HL Deb 07 May 1959 vol 216 cc212-9

3.17 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be again in Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD MERTHYR in the Chair.]

Clause 34 [Obligation to purchase resident owner-ocupier's interest affected by planning proposals]:

Debate resumed on an Amendment moved by Lord Silkin on Monday, April 27, 1959, in subsection (2) to leave out "a resident" and insert "an" [owner-occupier].


This is an Amendment which I have already moved on one occasion, and other Amendments have been canvassed. At the moment we are in the middle of a general discussion on the whole of Clause 34 and, I believe, on the new clause which the noble and learned Viscount has tabled. I respectfully suggest that the matter can be left till the completion of the general discussion. So far as I personally am concerned, if all other Amendments were withdrawn—I think the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for instance, was going to consider whether he wanted to press his Amendment, and the noble Lord, Lord Meston, was in the same position—I should be willing to withdraw my own, and we could then pass to the new clause of the noble and learned Viscount and such other incidental Amendments as there may be upon the Marshalled List. This would enable us to go a long way towards the completion of the business.


I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, is going to withdraw his Amendment, or whether he would like me to say a word on the general discussion, or whether he would prefer me to proceed on my Amendment.


I think it would be convenient if the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, would state whether he is going to pursue his Amendment; for if he is not I will at once withdraw mine.


Responding to the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, I wish to speak to and move the Amendment standing in my name for the following reasons: we have now had time to study the very full speech made by the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor at the last sitting of this Committee and which is to be found in columns 1041-2 of the OFFICIAL REPORT for April 27. I should like to comment on one or two of his remarks on that occasion, and perhaps the noble and learned Viscount will be so kind as to reply.

The noble and learned Viscount claimed that the lack of security of tenure was the real cause of the blight with which Clause 34 is concerned and would not materially affect the marketability of the investment. I have difficulty in understanding the logic of that particular comment, because, so far as I understand the matter, it is the blight which is the cause of the lack of security of tenure and which therefore makes the property concerned unsaleable. I think that that must he true. It is the blight that causes this ill-effect; and although, in another place, the right honourable gentleman the Minister referred to property as being in the same category as investments, and subject to the rise and fall to which all investments are liable, and while it is true that the market value will ultimately be payable by the authority when the land is eventually required, in the meanwhile the marketability of the land is obviously affected by the blight and the owner will suffer genuine hardship if he has good reason for selling but is unable to compel the local authority to buy.

There is a further argument—that the test of the whole matter is that the owner must show that he has tried to sell and that owing to the blight he cannot do so except at a reduced price. The statement that a local authority might be forced to buy an interest in property which had not really been blighted by their proposals seems dubious, for proof of the effect of blight is a condition precedent to the operation of the clause. It must be shown, in that the owner must say that he has tried to market the property and has failed to do so except at a price below the market value; and that is the proof of the blight.

I do not think it is true to say that public authorities might have to buy interests in advance of requirements, not in order to relieve hardship but purely to enable owners to make higher profits. I cannot myself see that, because the compensation would be assessed at market value whether the sale takes place immediately or when the land may eventually he required. The reference to higher profits in that connection cannot therefore be understood. In either case it will be the open market value. It is for these reasons that I feel I should properly move Amendment No. 80 standing in my name.


If the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, will forgive my saying so, we have not yet disposed of Amendment No. 79. I will call Amendment No. 80 later.


Then I will not move Amendment No. 80 yet but will wait for Amendment No. 79 to be moved.


Amendment No. 79 was moved on the last occasion.


I am afraid I have already been responsible for a certain amount of confusion because I wanted to give the Committee the best opportunity of talking on these Amendments. The position, which I do not think my noble friend Lord Hylton has quite appreciated, is that Amendment No. 79, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, is before the Committee. I would suggest that we continue the general discussion on that Amendment and that, as part of the general discussion, I should reply to the points made by my honourable friend. Then, if he feels I have given due consideration (as I assure him I have) to his points, we might leave the matter as the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, adumbrated, until we come to my new clause. I hope the Committee will then be prepared to leave this problem, without prejudice, to be discussed on the Report stage, which will not only give my noble friend Lord Hylton a chance of considering my reply but, what is more important, will give my right honourable friend the Minister a chance of considering everything that my noble friend Lord Hylton has said. As the noble Lord will understand, I cannot make any promises, but I should like my right honourable friend to have that chance.

I should like to put to the Committee the difficulties that I see in the way of the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and of his argument. The two speeches he has made on this point support the view that the provisions of this clause should be extended to all owners of property, whether or not they are also the occupiers, for two main reasons. First, he says that the clause would be easier to administer if his Amendment were accepted; and secondly, he says that it is illogical and inequitable to make a distinction between the owner-occupier and the investment owner.

With respect to my noble friend, I feel that there is not a great deal of weight in his first point. May I put to the Committee the proposals of Her Majesty's Government as they now stand and would be extended by the Amendment which I have already put before the Committee? The acquiring authority, before accepting a notice under the clause, will have to satisfy themselves, first, that the owner is also the occupier of the property, and secondly, that in the exceptional case where the rateable value is above the prescribed limit for non- residential property—which I said would be an annual value of £250—that he lives on the premises. I do not think that that will be difficult in practice, because most, if not all, of the information required will be readily available for rating.

As the noble Lord has indicated, the second point is the more serious one, and I admit that there may be cases in which owners of similar adjoining properties are treated differently, as my noble friend pointed out on the last occasion. But I would suggest that a balance must be drawn between conflicting considerations. I believe that everyone—and certainly all noble Lords who have had anything to do with planning—would agree that where public authorities have formulated schemes involving compulsory acquisition of land they should, wherever possible, make their proposals public in advance, and where such publication inflicts damage on persons whose property is affected by the proposals, then one has to consider whether an adequate remedy is provided.

I hope that, if we do have to return to this matter, noble Lords with more experience than I have had on the local authority side (because I have not the honour of such experience) will consider whether I am right: that if the remedy were extended to all classes of owner—commercial, industrial—irrespective of the net annual value of the premises, the burden of advance acquisition on public authorities might be very onerous. Apart from the ultimate financial effect, I think that the psychological effect would be to discourage them unduly from making their proposals known, so that schemes which ought to be brought into the light of day would remain "under the counter."

I do not think (again with respect to my noble friend Lord Hylton) that one can sweep on one side the timing of the payment. It is true that ultimately, when the scheme goes through, the authority will have to pay the market value. But if, instead of that, they are to be faced at indeterminate intervals with unlimited payments in advance, that will, I feel, have the deterrent effect that I mentioned. I believe that one must draw a line somewhere, and I think the Committee will agree that we have given very careful consideration to this matter. During the debate on Second Reading I invited any suggestions. I have considered them—noble Lords from all parts have put them forward—and I believe that the proposals now before the Committee go as far as is desirable: that is to say, we draw the distinction between the owner-occupier and the owner for investment.

The point really is this. The owner-occupier of a house or small business premises who has to move generally needs to sell, so that he can buy another house or another shop, or whatever it may be. Generally, again, the investment owner is not under any such compulsion to sell. Of course one can find a particular case where there are particular circumstances, but as a general rule he is not, and the investor's decision to sell may depend on a number of circumstances. The reason may be a purely commercial circumstance: he may want to change his investment for some reason, which is quite a good reason to him but not a good reason for his getting an advance payment and upsetting the arrangements of the local authorities. There would be no justification for requiring public authorities to buy in advance merely because market conditions made it more convenient for the investor to sell.

Again, as I have already pointed out, it would be much more difficult to determine whether investment property was really blighted by the public authority's proposals, or merely affected adversely by some change in the market value. The Government's new proposals, I think, should ensure that practically all the genuinely hard cases of blight are covered. I thought that a lot had been covered by the original clause; but in, I think, being receptive to the general views expressed in the House, we have gone a great deal further in the new clause which we have tabled. We have included small businesses and we have included farms; and the answer to the fact that there may still be some hard cases outside the scope of the provisions is that the acquiring authorities will no doubt be ready to consider exercising their discretion to buy in advance by agreement, and they will be encouraged to buy in advance in cases where they think it right to do so.

The point my noble friend made with regard to the requirement that the owner had to show that he had offered his house for sale and had either failed to sell it or obtained only a lower price, is, I think, irrelevant to this point, because ultimately he is going to get the market value, as if there had been no proposal compulsorily to acquire at all; so he is not going to lose the capital value of his investment. To suggest that the fact that it would have suited him to realise and reinvest in something else entitles him to an advance payment is, I think, driving the help and assistance which we are prepared to give too far, looking at the probelem as a whole. He, as I said, will ultimutely get the market value, and it seems to me too much to expect that everyone, whatever be his position, should be entitled to the advance payment. That is the difficulty. We have tried to hold a balance, and I think the Committee will agree that I have tried to approach this problem, not from any preconception but with a view to getting the best out of the help which the Committee have been so ready to give to me.

For the reasons I have given I would suggest to my noble friend Lord Hylton that he reconsiders this matter. I know that he is speaking on behalf of a body for whom we all have the greatest respect, the County Councils Association, but I hope that those in that Association who have been considering the matter will reconsider it in the light of the difficulties I have mentioned and, I hope, the reasonableness of my approach. Then, if they still feel worried, before the Report stage—and your Lordships know that we have plenty of time; the Report stage will not be for some weeks—they can always either come to see me or write to me about it and, if necessary, get an Amendment put down. But I suggest that on the general point, now that we have had this admirable discussion on the whole problem, the Amendments which noble Lords have put down should not be pressed at this stage, and that I should move the new clause, which I think has gained general approval. Your Lordships would then be absolutely free to reconsider the point before we come to the Report stage. Therefore, I would suggest, if I may make so bold, that all noble Lords concerned should withdraw their Amendments at the present moment.


Am I to understand the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor to say that the figure of £250 net annual value applies only to nonresidential property; that is to say, there is no restriction upon residential property?


That is so.


Perhaps I might intervene for a moment. The House will recall that just a few minutes ago the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and myself, exchanged a few pleasantries—and I think by general agreement we ended "quits". But I have now learnt that, almost while I was speaking, the Colonial Secretary, seeing that the Question about Kenya was not going to be reached, decided to make a statement at the end of Question Time in another place. So I have arranged that my noble friend should make it here, and at once, and I now hope the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, will feel he is "one up".


I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved, That the House do now resume.—(The Earl of Perth.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and House resumed accordingly.