Bill to cover these contingencies.

Clause 7 of the Bill defines the authorities which are eligible to participate. They may be the council of a county borough, the London County Council, a county district other than the receiving area, the council of the county in which the receiving area lies, or a joint water or sewerage board on which the receiving area is represented. Clause 8 enables the participating authority to make an agreement with the receiving authority to carry out the development, either as agents or as principals, with the Minister's consent. In this connection it is perhaps worth mentioning that this clause gives county councils housing powers for the first time. Clause 8 also provides for the transfer of land on appropriate terms from the receiving authority to a participating authority; and, what is almost more important, for the re-transfer of the same land, or any additional land which the exporting authority may have acquired in the meantime, back to the receiving authority at a later date. As I have already said, we do not want to encourage local authorities to become absentee landlords, and, although in certain circumstances it may be convenient to transfer land to an exporting authority in order that they may carry out the development, it will probably be in the best interests of local government if eventually both the land and the buildings are re-transferred back to the receiving authority. Here again we hope that the necessary arrangements will be reached by friendly negotiation between the authorities. Nevertheless, Clause 13 gives the Minister power, where he thinks it is desirable in the interests of local government, to enforce such a re-transfer by order, and such an order would require an Affirmative Resolution from both Houses of Parliament.

I feel that I must say a few words about Clause 9. Here again the Minister has a power which it is not intended that he should use unless friendly negotiations between the authorities concerned break down. In such an event, if it appears to the Minister that develop- ment has been held up by the inability or the unwillingness of a receiving authority to carry out the development, or by their refusal to agree to the work being carried out by a participating authority, then under this clause he can make an order enforcing such a scheme. Here again the order would require an Affirmative Resolution. There has, I believe, been some apprehension expressed in some quarters lest this clause should give the Minister power to give direct planning permission to any particular proposal. I think Clause 21, which was put in at a late stage in the other place, makes it clear that this is not the case, but I should like to emphasise that point. Planning approval for any of these schemes must be obtained under the ordinary procedure of the 1947 Act before there can be any question of the machinery of this Bill being brought into operation. If there is a dispute as to whether or not the proposed development is in the right place, any objections may be heard at an ordinary public inquiry. All this clause does is to say that if a scheme is held up through lack of agreement as to how it should be carried out, then the Minister may step in and make an order.

I turn now to the most important part of this Bill—namely, its financial provisions. So far as town development is concerned, by far the greatest financial problem is that of the receiving authorities. However willing they may be to undertake these new and often onerous duties, it is quite clear that in the initial stages the development will more often than not put too heavy a strain upon the resources of the average district council. Of course, this burden will be eased by the contributions which they receive from the exporting authorities, for it is no part of our intention that the Exchequer should shoulder a liability which properly falls upon them. They have a responsibility for housing their people, and they ought not to be relieved of it by the mere fact that the houses have to be built in the area of another authority. The general principle will be that the exporting authorities will contribute to the statutory race charges of the receiving authority, broadly to the extent that their own urgent housing needs are directly relieved by the houses that are being built. Clause 4 of the Bill enables them to make such contributions, and also to impose conditions to safeguard their interests.

At the same time, we have to face the fact that it is highly improbable that all these houses will be filled by people from either the houses or the housing lists of the exporting authority. As I have already emphasised, if people are to be exported, there must be jobs for them in the receiving areas, and the question of what might be called "job suitability" must be considered alongside housing need. Therefore, the contributions from the exporting authorities will not cover all the houses built. Equally, there will be other items, notably the laying out of factory sites, which will not be covered by the ordinary Exchequer contribution under the Housing Act. If this development is to take place some additional financial help will be necessary to "prime the pump" and tide the receiving authorities over the lean years at the beginning of the development.

For this reason, Clause 2 of the Bill enables the Minister to make such contributions from the Exchequer as he may think appropriate. Whether he makes a contribution, and, if so, the size of the contribution, is left to the Minister's discretion. Obviously, he will first have to satisfy himself that the scheme is a good one, and that it really needs some help from him. Then, if he decides to make a contribution, the size of his contribution will naturally depend upon the circumstances of each individual case. Much will obviously depend upon the amount of assistance which can be expected from exporting authorities or from the county council; and in the same way a great deal will depend upon the financial strength of the receiving authority. But, in general, the intention of my right honourable friend will be to see that the receiving authority are not asked to carry an undue burden. And if he does make a contribution, he also will have the right to impose such conditions as he thinks fit.

Apart from these considerations, this clause imposes two overriding conditions which must be satisfied before the Minister can make any contribution whatsoever. First, the development must be on a substantial scale—and here I should explain that the word "substantial" refers primarily to the receiving authority. Secondly, the development must be for the relief of certain types of area—a county borough, London county, a county district, either in a different county from the receiving area or one that forms part of London, or one of the large built-up areas elsewhere. In effect, this clause leaves only one type of area uncovered—namely, the county district which is not part of a large built-up area, but which wishes to export part of its population into the same county. In such cases, while there is no objection whatever to local authorities' making these schemes between themselves, such schemes would not deal with the special problem we are trying to solve in this Bill and the authorities concerned, therefore, would not qualify for the additional Exchequer contribution payable under this Bill.

This clause also specifies the kind of services to which it is proposed the Central Government should contribute. The first and most important, of course, is the acquisition of land and the cost of site preparation for housing, shops and industry, and the cost of main water supply, sewerage and drainage. Obviously, these are the first essential preliminaries. Next, the land has to be made ready for building. It may have to be levelled; estate roads may have to be made; and water, sewerage and other services may have to be provided to individual building plots. After all, this is what all private estate developers on a large scale have done in the past in order to have an uninterrupted flow of houses. I am quite certain that local authorities will have to do the same if they wish to attract development to places where they want it. Again—and this is a very important point—if they are going to attract industry (as I am sure they must, if this scheme is to work) then they have to be ready to offer to industry prepared factory sites.

There is one point on the financial side about which perhaps I ought to say a word. Clause 10 provides that the Minister can make contributions to participating authorities, as well as to receiving authorities, if they are carrying out development in the place of the housing authority. These contributions may be the same as those payable under Clause 2, except that in the case of exporting authorities he may not contribute to the cost of the housing, because those authorities have a duty to provide for the housing needs of their own people. Under this same clause, too, any exporting authority may contribute to the expenses of a participating authority if they are thereby getting relief, just; as they may contribute to the expenses of a receiving authority under Clause 4.

I have tried my best to explain the main provisions of this Bill, and I fear that I have taken an unconscionable time in doing so. I am mindful of the necessity of making our speeches short, as the Order Paper is very crowded. There are a few clauses in the Bill to which I have made no specific reference. These clauses contain some of the more detailed machinery of the Bill. So far as I know, they are completely uncontroversial, and I do not think they call for any comment from me at the present stage. Before I close, I must say one word about Clause 18, because it is rather an important clause. This clause makes a general amendment to the existing planning law. As your Lordships are aware, under the 1944 Act—and this was re-enacted in the Eleventh Schedule of the 1947 Act—the Minister was not allowed to give his consent to the sale of a freehold or the granting of a lease for more than ninety-nine years, unless he was satisfied that there were exceptional circumstances. In practice, I think the only exceptional circumstances that have ever been recognised by the Minister under that limitation are where the land was to be sold for the building of a church. This provision has, of course, precluded the sale of freeholds in circumstances where, although they could not be said to be exceptional, the disposal of the freehold was in no way detrimental to the public interest and its retention did not result in any particular benefit to the local authority. It is fair to say that this restriction has caused a great deal of criticism from local authorities, and it is completely out of line with the freedom of the Minister to consent to the disposal of land acquired under the Housing Act. Whilst my right honourable friend still feels that local authorities should have to obtain his approval before disposing of any freehold, he is of the opinion that this particular limitation is undesirable. He has therefore taken the opportunity provided by this Bill to get rid of it. I ought to inform the House that we intend to put down an Amendment on the Committee stage to give the Minister a similar discretion in the case of New Towns.

This Bill represents an essential part of the Government's policy to remedy what has become a major social evil. If we can succeed in the objects which this Bill seeks to facilitate, we shall provide better places for people to live in, better places for them to work in, less travelling to work and easier access to the countryside. The problem is an urgent one and a continuing one. It cannot wait for the reform of local government or of planning law. Indeed, even if there were to be an immediate reform of local government this provision, or something like it, would still be necessary. At the same time, nothing done under this Bill is likely to impede any reforms which may be necessary. I therefore commend the Bill to your Lordships, and I beg to move that it be read a second time.

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

3.7 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for the clear and felicitous terms in which he introduced this Bill and which are becoming characteristic of him. We on this side of the House welcome the Bill and we shall in no way impede its progress. On the other hand, the noble Lord will not be surprised to hear that there are certain provisions in the Bill—particularly Clause 18, which I thought he introduced almost as a second thought and apologetically—to which we may wish to draw attention, and possibly object to in their present form. I feel that I should perhaps apologise for speaking in this House on a pedestrian measure of this kind, when we have so much more exciting business to deal with in the very near future. Certainly I ought to apologise to my noble friend Lord Stansgate, but he is not here and I will not pursue that aspect.

This is a Bill which is of doubtful origin. I notice that in another place there were several contestants for the parentage of this Bill. The present Minister of Housing and Local Government naturally claimed the parentage, but so did his immediate predecessor. I do not propose to enter into the list of claimants myself, because I believe that, in fact, this Bill owes its origin not to the present Minister, not to his predecessor, and not to his predecessor before that; but to the Barlow Commission, whose specific recommendations on the subject of dispersement from over-crowded areas are now being implemented by this Bill. There is another reason why I personally should not wish to claim the parentage of this Bill. It is that, while it has every good intention and the motives for introducing it are unexceptional, nevertheless I feel that in practice it will not achieve very much. My reason for saying that is that I doubt whether it is possible to achieve any substantial measure of progress in the enlargement of existing towns unless we deal with this subject in a much more fundamental way.

The real difficulty, however, arises through our existing system of local government, which has many times in recent years been condemned in this House as anomalous, archaic and unsuitable for existing conditions. We have an example of it in other overcrowded districts in the country. London, which I know best, has been at continual strife with its neighbours because it has had to rehouse its people outside its area and has not been in a position to make any financial contributions towards the cost of the services which have been involved. In the case of London particularly, these burdens have been extremely heavy; and if I may detain the House for one moment by describing what these burdens are, I think noble Lords will realise that this Bill does very little to meet that problem.

For many years London has been in the habit of concentrating its attention mainly on the County of Essex, where some hundreds of thousands of Londoners have been rehoused. One housing estate, the Becontree Estate, has a population of about 150,000. There are numerous other estates in the County of Essex which have been created by the London County Council, without the consent or agreement of the Essex County Council, but which have nevertheless imposed colossal burdens on the ratepayers of Essex, mainly for the provision of schools, which have had to be provided in advance of the children's arriving in the area, and also in the provision of many other services. Essex has been almost surfeited. The London County Council then directed its attention to Hertfordshire. In Hertfordshire there are now in progress four new towns, and a considerable number—six or seven, I think—of substantial housing estates going up, all involving very heavy burdens on a county council which is by no means wealthy. The county has a small population. This increase of population involves doubling, or more than doubling, the county's pre-war population. Here again, although the Hertfordshire County Council have acted very reasonably there is no doubt that for a long time to come—until, as the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd said, estates are completed and rates are obtainable—this development will involve a considerable burden upon the ratepayers of the Hertfordshire County Council.

Now, my Lords, this problem can be repeated in the case of Manchester and Salford in the County of Lancaster, in the Midlands and in the North-East—and, indeed, everywhere where there is a need for dispersal of population. In many cases local authorities have felt that the right way to deal with it is to build on the outskirts of their own area and thus to absorb that area into their own and thereby create a case for the enlargement of their own local authority. That sort of action has aroused a good deal of suspicion in the minds of county councils and district councils, and some strife; and there has been bad feeling. Indeed, with few exceptions, I do not know of a single case where the re-development of an existing overcrowded area in the surrounding area has not been the subject of considerable strife and friction. I feel, therefore, that while this process must go on, the only real way in which it can succeed is by general agreement and by the receiving authority's feeling that it is not going to suffer financially to any great extent through an accession of population. The ideal would be that the authority should be indemnified completely against any increased burden on its ratepayers because of the increased population that is coming into the area. This Bill does not do that, but it goes some little way towards it.

Surely, however, there are many respects in which the burden still remains with the receiving authority, and it is for that reason that I doubt very much whether this Bill will be effective. There will be individual cases where it may be, and indeed the most satisfactory cases will be the very ones which are excepted from this Bill—namely, those where a council wishes to develop within its own county. I may have something to say at a later stage about that. I believe that there is a case, even there, within the discretion of the Minister, for giving some financial assistance—a case, say, where a district council has to re-house its population within the same county, perhaps at some distance from its own area. I have in mind particularly a case which was referred to a great deal in another place—namely, that of Ilford. I see no reason why, if Ilford has to develop, say towards Southend, the mere accident that both places happen to be in the County of Essex should mean that Ilford is deprived of financial assistance. But this is a matter which we can discuss later in the course of the proceedings on the Bill.

The only satisfactory solution to the problem is, I think, the reorganisation of local government. I believe that the present system is quite unsatisfactory and gives rise to many cases of friction. It is out of date; and it it is wrong that we should have something like 1,500 separate rating authorities in this country. Any move on the part of any one of them outside its area gives rise to trouble. Naturally, I am not blaming the present Government for not having introduced a measure for the reorganisation of local government. Indeed, if I did I am quite sure that the noble Lord who is going to reply would be able to give me an effective tu quoque, because my own Party had a great many years in which to do that, and failed to do it. Indeed, they had almost as many years as the present Government have had months. But I do say, with all the earnestness I can, that this problem will not be solved satisfactorily, finally, and completely until we have reorganised local government; and I would urge the noble Lord, the Lord President, to ask his colleagues to give their earnest consideration to the question of the reorganisation of local government, which I know can be carried out only in the early years of office of any Government. It is likely to be controversial, whenever it is carried out, and the controversy will cut right across Parties. It is likely to make very few friends and a great many enemies; it will not bring votes. But it is something which ought to be done in the public interest.

I am sorry that I find it necessary to pour some amount of cold water on this Bill, because I think its idea and its conception are excellent. I welcome it because I feel that among other things, at any rate, it is a recognition of the fact that the dispersal which is inevitable in our existing society must be carried out in a planned way rather than in the chaotic manner in which it has taken place in the past. That dispersal will take place there is no doubt. In many parts of the country there is literally no room in which to build a single additional house in the area of the authority. They have to go outside, and if they have to go outside they may as well go to the right places where it is desirable in the public interest that they should go, rather than to any place which may happen to be available and is convenient, possibly, to some private individual but not to the community as a whole.

I want to call attention to three small points before I sit down. One is that the kind of agreement which is conceived in this measure has in fact been evolved and is actually working in Lancashire, where the Lancashire County Council, as no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Woolton, knows, are in the course of transferring a considerable population from the over-crowded district of Salford into the small district of Worsley. I had the privilege some two and a half years ago of opening the first house in Worsley to be occupied by people who had come from Salford, many miles away. There, we had a wealthy and very public-spirited county council, even in the days before it changed its political allegiance, assisting both Salford, which was a county borough, and Worsley by taking a hand in the peaceful transfer of population; and it may well be that the Minister had this particular example in mind in framing his Bill. So far as I know, it is the only case where it has been done.

Secondly, I would ask the noble Lord to have a look at the drafting of the Bill. This was introduced in part as a measure for implementing the Abercrombie Report—that is, for enlarging existing towns—though, of course, it is applicable to the whole country. But nobody reading this Bill would imagine that that was its purpose. There is not a word in the Bill about the enlargement of existing towns, and, but for the fact that there was an Explanatory Memorandum, I should never have guessed that that was its purpose. I hope that somehow this Bill may be given the added importance and distinction by the mention somewhere in it of the fact that that is its main purpose. Moreover, there are in the Bill as it stands a number of clauses which really beat me, although I rather pride myself on having had considerable experience of this kind of Bill and I am sometimes reputed to have introduced a Bill which was not easy to follow. I have read these clauses several times and I am not sure whether or not I understand them. I am not going to ask the noble Lord, Lord Woolton, to explain them this afternoon, but in the course of our proceedings I shall draw attention to them and I hope that we shall be able to secure a Bill which will be intelligible at any rate to those people who profess to understand something about it.

Lastly, I should like the noble Lord's assistance on one point. The purpose of this Bill is to provide financial help to local authorities in connection with a variety of matters which are set out in Clause 2 of the Bill. I should like to ask whether those matters include the provision of playing fields. I need hardly emphasise in this House, where so many noble Lords are enthusiastic supporters of the National Playing Fields Association, that playing fields are an essential feature to-day of any large-scale development. It is most important that, where we are going to get this large-scale development with increases in population of tens of thousands of people, we should at the outset provide sufficient space for playing fields and that there should be some financial assistance given for this purpose. In due course, in any case, I propose to put down an Amendment, at the instance of the National Playing Fields Association, to make it abundantly clear, if I can, that the provision of a grant for the purpose of providing playing fields will be covered under Clause 2. I should be grateful for the noble Lord's assurance that this is the case. I am sure that, if he can give such an assurance, it will afford immense satisfaction to large numbers of people.

I conclude as I began, by saying that I think that this is a Bill which has excellent intentions. I welcome it because it establishes for the first time the principle that we have to ensure that the large-scale developments that are to take place in this country in the years to come are properly carried out in the right place and in the right way. While I do not claim that the Government should make large-scale contributions towards it, I feel that possibly this Bill is on the right lines in, as the noble Lord described it, "priming the pump," so that these authorities will have not only the moral but the financial encouragement of Her Majesty's Government whenever they undertake action of this kind.


My Lords, I want merely to ask the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, one question. He mentioned the Green Belt in the course of his remarks. Lately we have had an astonishing proposal from Surrey to establish an annexe of Broadmoor in the county of Surrey. I should like to ask whether we can have a guarantee from the noble Lord that the Minister will not use such powers as are given under Clause 18 of the Bill to interfere with or trench on the Green Belt or the North Downs preservation area.


I can speak only in the absence of my right honourable friend, but I feel quite certain that, as the whole intention of this Bill is to prevent encroachment on the Green Belt and to avoid urban sprawl, my right honourable friend would not use the powers under Clause 18, if they were applicable to the case mentioned by the noble Earl (I am not quite sure that they are), for any such purpose. To that extent, I can give him an assurance.


My Lords, may I ask one question? The Bill does not apply to Scotland and Northern Ireland. Have the Government any statement to make about Scotland? Is it the intention to introduce similar legislation or is the Minister responsible for planning in that country, the Secretary of State, satisfied that it is not required?

3.29 p.m.


My Lords, may I answer the last question first? It is not the intention to introduce similar legislation in regard to Scotland.

I have never been more conscious of the fact that the sole idea that actuates every mind in this House at the present moment is that I should sit down with the greatest possible speed in order that the House may proceed to, at any rate, a more exciting subject. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, who has just spoken with so much authority will, therefore, acquit me of any discourtesy if I do not reply to him in detail. He has given a general blessing to this Bill whilst most carefully denying any of the paternity. Of course, it is a very old story that paternity is a matter of opinion and maternity is a matter of fact, and there is not any doubt about it that we are responsible for this Bill. Perhaps I can best satisfy the noble Lord by saying that the issues that he has raised I am sure he will raise in detail at the Committee stage. I must, however, in frankness, tell him that it is not the proposal of the Minister to make any financial provision for the establishment of playing fields. After all, whilst we are all interested in them, we must look at this problem of playing fields quite fairly. In this instance we are dealing, not with the overcrowded urban areas for which it is so often difficult to get playing fields and for which the land is very expensive; we are dealing with rural areas, and my right honourable friend, with whom I discussed this matter just before your Lordships met, thinks that it is reasonable that the local authorities in those districts, in the process of planning their new places, should make proper provision for playing fields.

I have noted with great interest what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, said on the subject of the dangers of introducing legislation regarding local government. I almost felt at the time that he was offering us the co-operation of noble Lords opposite to do this, and I shall report that to my colleagues. But, my Lords, I beg you to agree to the Second Reading of this Bill, and let us go into the issues which the noble Lord has raised when we come to the Committee stage.

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