HL Deb 08 May 1961 vol 231 cc27-35

3.51 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I do not think that this discussion should take very long and I hope that I shall get full agreement. This Private Street Works Bill is intended to amend the law relating to private street works in England and Wales. The Bill has come up to us from another place, having been introduced there as a Private Member's Bill. It was introduced by Mr. Mulley and supported by all the Members of the city of Sheffield, both Conservative and Labour. I think it was because I represented Sheffield in the other place for so many years that they asked whether I would take charge of it up here.

I want to give a brief explanation of the Bill to your Lordships. It is to correct an anomaly made by the Highways Act, 1959, in the charging of expenses when only one footway and channel in a private street was made up before January 1, 1960, in accordance with Section 150 of the Public Health Act, 1875, or under the provisions of the Private Street Works Act, 1892. The anomaly was brought to notice by the Town Clerk of Sheffield, where several private streets were provided with footways on one side only and the making-up expenses were a charge on the frontagers on that side only. Before the Private Street Works law was consolidated in the Highways Act, 1959, it did not clearly indicate which frontages could be charged for private street works expenses when only a part of the private street was made up. Sheffield had relied on a decision of the High Court in the case of Wakefield Sanitary Authority v. Mander in 1880, which was to the effect that when only one footway and channel was made up in a private street only the frontagers to that footway could be charged. This judgment was given with some hesitation and does not appear to have been widely followed by street works authorities.

It has some obvious weaknesses. For example, if frontagers cannot be charged unless their frontages are contiguous to the part made up, nobody could be charged when the carriageway was made up. It was decided to remove the doubts in the Highways Acts; and Sections 174 and 189, which are the operative sections in the 1892 and 1875 codes respectively, make it clear that "part of a private street", for the purpose of street works charges, is a part not being a part extending over the whole length of the street. This means that when Sheffield came to complete the making-up of those private streets in which only one footway has been made up, the frontagers who have paid for that footway would have to contribute with the frontagers on the other side of the street to the cost of making up the other footway. The Bill is just to get rid of that injustice of the frontagers on one side, who have already paid quite substantially when their one side was made up, being mulcted again for the cost of the other side of the street. It seems clear that the anomaly ought to be removed; and, as it has come through the other place, I very much hope that your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading.

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, I entirely support the Bill now introduced by the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, this afternoon, but I feel that it should go much further and should be amended or strengthened to rectify a great injustice which is occasioned to many house-owners who live on the so-called unadopted roads. Perhaps at this stage I should remind your Lordships that an "unadopted road" is an official term given to a road which has not been taken over by a local authority, although many houses and industrial undertakings may have been situated on the road for a large number of years. The state of a large number of unadopted roads in Britain is one of the scandals of modern times. Many large and medium sized cities have on their outskirts a number of these roads which are in an appalling condition and not really fit for traffic of any kind, either pedestrian or vehicular. I know of one case where the potholes are so deep that when they are filled with rainwater there is a danger of very young children falling down and drowning in them; and in many cases it is quite impossible for mothers to push their perambulators down the road.

Some local authorities have taken steps to take over these unadopted roads, but others have sat back and done little or nothing. I know of one local authority which I think should be named, the Fareham Urban District Council, Hampshire, who have a number of such roads in their area and, in spite of repeated requests from unfortunate residents and industry, nothing has been done about taking over these roads. In fact, in this area there is one road where British Railways have refused to deliver goods by their vans to their customers as they complain that their goods vehicles have broken so many springs on the appalling road.

I would suggest to your Lordships that the Public Street Works Act, 1892, and the Highways Act, 1959, do not really cover this position at all. Local authorities under these Acts have discretion to take over unadopted roads when they think fit, with the result that many of them never do anything at all about it. I am sure your Lordships would be astonished to know that there is one unadopted road in London—I believe at Dulwich. I also maintain that if a local authority continue to grant planning permission for the erection of either private dwellings or industrial premises on an unadopted road, which at that time, in the opinion of the Ministry of Transport, is unsuitable to carry the present traffic, the local authority must exercise their powers to take over the road. I would go further and say that if the proportion of rates received by a local authority from the ratepayers on any unadopted road is equitable to the interest on the capital required to make up the road, the local authority must take over the road at no charge to the ratepayers living on that road.

It is no argument to say of an unfortunate widow who has been living on an unadopted road, say, for 25 years, when she is faced with a charge of £500—as one, in fact, was—as her contribution for making up the road, and cannot pay, that she has been told she ought to have known of this charge against her property when the house was originally purchased by her late husband. It does not make sense. There is no doubt that there are many cases of great hardship owing to heavy charges that are levied on poor people who live on unadopted roads when those roads are taken over by local authorities, and many people have been forced to leave their homes in those circumstances. I understand that only recently in the town of Poole, Dorset, a demonstration took place about the state of their unadopted roads, and I believe that the ratepayers have now refused to pay their rates. I must say that I have a rather sneaking sympathy with them.

I would call your Lordships' attention to Circular No. 11 of this year, sent out to all local authorities by the Minister of Housing and Local Government. In paragraph 9 of this circular it is pointed out that Unnecessarily high construction costs may sometimes be incurred, for example, by applying to roads and footways in quiet suburban areas a standard suitable for a busy urban street…. The circular is very helpful indeed; and it means that many of these unadopted roads can be made up at little expense if they follow the advice of the Minister. My proposals would not involve the local authorities in very heavy expenditure, provided they have been looking after their ratepayers properly over past years. Only the unadopted roads in very bad condition would be affected; and I hope that Her Majesty's Government will not put forward the question of expense as an excuse for doing nothing about it.

I have already referred to the heavy charges which may be levied on the unfortunate householders. It is true that local authorities have a discretion to spread the payments over a period up to, I believe, as much as 30 years. On the other hand, there are many cases when the period within which payment is demanded has been for a few years only—with, of course, consequent hard ship. We really cannot allow these conditions to continue. I would say they are a disgrace to a civilised country, and steps must be taken to rectify this matter in justice to the people who live on these unadopted roads. They are only a small minority—some 110,000 frontagers suffered last year—but we must put a stop to it.

I understand that at the present time there is another Private Member's Bill, known as the Highways (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which is now in Standing Committee in another place. I believe that the Urban District Councils' Association support the main provision of that Bill, and they have indicated that they would like the Bill amended to enable a local authority to make a further contribution towards private street works in certain circumstances. I am certainly glad to note the consideration they are beginning to show in this matter. I propose to move Amendments to the Bill which is now before us when it comes to the Committee stage, and I think that, if they are accepted, they will go a long way towards removing the injustices which many people are suffering in various parts of the country. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will give some indication to-day that they propose to look into this matter closely before the Committee stage, because, in the time-honoured phrase, this matter "brooks no delay".

4.4 p.m.


My Lords, I had not intended addressing your Lordships in this debate, but I agree with a number of the points raised by my noble friend Lord Teynham, and I therefore propose to make a few comments. I am glad that the noble Viscount gave us more details than did Mr. Mulley in another place on Third Reading. I believe that on Second Reading he did not give any information at all, and the Bill went through "on the nod". In fact, it got committed with a majority of only four votes, but I am glad those four existed, for otherwise we should not have had the opportunity of discussing the Bill to-day. I should also like to take the opportunity, on the Second Reading of this Bill, to go a little wider than the Bill, because, as the noble Viscount said, it is purely to amend an anomaly which has arisen out of the passing of the 1959 Highways Act.

My noble friend Lord Teynham has referred to the recent survey which was carried out by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government with regard to private streets works, and, according to this survey, there are in this country approximately 54,000 private streets. The survey goes on to say that, out of that 54,000, 24,000 private streets are to be made up over the next ten years at a total cost of around £75 million. That seems a very high figure if, as it appears, the frontagers are to provide a large percentage of the amount. There is one thing arising out of this Bill and the survey which is not clear, and that is: out of the 24,000 private streets which are to be made up, how many are to be taken over as public highways? Are they all to be taken over as public highways? Also, can we have any information at all from Her Majesty's Government as to the feelings of the majority of the frontagers of these streets?—because I understand that it needs a majority of only one to carry whatever is the resolution.

I agree with my noble friend that, in many cases, making up these private streets can lead to hardship. In the 1959 Highways Act there is a heading which indicates to me that for a private individual the cost can be quite high. It says: street works' means any work for the sewering, levelling, paving, metalling, flagging, channelling and making good of a street, and includes the provision of proper means for lighting a street". It seems to me that, if it is to be made up for public use, the cost to the owner (and possibly the occupier, I understand, under this Bill, if it becomes law) of a house which gives on to this private street can be quite large. So I am hoping that, in view of the opportunity provided by the Second Reading of this Bill, my noble friend the Minister will give the House some guidance as to what is proposed in the future, and whether he has any information at all of the proportion that would be provided by the local authorities out of the rates towards the making up of these streets.

I feel—I have mentioned it before—that it can lead to hardship, although I see that in the survey the Minister says that he agrees with the principle that the cost of providing new streets of a standard suitable for taking over as public roads should fall on the owners of the property. I believe that, although it is provided under the Acts of 1875 and 1892 that local authorities can view this situation, taking into consideration the views of the frontagers, there can still be a fair amount of hardship involved. Therefore, I strongly support a number of the views put forward by my noble friend Lord Teynham.

4.8 p.m.


My Lords, it is not my wish to, and I do not think I need, detain your Lordships long. As the noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition has explained, the purpose of this Private Member's Bill is to correct an anomaly arising from the Highways Act, 1959. Again, as he has pointed out, it relieves certain frontagers who may already have borne the cost of making up one footway in certain private streets from the liability to contribute towards the cost of making up another. The hardship involved is not very widespread, we believe. Nevertheless, the Government accept the fact that this is an anomaly, and one which can be corrected only by amending legislation. They are therefore very willing to support this Private Member's Bill.

As regards what my noble friend Lord Teynham has proposed, I should at this stage like to confine my remarks rather narrowly. First, of course, I can assure my noble friend that my right honourable friend will take careful note of what he has said, and in particular of the specific instances which he has brought out. My right honourable friend recently carried out a full survey of private street works in this country, as more than one speaker has already mentioned in this debate. From it, it emerged, as again has already been pointed out, that, of the 54,000 private streets in this country, it is proposed to make up some 24,000 in the course of the next ten years at a total cost of some £75 million. I should like to underline that figure, to show to my noble friend that the costs involved are very great in this case. They are not small sums, as I rather gathered he was intending to indicate they were.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Earl? I was merely trying to point out that some roads have to be made to conform with the public highway type of road; but, according to the Ministry circular, some can be made up very simply, and this would reduce the expense enormously. The £74 million is probably going to be paid, in the majority of cases, by the unfortunate residents of the roads, not by the local authority.


My Lords, I fully appreciate what my noble friend says. I was merely trying to indicate that the sums involved, whoever pays them, are of a very large order indeed. Secondly, there is the question of deferred payments which he mentioned. Since he referred to the Minister's Circular, No. 11, I would merely refer him again to that circular and quote something from it. The Minister writes: By making more use of the power to accept deferred payments, and by making known their willingness to use this power, authorities can ease what might otherwise be an embarrassing financial burden to many frontages". I quote that to show that my right honourable friend has this point very much in mind.


It is discretionary on the part of the local authority.


My Lords, yes. But, having said that, I would merely say that, as I see it, what the noble Lord is advocating amounts to a fundamental departure from the well-established principle that the frontagers to a private street should bear the cost of making it up so that it can be taken over as a public highway. We must, of course, wait and see the terms of the Amendment which the noble Lord proposes to put down, but it seems clear to me that what he suggests will go a very long way beyond the intention of this small Bill, which aims to put right a minor grievance. I think the Government will feel bound—and I feel I should be frank about this—to resist a change of that kind as an Amendment to this Bill, particularly when, as the noble Lord knows, my right honourable friend has recently surveyed the private street works arrangements and concluded that there was no ground for any fundamental changes in the present law. With that said, I should like merely to reiterate that the Government support this Bill.

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl for the reply which he has made on behalf of the Government. I should also like to express my appreciation, and that of the original sponsors of the Bill, of all Parties of the city of Sheffield and the Sheffield Corporation, for the manner in which Her Majesty's Government have met the request for this legislation. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, will see the point, which has been carried through amicably between all Parties concerned in Sheffield, with regard to the general removal of this legal anomaly, and I do not want it to be now the subject of delay, or anything of that kind, which might endanger the granting of this very necessary reform. I would only say to the noble Lords who have taken the line they have that the Government would be faced with a very different political situation, and very different arguments upon the maybe desirable objectives which those noble Lords think they have regarding unadopted streets, than the Government were faced with when dealing with this Private Member's Bill. This Bill was backed by all Parties, and there would be tremendous examination into the history of how unadopted streets arise, and what are the economical processes behind them, if we were to go into the wider question. I cannot see that that subject is covered by the particular Title and purpose of the Bill. I hope, therefore, that the Government will be considerate to myself and to the promoters—members of all Parties—of this Bill, in its future stages. I hope the Bill may now be read a second time.

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