§ 2.35 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ LORD OGMORE
My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill. As your Lordships will see, it is a Private Bill, and it affects the County Borough of Croydon. As your Lordships are well aware, Croydon is an ancient town, some nine miles to the South of London. It was for long associated with the Archbishops of Canterbury, and one, in particular, Archbishop Whitgift, has left to the modern generation many evidences of his bounty—and a traffic problem. The population is now some quarter of a million souls, and the status of Croydon, as I have said, is that of a county borough, so that, although it lies within the geographical county of Surrey, it is not within the administrative county. My own connection with it, and with this Bill, arises from the fact that I had the honour for some years to be the Member for the Southern half of the borough.
The trouble to-day, as in the case of so many towns and districts near London, is that Croydon is almost completely built up. There is no more land upon which to build anything, and there are no more holes which can be filled up. The urban requirements of the borough to-day include, of course, the disposal of refuse—domestic and other—and I must admit that in my innocence I had thought that the disposal of refuse was a comparatively simple task whereby you persuaded some landowner to provide you with a hole and you filled it up with refuse. After having heard the history of this Bill, I realised that that is by no means the case. In these days, with all their complexities, filling up a hole is a matter of some difficulty, trouble and expense, and the modern method by which local authorities fill up holes with refuse is a technical operation of considerable magnitude. 998 The hole has to be sealed off and treated, and as much as £60,000 may be laid out before the hole is ready to be filled with refuse.
Croydon's desire is for controlled tipping—which is the modern method—and to be able to obtain convenient accommodation, with all proper safeguards, at a reasonable distance from the borough; and, further, having obtained this accommodation and gone to the considerable expense which it entails, not to have it suddenly and arbitrarily withdrawn. This is felt by Croydon to be particularly harsh and dangerous. At the moment Croydon is not in a position to obtain this accommodation, because under Section 94 of the Surrey County Council Act, 1931, the deposit of refuse is prohibited in any place within the administrative County of Surrey without the consent of both the Surrey County Council and the district council concerned, either of whom may grant or refuse consent and may attach conditions to their consent, or withdraw at any time any consent which they have previously given. There is no right of appeal to the Minister, either with reference to failure to-grant permission or to the notice to withdraw permission, once given.
Surrey's position is this. Surrey is the only county in England and Wales where the County Council and the local councils have an absolute right of veto. In the case of other similar authorities there is a right of appeal to the Minister. Paradoxically, if Surrey County Council refuses planning permission under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, there is a right of appeal to the Minister. If it refuses permission to tip, or if any of its local district councils refuses permission to tip, there is no right of appeal to anyone. Conditions have changed very materially since 1931 when this Private Act was passed. Land has become much scarcer near London. The method of controlled tipping has come into use. And, of course, there was formerly no planning control, in the sense which we know it to-day, in this district.
The position has become acute now. Croydon disposes of some 64,000 tons of domestic refuse every year by controlled tipping. Their present facilities come to an end in three years' time. Good work 999 has been done by Croydon, as any of your Lordships who knows Mitcham Common will realise. Playing fields and other amenities have been made there as the result of tipping over the years by Croydon. Croydon has now found a site and has reached agreement with the noble Lord who is the owner of it. The site is a quarry at Merstham, within the area of the Borough Council of Reigate, one of the district councils of Surrey. The Ministry of Housing and Local Government have held a planning inquiry and the Surrey County Council has given its consent; but the Reigate Borough Council has refused its consent under the Surrey County Council Act, 1931.
The Bill which I am now moving does not give Croydon any rights to tip refuse at Merstham or anywhere else in Surrey. All it does is to give Croydon, and Croydon only, a right of appeal against the refusal by the Surrey County Council or a district council in Surrey of permission to tip refuse; or, equally important, a right of appeal to an independent arbiter—the Minister—in a case where there has been a withdrawal of such permission. This right of appeal has been recommended by the Government in other local legislation and is included in similar sections in Essex, Middlesex and Hertfordshire Local Acts. The right of appeal is to the Minister, and, of course, normally he would no doubt order an inquiry.
The Minister of Housing and Local Government has reported upon the Bill, and he has said that if the present Bill is passed, Surrey will still be in a privileged position as compared with other counties surrounding London in that the right of appeal will be given only to Croydon County Borough. In the Minister's view, however, the provision of the Bill is right in principle and its acceptance would be a substantial step in the desired direction. He therefore recommends that the Bill should be allowed. The Bill originated in another place, and has been passed by it and sent up to us. I therefore request that your Lordships will be good enough to give it a Second Reading, and that it be referred to a Select Committee. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Ogmore.)1000
§ 2.42 p.m.
§ LORD MCCORQUODALE OF NEWTON
My Lords, I would offer a few brief observations contrary to those of the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, about the Croydon Corporation Bill. In view of the amount of business before the Chamber this afternoon, I will be as brief as possible, and I hope that I shall be forgiven if I pass rapidly over some of the points. I had thought of asking your Lordships to reject this Bill out of hand, but I am advised that the course most acceptable to your Lordships would be to allow the Bill to go forward to be considered in Committee. But in this case I think I must reserve the right, if necessary, to challenge it on Third Reading if, as I hope it will not, it passes that Committee.
This Bill is a small skirmish in what is an unending war between bureaucracy and independence. I submit that although it is a very small skirmish it is no less an important one. As the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, has said, the object of the Bill is to give Croydon Corporation a right of appeal against the provision in the Surrey County Council Act, 1931, which requires the consent both of the district council and of the County Council before any person or body can go and dump refuse in a district other than that in which it is collected—a reasonable provision, I should have thought, in all conscience. No evidence whatever has been offered to show that the powers in the Surrey County Council Act have been abused in any way or exercised unfairly, and I submit that such protection as is given to local authorities in the 1931 Act should not be taken away unless those who wish to change the law offer proof.
If the present Government give assistance, as I understand they did in another place, in altering the law as it now stands and as it has stood for nearly thirty years, I submit that surely the onus of proof rests upon those who wish to change the law and not on those who are merely maintaining it. Yet we find no evidence at all offered in another place that the present law is unsatisfactory. On the contrary, the Croydon borough engineer himself is on record, I understand, as stating that the Surrey County Council have never acted arbitrarily or unreasonably in this matter. I have a letter from the Clerk of the Surrey County Council, 1001 received only yesterday, in which he says:May I remind you that the relations between the County Borough and the County Council and the District Authorities in Surrey are most happy and whilst the Surrey Authorities believe most strongly that the action taken by the Corporation is not in the best interests of the residents of the County they are however very hopeful … "—the letter continues—that the friendly relations will continue.
For many years I was Member of another place for an important Surrey constituency. May I say, in passing, that the borough in that constituency deals with its refuse in the right way—it incinerates it. I believe that that is the way that all boroughs in heavily built-up areas should deal with their refuse, and not go dumping it in somebody else's backyard. Not only are the County Council appealing against this Bill, but I understand that thirty out of thirty-four local authorities in Surrey are opposing the Bill also. Surrey obtained these, powers in 1931 in spite of the Government of that time. The Government of that time (it was a Labour Government), recommended against these powers; but, in spite of that, they were granted by Parliament. Now Whitehall, which failed in 1931, see that by a side wind they may recover the position they then lost. I do not blame them. It is natural that the Government machine looks for as much power of control as possible; it makes (heir position easier. But, I submit that it is our duty in Parliament to protect the public against undue encroachment by the Whitehall machine. I would say, in passing, that this is in no way a Party matter, as I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, would agree. Indeed, we had such eminent authorities as Mr. Chuter Ede and other distinguished Labour leaders speaking strongly for the Surrey County Council against this Bill in another place.
The only real argument adduced for the Bill is that of uniformity. It is argued that Surrey has powers which other counties do not have and therefore they should be taken away from Surrey. I submit that uniformity is one of the curses of our age. Certainly Surrey should not be counted as a uniform, ordinary county, with the same problems as other counties. Surrey is in a unique position. It not only has the enormous population in South London and county 1002 boroughs such as Croydon, but it also has the North Downs, one of the most beautiful districts in the whole of our land, and it is Surrey's duty, which the Surrey County Council have been very active in pursuing, to keep the North Downs unspoiled so far as possible as a recreation area for the teeming population of South London. I believe that locally they do know best sometimes, and that the "gentleman in Whitehall" is not always right in these matters.
The proposed action of the Croydon Corporation to dump their refuse—I think that the noble Lord said 64,000 tons of it every year—in a hole close to one of the most beautiful parts of the Pilgrim's Way in Surrey does not seem to me to be the best possible way of preserving the amenities of this beauty spot. Incidentally, Surrey is a chalk county, and those (certainly I am not one of them) who understand the movement of water and drainage in chalk country consider that there is a distinct danger of typhus and other diseases. Indeed, Croydon Borough Council had a sad experience of that themselves not very long ago.
Mr. Bevins, the Parliamentary Secretary, in another place summed up the Government's attitude to the Bill (I paraphrase his words) by stating that Surrey was the only county council which has now complete control of sewage dumping in its area, and that the Bill would make the Government, rather than the County Council, the final arbiter. Therefore, he thought that the Bill was a good one and should be accepted. Curiously enough, just at the same time the Minister of Housing and Local Government, Mr. Brooke, was making a statement on local government before the local government elections. It so happened that the two statements were issued within a fortnight of one another. Mr. Brooke, in a broadsheet to the home front issued for these local elections, said:It is my intense wish that all over England and Wales we shall get the best possible local government.I do not think anybody would disagree with that. He then went on:I have announced to Parliament far-reaching plans to give local authorities greater financial independence and fresh responsibility for deciding how best to allocate and utilise their resources for carrying out necessary services.1003 Mr. Brooke says that he wishes to give the local authorities fresh responsibility, and at exactly the same time his Ministry is trying to take away the responsibility on which the Surrey County Council have acted, with the complete acceptance of all Parties, for nearly thirty years. I do not know how the Ministry can reconcile those two points of view.
I hope I have said enough to ensure that the Committee will, at any rate, give due weight to these and many other arguments which the County Council will adduce before it allows this Bill to go forward to Third Reading. I myself believe in the principle of decentralisation, wherever possible, and I am confident that the majority of your Lordships agree. I do not like to see an increase in the powers of Ministers in relation to local authorities, much as I respect the Ministers on the Front Bench on this occasion. Generally speaking, I am sure that Ministers wield too much power over local authorities at present, and it is for this reason, above all others, that I hope in due course this Bill will not proceed to the Statute Book.
§ EARL HOWE
My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to say a few words about this Bill. Until recently, I lived quite close to Merton and Croydon, and I always understood that that area was in the Green Belt. I do not know whether the noble Lord who introduced this Bill is in favour of the Green Belt, or not, but I cannot believe that it is going to increase the amenities of the Green Belt if there is a sewage dump in the middle of it. Anybody who has recently been to Mitcham Common will have seen what has been going on. An enormous rubbish dump, which has to be seen to be believed, has been growing up on Mitcham Common. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, has taken a journey from his native heath in Wales down to Mitcham Common; if he has not, I hope he will. I feel it is against all that has been said in favour of the Green Belt in the past, and against the best interests of local government in particular, if the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord McCorquodale of Newton, is not supported.
§ LORD MCCORQUODALE OF NEWTON
My Lords, may I correct the noble Earl? I am not moving a Motion. 1004 I am not opposing the Bill, but only making a few comments of which I hope the Committee will take note.
My Lords, I suggest that many noble Lords may find themselves much in the same position as I am. Having heard this case argued very ably from both sides, I consider that the decision whether this Bill should or should not be thrown out is hardly one that we can take immediately to-day. I gather from the noble Lord, Lord McCorquodale of Newton, that he hopes it will be rejected in due course. Therefore, I respectfully submit to your Lordships that the best course now would be to allow this Bill to have a Second Reading and to proceed to a Select Committee, when all these important points can be threshed out in great detail and a proper decision arrived at. For that reason alone, I, personally, would support this Bill on Second Reading.
§ THE MINISTER WITHOUT PORTFOLIO (THE EARL OF MUNSTER)
My Lords, I do not think that on the occasion of the Second Reading of this Bill the House would wish me to enter into any detailed arguments upon the pros and cons which have been submitted to your Lordships in the course of the discussion this afternoon. I think, therefore, that it is sufficient for me to say that, as the House is well aware, it is the normal practice for a Private Bill to receive a Second Reading in this House, and Her Majesty's Government see no reason whatsoever why your Lordships should depart from that practice on this occasion. We believe that the Bill should be examined by a Select Committee, in accordance with the procedure which has been followed in this House for many years. In passing, I should like to remind your Lordships that all the points which have been mentioned by noble Lords in the course of the discussion to-day will no doubt come before the Select Committee and be argued before that body. If that Committee decides that the Bill should proceed, then noble Lords will have every opportunity to consider the matter again on Third Reading. Our views are quite definitely that it would be wise for your Lordships to let this Bill now go to a Select Committee of this House.
§ LORD OGMORE
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl. I have nothing further to say at this stage, except 1005 that I hope your Lordships will agree with the suggestion of the noble Earl, and perhaps to say to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, that two or three years ago I went to Mitcham Common and saw a good rugby match there. I cannot see much wrong with the work that Croydon has been doing on Mitcham Common.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and referred to a Select Committee.