§ 4.31 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. We have this afternoon been listening to cases of hardship in Egypt. I am now going to deal with cases of hardship very much nearer home and which I would say deserve every consideration. Before referring to the clauses of the Bill I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to various aspects of the matters covered by the Bill. The intention of the Bill is to substitute one code for the execution of private street works for the 1875 code, the 1892 code and some local government codes, too. Why has this Bill become necessary? It is, in the main, because there are good local authorities and there are some bad local authorities. Some local authorities 723 have taken steps to take over unadopted roads; others have sat back and done little or nothing about them. Perhaps I should explain that "unadopted road" is a term given to a road which has not been taken over by a local authority. I would say, in fact, that this innocuous term disguises one of the scandals of modern times.
In April, 1961, the then Minister of Housing and Local Government issued a circular reminding local authorities of the powers that they might exercise in mitigating hardships to road frontagers. Although the Minister by his circular letter admits that hardships exist, the circular then went on blandly to say that the Minister could see no grounds for any fundamental change in the law. Since that date, and as one who lives on an unadopted road and therefore has first-hand knowledge, I have made a close study of the existing conditions under which local authorities administer their present powers, and I have been appalled at the hardship and distress which often occurs. That is the main reason for my introducing this Bill.
The Minister went on to say that 80 per cent. of street work authorities operate the code of 1892 which is a little more flexible than the one of 1875. Is it really suggested that no change is required when 20 per cent. of these local authorities operate under an out-dated code of 1875—nearly one hundred years ago? Many large land medium-sized cities have on their outskirts a number of these roads in an appalling condition and not really fit for traffic of any kind, either vehicles or pedestrians Some months ago I drew your Lordships' attention to 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. In many cases it is quite impossible for mothers to push their perambulators down the road, and British Railways have refused in many cases to make deliveries of goods owing to the damage to their vehicles.
For many years before 1835 a simple and logical code prevailed. The rule was that whenever a public right-of-way was established, a public responsibility would arise to keep or maintain this right-of-way to a reasonable standard. But, by 724 the Highway Act of 1835, this ancient public responsibility was abolished for all highways coming into existence after the passing of that Act. Thenceforth a highway would not become a public charge until it was adopted by the local authority. In those days the local authority would not adopt a highway until its private owners had put it in a satisfactory condition at their own expense and initiative. Why was this change in the law made in 1835? To find the answer, I think we must look also at the Poor Law Amendment Act of the previous year which abolished outdoor poor relief and established the notorious workhouses system. I would say that the motive behind both the Poor Law Amendment Act and the Highway Act, 1835, was a general policy to reduce the burden falling upon the rates. I think it should be remembered that up to this time highway expenditure and outdoor poor relief had been the chief items of local expenditure.
In the present day it is out of keeping with modern ideas that such ancient public responsibilities should be abolished merely to effect a saving in the rates. But it must not be forgotten that 1835 was the time of laissez-faire, and the Government of those days interfered or assisted as little as possible. In fact, anyone familiar with the history of the appalling conditions of many roads in the towns of the 19th century would conclude that it would have been much better if the ancient law of highways before 1835 had remained unaltered.
I would say that what may have been accepted as a rates-saving policy in 1835 requires very strong justification in the Welfare State of to-day. With the very varied and modern apparatus of State and local taxation, it is incredible that an ordinary, mundane matter like unadopted roads should be left out of the scheme of things. It is true that the Acts of 1875 and 1892 went some way to improve matters, but the fact remains that there are still some 54,000 unadopted roads in the country which have come into existence between 1835 and 1951. I think it would be true to say that what has prevented an obvious reform in this matter for so long is a deep-rooted belief in the local government mind that the making-up of an unadopted road costing, say, £10,000 must of necessity add £10,000 to the value of the frontage land; also that such land which is subject to a future 725 liability of street works must sell at a price that is £10,000 lower than the market value.
I now hope to make clear to your Lordships that these supposed effects that streets works charges have on the value of frontage land are completely fallacious. In the first place, the actual increase in value of frontage land resulting from the making-up of a private street bears little relation to the actual cost of the work. The newly made-up street may add £50 or £60 to the value of a particular piece of frontage land, but the actual cost of making-up the street may result in a charge of £500 being imposed on the land owned by the frontager. What the frontager gets by way of special benefit is not represented by a share of the cost being suddenly added to the value of his land, but merely a slight increase, depending on other facts—chiefly amenity and convenience advantages.
My Lords, as the frontager pays rates on this special benefit and he derives no other benefit, right or privilege that is not enjoyed by everyone else residing in the town or village, I would say that it seems curiously illogical that he should be singled out to pay for the whole cost of the works on the basis of alleged benefit. This is not mere abstract theory but proved fact which is deducible from what happened to the betterment charge which was levied under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947. Under this Act, as your Lordships are aware, an attempt was made for the recovery of the cost of public works from property owners in the immediate neighbourhood, the principle being that their properties had been bettered to an amount equal to what had been spent on the work. As your Lordships are aware, it was found impossible to ascertain which properties should be charged and which should not be charged, and, if chargeable, by what amount. It very soon became clear that whatever had been spent on the local scheme had nothing at all to do with the amount by which neighbouring properties had been enhanced in value as a consequence of the works. And, as your Lordships are aware, the betterment charges were abolished.
The same course of events has occurred in the case of the coast protection charges that were levied under 726 an Act of 1949. I think it was last year that a Ministry circular advised local authorities to discontinue levying their charges and indicated that provisions by way of Exchequer grant would be made available to ease the extra burden falling on the rates. I maintain that what is true of one form of public works is true for all. There is no obvious reason why street works should differ in any way in principle from the great number of public works that were the subject of betterment charges. It is true that frontagers are a more easily ascertainable group than those who were the subject of betterment charges—perhaps that is why street works charges have lasted longer—but this reason should not, and cannot, continue to justify a principle that is fundamentally out of date and which has been shown to be so under the betterment charges Act.
There is another argument that has been put forward in the past by the Minister of Housing and Local Government. It has been argued that the contingent liability to street work charges must affect the value at which frontage land sells in the open market. It was argued that in transactions relating to frontage land it must be assumed that the future cost of the street works should be deducted from the full market value of the land. I have already pointed out to your Lordships that the cost of actually making up the street does not add very much to the value of the frontage, and I would say that it does little to reduce its value before the charge is levied.
I think it is true to say that what chiefly affects the market value of land is what one can do with it: whether or not one can build on it, and, if so, whether its location and amenity is more or less accommodating. I would say that, assuming one can use the land for the purpose for which it was bought, then in all cases it will sell for its full market value, no matter what contingent liability—tax, charge or money demand—there may exist on it. I suggest to your Lordships that this fact was also demonstrated by the failure of the development charges levied under the Town and Country Planning Act to affect land values: in fact, it is well known that land is sold at its full market 727 value despite liability to heavy development charges. I can see no reason why frontagers should be treated differently from those who were the subject of development charges.
I hope that I have now made clear to your Lordships that there exists a body of people in the country who live on unadopted roads—largely retired people, and old-age pensioners in bungalows and small houses—and on whom rests the onerous responsibility for providing the community as a whole with new streets. The passage of time has not made the burden any easier. In days gone by the making up of a street to accommodate horse-and-cart traffic was a comparatively simple and cheap process; but not to-day. And inflation has made their lot all the harder. A frontager may have purchased land ten years ago when there was a contingent liability to £100 for street works charges. To-day this figure may well have risen to £400 or £500, which he is quite unable to meet; and that fact may force him to sell his house and home. Perhaps I may give your Lordships an example of what I mean. I have here a letter which says:Dear Sir, the above road is in an extremely dangerous condition.… I have lived on a pension, since my husband died, of 57s. 6d. My road charge is £150. Even to pay a small amount will leave me short of food. I only have two meals as it is on account of coal prices. I have lived on the road for 32 years and have no other place to go.… I could not promise anything.I have beside me revised files containing many more heartbreaking letters from poor people who have been, or are now, suffering distress and hardship as a result of demands for heavy road charges. I would say that there is no branch of local government law and administration where half-truths, fallacies and historical accident combine more than in the law of private streets, The complexity of its rules are notorious, and litigation on the subject is out of all proportion to its size and significance in law.
My Lords, I must apologise for speaking so long on the general aspects of the Bill, and I will now deal only very briefly with its clauses. I think that the Explanatory Memorandum attached to the Bill makes clear its main functions. Under Clause 1 the preliminaries to street works may be set in motion either by a resolution 728 of the authority, or by a notice served upon the authority by the appropriate majority of frontagers. It is true that under the present Acts the majority of frontagers on an unadopted road have the right to demand that a local authority make up the road and take it over, provided that recovery for cost has been arranged. But owing to the high charges that might be levied on them, and which might prove crippling, no action is taken by the frontagers, with the result that the country remains littered with these unadopted roads. I would point out that under Clause 1 the street works authority has the right to determine what length of private street shall be made up, subject to any objections which may be raised, and provided for under Clause 5.
Clause 2 deals with apportionment of charges for street works. This clause provides that the liability of frontagers shall be limited to one-third of the cost which shall be apportioned between the properties fronting the street on the basis of their rateable value. The previous Highway Acts have all dealt with the matter on a frontage length basis for apportionment charges for making up a road. Under this Bill provision has been made for the rateable value of the premises to be used as a basis. It has long been felt that the frontage length basis can operate most unfairly. For instance, a bungalow occupied by an old-age pensioner may have a frontage twice as long as that of a large house and would have to pay a much larger apportionment charge. This is, of course, quite unfair. I would take this opportunity of mentioning one obvious Amendment to the Bill, which was unfortunately not foreseen when it was drafted—no doubt it has already occurred to some of your Lordships: that is, to provide for an apportionment of charges on the owner of a piece of land with no buildings on it, and therefore without rateable value, and with a frontage to an unadopted road. It is not difficult to think of an Amendment to cover that point.
Clause 3 deals with the preparation of documents as specified in the Schedule to this Bill and the recommended provisional apportionment, taking into account certain matters, such as the greater or lesser degree of benefit to be derived by any premises fronting a private street when the road is made up, and also the volume and nature of 729 through-traffic and other matters set out thereon. Clause 4 covers publication of the resolution of approval for proposed street works; and Clause 5 allows for objections to the proposed works to be made to the street works authority. The only difference between Clause 6 and Section 178 of the Highways Act, 1959, and the Code of 1892, is that application may be made to a magistrates' court to hear and determine objections. Clause 7 allows the authority to amend from time to time the specifications, plans, estimates and provisional apportionment for any street works. Clause 8 covers final apportionment and declaration of adoption.
I would call your Lordships' special attention to Clause 9 (4) which allows a frontager to repay his share of the costs of making up an unadopted road over a period of 30 years and to be a charge on the property. At the present time the period allowed for repayment is at the option of the authority, and many local authorities reclaim this money in a period of two or three years, which creates very great hardship indeed.
My Lords, I should like to add one more thing. I had one very curious argument put forward to me by a Member of your Lordships' House the other day. It was that because many house owners have in the past, or perhaps recently, paid large sums under the existing Act to have their roads made up, it would be unjust if they were asked to make a contribution on the rates towards having someone else's roads made up. My answer to that is that many frontagers have for many years themselves been making a contribution through the rates to the public made-up roads in their neighbourhood. It is rather like the Chancellor of the Exchequer refusing to take purchase tax off lipstick on the ground that some women had paid the full price the day before.
In conclusion, I maintain that it is undemocratic and contrary to the ideas of a modern Welfare State and services for an arbitrary minority to be taxed so as to provide the community at large with a major public undertaking in the making up of a public right of way. This Bill will relieve a great deal of distress and hardship among old age pensioners and other poor people living in small houses and bungalows, who are as I have 730 indicated, being faced with crippling charges. It may well be that this Bill requires a good deal of amendment, and perhaps might be drafted differently. But I maintain that matters cannot be left as they are, and that something must be done quickly to give justice and relief to people who are suffering distress and hardship.
I ask your Lordships to bear with me one moment while I read one more letter. It comes from Staffordshire, and is written by a councillor of a local authority. He says:As a local councillor only as recently as this last week, despite extreme opposition from myself and one more councillor, an elderly lady in her late 70's is being forced by the local authorities to pay £900 for road making. This, however, would not have arisen if the local authority had not built a new estate and would need the road as access to this estate. This is to me entirely wrong, and will cause great hardship to this elderly pensioner who has not got this kind of money. I must state that this property has been erected for fifteen years, and until now the council has made no effort whatever to make up this road. It seems to me that this old lady is being forced to pay out all this money for the council's convenience. I must point out to you before, ending this letter that the cost per foot of this road is £9 18s., which seems to me, as a builder, simply fantastic and out of all proportion to relative costs.I really cannot believe that any of your Lordships would wish this state of affairs to continue under the law as it stands at present. This is a humane Bill, and I commend it to your Lordships and trust that you will give it a Second Reading. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Teynham.)
§ 4.54 p.m.
§ LORD LATHAM
My Lords, your Lordships will join with me in appreciating the able and, if I may say so, valiant way in which the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, has sought to make a case for the Second Reading of this Bill. I think I shall not be alone in feeling that the noble Lord failed to do so. Nor do I think that anyone else could make a conclusive case for a Second Reading. This is a Bill which is almost devoid of merits when examined, and replete in demerits.
There are three main reasons I submit why this Bill fails to merit a Second Reading, and each of the reasons would itself alone justify that point of view. 731 The noble Lord read a letter from a councillor. I think it is apposite to say at this point that all the associations of local authorities are opposed to this Bill. I should perhaps here give notice of interest. I am a shareholder and director of a property company engaged in the development of property. As to my reasons, first of all, I would submit that there is no need for any change in the present situation and law as regards private street works. Secondly, if there were, I submit to your Lordships that the Private Bill procedure is not the procedure which is appropriate for such a purpose. Thirdly, if enacted, this Bill would in some respects permit a kind of usurpation of the functions, duties and responsibilities of local authorities. It would also cast an additional burden upon local authorities, and it would alter the whole basis of charge, as the noble Lord has said.
Take the first reason, the absence of need. As the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, said, the Bill seeks to replace the codes of 1875 and 1892 by one new code. Here may I interpose a comment in answer to the noble Lord's statement that 20 per cent. of private street works authorities were operating under the code of 1875? I do not think that that is the case. It does not follow that because only 80 per cent. are operating under the code of 1892 the remainder are necessarily acting and operating under the code of 1875, because many of them have local Acts which may embody some, but not necessarily all, of the code. In any case, the fact that there are 80 per cent. operating under the code of 1892—which was amended, but only slightly, as recently as 1959—seems to show that one of the alleged objects of this Bill has been achieved, because there is a pretty good rate of uniformity operating as regards this matter.
I cannot believe that your Lordships would wish to amend by a Private Bill an Act passed as recently as the Highways Act, 1959—no more than three years ago. It was passed in circumstances not very different from those of to-day. As I have said, the codes were amended and approved by Parliament, including this House. As the noble Lord said, the Minister conducted an inquiry 732 in 1961, two years ago, as to the operation of the private street works codes, and as a result of that survey the Minister issued a circular on March 27, 1961, in which it is stated:The Minister's general conclusions arising out of the survey are that there is no ground for any fundamental change in the law relating to the making up of private streets.The noble Lord then went on to refer to the fact that 80 per cent. of all street works were done under the code of 1892, under which code there is, of course, the facility for the local authority to adjust the proportion by reference to the degree of benefit. There is, under the provisions of Clause 210 of the Highways Act, 1959, power vested in the local authority to bear, in certain circumstances, the whole or a part of the charges which otherwise would fall upon the frontager. It is a curious circumstance that this section would be repealed by the present Bill.
The next reason against this Bill is that a Private Bill, in our submission, is not the method by which a public national Act should be amended, especially if the amendment would result, as I have said would be the case, in casting a heavy financial burden upon local authorities. I would repeat that this would mean the repeal of many of the provisions of the Highways Act and also many local Acts, and I do not think your Lordships would agree that this matter is one for the procedure of Private Bills. The changes which it would operate are fundamental and if the matter is to be dealt with, whether in the manner indicated in the Bill or in some other way, it ought to be done by a Public Bill by the Government.
The Government took the view only two years ago that there was no case for any substantial alteration. Then we have the provision that a majority of frontagers could serve a notice upon the local authority, calling upon the local authority to make up a particular and specified road; and that notice having been served, an obligation is created, according to the Bill, upon the local authority that it shall proceed diligently to make up the road. It seems to me to be very nearly a usurpation of the functions of a local authority to place it under that obligation. Moreover, the local authority has not been heard. The frontagers serving the notice do not know 733 what the situation is as regards other roads needing to be made up. They do not know what programmes the local authority may have for dealing with unadopted roads. Moreover, the service of the notice may result in a dislocation of the plans and the programmes of local authorities to the detriment of the building of schools, of houses and of other street improvements. The whole of the works programme, as it were, of local authorities could be jettisoned as a result of the service of a multitude of notices under the provisions of Clauses 1 and 2 of this Bill.
I would repeat that the frontagers would be quite ignorant of the situation. Nevertheless, they would be able, by a simple majority, in fact to fix not only the priorities of the activities and functions of local government but the actual programmes. In the end of course the local authority would be so cluttered up with notices, especially if two-thirds of the cost were to be borne by the general body of ratepayers, that the whole of the work would be in danger of coming to an end. This proposal for a simple majority, I submit, is very near to democracy standing on its head.
Then there are the further changes in connection with finance. The first is that the basis of apportionment on the length of frontage is to go and it is to be based upon the rateable value. I should have thought myself that if there was ever an inappropriate time to suggest that any payment or any liability to local government should be based upon rateable value it was now, when as a result of revaluation, rateable values have rocketed in a way which is in some respects somewhat terrifying. But the rateable value is not a proper basis, I submit, for ascertaining the appropriate proportions to be borne by the frontagers; it is not relevant. There are factors which either increase or diminish rateable value which are not related in any way to the roads, to the cost of making up the roads or to the proportion which should be borne as between frontagers.
For instance, there may be outbuildings which are rateable, there may be improvements which are rateable, none of which is related to the cost and liability for making up the roads. Moreover, an undeveloped plot can easily escape any 734 charge at all—and the noble Lord has referred to that lacuna in the Bill. Nevertheless, a situation could arise, and no doubt would arise, where there was a plot which was undeveloped save as regards a very small portion and where the road was made up. The apportionment is based upon the rateable value, and the rateable value of that particular plot is very small. When later on the development takes place the owner of that plot would have escaped liability for a lot of the cost of the road charges. There is no case, I submit, for changing the basis from the length of frontage to the rateable value.
The next point is the change in the incidence of cost—a fundamental change—namely, that one-third shall be borne by the frontager and two-thirds by local authority—that is to say, it should be borne by the general ratepayer save in a case of a cul-de-sac where the proportions are reversed. With regards to hardship, it has of course been said, sometimes perhaps appropriately, that "Hard cases make bad law". But, really, the evidence which the noble Lord submitted of the incidence of hardship was not very convincing, having regard to the number of local authorities there are and the number of streets which have to be made.
Perhaps the noble Lord would like to read all the letters I have here. It would take him quite a long time.
§ LORD LATHAM
Even so, it could hardly be said to be representative.
Moreover, this proposal to cast two thirds of the cost upon local authorities would operate very largely to the benefit of the landowner or the developer. Experience has shown that the value of properties increases, on the whole, more than the cost of the road charges, high as the cost of road charges now are, I admit. As a matter of fact, making up the road becomes a part of the value of the property, and by and large the owner or developer of the land does not do too badly out of it. This proposal that there should be a gift, as it were to owners of two-thirds of the cost, and that there should be a two-thirds levy upon the general ratepayer—including, of course, the frontager, is I submit, unfair, and no case has been made out for a 735 radical change of this character. The Bill, which casts a financial burden which may be very considerable upon local authorities, abrogates, as it were, there functions and duties, and changes the basis of an apportionment which has worked satisfactorily and was still working satisfactorily in 1961, acording to the Minister's information, as a result of his survey. It changes the basis of apportionment which has worked, as I have said, satisfactorily for some 60 years, and the Minister has formed the opinion that there is no case for a change.
The Bill is defective in many other respects. It bristles with indeterminates. Clause 3, which provides for provisional apportionment, takes account inter alia of such delightfully imprecise provisions as, for example, the following—these are considerations to be taken into account in ascertaining and preparing the provisional apportionment of the costs:(b) the benefit to be derived by other premises to or from which the street upon which the works are to be executed lead or may in future lead".Who can say what will happen in the future?
§ LORD LATHAM
The noble Lord has just made my case. He said, "may"; it is not certain, it is indeterminate. Another factor to be taken into account is:(c) the volume and nature and the anticipated volume and nature of through traffic along the street".My Lords, one needs to be a Solomon to be able to appraise that, or to estimate that. Then,(d) the anticipated use of the street for the parking of vehicles both by the owners of premises fronting the street and others …".Really! As I have said, one would need the wisdom of Solomon to estimate and appraise on that basis.
Under Clause 5 of the Bill there is a provision that if there is any amendment—amendment of specification, amendment of plan, amendment of the estimate of costs—then all the rights of objection revive and the objector can, if necessary, go before the justices; or he can go to quarter sessions. At the present time, the only amendment which entitles the objector to have his position restored, as 736 it were, is if there is an increase of cost. But under this Bill, whether there is an increase of cost or not—if, indeed, there is a reduction of cost—the frontager has the right to object and to start de novo. That is also the case with regard to the final apportionment. For instance, on the final apportionment under Clause 7, if the kerbstone originally in the provisional apportionment was of a certain height and it was proposed to raise the height by half an inch, or drop it by half an inch, although it did not involve any increase of charge the frontager would be able to reopen the whole question and go again to the justices and to quarter sessions. The result would be, of course, that there would be such protracted negotiations, such interminable delays, that the operation of doing street works would be brought to an end. In the circumstances that I have indicated, I submit that there is no case for this Bill, and that if there is a case for altering the law as regards the cost and the manner of carrying out private street works, then it is a subject which should be dealt with by the Government and not by a Private Bill.
Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I might point out this is a Public Bill and not a Private Bill. I think he has told us four times to-day that it is a Private Bill. It is not. It is a Public Bill.
§ LORD LATHAM
I am sorry. I should have said Private Member's Bill. It is not a Government Bill. I hope that your Lordships will take that view.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ LORD AMULREE
My Lords, I should like to say a few brief words. Unlike the noble Lord who has just spoken, I am in general sympathy with the purposes of the Bill. One of the reasons for that is that I think it is a measure which has really become somewhat overdue now. The fact that, as the noble Lord has said, the Government and the Minister have expressed themselves satisfied with the present state of affairs does not mean that I must feel satisfied too, because I do not necessarily support the Government in everything. Even if the Government say they are satisfied, I am prepared to say I am not satisfied. Therefore I think we must be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, for bringing in this Public Bill by a 737 private channel, as it were, and I hope the Bill will receive a Second Reading, or that the Government will say (as they did in the case of another Bill two days ago) that they are prepared to undertake the Bill themselves and therefore it will not be necessary to proceed further with the present measure. Those appear to me to be the only two alternatives which are acceptable at the present time.
I entirely share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Teynham. It has always seemed to me strange that the value of land which fronts upon an unadopted street should be increased by the local authority by exactly the amount it costs to make the street into a good street instead of a bad street. So far as I know, those figures do not generally work out in that kind of way, and to me it has always seemed a strange form of argument that it must be exactly the same. In the same way, I do not think that local authorities can say that, by doing up a street and making it in good condition they are therefore presenting the frontagers with a gift which is exactly commensurate with the amount of money they spent in making up the street.
Of course, local authorities do not like this Bill—one would not expect them to. But surely the fact that the Bill has come along is in part the fault of the local authorities. So far as I can see, what has occurred in the past is that the local authorities have allowed or encouraged builders to build houses, and roads have been built, and the local authorities have made no objection because they were drawing rates from the houses. But when it comes to spending money on the roads to make them reasonable, then they object and begin to say that it is not fair to them. One can see their trouble. As I think the noble Lord said, there are about 54,000 private streets or roads. That is a large number with which to confront the local authorities now. I suggest that the local authorities were largely responsible for the enormous amount of ribbon development in this country which went on before the war, when people built along existing highways rather than run the risk of making new roads which the local authorities would not adopt, or which the builders would need to construct themselves.
Another point is that to make up a road is much more costly nowadays. 738 Here, again, I sympathise with the local authorities. It will cost them money. But in the old days when Acts of Parliament—I am not talking about the 1959 Act, but the other Highways Acts—came into force, it was merely necessary to make up roads to take horses and horse-and-cart traffic. At present some local authorities seem to think that a road should be made up almost to the quality of a motorway before they can adopt it. That is a most expensive and unnecessary thing to do. Again, it seems to me more equitable that the cost to the frontager should be based upon the rateable value rather than on the length of the frontage; although I must say that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Latham, that the enormous changes in rateable values may lead to difficulties which cannot be foreseen. But, taking it on a purely philosophical basis, it seems a fairer way than taking the length of the frontage.
I think it is right that a majority of frontagers can petition the local authority to start work upon their road. That does not mean that the local authority has to drop everything it is doing to start the next day on the road, but it means that plans have to be made and the work has to be fitted into the work that the local authority has to do. It seems to me to be a step in the right direction rather than in the wrong direction. I also think it would be a good thing if the frontager could repay the local authority over the period of time he thinks within his means, rather than in the time that the local authority want him to pay, provided it is all done in the same full period of time, which I think is 30 years.
There seem to me to be two criticisms of the Bill which can be dealt with in Committee if it is given a Second Reading. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Latham, that the division between two-thirds and one-third seems a trifle inflexible. I think I am right in saying that under previous legislation it was possible for the local authority, if they so wished, to pay 100 per cent. of the cost, whereas this Bill will tie them permanently to two-thirds. I wonder whether that could not be made a little more flexible.
§ LORD AMULREE
I thank the noble Lord. My other point is this. I think I am right in saying that there was legislation of some kind to exempt the churches. That does not appear to be the case in this Bill. I wonder whether that has been dropped deliberately or merely accidentally. With those few rather general comments, I should like to give the Bill a welcome, and I trust that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ LORD MILVERTON
My Lords, I wish to begin the few remarks that. I want to make about this Bill with a gross understatement. I feel most uneasy about this Bill, and, in general, I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with almost everything that the noble Lord, Lord Latham, has said. This Bill proposes that local authorities—that is, the ratepayers—should take over responsibility for two-thirds of the cost of all private roads, to relieve hardship suffered by certain frontagers. Had the Bill been introduced a hundred years ago to provide that local authorities should be responsible for all streets, the position would have been rather different. But to-day generations of householders have paid for making up their streets, and why should the present generation suddenly be saddled with the costs of those who have not yet paid?
How many of the cases referred to are really cases of hardship? I feel strongly about this. The value of the unmade road must be reflected somewhere. Either the frontager has got his property at a value less the cost of the road, or he has paid the developer for it, or he has been badly advised and has a cause of action against the person who advised him. Local authorities who decide to make up private streets have discretionary powers to spread over the charges and in appropriate cases to postpone the charge. Where is the evidence—we have been offered none to-day, so far as I know—that they have not exercised their discretion fairly?
My Lords, may I interrupt my noble friend? I should be quite willing to supply him with a good deal of evidence. In fact, I think I am right in saying that there has been only one case in which a local authority has paid all the costs—only one.
§ LORD MILVERTON
I am most interested to hear that. But so far as most recent cases are concerned, estate developers have paid the cost of new street works, usually by agreement with the local authority, which means that the purchaser of the property has borne those costs plus the developer's profits. If this Bill goes through, for every case where genuine hardship is relieved I feel there will be many of increased profit. The contribution by the local authority would often be a gift to speculators, where land fronting a private street was ripe for development. Complaint is made of increased costs. But, among other things, wages have been steadily increasing too. It is alleged that the frontagers are getting nothing more for their rates. I have seen that argument produced. But, my Lords, what about education, health, welfare, fire, police, and all the other services one gets in return for rates?
I have heard the argument used about pot-holes that people cannot afford to fill them up, but apparently many such frontagers can afford to run motor cars. Further, on the proposed change of apportionment of expenses from frontage to rateable value the merits of such a change are by no means, to me, at any rate, clear, and it seems to me would be no less "rough justice" than apportionment as at present by frontage. Surely, again, in a matter which is of substantial concern to highway authorities, it is surprising that there has been no prior consultation with the Association of Municipal Corporations before the introduction of this Bill.
My Lords, there are so many objections to the Bill that one hardly knows where to begin. In the first place, as has been said already, it would transfer to the ratepayers the cost of future private street works to the extent of approximately two-thirds of the annual cost of such works. The Association of Municipal Corporations is well aware of the criticisms which have been expressed from time to time about the present law relating to the making up of private streets, and in particular the complaints of burdens which fall upon frontagers in this connection. However, they do not feel that these complaints, generally speaking, are justified. In the case of most development recently undertaken the estate developer has 741 borne all the cost of new street construction, usually by agreement with the highway authority under the provisions of the Highways Act, 1959. In effect, this means that the purchasers of new properties have borne those costs, and have been helped to do so by building societies, and so forth, and the charges have been spread over such period of years as the borrowers can reasonably manage for repayment.
The Bill before us would divert a substantial part of these costs to public funds to the relief of estate developers and private purchasers. It would saddle ratepayers, who have already met the cost of street works on their houses, with the need to contribute towards the cost of making up other private streets. Further, it would operate in favour of owners in private streets the completion of which for some reason or other have been delayed, and against those who have paid their proper apportionment in streets which it has been possible to make up more quickly.
My Lords, it is felt that the proposals in the Bill would act unfairly as between ratepayers in non-county boroughs and urban districts and those in rural districts, because not only do non-county boroughs and urban districts have to share the cost of rural unclassified roads, as well as make up their own private streets, but the extension under the Bill would fall on borough and urban ratepayers. There are also doubts whether the suggested basis of apportionment of street works charges by reference to rateable value is any better than the present basis of apportionment according to frontage. It may be that the present basis amounts to rough justice, but is the suggested basis any fairer? There are cases where premises with very large rateable values have a small frontage to a street which is to be made up and a larger frontage to other streets which have already been made up. The proposed basis of apportionment does not seem likely to work fairly in such a case as that. On the other hand, apportionment as a proportion of frontage is a certain method of apportionment, and when the frontages are created the liability which goes with them can be understood. The Association of Municipal Corporations also feels that great 742 difficulty will arise in deciding what is a cul-de-sac for the purpose of the Bill: and on this point, of course, turns the question of apportioning the costs as between public funds and premises having frontages to the street. One also wonders why the arbitrary apportionments of two-thirds and one-third have been chosen as the shares to be borne in the circumstances by public funds or the frontagers.
My Lords, there are other detailed points upon which the Bill could be criticised, but I think I have said enough at this stage to indicate that I hope that the Bill will not be proceeded with and given a Second Reading, but that, if there are justifiable grievances in relation to the operation of private street works legislation, full opportunity may be given for discussion and the seeking of agreed remedies before resort is had to legislation. In my view, such a fundamental change—and here I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Latham—in the incidence of the costs of highway development should take place, if at all, only after careful investigation of all the circumstances as an act of Government policy. Therefore, my Lords, I oppose the Second Reading.
§ 5.37 p.m.
§ LORD LINDGREN
My Lords, I, too, rise to oppose this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Teynham, made us weep about the poor widow, but this Bill would do credit to the Property Owners Federation. In my experience, whenever the landowner, the property owner or the employer wants to get added benefit for himself he always quotes the poor widow. As a trade unionist I used to meet the old railway companies to ask for an increase in railwaymen's wages, and it was always the poor widow who had her savings invested in the railway companies who was put forward as the reason why we could not get any more money. Therefore we could not get a decent wage.
Let it be quite clear that this is a property owners' Bill, to add values to properties and to transfer to the owner the added values the cost of which is borne by the ratepayer. It is true that considerable problems arise. If one goes to the North of England one finds back streets which were built in the 1880's and 1890's, and even now the roads have not been made up. Why?—because they 743 are rented houses and because the property owner, although he was prepared to take the rents, was not prepared to give a decent standard of roadway to the individuals living in those houses. If this Bill became law what would happen? These property owners who have had the rent from those properties for 80 or so years would want the local authority to put the road in order; and then, as one became vacant, they would immediately put it up for sale and take the added value. No, my Lords. This is a property owners' Bill. All the problems of private street works have not been, as the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, said, the fault of the local authority. They have been, in fact, the fault of the speculative developer.
§ LORD AMULREE
I did not say all the fault; I did not put so much burden on the shoulders of the local authorities, poor things! I put only some there.
§ LORD LINDGREN
The general inference this afternoon has been that where fault lies, it lies with the local authority. It does not: it lies with the speculative developer. What happened in the prewar days in the 1920's? The building speculator started to jerry-build houses, and then he started to put advertisements in the Press: "£25 down: No road charges." A person went in, and, by the time he got settled and the local authority came to him about making up the road, the speculator had finished building the houses and taken the money—because he had charged it in the cost of the house. Then the poor house-owner had to go to the local authority, to try to reach an arrangement with them to try to find the speculative builder who had been building the houses.
Will the noble Lord forgive me for intervening for one moment? I said that all the trouble was between 1935 and 1951. I certainly referred to the 1951 Act.
§ LORD LINDGREN
All the trouble then was prior to 1951. But because of the trouble which arose between the speculative builder and the speculative landowner prior to 1936, even the Tory Government of 1936 brought in the High- 744 ways Act, 1936. Under Section 40 they made it possible for the developer (and as the noble Lord, Lord Amulree said, the best type of developer has done it) to take responsibility for making up the road to the specification of the local authority. The developer, of course, then charged the cost—what he was going to pay to the local authority—to the owner who was going to buy the house; and he made an arrangement with the local authority who took it over and developed it. But good though the intention of the 1936 Act was, between 1936 and 1939 the speculators did not even then take advantage of Section 40; they left development. So the Labour Government brought in the 1951 Act, the advance payment code, which meant that before a house was built there had to be a payment to the local authority. Then, when the house was built and a road had to be made, there was something in the kitty, and the cost would not suddenly fall on the house-owner.
Let me make it quite clear here. Everybody who bought a house knew quite well, if the road was not made up when he bought it, that at some time he would have to meet road charges for that house. So to talk about this being something new, and something thrust upon the house-owner, is not quite true. The effect of the 1951 Act, because there had to be an advance payment which they could not avoid, was that it forced them—or, rather, made it advantageous for them—to go back to the Section 40 payments under the 1936 Act. Now, any reputable developer who is building an estate is doing it under the Highways Act, 1959, under the advance payment code, or under Section 40 of the 1936 Act.
As has been said by my noble friend Lord Latham and by the noble Lord, Lord Milverton, this Bill means that the ratepayer will have to pay two-thirds of the cost. My noble friend Lord Latham referred to Clause 1, which requires that on the demand of the local people work should be carried out by the local authority. In fact this is just impossible. I do not want to be too controversial (it is not in my nature), and I am not going to start apologising for the Government. But because of the economic position of the country the Government have from time to time to restrict the capital expenditure of local authorities. If the 745 Government are restricting the expenditure of local authorities for reasons of the national economy, how can we pass another Act of Parliament placing on the local authority an obligation to carry out work at the request of a given number of frontagers?
My Lords, this rateable value suggestion is much less satisfactory than the frontage payment system. I am not going to say that the frontage payment system is altogether satisfactory, but the rateable value system would be most unsatisfactory. Knowing land speculators and property speculators, and having had something to do with them in local government over a period of years, I know the sort of tricks they will be getting up to, as do your Lordships. They have a plot of land. There is one house on the plot, a long frontage. There is a request to the local authority to make up the road and, as soon as the road is made up, they use part of the plot for the building of another house at increased values. I can imagine, too, estate agents saying to a person who is going to have a house built on a piece of land: "You buy this piece of land. Have your house built. Do not build your garage. Wait until the rateable value of the house is determined without the garage and until the road is made up. Then after you have the road made up, build your garage and you will get it without the rateable value coming in."
§ LORD LINDGREN
Of course the local authority cannot refuse planning permission for the building of a garage, provided the access to the road does not cause danger to the public and to other road users. In fact, there are very few houses in development districts which do not have a garage attached to the house at the present time. This would lead to all sorts of tricks in the property trade; and, my goodness! there are enough now, without adding more by legislation for this purpose.
My noble friend Lord Latham referred to the ponderables in Clause 3. And under Clause 6(1), there is power to go to the magistrates to object. This would be a holiday for the lawyers. I know that 746 noble Lords opposite ought to do everything they can to encourage full employment, but full employment of lawyers does not add to the national prosperity. It is much better to have full employment in the shipyards, than to have lawyers going to magistrates' courts with local authorities on a Bill such as this. The ponderables in that would cause a considerable amount of legislation.
There is one other aspect of the Bill to which I would refer, and that is the opportunity it gives to spread one-third of the cost of making up the road over 30 years. The property owners have not built the houses I mentioned, those up in the North of England, in the back streets, Those houses have been up for 80 years. Yet here it is proposed to give the owner 30 years in which to pay for the streets when they are made up. I do not think that is reasonable in any shape or form. My Lords, what ought to be remembered, in considering this Bill, is that any house built at the present time need not be affected. There is Section 40 of the 1936 Act; there is the 1959 Act, and there is the advance payment code. So we are dealing only with things that are of the past. The noble Lord, Lord Teynham, referred to certain cases which he had heard about. I am going to suggest to him most seriously that he should list them, list the local authorities, and hand them to his noble friend at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. They will then be able to consult with those local authorities who (if what the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, said is correct, and I am certain from the letters that it is; and if what the people of Britain tell him is correct) are not carrying out the intention of the Ministry at the present time. There is no obligation on a local authority to charge the cost of the works immediately.
Let us take the widow who has got £150 to pay, an old lady of about 70 or 80. The local authority need not take anything at all from her. All they need do is to make an attachment to the house and then, when the old lady dies and the house is sold for those who benefit under her estate, the local authority get their money back. All that is required is the payment of an interest charge; and even there, if the conditions are such that the interest charge is not reasonable for the old lady, then the local authority can waive the charge. 747 The noble Lord himself referred to the recent circular (and there has been more than one circular issued by the Ministry) of April, 1961, in which the Ministry called attention to the difficulties which may arise and to exceptional circumstances, and called on local authorities to act with leniency to those who were called upon to meet these charges. Now the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, is not asking for leniency where it is necessary; he is asking for it for every property owner who has property on an unmade street. In most cases it is their own fault that the street has not been made up, and they are now to be helped by the local authority.
Then we come to the noble Lord's case of the person in Staffordshire who has his property on a street not made up and who is faced with £900 to pay. I should write to that councillor and tell him that his own local authority are not applying the rules of the Ministry in regard to the degree of benefit. It is not a criticism of existing Acts of Parliament if local authorities are not carrying out the Act of Parliament as intended, or the subsequent directions of the Minister as they were intended.
My Lords, does the noble Lord understand that this is purely discretionary on the part of the local authority and that there is absolutely no appeal against their discretion?
§ LORD LINDGREN
I agree that it is discretionary, but my experience of local authorities—and perhaps I should declare an interest, because I have been in local government for over 40 years—is that, by and large, they are reasonable; and if in fact any Member of this House or of another place has called the attention of the Ministry to a case, the Ministry has, in my experience, always been prepared, unofficially of course, to talk to the clerk of the local authority, and the local authority has been put wise as to the powers it has to deal with it.
I object to this Bill because, as I said in opening, it is a landlords' Bill. It would put up land values, because what is taken off the cost of the house by a reduction in road charges would immediately be put on to the cost of the land by the landowner. The noble Lord, 748 Lord Teynham, shakes his head, but of course all land that already has a road frontage is more valuable. The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, complained about ribbon development in the pre-war years. The local authority had no power to stop it, but the reason why ribbon development took place was that the builder building on an existing road could get a bigger price for the land. The noble Lord, Lord Teynham, knows full well that backland is less valuable than land with a road frontage. If the Minister builds an arterial road, then the value of the land on either side goes up unless there is planning restriction on housing in that area.
My further objection is that this would transfer to the ratepayer a burden which should be borne by the property owner and one which the property owner knew he had to accept. There are some cases. I admit, where there is difficulty, but of course in very many cases the property owner has repeatedly put off having the work done, very often when the local authority wanted him to carry it out. Now, when prices have risen, they object. I must repeat, as my final point, the statement made by the noble Lord who preceded me. Here we have a town with 250,000 people, and the existing ratepayers or existing frontagers have all borne their own costs, whether they are owner-occupiers or tenants of houses owned by their landlords, because the landlords have reflected the cost in the rent. You are now going to allow a certain group of people to have two-thirds of their costs met by those ratepayers who have already paid their own costs. My Lords, I do not think that is fair, and this is not a Bill to which I think this House should give a Second Reading.
§ 5.56 p.m.
§ LORD MERRIVALE
My Lords, if I understand the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, aright, one of the reasons why he did not like this Bill is that it was a landlord's or a property-owner's Bill. I am not a property owner or a landlord, but I like the Bill. Also, no doubt like the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, I dislike speculative development; but I am interested in the welfare of poor widows. Therefore I think my noble friend Lord Teynham should be congratulated on 749 bringing to the attention of your Lordships again the illogical situation which exists now concerning unadopted streets and for proposing a practical solution to this somewhat complex problem. Several of your Lordships have expressed disagreement with the wording or the drafting of this Bill; others have expressed disagreement with the principle. With regard to the wording, that is something which can be rectified at Committee stage.
When my noble friend Lord Hastings comes to reply, I most sincerely hope he will be able to inform the House that Her Majesty's Government have reconsidered their attitude—that is, the one they had on May 8, 1961, which was expressed by my noble friend Lord Jellicoe and can be found in Vol. 231, col. 34, of Hansard. My Lords, there is a saying that Hell is paved with good intentions. I hope that my noble friend Lord Hastings fully appreciates that these unadopted streets are paved only with the good intentions of the local authorities. Discretionary powers and good intentions have in the main proved ineffective to tackle satisfactorily the dual problem of seeing that these roads are made up to a reasonable standard and that, by so doing, frontagers are not subjected to undue hardship.
On the question of hardship, I should like to be permitted to quote very briefly from two letters, one received from Odd Down, Bath, and the other from Barton-on-Sea, Hampshire. The correspondent from Bath says:Colite Road where I live is about to be adopted by the City Council, and they have informed me that the estimated cost to me will be £127 6s. As I am a retired pensioner I shall find it a great hardship to find that amount.The other letter which comes from Barton-on-Sea reads as follows:After nearly 35 years' service with the London Electricity Board I retired and bought a bungalow here.… Being on a corner I have a double-gate in the next road which was just a 'cart track' with a farm gate and field behind my bungalow. Eighteen months ago the field was sold, a road made, and fifty-four bungalows built on the field plus six bungalows opposite my side-gate. As you can imagine, the dirt road is in a deplorable state after the builders had left and every week the holes get bigger. Now all the building is finished, our local paper quoted my part as £3 17s. 6d. a foot, so my unexpected bill, which I cannot meet, will be nearly £400 for the side and £148 for the frontage. I am 70 years of age and disabled, worked hard all 750 my life, my retirement is nothing but worry trying to make ends meet.
§ LORD LINDGREN
My Lords, the local authorities can deal with those cases. There is a minimum of seven years in which they have to pay, and there is a degree of benefit for the side road, or there can be an attachment to the property and no charge is made at all.
§ LORD MERRIVALE
Yes, but the local authorities are not doing it, because the powers are discretionary. But if the powers were compulsory, as this Bill tries to make them, then maybe they would do something.
On the question of making up the road to a reasonable standard, I cannot see why the local authority should have any difficulty in taking into account the volume and nature of through traffic along the road, as well as the anticipated use of the street for parking by the frontagers and others. With regard to the principle of this Bill, which I feel is worrying many noble Lords, including myself, and whether it is right or wrong that the community at large should be asked to pay for something that will benefit possibly only a very limited number of the community, I think it can be fairly said in this modern age of increasing social benefits that it is something that we are doing daily. For instance, I see that the largest single item in my rates comes under the heading of "education". I contribute to this expenditure most willingly. I do not personally benefit by it and, in fact, my son does not either, for he is at present being educated at the expense of the French taxpayer. But I feel that here is an example where one is paying for something from which one does not derive any personal benefit.
May I refer to one or two of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Latham? He felt that there were no merits in the Bill. I would not agree, but that is a matter of opinion. Maybe it is drafted not in accordance with his wishes, but I feel that the principle is sound. His attitude seems to be, "Hands off the procedure of local authorities!" I can well appreciate that, because if I understand noble Lords opposite aright they are generally in favour of extending the powers of local government and curtailing the powers of central government. 751 Also, as I understand it, their attitude is that they are in favour of granting discretionary powers to local government and not saddling them with any compulsory powers.
§ LORD LATHAM
My Lords, does not the noble Lord know that practically all the obligatory legislation there has been as to local government has been done at the instance of Labour people?
§ LORD MERRIVALE
I am delighted to know it. As this Bill gives compulsory powers, perhaps the noble Lord will give the Bill his backing. The noble Lord, Lord Latham, said that the Highways Act was passed in 1959 and felt that the law regarding private street works since then has not warranted a change. I am glad that his noble Leader did not feel that way, otherwise he would not have—
§ LORD LATHAM
My Lords, you will forgive my interruption. What I said was that it did not warrant the changes proposed in this Bill.
§ LORD MERRIVALE
My Lords, I am sorry if I misunderstood. What I am trying to say is that the noble Lord's Leader felt in 1961 that there can be cases of anomalies with respect to private street works, otherwise he would not have moved the Second Reading of the Private Street Works Act, 1961. I would add that personally I am not wedded to the rateable value with regard to apportionment of costs, but that is something which can be developed on the Committee stage. Also there is the question, which can also be developed on Committee stage, of the basis of the apportionment of charges and also the question of the ratio between the cost to local authorities and the cost to frontagers. This Bill may not be perfect, but the principle is good, and I sincerely hope that your Lordships will be able to pass it to a further stage.
§ 6.8 p.m.
§ LORD BURDEN
My Lords, I hope that the noble Lords, Lord Teynham and Lord Merrivale, did not think that my noble friend Lord Lindgren and myself and others on these Benches were cynical when we heard the case of the widows being brought forward. With my noble friend Lord Lindgren, I can assure the noble Lord, out of our very long experience in negotiations with employers in 752 different fields, that the poor widows and orphans were always brought forward as a reason or excuse for not doing anything that was wanted. We have had a very reasonable exposition of the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, and from the noble Lord, Lord Latham, dealing with it in a broad manner from a very long and outstanding knowledge of local government. My noble friend Lord Lindgren has also had a very long experience—40 years, I think—in local government. The noble Lord, Lord Milverton, admirably stated the case of the Association of Municipal Corporations, and I agree whole-heartedly with the case that he submitted in that connection. Strange as it may seem, my local government experience is not over 40 years; it is only just over 30 years. I thought it was as long as Lord Lindgren's, but it is not.
The big point made against this Bill is that a Bill of this kind fundamentally affecting local authorities should, first of all, in fairness, be discussed with the representatives of the different local authorities. I think one can take it that if there were widespread dissatisfaction with regard to the present methods of apportionment for road frontages it would find its way up, through the local representatives on the council, to the various associations of local authorities. One has to remember that the elected representatives, if there were that dissatisfaction, discontent and sense of unfairness, would voice it at their councils, and their representatives at the A.M.C. and other local authority associations would bring it up for discussion. Therefore, I suggest that the promoters of the Bill get off to a wrong start when they do not first of all consult with the people who are in the field and who know what it is all about.
Secondly, is it right to transfer two-thirds of the cost of this work to the general body of ratepayers? Is it fair to those, like many of your Lordships, who have paid for their frontages?
If I may interrupt the noble Lord, I have already dealt with that argument in my speech. It has also been dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Milverton, and I should have thought the noble Lord might have been convinced.
§ LORD BURDEN
That is the point we are making against the Bill, and nothing has yet been said to cause us to alter 753 our view. The body of ratepayers ought not to be faced at this time with a Bill brought forward by a private Member enacting responsibilities of this kind. If a change is to be made in the whole basis of this apportionment or assessment in relation to road frontages, let it be done in a Government measure, after full consideration of all the issues involved.
Like my noble friend Lord Latham, I ought to declare an interest, because I happen to be a director of a family property company engaged in the laying out of streets for building purposes, though not actually building. From my own knowledge in that particular field of development, large building firms have now moved in—I will not mention any names, but they will be known to many of your Lordships. What is the advertising that one finds by these large firms when they have developed a whole estate under private enterprise? The offer to purchasers is: "All road charges paid" The wise purchaser (I am not saying anything against the integrity of the firms) will ensure that the offer is genuine and that all road charges have been paid. But if this Bill becomes law, does it mean that at some time two-thirds of what has been paid of that apportionment will pass to somebody? To whom will it pass? Will it pass to the buyer? Will it pass to the building firm that has constructed the houses? No-one can give me an answer to that question.
Speaking out of a knowledge of local council work, I can say councils are not inhuman bodies of men and women who will not deal reasonably with any case of hardship, such as has been quoted today. Our democracy is well educated to the fact that most people would not write to the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, or the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, in regard to this Bill, but would write to their Member of Parliament, who would get on to the local authority and see that they moved in connection with the matter. Those who have served in another place know that to be the case. Therefore, I would urge that this Bill should not receive a Second Reading, but that the Government, if they feel that there is a case here, should, after consultation with the local authorities and other people interested, bring in their own Bill, which I think would be acceptable to the House, and certainly would not be a Bill put 754 forward on behalf of sectional money interests hiding behind the skirts of the poor widow.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for saying that he thinks we ought to have a Bill. I can assure him it has nothing to do with the property dealers.
§ 6.18 p.m.
THE EARL OF GOSFORD
My Lords, I personally would not support a Bill which was hiding behind anybody's skirts. But there is no doubt that a lot of the pressure which has resulted in this Bill coming forward stems from the fact that widows, orphans, pensioners, and so on, find themselves from time to time, through no fault of their own, in an awkward financial position. Most local authorities are probably sympathetic and act according to their discretionary powers; but, as we have heard, there are others, and my noble friend Lord Teynham has cited a letter from a councillor talking about his own local council, who had refused—
§ LORD BURDEN
Speaking out of experience of council work, I would say that the last person a council would be prepared to help would be a member of the council.
THE EARL OF GOSFORD
The writer was not asking for help himself. What he was citing was the case he was defending, of a widow who was faced with a bill out of all proportion to her capability to pay; and his point was that he could not get his own council to consider altering their views. It is understandable that back in 1835, when there was no form of planning control for building, local authorities had to protect themselves from being saddled with additional burdens by private developers and others over whose activities in those days they had no control. But the streets in those days were really required to carry only horse traffic, and the cost of their maintenance was comparatively small. The days of the horse and cart have gone. Roads have to be made up in most cases to carry private cars, certainly, if not lorries, dust carts, and so on. In consequence, the charges themselves have gone up many times.
THE EARL OF GOSFORD
Why an owner of property which stands on one of these unadopted roads—I do not like the phrase "private street", but it is in the official Title of the Bill—has to be faced every so often with a bill for work over which he has no control, is beyond my comprehension. All property owners pay rates. We have heard what those rates go to. The fact remains that they pay rates, and so contribute for the other householders who are lucky enough to have their houses on public streets and roads. They not only have to pay for their neighbours' roads, but they also have to pay through the nose a great deal for what is called a private road. Nowadays, that is an anomaly, if not an anachronism.
I fully realise that there is a certain amount taken off the rateable value of the house in consequence, but surely what the householder gains by paying less rates is a drop compared to the amount he has to pay when he is faced with a bill for making up his road. True, at one time it was considered that payment for public works concerned only those in the immediate vicinity of such works. But this principle in local government has long since vanished, and public works are shared by all except in the case of a private street. That in these days, the so-called Welfare Age, 19th century anomalies should be allowed to continue in existence just because those who suffer are not in a position to bring much pressure to bear, is to my mind most unfair.
It is perfectly natural that local authorities are opposed to this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Latham, said so. It is not very surprising, seeing that they may well have to face responsibilities which they should have faced long ago. It seems understandable that they are opposing it. But that does not seem to me a good argument why a Bill should not be put forward.
§ LORD LATHAM
My Lords, is the noble Earl suggesting that the views of the local authority associations are of no account?
THE EARL OF GOSFORD
No, my Lords, I certainly would never think of saying such a thing, or think of such a thing. But it is perfectly natural that the local authorities should speak against a Bill which would admittedly make them 756 pay more money—but for something for which they should have paid money long ago.
The noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, said that builders and others will be up to tricks. But people will always be up to tricks whatever the law, whatever the rules and regulations, until we have come to the Christian millennium when there will be no such thing as evil. But I do not think that is an argument against what, to my mind, is a measure which will remove a 19th century anomaly; and I, for one, will vote for it if there is a Division on the Second Reading.
§ 6.25 p.m.
My Lords, this is a very good Bill, and I think we should congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, for having introduced it and for the very excellent way in which he explained it. There are various aspects of this measure, and I intend to deal with only a few of them. Let me start by taking a purely arbitrary date—namely, 1892 the date of the passing of the Private Street Works Act. In those days life was very different from what it is to-day. In those days, the majority of people could more or less choose where they wanted to live and how much they wanted to pay for a particular house.
To-day the situation is very different. The majority of people are compelled by circumstances to purchase a house as soon as they can in a certain neighbourhood, and to pay a price which in the normal course of events they cannot afford. Furthermore, so far as cost is concerned, I have an idea that the cost per foot frontage in 1892 might have been only a matter of shillings. To-day, the cost per foot frontage may be as much as £8. That is a tremendous burden to cast upon anybody. Your Lordships may say, in reply, that incomes have increased since 1892. That is so. But I have an idea that incomes have not increased at the same rate as expenses, and I think the majority of your Lordships will agree with me on that point.
The noble Earl, Lord Gosford, took a very good point about the attitude of the private frontager which is quite justified. It may be said that a private frontager should pay for a special benefit which is accruing to him alone. He may in fact have to pay £600 or £800 for this special benefit, that is to say, for making up 757 the street fronting his own property. But, as the noble Earl pointed out much better than I can, this individual is a ratepayer who is also paying his normal share of the rate for the maintenance of all the other highways in the district, and he is not likely to be impressed by the argument that he is getting a special benefit in having his own immediate road frontage made up to standard requirements.
There is another matter to which I would refer, and that is the discretion of the local authority. The position at present is that the local authority may in effect relieve a frontager of part of the burden which is cast upon him as a result of the undertaking of private street works. The word "may" in an Act of Parliament is sometimes inclined to be illusory. I will not say any more, but I think it is sometimes inclined to be somewhat unfairly used. I am saying nothing against local authorities at all. They have no money except the ratepayers' money, They cannot be expected to spend money which they do not possess. But I say that whatever should be the ratepayers' duty in these matters should be obligatory, and should not rest partly upon the exercise of a discretion.
In conclusion, I should like to draw attention to the expression "private street". That is frequently considered in simply an academic, distant fashion, and not related to the geographical realities of the situation. In some cases people buy houses in streets which are not made up, and they are called upon to pay large sums of money for making up their immediate frontages. In the course of time further houses are built to the right or left of the existing houses, and the street is duly prolonged in one direction or the other until that street becomes what you might call, in non-legal language, an ordinary highway or thoroughfare which is used by everybody in the same way as any other principal street in the district. We must regard this question in a very broad sense. Development to-day has taken place all over the country, and it appears to me as a matter of common and ordinary justice that the making up of practically all streets should by the responsibility of the public and not the responsibility of the person who at that moment happens to be the frontager.
§ 6.30 p.m.
My Lords, at this stage of the debate, after contributions from some nine speakers, most of the arguments in favour and against this Bill have been deployed, and I do not intend to burden your Lordships with more than a couple of sentences. But I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Teynham upon having focused attention on this extraordinary state of affairs, of which there is, I think, very little public awareness. It is surely anomalous that in a highly developed island such as this, with all our machinery of planning and controls, and all our amenity consciousness there should be today, in 1963, no fewer than 54,000 roads in urban districts which are in a more or less dangerous condition. It is indeed curious that whereas in the eighteenth century, as has been mentioned, I think, the responsibility for any established right of way was accepted by the State; yet here in the middle of the twentieth century there are these miles of roads in and around our cities which are little more—
§ LORD LATHAM
May I just interpose? Is it not a fact that those miles of roads have been left by the developers?
I was not dealing at that moment with how those roads came about; I was referring to the fact that there are, I understand, some 54,000 unadopted roads in and around our cities. I think it is unfortunate—and I believe the noble Lord, Lord Meston, mentioned this, too—that this Bill should include the word "private": because the streets to which it refers are, in a large number of cases, highways and thoroughfares which are in no way private to the houses which front upon them.
My Lords, I do not want to contradict the noble Lord, because he is an old friend of mine and we are both members of the same "old pals'" club. But may I tell him that the Bill is called the Private Street Works Bill?
That is exactly what I was commenting on. I think it was unfortunate and somewhat of a misnomer, because it gives the 759 impression that we are dealing in terms of the cul-de-sac, or the private street in the true sense, and not in terms of the thoroughfare through which traffic as a whole passes—indeed, including some under the county councils. There seems little doubt that local authorities, or many of them, throughout the country are dragging their feet in this matter and that the only way in which the situation can be remedied in a practical way is to give the frontagers some powers to force the local authorities to take action. The reluctance of local authorities to take action is, of course, a very commendable aim to save rates, but surely it is almost comical to find a planning authority justifying its action, or, rather, its inaction, by calling in aid the doctrine of laissez faire. I shall not attempt to argue the detailed merits of particular methods put forward in the Bill by which the frontagers should have this power of applying pressure to the local authority, but I certainly claim that some such power should be given.
The other object of the Bill, which is to limit the amount that can be recovered from the frontagers as and when the local authority makes up the road, is, of course, to obviate cases of distress and hardship, such as those of which we have heard. It is true that the local authority have been given the power of discretion as regards apportionment of these charges, but I understand that there is only one case on record where this discretion has been exercised in favour of the frontager.
The noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, referred—and a slight expression of distaste was on his face—to property owners, so it requires my fortitude (although the noble Lord is not in the Chamber at the moment) to confess that I am connected with the National Federation of Property Owners; and to go on to say that this body, which has branches throughout Great Britain, has made public its support of this Bill. As a result of making public its support it has received a very large correspondence.
The noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, and the noble Lord, Lord Burden, seemed to be under the impression that we had at our command, so to speak, a sort of tame property widow whose distress and hardship were brought in aid when 760 ever we had a cause to plead. Let me say immediately that that is untrue. In point of fact these letters come from all over the country; from North, South, East and West, and I shall be very happy to make them available to Her Majesty's Government, as was suggested, or, indeed, to the noble Lords. I do not intend to occupy the time of the House in quoting from these letters the very pathetic stories which they tell, but I believe that they would excite the sympathy of even the noble Lord, Lord Burden, the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, or the stoniest-hearted county councillor. It is not to me an impressive argument to tell me that the local governments have themselves the powers of discretion. Such powers have not been exercised and this very heavy mail is proof of that fact.
This is a Second Reading debate, and it is not my intention to argue the merits of any particular clause. I do feel, however, with regard to the two main purposes of the Bill, that the argument that frontagers of a private road should be empowered to bring pressure to bear on a local authority has been made with force; and I have heard no evidence to make me think that is an extravagant claim. Secondly, I feel that the law in its present condition does create great and many cases of hardship. I suggest, therefore, that some piece of legislation, whether it be the Bill now before the House or some other, is required, and urgently so. I hope that your Lordships will at any rate give this Bill a Second Reading.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ LORD SOMERS
My Lords, I should like to begin by saying that I find myself in the unprecedented condition of disagreeing with practically everything said by my noble friend Lord Milverton. I have never done so before, but I hope he will forgive me for doing so tonight. I should like strongly to support this Bill. I feel that is is very necessary, and although there have been some complaints about the fact that it is a Private Member's Bill rather than a Government measure, I think the answer to that is that when the Government do not do anything it falls upon us overworked private Members to do their work for them. That is what has happened in this case.
761 I would also say that I think "private streets" is a somewhat misleading term, because these streets are not in fact private. They are not privately owned; they are public rights of way, and they are therefore as much the responsibility of the local council as any other road in the place. Some are in a really dreadful condition, as my noble friend Lord Teynham pointed out, and there is no real reason why the local council should make any difference between one road and another. A great deal of argument has been put forward that the improvement of the road should not cause an extra burden on the ratepayer. But that, I believe, is an absolutely fallacious argument; because, as has been pointed out by other noble Lords, the ratepayer is paying for everything that goes on in his district. He is paying for all the roads. And in any case, what about all the various road improvements that are going on all over the country? We all approve of those, but we do not say that the ratepayers are suffering any extra burden by that, though no doubt they are. I cannot see any real reason why the local council should not take over these roads, except the fact that it will cost them something to do so.
My noble friend Lord Teynham said at the beginning of his speech that the reason for the Bill was that there were some good councils and some bad ones. I think I would go further than that and say that the bad ones are by no means rare. I have spent many years trying to get various councils to do things, not necessarily for me but for someone in the district. I have never succeeded. The only thing in the Bill that causes me some little doubt is about the apportionment charges between the council and the frontager, as given in Clause 2(c). Is that always appropriate? The trouble is that these unadopted roads vary so enormously in character. Some may be culs-de-sac. And, apropos of that, may I say that the definition of "cul-de-sac", which I think my noble friend Lord Milverton thought was doubtful, could be quite easily fixed as being a road through which it was impossible to drive a four-wheeled motor vehicle. Some, of course, are merely used by those who live in the road and by the various tradesmen who come to them. Others are quite heavily used by ordinary traffic as a short cut. In the first case I think 762 the heavier burden should go on the frontagers and in the latter case, where the road is really to all intents and purposes a public road, I think the much larger portion of the charge should go on the council.
There will, of course, be great difficulty in the decision as to what the charges will be, and I am not enough of an expert in Parliamentary procedure to know exactly how it will be done or how it could be done. But would it be possible perhaps to form a Select Committee who could consider these cases which would be presented to them? An item that might be taken into account is the actual density of traffic that passes over the road. As to the frontagers, I should have thought that rateable value, rather than actual length of frontage, was the more suitable way in which to charge them. Apart from these points, the Bill seems to me a very logical one and a very necessary one. As for the fact that it is not a Government Bill, I cannot see there is anything in it. What does it matter? No Bill, whether produced by a private Member or by a Government, can become law without having passed through both Houses of Parliament. If both Houses of Parliament have not the power to reject or accept it, what is the point of democracy? I feel that this Bill should be given full support.
§ 6.45 p.m.
My Lords, I rise to oppose this Bill, but unlike the noble Lord, Lord Latham, I do so with a certain regret, because I think my noble friend has brought things forward which should be brought forward and has made out a case for some sort of action. It has become rather fashionable in this debate to quote one's length of local government service. I think I have been 42 years in local government, and my conclusion is that the explanation may be that the older we get on this side of the House the more radical we get in local government matters, though obviously the reverse is true for noble Lords opposite.
I do not pose as an authority on this very technical and somewhat un-glamorous subject, but I happen to belong to a local authority which is engaged, I believe, in the biggest programme of street works of any county in the country. I feel that that fact might entitle their 763 views to some consideration, badly though no doubt I shall express them. I should perhaps say that we do operate under the 1892 code; we normally charge on a frontage basis, and we normally attempt to recover the whole amount from the frontagers. We do try to be humane; we frequently spread the charges over the maximum period of 30 years; in fact in the case of old-age pensioners we often defer the charge altogether until the death of that particular inhabitant, and the charge remains attached to the house. We have a normal number of appeals, most of them on the ground of inability to pay. One of the penalties of gradual inflation is that people find that their retirement pensions have not kept pace with the ever-growing cost of road-making. That point has been confirmed in the debate to-day. I would also admit that there have been some admittedly difficult cases where, in my personal opinion, my council have acted too slowly, and perhaps too ungenerously.
But, my Lords, having admitted all that, I think that our programme is proceeding well and without anything like a general outcry. I see no reason why, proceeding as we are, we should not complete our programme in the next ten years. We shall then have dealt with the unfortunate legacy of the days before planning controls were instituted, chiefly between the end of the First War and 1932, when the first Town Planning Act was introduced. I do not think that similar problems can arise to-day. Naturally, like any other authority in our position, we have tried to estimate what would be the effect of this Bill on our programme.
First, we think that some resentment would be caused in the minds of those who have already paid their charges if they were called upon to subsidise, through an increased rate, the charges levied on their neighbours, perhaps in the next street. My noble friend said that this was a curious argument. It was actually I who made it to him. I did not make it as an argument at all; I was simply putting it forward as a plain statement of fact. That is what our ratepayers would feel. They may be curious people. I am simply saying that my belief is that that is how they would feel. I believe that this would be the case particularly where in one street a man may 764 pay £200 for his frontage, but in the next street, with a precisely similar frontage, someone would be charged £70.
I think we should have some regard in this connection to the effect on capital values. I hope that my noble friend will not think me discourteous if I do not accept the figures he gave. We have had considerable experience in this matter. Our figures are checked by the valuation department and by building societies, who, of course, make advances in which the amount of street works forms a part of the calculation. Our experience is that the completion of street works increases the value of a house or plot by an amount rather in excess of the street works. For example, if a plot with a 50-foot frontage required £200, the value of that plot in the area is increased by about £250 or £300. The noble Lord may be perfectly right and these figures may not apply all over the country; but they certainly apply with us, and I should think that they would apply all over the Home Counties, where, as we have been so repeatedly reminded, there has been such a large demand for houses and land with building permission. Of course, if one accepts that figure it means an addition to the capital value of a house or plot.
So far as it relates to houses, I do not want to make a great point of it because I do not think it will lead to abuse. But I do want to make a point of this argument where it refers to the vacant plot. These partly-built streets really provide us with the greatest headache of all. Yet my noble friend has admitted that so far in the Bill he has hardly taken them into account. He has, I know, said that he thought the Bill could be amended, but I think there would be certain difficulties. Take the Bill as it stands: the frontager is given the right to urge the county council to build up the street; but unless he has premises on his plot, apparently he is not required to pay anything at all. If the Bill did go through in this form it might lead to abuse.
I rather agree with what Lord Lindgren said, that the impoverished widow figures rather largely in the Conservative argument, although I think not quite so much as the grasping landlord figures in the Labour argument. I was slightly mystified to hear in regard to three Labour speakers that they were directors of 765 property companies. I was really amazed, but one lives and learns. However, let us agree that not all frontagers are impoverished widows or old-age pensioners. I agree that there are some quite smart operators in the property world, and I think that in our efforts to help the deserving we should see that we do not have these efforts diverted to the less deserving. If I wanted to make money out of this Bill as drafted I should buy up selected plots, I should join with great alacrity in the pressure to get the council to build up the road and I should take great trouble not to build anything on them until those works had been completed and paid for; then I would sell the property and reckon to make £200 to £300 per plot. The Bill may be amended, but I see some difficulty, within the structure of the Bill, in effecting worthwhile amendment.
I think these possibilities should be considered when we come to the main feature of the Bill, the theory that dwellers in unadopted roads should no longer depend on the whims and caprices of local authorities but should have a statutory right, enforceable at law, to have their streets made up, largely at public expense. Let me say at once that, even if this theory were sound, which I greatly doubt, I could see the mechanics of it working only where there is a clear-cut case—say that of the small urban district with one large built-up street which the council had neglected over a long period of years. But I cannot see the character of this scheme working where there is a large authority already engaged in a considerable programme.
What would happen? I suppose the first thing we can do is to make an estimate of our expenditure, which would have to stand being considered with all other estimates and might quite reasonably be cut. Then we should have the quite unpredictable effect of applications from groups of ratepayers from all over the county to have their roads made up. For the reasons I have given, I think many of these applications would not be at all simple. They would not be at all clear cut and would lead to considerable argument on merits, particularly if they were taken to the courts. In any event, it is not at all easy for a group of ratepayers to take a case to the courts.
Then if all this difficulty were overcome, what sort of things would the courts have 766 to decide? Would they decide that our priorities were all wrong; that we ought to substitute a five-year programme for a ten-year programme, quite irrespective of rate burden we should have to bear; that we ought to carry out works on some different specification from what we are doing? I think before long the courts would find themselves involved not only in legal decisions but in a quite complicated administrative exercise which I do not think they are really qualified to deal with. I hardly think that a scheme prepared in that chancy way could be described as a scheme at all, and we certainly could not give any information to prospective purchasers as to what their likely liabilities would be, or when they would be likely to be incurred.
Certainly, in my particular case, I believe the effect will be to increase immensely the amount of what I would call solicitors' work, the legal side of the work, and possibly substantially to diminish the amount of actual street works that are being carried out. For that reason I must oppose the Bill. I do not know whether we differ from other county councils, except possibly in that we have a larger programme than others, but I imagine the same argument would be advanced by them. In any case, this Bill seeks to legislate for all and sundry.
My noble friend may ask: What positive suggestions have you got? I think that would be a fair question. As I have already said, I think some action is demanded. In the first place, I agree with noble Lords opposite that, if there is any merit in democracy at all, in whatever you do you must carry the majority of local authorities with you. I agree that, on occasion and as a last resort, a local authority must be coerced. But I do not think that we should turn into a principle the theory that all local authorities should be coerced all the time. To my mind it just does not have the ring of reality about it. If this idea of giving an individual a legal right to a local authority's service at the expense of the rates is a sound principle, why confine it to street works? Why not apply it to education, public -health matters, and so forth? I am no lawyer, and, for all I know, we may all have a legal right to have the snow removed from our doorsteps; but I think anybody who suggested that the right way to deal with the snow menace was by a series of indi- 767 vidual actions in the court would be thought rather eccentric.
It is four years since an Inquiry was hold, and there might well be another, with an independent element in it. I think this Inquiry should be followed by some changes in the law, one of which should be to extend the existing power of the individual to appeal to the Minister, to have a more comprehensive type of appeal, and to arm the Minister with more specific powers Chan he has of enforcing his views after a public inquiry. This may sound a rather hackneyed suggestion, but the Minister has administrative knowledge, he has frequent dealings with local authorities, he has knowledge of conditions all over the country and of methods employed, and I think that his contribution would be mulch more effective than the unco-ordinated efforts of a large number of counts of law.
My Lords, I think there might be other changes, too, but I hope that these would not mean increasing the amount of legal work to be carried out by local authorities. I feel that already the volume of existing legal obligations contributes to inertia and inaction, particularly in the case of small authorities with limited staffs in which the burden of this work becomes excessive. Finally, having said that I think we should be grateful to the noble Lord for his labours, I, for one, hope they will be rewarded by some sort of action, though I confess I also hope it will not take the particular form he is now proposing.
§ 7.3 p.m.
§ THE JOINT PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY, MINISTRY OF HOUSING AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT (LORD HASTINGS)
My Lords, I think I can safely say that we have had a most interesting and, at times, exhilarating, debate. It has certainly been controversial, and the speakers have been evenly divided for and against the Bill. The noble Lord who introduced this Bill did so not only with his usual clarity, but with a burning conviction and depth of sincerity that must have impressed some of your Lordships, and which clearly earned for his Bill, or at any rate for parts of it, a good deal of sympathy. I am sure we were all touched by the noble Lord's account of individual hardships suffered under present legislation affecting private streets.
768 I would be the first to admit that the law as it stands is not quite perfect and that it does not always operate as intended. Nevertheless, it has also become clear during the course of the debate that the arguments are by no means all on one side. Indeed, I would suggest to your Lordships that the noble Lord's Bill is itself possessed of a number of flaws, some of which have already been pointed out in some of the speeches we have heard this afternoon.
As befitting a Second Reading speech, I will largely confine myself to discussion of the main principles of the Bill before the House. There are, in fact, only two such principles which are new and which form the basis of the Bill. The first is to be found in Clause 1, where it is laid down that a majority of front-agers should be able to compel the street works authority to make up a private street at any time they (the frontagers) so choose. Before I comment on this principle, I think it may be helpful to your Lordships if I set out briefly the present situation, in so far as we have reliable information about it, and describe the action that has so far been taken to deal with the problem of private streets.
My Lords, about three years ago the Minister of Housing and Local Government had a survey carried out, and this revealed that there were then, as we have heard in one or two speeches, about 54,000 private streets in England and Wales, of a total length (this figure has not so far been quoted) approaching 6,000 miles. This represented about one-tenth of the total mileage of urban roads of all kinds. Authorities with the highest mileages fell mainly into two categories: old industrial towns where there had been a lot of housing development in the 19th century, and modern residential areas which grew rapidly between the two world wars. The condition of these streets varied a great deal, some being almost fit for adoption as a public highway, others being broken stony tracks or rutted mud and gravel left behind by the builders.
Meanwhile, Parliament had not been entirely unmindful of the situation. Due to the initiative of a private Member in 1951, a short Bill was passed and became known as the New Streets Act, to which the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, referred at some length. It has since been 769 absorbed into the consolidation Act on Highways in 1959, and is now better known as the Advance Payments Code. Under the 1951 Act, which was made compulsory in all urban areas and is in force in one-quarter of all rural districts, any person building on an unmade private street has to pay or secure to the street works authority a sum sufficient to cover the charges estimated to be recoverable from him if the authority were to make up the street. The important exception to this rule is, of course, the case of the building developer who has agreed with the authority to make up the street or streets himself and to hand them over in a condition suitable for adoption as a public highway.
Now I come to a very important provision of the 1951 Act which, as I shall explain, has a direct bearing upon the Bill before us to-day. Where a sum had been deposited or secured, even by one person, as a result of this Advance Payments Code, the majority of frontagers on any street which was at least half built up could then require the street works authority to make up that street. Furthermore, this requirement applied not only to completely new streets, but also to old streets where building development took place after the Act came into force, subject to a number of exemptions set out in the Act. The effect of the 1951 Act has been, and is, to safeguard the future, to prevent any general deterioration of the present situation and to bring about some improvement in respect of the legacy bequeathed to us by past development.
There is, in addition, one other effect—and this is why I have dwelt on the 1951 Act at some length. The responsibilities laid upon street works authorities as a result of the Advance Payments Code are of such an extent that some are already finding it physically impossible to do more than this code compels them to. Many others have a full programme of old streets as well as new. The House has heard from my noble friend Lord Gage how his county council has a full programme, which includes the making up of old streets as well as now working off some of the backlog. So it is in many cases. Clearly, none of these authorities could increase their programme, even if we were to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, and to make it a statutory obligation 770 that all local authorities must comply with any and every request by a majority of frontagers to make up any, and perhaps even every, unmade private street in England and Wales. Present plans of local authorities are to make up 24,000 of the 54,000 streets over a period of ten years from that survey which was made three years ago, so that in the next seven years nearly half the problem should have been solved.
It may seem unfair that those who occupy houses in private streets fully developed before the 1951 Act must wait upon the pleasure of the local authority before having their street made up, while others lucky enough to come under the 1951 Act go to the head of the queue. But I suggest very respectfully to your Lordships that that is neither a logical nor a fair argument for turning the tables completely and putting the hard-pressed local authorities at the mercy of the frontagers in regard to the time factor, quite apart from the fact that to do so would produce a chaotic situation.
I do not wish to appear unsympathetic to the pleas that my noble friend Lord Teynham has made on behalf of a number of unfortunate people, but at the same time it is necessary to be practical. My noble friend has implied that many local authorities are falling down on the job but, my Lords, I really think this is a considerable exaggeration. The vast majority of authorities are tackling this problem conscientiously and efficiently, and we really cannot place upon them a statutory obligation which they do not deserve to have placed upon them and which they would in any case be incapable of fulfilling.
If I may, at this point, I will refer to a remark by the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, who said that it was the fault of the local authorities that this situation existed. Without following up or agreeing with the disquisition of the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, upon speculative builders, I nevertheless agree when he says that the people who put those houses there are those who are responsible. I would not say that it was their fault, but it was their wish that the houses should be built—either the building contractors, the developers, or the people who lived in those houses. We must remember that in those days—and we are really talking about the period between the wars—there 771 were not the post-war Planning Acts controlling development in accordance with a development plan. By and large, people could build houses where they liked, and the local authority could do little, if anything, to stop them.
I would ask your Lordships if, in the climate of opinion in those days, there would have been any justification for the local authorities trying to stop development. Indeed, I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Teynham: would he not have been very annoyed if he had wanted to build a house in a certain place and had not been allowed to do so? That, in fact, was the situation between the wars, and it was quite wrong to blame the local authorities for that development.
§ LORD LATHAM
My Lords, would the noble Lord admit that between the wars the frontagers objected to the roads being made up?
§ LORD HASTINGS
I am afraid I do not know whether or not that is true.
As for any local authorities who may be really idle in this matter, I agree with the noble Lord that they deserve no sympathy, but only castigation and condemnation. They have no excuse, for in the first place they cannot say that further private street works will push up the rates (where the frontagers pay the full costs), and in the second place I can give an assurance that the Government will not restrict them by refusing or limiting loan sanctions in present circumstances. To those local authorities already doing a good job I would just say this: "Press on, do not slacken your efforts; increase them if you possibly can, and we will give you all the help we can".
My Lords, I now turn to the other main principle of the Bill, which is to be found in Clauses 2 and 3. This is the principle that, in general, frontagers should pay only one-third of the cost of making up private streets. This would be a radical change and would overturn the existing principle that frontagers should in general pay the whole cost, a principle long established and generally accepted as fair. If the noble Lord wishes to challenge the existing law and accepted practice he must surely make a very strong case for doing so. 772 I listened carefully to the noble Lord's arguments on this point, and it seemed to me that he based his case on a number of hardship cases, upon the general premise that it would be in the public interest, and upon a somewhat intricate argument relating to betterment charges. There is already provision in the law for dealing with cases of hardship and I will refer to that later. As for the public interest, that is looked after when the local authority adopts the private street as a public highway and the maintenance of that street becomes a charge upon the rates.
Here I think I must refer to complaints by the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, and also by the noble Earl, Lord Gosford, who seemed to think it unfair that the people who had not got their streets made up should have to contribute towards the rates for other road maintenance. But my noble friends are under a total misapprehension as to the real situation. The roads whose maintenance the property owner is paying for through the rates are roads which were made up in the first place at the cost of the frontagers. It is when the roads are made up that they fall upon the rates, and not before; and in that respect everybody is in the same boat. Those frontages were not made up free for the people who are living in the houses where the highway is now a liability of the local authority.
It really cannot be seriously argued, in my opinion at least, that it is in the interest of the public to incur capital expenditure in order to enable a private developer, whether he be building contractor or individual house-owner, to improve his property at the public expense. Yet that is what the noble Lord is asking us to do in this Bill.
In respect of this question of betterment charges, which the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, argued about, there is really no question of betterment in the charges made for the making up of private streets; nor is it a question of increasing the value of the property. The charges are payments for work done for the benefit of the property.
But, my Lords, if I may intervene for one moment, there must be a betterment charge there because you can do the work on the road. It is 773 a question of whether or not the land increases in value. I discussed that very fully in my speech.
§ LORD HASTINGS
I know, my Lords. But I am saying that the question of a betterment charge is not considered when private streets are being made up. All that is considered is the cost of the work, and the work is being done for the benefit of the property. When the charge remains to be paid in the future, the buyers of property naturally take into account, in deciding what they will pay, the future liability. Our information is very much that given to the House by my noble friend Lord Gage; and it is that the difference in the value of property, due to the road being unadopted, approximates closely to the foreseeable cost of street works on the frontage. That is the general information that we have upon that subject.
After all, my Lords, private streets come into being largely because somebody wants to build a house or a group of houses, and he or they, as the case may be, need a road for convenient access and for services to that house or those houses. The general public did not ask that a house or houses should be built there. In the course of time houses may change hands and the origin of the private street tends to be forgotten. But in the first instance, and subsequently, the lack of a made-up street is reflected in the price paid for the house, as I have just pointed out. Other noble Lords, too, have insisted that that is so, and I am sure that it is quite true.
Nowadays, of course, when a new housing estate is developed—and this really illustrates the argument forcibly—it is a common practice, thanks to the Advance Payments Code, to make up all the streets to standards which fit them for adoption by the local authority. The costs of doing that are charged to the general costs of building the estate and apportioned among the individual house purchasers. Nobody complains that is unfair; everybody expects it and accepts it, and pays a price to cover the making up of those roads.
How then can we reasonably change the law and thereby upset in many cases the present value of houses and land, both intrinsically and relatively, and at 774 the same time cause hardship—and this point has been made by various speakers—to those who have already paid the full costs of having their private streets made up and who would now be asked to bear the additional burden of paying two-thirds of the cost of making up their neighbours' private street? Noble Lords have referred to the inflated price of making up roads since that house was purchased. But I think we have to take into consideration at the same time that, if the cost of making up the frontage has increased by three times, then the value of the house itself has increased enormously also.
My Lords, I have dealt with the two main principles of the Bill. I have told the House why Her Majesty's Government cannot accept either of them judging them on their individual merits, although it may be admitted that our objection to Clause I is based as much upon practical grounds as upon grounds of equity. But when we see these two principles in juxtaposition, and when we take them together, our objections become even more emphatic. Because not only would the Bill give a majority of frontagers the right to force the local authority to make up private streets in its area immediately those frontagers require it, but it would give them the right to do so mainly at the public expense. It seems to me that if we were to agree to that, our ideas of equity and fairness would be becoming somewhat topsy-turvy.
My Lords, I do not propose to go into any of the details of the Bill, although I could make criticisms of the proposal to adopt rateable value as the basis of apportionment of costs. We believe that that would lead to more anomalies than it would solve. On the other hand, I could speak with approval of some of the factors of indirect benefit to be taken into consideration when apportioning costs, or it could be that a reconsideration of the possibility of frontagers having an option to pay by instalments could be investigated—not necessarily on the basis of 30 years—although, I am informed that the local authorities are generally very reasonable about this particular matter.
Before closing—and I will not weary your Lordships more than a minute or two longer—I want to return to this question of hardship, and to say a few words 775 about the existing law and the way in which it can be used. For it seems to me that if there is anything wrong at present, it lies less in the legislation than in the way it is administered. This point has been made by several speakers, notably, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Lind-gren; and we had an excellent example, which reinforces this argument that it is a question of administration, put to us by my noble friend Lord Gage, whose kindly council is obviously performing its duties admirably and is administering the legislation as it is intended to be administered. And that just shows what can be done.
At the beginning of my speech I referred to the survey carried out three years ago by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Following the survey, and consideration of its results by the then Minister, the circular which has been referred to by noble Lords was sent out to authorities, and contained this passage:The Minister's general conclusions arising out of the survey are that there is no ground for any fundamental change in the law relating to the making up of private streets, and that if it is administered sympathetically it enables equitable results to be secured and provides means of mitigating the relatively few cases of hardship. The purpose of this circular is to remind local authorities of the various means by which they can ensure that private street works charges are apportioned on as equitable a basis as possible: that all that can be done is done to make frontagers feel they have been fairly dealt with: and that financial hardship is mitigated as far as is reasonably possible.That was the circular I referred to.
Therefore, my Lords, I would ask all local authorities to ponder the criticisms which have been made to-day, even though much of that criticism is not justified. The point is that strong criticism has been made, and there must be a reason for it. So I would urge local authorities to look again at that circular (No. 11/61, dated March 7, 1961) and to ask themselves what changes they have made in their approach to the problem of private street works as a result. Have they adopted the 1892 code yet—if they are an authority to whom the 1875 code then applied? Do they use their discretion as frequently as equity demands to take into account degree of benefit? Do they always contribute from the rates to the cost of street works where it is equitable that they should? In reference 776 to these last two points, it is difficult to make a judgment, without knowing the full facts, on a letter such as was read out to us by the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, but it would seem that in that case these two questions would have to be answered in the negative when they should have been answered in the affirmative; but, without knowing the full facts, I should not like to say more than that.
Then I go on with further questions. Do they use their power to contribute to the charges which would otherwise fall on a flank frontager in circumstances where he obviously can derive little or no benefit from the works? Do they grant facilities to pay the charges by instalments over a reasonably long period? I do not share the congenital antipathy of the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, in respect of poor widows, and I would point out that there are merry widows, and even scheming widows.
§ LORD HASTINGS
There are also, of course, the cases of old age pensioners. As we have heard from the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, his council does not make old age pensioners pay—I think he said that—and that is an admirable example to follow. To go on further, I would ask local authorities, are their public relations in this matter all that they should be? I would add another question to these: are they tackling the job of making up the private streets in their area with the vigour that they should?
My Lords, before my noble friend leaves that point, I would say that he has addressed some powerful questions to the local authorities, and has convinced me of his case, but what steps is he going to take to bring his speech to the notice of local authorities? The circular letter to which he referred is three years old and they have probably lost it by now. What new move is he going to make?
§ LORD HASTINGS
I hope, in the first place, that the local authorities, who evidently, through their representatives, have been taking a considerable interest in this debate, will read Hansard first thing to-morrow—and possibly a headline in the Daily Express; I do not know.
777 My Lords, I hope the noble Lord. Lord Teynham, will not think my reply has been either unsympathetic or unfair. The noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, who told me that he could not remain in his place, suggested that I should take a road paved with good intentions and should indicate the acceptance of Her Majesty's Government to the Second Reading of this Bill. I would remind the noble Lord that the only road I know that is paved with good intentions is the road to Hell, and therefore I trust he will excuse me for not walking in that direction, whether it is made up or not.
I have tried to indicate the Government's true feelings in this matter. I have tried to indicate to this House and to the local authorities not only what has been and is being done but also what can be done and what should be done—but, at the same time, I have had to make it perfectly clear that there are too many objections of a fundamental nature to this Bill.
Although the noble Lord and his friends may have made out a case for the minor amendment of existing legislation, they have not, in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government, made out a really good case for the drastic alteration that they have proposed. Therefore I am not able to recommend to your Lordships' House that you should give this
§ Bill a Second Reading, and I ask your Lordships to reject it.
§ 7.29 p.m.
My Lords, I appreciate the views of Her Majesty's Government and of the noble Lords who have been kind enough to take part in criticising this Bill and putting forward suggestions. I do not propose, at this late hour, to go over all the arguments again. There is no doubt that a great deal can be done in Committee to improve the Bill if it is given a Second Reading.
I cannot say that I was very impressed by the arguments of those of your Lordships who were members of local authorities. The noble Viscount, Lord Gage, was kind enough to say that there should be some changes in the law as it is at present. But, whatever happens, I do not propose to be sidetracked so that nothing is done to relieve the distress and hardship which occurs under the present law. I feel it my duty to return to the battle again and again, and to keep my powder dry until a final broadside may bring relief to those sorely tried people who live in unadopted roads. Therefore, I feel that I must press this matter to a Division.
§ On Question, Whether the Bill shall be now read 2a?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 9; Not-Contents, 27.777
|Albemarle, E.||Gosford, E. [Teller.]||Somers, L.|
|Amulree, L.||Horsbrugh, B.||Swansea, L.|
|Broughshane, L.||Meston, L.||Teynham, L. [Teller.]|
|Ailwyn, L.||Derwent, L.||Latham, L.|
|Amherst of Hackney, L.||Devonshire, D.||Lindgren, L. [Teller.]|
|Ampthill, L.||Ferrers, E.||Lothian. M.|
|Auckland, L.||Gage, V.||Lucan, E.|
|Burden, L.||Goschen, V.||Milverton, L. [Teller.]|
|Chesham, L.||Hastings, L.||Newton, L.|
|Craigton, L.||Hawke, L.||Peddie, L.|
|Crook, L.||Jellicoe, E.||St. Oswald, L.|
|Denham, L.||Lansdowne, M.||Stuart of Findhorn, V.|
Resolved in the negative, and Motion disagreed to accordingly.