HC Deb 24 July 1963 vol 681 cc1637-58

12.19 a.m.

Mr. Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

My hon. Friend the Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) and I wish to draw attention to the problem of unmade roads and streets. We have drawn attention to this matter for many years, and we are determined—and we hope that other hon. Members will join in the discussion, and the campaign—to continue to exercise pressure on any Government there may be to bring about a new policy in order to resolve problems that still affect thousands of citizens.

In my constituency I have an estate called the Apedale Estate, which has caused me many troubles over the years because of a private road that is frequently being damaged by surface mining operations. From time to time, over the years in which I have represented Newcastle-under-Lyme, citizens from the small number of dwelling houses thereon have come to see me about the terrible state of the private road on the Apedale estate. From time to time, the Staffordshire County Council has been compelled, simply in order to enable children to get to school at all during the winter, to stretch its powers and duties and intervene in order to get the road made up.

Until about two years ago, this private estate of about 50 or 60 acres was owned by a Sheffield firm, Thomas W. Ward, Ltd. Then it was bought by a firm called Huntflink Investments, Ltd. Huntflink Investments turned out to be a company with a nominal capital of £100, though only two £1 shares were issued. They were issued two years ago in the names of Peter Rachman and Audrey Rachman. This firm purchased from Thomas W. Ward Ltd. the Apedale Estate, which, as my hon. Friend and I know very well, consists mostly of derelict land. It is heavily undermined, and heavily over-mined, since there have been many surface mines in this district of north Staffordshire which have been caused a great deal of damage and disruption to the highways there and interfered with the life of the citizens.

Curiously enough, in the middle of last year, this company increased its capital from £100 to £125,000. Some of the shares were not issued but most were, in equal proportions in the names of the late Peter Rachman and of Audrey Rachman. In November last year, a few days before the death of Mr. Rachman, the estate was mortgaged to the Eagle Star Insurance Company for the sum of £100,000. One can well imagine the amazement of my constituents and others in Staffordshire at £100,000 being advanced on the security of this estate. If anyone wonders at that amazement, let him come to see the place. I issue an open invitation to him to come to my constituency to see the dereliction of a great part of the area.

This may turn out to be a problem for the taxpayers. It is, I hope, extremely likely that at some time either the ratepayers or the taxpayers will wish to reclaim this land. They will wish to take it over, if only in order to ensure decent highways for the citizens. It may well then become a problem for the taxpayers and ratepayers, the citizens in general, that speculators and property racketeers have deliberately overvalued this land, bidding it up, as part of their speculative dealing and racketeering of which we have heard so much recently in connection with the doings of the late Mr. Rachman and others.

I mention these facts because the matter we are raising tonight is the result of past speculation. Because we have in the past permitted speculative building for quick profits, without insisting upon proper standards and the maintenance of services, particularly the making up of roads, this trouble is still with us especially in industrial areas like north Staffordshire. Fortunately, in recent years we have stopped this problem for the future. That is something of an advance which has been made.

We have to bear in mind that, in spite of the fact that a great deal of this problem of unmade roads and streets dates back a long way, sometimes to the speculative building boom of the 'thirties, sometimes very much further back, there are, as the Minister recently told me, in reply to me in the House, still 5,000 miles of unmade streets and roads in the country. Very many of those 5,000 miles are in the big industrial areas, sometimes, as in my constituency, bang in the centre of a great big industrial complex. Roughly, as the Joint Parliamentary Secretary told me, about 1,000 miles of those streets and roads have been made up in the last five years. It seems to me that at the present rate of progress it will take at least another twenty-five years before this problem, this legacy of past misbehaviour and speculation, can be got rid of.

The whole business is a colossal hardship for the citizens involved. It is a terrible problem for many people in a constituency like mine. It is literally true that in many of these districts parents are scared of their children going out to school or to play in the streets and roads at certain times of the year, especially in conditions of bad weather, because of the potholing and the subsidence and the state of the mud paths outside their frontages. They suffer all kinds of special difficulties and hazards because of these things.

These citizens, of course, pay rates and taxes in the sameway as other citizens, but when, as a result of the action of local authorities, the time comes for their streets or roads to be made up, they find themselves in receipt of huge bills for the portions of the roads in their frontages which have been made up. Bills of £100 and £160 to ordinary citizens, sometimes with comparatively low wages, sometimes old-age pensioners, are very often produced to me in my constituency.

Of course, intelligent local authorities, like that of Newcastle-under-Lyme, have instituted systems of spreading over the years the burden of lending the money to the citizens, enabling them to pay gradually, but the fact is that it is inevitable under the existing law for the making up of private streets that a great deal of financial hardship is imposed upon ordinary working citizens.

Many people say that the system which we have inherited, through the various Acts of Parliament in the nineteenth century, for the making up of these unmade private streets and roads, so that they can be adopted as public highways, is fair enough because, after all, when the roads are made up there is an enhancement in the value of the property in the streets, and therefore it is fair that the frontagers should pay their portion to enable those streets to be adoped as public highways.

As I see it, there are two difficulties about that. The first point is that, O.K., there is an enhancement in the value of the property when the street is made up; but that is not realised in fact: the citizens are levied immediately for their apportionment, and they cannot realise financially the increased valuation of their properties, and therefore it is not immediately relevant to their living standards.

What is much more important is that in most cases, such as in my constituency, these so-called private streets and roads are, and have long been, public highways used by all sorts of people, sometimes at their peril and at the peril of the springs of their vehicles. They are used by milkman, bakers and so on. So long as they remain unmade, their use by this traffic causes further potholing and other damage and makes more expensive the repair and making up of the road when that time comes.

I think, therefore, that my constituents are right when they tell me that they are not responsible for a great deal of the expenditure that has to take place to make up the road. Year after year goes by and the road is not made up, and further damage is caused by bad weather and the traffic using the road. But these people, under existing legislation, will be levied whatever the cost happens to be when it comes to making up the road. The high interest rates impose increased burdens on frontagers in this respect.

Under the existing law local authorities are permitted to make a contribution from the rate fund towards the making up of unmade roads, but they cannot recoup any of that expenditure. There is no recognition of any national responsibility in that respect. I would also point out that the unmade streets and roads exist mostly in areas where the rates already bear particularly heavily on the population, and in those great industrial areas we already have many demands for increased local expenditure and expansion of local authority services.

Therefore, I believe that it is unfair to private citizens who no longer have any control over the use of these unmade streets and roads and also to the councils in the areas where the unmade roads mostly exist that they should have to bear the whole financial burden. Those of us who represent the areas which contain the 5,000 miles of unmade streets and roads with their pot-holes and mud paths—these derelict or devastated highways—believe that the time has come for two things.

First, we want an accelerated rate of progress in making up these roads. We are thoroughly dissatisfied with the present rate of progress and want the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to enter into discussions with the local authority associations about immediately accelerating the making up of these roads. In many of the areas there is unemployment, and doing this work would result in improved amenities and more efficient services as well as the provision of a little more employment.

Secondly, we want the national exchequer to recognise now the necessity for a special financial contribution to these areas to relieve some of the financial hardship that exists.

We are not asking the Exchequer to take the whole burden on itself but to recognise that there is financial hardship on many citizens. It is unfair to say that local authorities which happen to be faced with this legacy of past neglect should have this responsibility placed on them alone, with the result that their ratepayers have to pay higher rates. The Exchequer should give some sort of assistance for these hard-pressed citizens so that greater progress can be made towards getting rid of this terrible heritage.

12.35 a.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

As the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) has said, there is colossal hardship in many of these cases. Private streets are made up under three different codes—a codeof 1892, a code of 1875 and, in some cases, private Acts. Under whatever code they are undertaken, the normal apportionment of charges is on the basis of frontage, and frontage does not only mean frontage; it also means flank walls at the side, and very often the owner finds himself saddled with the cost of £5 a foot of his side walls of his property because they are called "frontage".

Under the Highways Act, 1959, the local authority can exercise discretion to relieve this hardship in three different ways. It is only the Minister who can question whether it has exercised that discretion correctly. It is true that the owner, when served with a notice for private street works charges, has the right of appeal to the magistrates, but normally that is on procedural aspects, not really going to the heart of the matter. It is the discretion which can be exercised by local authorities which does that.

Under Section 176 of the Act, a local authority can pass a resolution that the apportionment should not be made on the basis of frontage but on the greater or less degree of benefit or on what the owner may himself have spent on making up the road. But on very few occasions do local authorities pass that resolution. They base the charges on frontage and refuse to have regard to greater or less degree of benefit. If they were to do so, there would not be so many cases of such tragic hardship.

I have seven in the last few months over 200 letters from owners charged sums they cannot possibly afford within reason. Some have had to sell their properties in order to meet the charges.

The second way in which a local authority can exercise discretion is under Section 210 of the Act. It can, if it so resolves, relieve owners of all or part of the charges. This should apply in cases where a road is made up for some other purpose than to benefit the frontages. Frequently, a neighbouring estate—sometimes a local authority estate—is being developed and an unadopted road through a residential area is used by contractors' lorries and the surface ruined. For that reason the local authority takes it over and makes it up.

These are occasions when a local authority should exercise discretion and put at least a part of the cost on the ratepayers in general and not charge the owners who are frontagers along that road, for whose benefit the road has not, in fact, been made up. Those owners frequently find when the road is made up that it is used as a bypass and not to their benefit at all.

The third discretion which a local authority can exercise is to allow the charge to be spread over a period of 30 years. This is under Section 181 of the Act. But again local authorities are reluctant to spread the charge over that period. They will sometimes spread it over three, or even four or five years, but they are not exercising their discretion to allow the owners to pay over 30 years which would relieve hardship and prevent the sales of property in some cases to meet the charges.

In none of these cases of failure to exercise a discretion can the owner appeal to the magistrates. His only appeal is to the Minister under Section 207. Any aggrieved person can appeal to the Minister within 21 days of the final demand for payment and the Minister can reach such decision as he thinks equitable. At this stage, the decision is wide open. The Minister can use pressure on the local authorities to exercise their discretion so as to relieve hardship to the owners, but I am afraid that my right hon. Friend and his predecessors have not, by their appeal decisions, directed local authorities to do so.

I ask my hon. Friend to ask his right hon. Friend to look again at the exercise of this appeal jurisdiction under Section 207 and where he sees real hardship, as there is in many cases, to say that the local authority should have exercised its discretion in relation to the greater or lesser degree of benefit, or, under Section 210, to relieve the owner in whole or in part of the charge, or its discretion under Section 181 to spread the burdenover a long period. I do not know what is the use of appealing under Section 207 if the Minister is not to do that. In the appeals to the Minister he has upheld the local authorities when there has been obvious hardship to the owners: I ask my hon. Friend to look at this matter again to see whether the appeal machinery could not be made more effective.

12.43 a.m.

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

I am grateful for the intervention of the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page). This is not necessarily a debate of world shattering importance, but it is of vital importance to people living in 24,000 streets in Britain, and probably one million families are affected by it. In an age when we talk of reaching the moon, man should first learn to do something about his own environment. Our first function should be to try to get a little affluence for the people of this earth. In our affluent society—and I am not making a political quip, because the affluent society is spreading throughout the world—surely a formula can be found to get rid of this disgusting anomaly.

The hon. Member for Crosby mentioned the Highways Act, 1959. The man in the street does not know about it. Out of 10,000 cases before 1960, only 1 per cent. appealed to the Minister. That was because of ignorance. It is the duty of local councillors and hon. Members and the Government to let householders in these circumstances know what possibilities are open to them. If only 1 per cent. appeal to the Minister, the reason is either that they cannot afford to go to a solicitor for the information, or that they do not know how to approach the problem. Making the procedure better known would help to reduce the burden.

When a noble Lord raised this issue in another place on 7th February, there was a useful and constructive debate and a Government statement indicating a line of policy was put forward in reply by the noble Lord who was speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. He admitted that the time had come for something to be done.

I do not want to gild the lily, but in some areas it is not a laughing matter. The problem is greater in rural and industrial areas than elsewhere. Hence, we find that the very parts of Britain which suffered the dirt, grime, mining, steel working and textile working through the nineteenth century and helped to make Britain rich during that period today suffer from the speculative builder of that century. Are the present generation who live in those old houses to suffer until they die for the reason that if we were to do anything about it we would be helping the speculative builder of 50, 60 or 80 years ago?

In part of Kidsgrove, in my constituency, the local authority has for years tried to find an answer to the financial as well as the material problem of repairing the road. I could cite numerous personal cases. An old lady who was born in the street remembers it in her grandmother's day. She remembers promises galore being made 70 years ago about making up the street. At one time, local authorities in industrial areas could not afford it. They have a little more money today and they are trying to apply the best principles of the Government's 1959 Act.

As was pointed out in another place, the situation is anomalous. Before 1805, the rule was that whenever a public right of way was established, there was a public responsibility to maintain the right of way to a reasonable standard. Later enactments changed that situation, however, and today, as the hon. Member for Crosby said, we are working under two codes, those of 1875 and 1892. For fifty years, and especially since the 1930s, many Governments, no matter what their political colour, have expressed good intentions about the paving of unadopted roads and streets, but the streets which they have talked about are still unpaved.

In July, 1960, the hon. and gallant Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) asked a constructive Question—I do not know whether it was inspired—about a survey of private streets. In a long Answer, the Government said that they were more or less satisfied with the existing situation and did not believe that a fundamental change in the law was needed. In their circular to local authorities shortly afterwards, they might have shown that there were possibilities for a local authority to use new discretionary powers. Much more publicity should have been given so that ratepayers would have known about those discretionary powers and would have been aware of their rights.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) made the point quite clearly that in some rural areas the existence of unadopted streets means that people cannot have milk, bread and coal delivered, because the van and lorry drivers refuse to take supplies to their homes. This is a burden. Some of the streets in my constituency are unfit for a young mother to use when wheeling a perambulator. Anybody who is venturesome and likes exploring caves could do some potholing in these unadopted streets. There is a private road in Norton Green near Stoke-on-Trent on which the private builder will not allow anyone to have a telephone unless the cables are put underground.

If in the past ribbon development had been prevented many of these problems would not be with us today, but we are now concerned not with the past but with how to meet these problems constructively. Discretionary powers are given to local authorities to make up the streets, but how quickly are these powers used, and how are the authorities encouraged to use them? It behoves young people who buy houses to make certain of their legal position in relation to these roads. Despite the requirement of security from the builder in rural areas, under the 1959 Act, if a builder becomes bankrupt the onus and burden of making up the street can still fall on a young couple who have bought a house. This should be made clear in the conveyancing.

Section 40 of the 1936 Act enabled the best builders to make up a road to local authority specifications. The best developers—they were not all jerrybuilders—could spread that cost between themselves, the local authority and the householder. Unfortunately that provision was permissive. It should have been compulsory. Even Section 210 of the 1959 Act and other Sections mentioned by the hon. Member for Crosby can be evaded. Despite all this, the Minister thought on 27th March, 1961, that there were no grounds for making any change to the Act. The hon. Member for Crosby has made many well-informed points which I will not reiterate, but I should like to quote the nub of a policy statement made on behalf of the Government in another place on 7th February.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, speaking on behalf of the Government, said that there were about 54,000 private streets in England and Wales of a total length…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. He went on to say: Due to the initiative of a private Member in 1951, a short Bill was passed….It has since been absorbed into the consolidation Act on Highways in 1959, and is now better known as the Advance Payments Code. Summing up this interesting debate, the noble Lord said: At the beginning of my speech I referred to the survey carried put three years ago by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government", and he then read the following passage from a circular which had been sent to local authorities: 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… He concluded by saying: Therefore, my Lords, I would ask all local authorities to ponder the criticisms which have been made today, even though much of the criticism is not justified. The point is that strong criticism has been made, and there must be a reason for it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 7th February, 1963, Vol. 246 cc. 768–9, and 775.] We should go a little further than that. In Circular No. 11/61, distributed by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government on 27th March, 1961, the Minister pointed out that under this new highway code local authorities had greater discretionary powers than hitherto, and they were now in a position to ease the burden on old people and widows who were unable to afford the frontage, or sideage, or whatever phrase one uses. Local authorities were entitled to make this a charge on the estate of a deceased person if necessary, or to extend the period of payment to beyond thirty years. Is the Minister satisfied that these powers are being used to the full?

Some local authorities, such as those in Biddulph, Kidsgrove, Cheadle, and other parts of Stoke-on-Trent, are trying to do a good job, but because of the growing burden of costs there is a great outcry about an unnecessary burden being imposed on the rates.

One is tempted to develop the case at length, but I do not think that at this late hour the Minister will deny that both sides of the House have strongly criticised the present situation. The Minister may give me an answer similar to that given in another place, that no case has been made for a fundamental change of the law, but I hope he will agree that a case has been made for the Government to find a formula by which these old streets, and some new ones too, can be made up. It is no good asking who is to blame for what happened a century ago. Let us provide for the people living there now an environment which is decent, and of which they will be proud, and be inclined to keep beautiful and clean and tidy.

I am grateful to the Minister for being here at this late hour. I hope that some kind of answer will be given that will give hope to local authorities and encourage a new approach to this deadly problem that has been hanging over some of the older industrial areas and some of our rural communities for nearly a century.

1.0 a.m.

Mr. John Hollingworth (Birmingham, All Saints)

At this late hour I do not wish to take up the time of the House unnecessarily, but I want to confirm the point of view expressed by the hon. Members opposite and by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) from my own experience. I admit that I have no specialised knowledge of past legislation. What I do have is a considerable knowledge of the problems relating to this matter from my constituents. Many anomalies and cases of hardship are caused by the present situation. Coming down to brass tacks, I have substantial experience—as a small business man in an area where some unmade roads are situated—of the type of problems that arise.

In my constituency there are a number of relatively short unmade roads. Like the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies), I am not particularly interested in past history. I was rather fascinated by the reference of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) to the Rachman position, although in relation to this debate that is reasonably irrelevant. I hope that that sort of thing is now in the past. We have learnt our lesson, and the same consideration should apply to this sort of problem.

I have a small business which involves the delivery of certain commodities of substantial weight to various customers who live in an unmade road in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden). This may seem rather irrelevant and ludicrous at this time of night, but the amount of wear and tear on my vehicles in delivering to addresses in this unmade road is quite substantial. I am confident that it doubles the wear and tear factor.

When this matter was drawn to my attention quite properly by a non-constituent a long time ago I was interested to read about the Bill, placed before another House by a noble Lord, which I am sure is the debating reference point to which the hon. Member for Leek was referring. I hope that, irrespective of the many complications that must occur—and we appreciate the difficulties facing any Ministry under present circumstances—my hon. Friend will be able to throw some prospective light on what, to me, is another illustration of the way in which we have seemed to let something pass by. These properties were built, and these roads were produced, and for a number of long and complicated reasons people today are still having to suffer in a situation which is more applicable to the beginning of last century.

There are anomalies—my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby referred to some—and there are practical problems for the small trader. I hope that my hon. Friend, in replying, will deal with them.

1.5 a.m.

Sir Eric Errington (Aldershot)

I do not want at this late hour to elaborate too much on this important question. It is a very important question, increasingly so because over the years the amount of money required to make up private streets has increased and is increasing at a very considerable rate.

I know of a case where the cost immediately after the war would have been about £1,000, and it is now £6,000 or £7,000. It is urgent that these matters should be dealt with. A number of people are surprised when they find themselves likely to be liable for sums which they never dreamed of having to pay. In some cases their "frontage" is a misnomer; there is no way by which they can get to the road which they find they are responsible for making up.

In my opinion, a large degree of the trouble in these cases is that the legislation which has been passed has developed in three different ways in which the liabilities of the frontagers and the responsibility for heavy use which is sometimes made of these streets can be correlated so as to get a fair distribution of responsibility.

My feeling, and I shall be interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has to say about it, is that an extension of the third code, that is, the code relating to the advance payment which has been applied to date only when dealing with new housing, would provide a mortgage method, a charge method by which money could be raised without immediate repayment. If that could be applied to the other types of houses which normally come under the 1890 and the 1875 code we could do away with a great deal of hardship. These are points on which everyone who takes an interest in this subject would like to hear the comment of the Parliamentary Secretary.

1.8 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. F. V. Corfield)

The issue between my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme(Mr. Swingler), who introduced this subject, comes down to whether or not the burden should be borne nationally or locally.

The hon. Member said that where dangerous conditions exist his local authority, Staffordshire County Council, had stretched the lawa little to make the roads reasonably safe. I can assure him that the county council has not done any stretching of the law. It has powers to remedy dangerous conditions. It has power to do that by means of the general rate fund and it also has power to ask for contributions. It is entirely in the council's discretion. I understood from what the hon. Member said that the council had not attempted to place a charge on the frontagers in these cases. I should have thought that the House would accept that basically at least the administrative problem of getting the road made up and of deciding the priorities and malting the necessary arrangements, must be a local problem.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme asks for expedition in these matters, but we have to face the fact that at present a certain amount of overlapping, and a certain amount of complexity, arise from the fact that there are these two parallel codes, and the advance payment code which as it were straddles both of them. Under both the codes there is no necessity for the local authority to fear any great financial burden. The idea that progress is being held up for fear of a large burden on the rate seems to me to be misconceived. I grant that in certain cases, where there are poor districts, where the road may have been unmade since before the First World War, and the cost of making up the road has risen, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir E. Errington) said, out of all proportion to the original cost, the authority may well hold back rather than demand a substantial sum from frontagers who, almost by definition in that type of area, are not likely to be very wealthy. But the authority has the power to step in and to pay a proportion of the total cost out of the rates.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot that there may be hardship, but there are powers by which the whole or any proportion of the cost can be met at the discretion of the local authority.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme made the point that all these people were paying their rates and taxes—in respect of the proportion which goes to local roads—for other people's roads; but those roads were made up originally at the cost of those frontagers, and it was only when they had been made up to the standard required by the local authority that the public took over the expense of maintenance.

I hope that the House will face the fact that we are being asked to say that, because these other roads have been left for many years, sometimes for decades, the State should step in, even though other people have made up the roads for which they are responsible and yet others will do so as every new housing estate is developed. We must bear in mind that the 1951 Advance Payment Code, to which the hon. Member referred as curing this problem for the future, throws the cost on the householder. It can do this in one of two ways—on the ordinary basis of one of the two codes, in which case there will be an apportionment by the local authority if it is undertaking to make up the road with the agreement of the builder, or, if the builder puts down a deposit he will recover from the purchase price of the house—indeed it may be that he will add more to some houses and less to others in relation to the apparent advantage of the position of the house. However that may be, the money will come ultimately from the people who own and occupy the houses.

One has to question very carefully whether it would be just to take over the obligations of the backlog of people who have not carried out their obligations in the past, while leaving the same obligation with people who are developing houses currently and making no redress for those who have completed the work because they happen to have built more recently or to have had a more energetic local authority. There is a dilemma here. I suggest that it is not one which it would be fair to tackle on the lines that the country as a whole should make good these areas, bearing in mind that they are local problems. They have by definition been with the local authority for many years. The power has been there. If the problem has now become so much vaster, it is, at least in part, due to the dilatoriness of the local authorities in the past. Certainly since the beginning of the last century, and I think a good deal before that, local authorities—the municipalities at any rate—have been responsible for their local urban roads. To make out a case for a national subvention requires a rather stronger argument than we have heard today.

I remind the House that in the poorer areas, which by definition will be in receipt of rate deficiency grant, these contributions that local authorities make towards the making up of private roads rank for rate deficiency grant. Therefore, in the poorer areas there is a taxpayer's contribution. In some of the Welsh counties, for example, there are rate deficiency grants going up to over 70 per cent. of the local authority's expenditure. I do not know any of the figures offhand for the neighbour- hoods from which the hon. Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme and Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) come. In such areas a very substantial proportion is paid, although indirectly, by the taxpayer.

It is argued that, because these roads have not been made up, they have remained public highways and damage has been done to them by traffic which is not strictly serving the estates or houses concerned. This no doubt happens on occasions, but it was curious that nearly all the examples quoted—the milkman, the baker, and so on—were precisely those people who would be serving the areas concerned. I should have thought that the occasions on which any large amount of through traffic develops without the local authority making acontribution would be rare. That sort of factor would be taken into account by my right hon. Friend in any appeal decision where it is possible for him to do so.

Perhaps it would be wise for me to outline my right hon. Friend's position. The question of apportionment—that is, the division of the total cost amongst the various frontagers—is a matter in the first place for local authorities, with an appeal to the magistrates. If there can be an appeal to the magistrates on that, it rules out my right hon. Friend's jurisdiction. When the matter comes to him, he looks at each individual appeal to see whether there should be a reduction to make it more equitable but he is not able, unless all the frontagers on a road appeal, to reduce the apportionment or reduce the total contribution and make the local authority either pay some contribution or pay a bigger proportion. That is because each appeal must be looked at individually and, unless all frontagers appeal, the apportionment remains basically fixed.

My right hon. Friend is able to reduce the sum in individual cases where the benefit has clearly been over-estimated, and he is able to ensure that the local authorities use their discretionary power to spread the burden over a number of years. My hon.Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) rightly said that the maximum laid down in the Act is thirty years but that local authorities very seldom use their dis- cretionary powers to spread it over that period or any period near it. It must be borne in mind that often these sums are such that it would not make very much sense administratively to use that sort of period. In the last week or two more than one case has come my way where, after reduction by my right hon. Friend, the sum owing is about £50 or £60. To spread, say, £60 over 30 years, making a payment of £2 per year, is hardly worth keeping the ledger open for that length of time. It is reasonable in such circumstances to use six, seven or nine years as a period in which to make annual payments of from £6 to £10. I do not think it unreasonable to cut the period in such cases or reasonable to suggest that it should be extended to 30 years.

Mr. Graham Page

I can produce cases of property worth £2,000 or £3,000 where the charge has been £500 or £600. I recollect that in one case the charge was £600 against a widow who could not possibly find that amount, as a result of which she had to sell the property—simply because the sum was not spread over 30 years. I mention this to show that there are many cases involving not tens but hundreds of pounds.

Mr. Corfield

As far as I know—at any rate, since I have been at the Ministry—the type of case that has come to my right hon. Friend where it has seemed right to insist on a spread has been in the cost range I have mentioned. I was suggesting that in certain circumstances, when the total sum is in the neighbourhood of £60 to £70, it was more sensible to cut the period to six or seven years.

Sir E. Errington

Will my hon. Friend deal with the point I raised; that under the Advance Payments Code the money for the cost of the road-making can be reserved? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) that these amounts are sometimes large. They are getting heavier all the time and if there were a system by which the money could be charged against the houses, as under the Advance Payments Code, it would be of immense help. Myhon. Friend has been sympathetic to local authorities, but this is more a human than a local authority problem in many cases.

Mr. Corfield

I appreciate that, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will recall that he spoke last and that I have been trying to reply to the points in the order they were raised. I did not intend to neglect that matter. As I understand the Advance Payments Code, an estimate is made, usually about the time when planning permission is given, of the cost likely to be incurred in making up the roads. It can then be apportioned and in some cases a deposit is demanded from the individual householder; that is, if it is an estate that has been developed in individual plots to individual requirements. In other cases, a deposit is demanded from the builder. Where the builder is of known repute in the area, the local authority will often be prepared to rely on an agreement.

That having been done, particularly where the deposit is paid or where houses are sold subject to an agreement by the builder and, therefore, the amount of money is added to the cost of the houses, the bulk of the money is secured. But in the case of deposits—and I will write to my hon. Friend if I am wrong—I am fairly certain that a claim for the balance, if the estimate proved to be wrong, could still be made. I do not think that there is any truth in the belief that if the estimate is made, say, for £400 for a particular householder, that means that he is entirely relieved of any further liability if the costs work out at more.

It must also be remembered that the code has the great advantage that once a deposit has been paid a majority of the frontagers may demand that the local authority makes up their street at once. That means that we avoid the lapse of time to which my hon. Friend referred and during which the increasing costs get more and more out of proportion to the original cost of the value of the property, in the case of a very old property—

Mr. Harold Davies

Paragraph 6 of the Minister's Circular 11/61, dated 27th March, 1961, states that under Sections 181 and 264 of the Highways Act, 1959, the street works authority may recover the sum due by annual instalments, together with interest, over a period of up to 30 years, and says also that the debt can remain a charge on the property until it is recovered. There is nothing to stop a local authority waiting until the death of, say, an old widow, and then coming on to her heirs for the money. It would help if it were made more publicly known to those who might suffer, but the Minister seemed to indicate that 30 years was too long altogether, whereas, in the first case, the 1959 Act recognised the need for it.

Mr. Corfield

No, I was not suggesting that the period was too long, but that there were cases in which it would be stupid to use that length of period. But perhaps I may reserve my answer until later this morning, when I can take a little legal advice, because that is the Circular, not the Act, and I am by no means certain that the Circular would entitle one to have a period during which no instalments were paid. I think what the hon. Gentleman has in mind is that if there were, for the sake of argument £300 outstanding and a 30-year period were allowed, one would pay £10 per annum, but that one could have, per haps, 20 years during which no payments were made, and then payment made for 10 years at £30 per annum—

Mr. Harold Davies


Mr. Corfield

I should not like to give a spot answer now whether that is possible under the Act. I hear my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby, who knows a lot about this subject, saying that it is not, and I think that he is almost certainly correct.

I cannot give the hon. Member for Leek the percentage of cases going to appeal, because we do not keep a record of the total number of cases, but over the last few years we have had between 350 and 400 appeals, and in rather more than 1 in 4 cases some reduction—generally a reasonably substantial one—has been made. I therefore think that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby is a little unfair in saying that he can see no point in the appeal procedure, because there are many cases in which relief is given.

My hon. Friend the Member for Alders hot mentioned advance payments. I do not think there is any means by which we could adopt the advance payments code on an existing estate. Even if I am wrong in the interpretation I gave him just now, I do not think that under the present Act there is any means by which we could estimate the liability, or take a deposit, after the houses had been put up. However, I will look into that point. What normally happens is that the arrangement is made under the 1951 procedure, before the builder starts, and it would be difficult to do it on an existing estate because that would mean taking a purely arbitrary year on which to make the valuation. It might not raise great difficulties, but I should want to look at the question before I committed myself on those lines.

I am by no means certain that, even under the advance payments code, if it did so happen that a road was still not made up after thirty years and, when it came to be made up, the cost had risen, there would be no liability on the frontagers. But, of course, this does not normally happen because there is power for the frontagers to demand that it shall be made up, provided that a majority do so.

Basically, the problem is that if we made a mandatory national contribution we should in some cases be paying the costs which in other cases people have already paid themselves, and which people are daily paying, in respect of the roads on which their properties front. I appreciate that the cost of making up a road in front of an older property will nowadays be a much higher proportion of the value of the property than it would be in the case of a modern property, but the modern property, too, has to have the road at its frontage made up and the cost of so doing is high in monetary terms though lower as a proportion of the cost of the building.

Mr. Harold Davies

I know that it is late, and I hope that the Minister will not get irritated by my questions. Could not some formula be found for this purpose? The Ministry sends out a shilling booklet, through the Stationery Office advising engineers about the repairing of private streets. We do not want streets made up so that they will carry a 50-ton lorry. But, when I have approached local authorities and asked for something to be done—nothing special, but just putting the steam-roller over the road and really nothing more than that, for which, in any case, people would be only too grateful—the reply has been, "Yes, but if we do that, we shall then be regarded as liable for the road". Could not we have a little conjuring trick on the part of a constructive and kindly Minister, such as the hon. Gentleman who is now addressing us, to make it clear to local authorities that they can do this sort of work without there being complete liability—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

Order. I hope the hon. Gentleman will remember that we are not in Committee and that questions, although legitimate, must be short.

Mr. Corfield

I do not think that I have the magic wand which the hon. Gentleman wishes me to wave. There is the difficulty that, once the works are done, the street becomes the liability of the highway authority, and, naturally, the authority wants to ensure that the initial condition of the streets before it takes them over is such that they will not immediately require major maintenance in order to keep them to the necessary standard if they are to have any durability at all.

I appreciate the difficulties, and I entirely see the point that many householders would be only too pleased to have, so to speak, a temporary road; but we have to look at the matter from the point of view of the public particularly having regard to the point made by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme that we ought to contribute from the national Exchequer. That only heightens the desirability of ensuring that the job is well done.

At this time of night, it is only those who want to press a point who stay up, apart from the Minister. I am outnumbered. I can only say that I believe that the dilemma is much bigger than most hon. Members will admit. I have a good deal of sympathy with the people concerned, but I have absolutely no doubt that the condition of these roads and the liability in connection therewith are reflected in the valuation of the properties involved. It is suggested that we put public money straight into the hands of the ordinary private property owner. There may or may not be a case for that, but it would be a major departure, and, I suggest, an even greater departure for hon. Members opposite than for my hon. Friends.