HC Deb 25 June 1971 vol 819 cc1826-34

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Goodhew.]

1.46 p.m.

Mr. Robert Taylor (Croydon, North west)

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise on this Motion for the Adjournment the problem that has been created in my constituency by the refusal of the then Ministry of Transport and, later, the Department of the Environment to accept the implications of a blight notice which has been served upon it with respect of a property in my constituency known as No. 1, Acacia Road, Norbury.

No. 1, Acacia Road, Norbury, is an attractive, four-bedroomed property with a garage and garden situated in a quiet, residential cul-de-sac within three minutes' walk of Norbury Station and of a busy shopping thoroughfare. It is a most desirable propeny. It was occupied for many years by a family named Waycott. On 24th October, 1969, Mrs. Rose Waycott, the freeholder of the property, died. Her son, Mr. Ernest John Waycott, who also lives in Croydon, was appointed administrator of the estate and the sole legatee.

Very soon after his mother's death, he instructed a reputable firm of Croydon estate agents, Messrs. Deanes of Norbury, to offer the property for sale, and he accepted the firm's recommendation that the value of the property was £6,500. A considerable amount of interest was aroused in the sale because the property is in a very desirable situation. But, unfortunately, no firm offer ensued from the activity of the estate agents. The reason for that will be obvious when I point out that Acacia Road is likely to be demolished. Indeed, in July, 1969, it was made clear that Acacia Road would have to make way eventually for the northern terminal of the M23 motorway.

Because of the situation, Mr. Waycott instructed his agents to serve a blight notice on the Ministry of Transport requesting that negotiations for the purchase of the property should be opened forthwith. The notice was sent by recorded delivery on 27th February, 1970, and, with great speed, the Ministry of Transport replied by serving a counter-notice under Section 140(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1962, objecting to the blight notice on the ground that Mr. Waycott's interest in the property to which the blight notice related was not an interest qualifying for protection under Sections 138 to 151 of the 1962 Act because it was not the interest of an owner-occupier.

It was pointed out to Mr. Waycott's agents that it was possible for the Ministry to acquire the property if it could be shown that the owner would suffer very serious financial hardship by a refusal to purchase in advance of the Ministry's requirements. But the letter informing Mr. Waycott and his agents of this possibility also carried the specific warning that While it is agreed that there are varying degrees of hardship you may care to know that in the very few cases where blighted properties have been acquired under section 48 powers from non-occupying owners our enquiries have revealed that the owners were pensioners living in straitened circumstances". That is a very narrow definition, and it is a very full warning. Because of the warning, Mr. Waycott did not believe that it would be possible for him to make an application on the basis of severe hardship.

I came on the scene of this problem after my election in June last year. I entered into correspondence with the Department for the Environment and I received a similar reply to that which had been sent as a result of the original blight notice. I was also told that it is the general policy to acquire property needed for roadworks only when works are imminent. i.e., when a date for the start of works has been finally fixed ". The date of that letter from the Department to me was 16th December, 1970.

As far as I am aware, no date has yet been fixed for the commencement of the roadworks for the northern terminal of the M23. That means that I can give Mr. Waycott no indication of the date when the Government will be prepared to acquire the property and that, as he has no possibility of selling the property on the open market, until that date is known the property is likely to deteriorate, to the great inconvenience and annoyance of the adjoining owners.

A great question of principle is involved here. This is an example of an individual suffering considerably as a result of Government intention—not even of Government action—and he has no opportunity to correct the situation unless I raise the matter on his behalf in the House.

I appreciate the problems which the Government face, and I realise that if the question of owner-occupation is not proved and financial hardship is not proved a vast amount of public money may be involved. But I still believe that the right of the individual is more important than the rule. I have always understood this to be a fundamental principle of the Conservative Party. I therefore raise the matter because I believe that a grave injustice has been done, continues to be done and may be done for a number of years to come unless the law is changed.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be able to tell me that this matter is under urgent review. While I cannot expect the intention of the law to be flouted for a single exception, I hope he will give me the opportunity to indicate to Mr. Waycott that this subject is having the urgent attention of the Government and that they consider that the Town and Country Planning Act, 1962, is working most unfairly in many respects and, in particular, in respect of Mr. Waycott.

1.57 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Robert Taylor), not for the first time, has done a service to his constituent, his area of London and the House in raising this matter concerning Mr. Waycott's difficulties and in widening his remarks to take in the general principle with which he dealt towards the end of his speech. I congratulate him on the way in which he outlined, very fairly and succinctly, the history of this worrying case and on the very moderate and effective way in which he not only presented the interests of his constituent but outlined the need for reforms in our arrangements for compensating people who are disturbed in this way.

I think it right to make clear that the question of the advance acquisition of this property at No. 1 Acacia Road is still open. Mr. Waycott, I am afraid, does not fall within those categories of property owners to whom Parliament has given a statutory right to have their property purchased in advance of need for the purpose of public works. But it has been explained, both to Mr. Waycott and in correspondence with my hon. Friend, that if Mr. Waycott can and will show evidence that he is suffering severe financial hardship necessitating the sale of the property, then my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, under his general discretionary powers to acquire property for highway purposes, would be able to consider purchase of this property. Obviously my hon. Friend would not expect me to give any commitment as to what decision my right hon. Friend might reach in the event of Mr. Waycott making such an application. If my hon. Friend's constituent is willing to submit such evidence, we will treat it on its merits.

I will quickly dispose of the form of words which my hon. Friend read from the letter sent by my Department. I cannot remember the exact phrases, but my hon. Friend's implication was that we were, as it were, confining cases where financial hardship would be admissible to the cases of widows in straitened circumstances. It may well be that that form of words was used, but I assure my hon. Friend that we are in no sense confining the help to those who fall into that category. On the contrary, we will look at the matter broadly in terms of "suffering severe financial hardship necessitating sale of the property."

I want now to deal with the matter in a little more detail and bring out some of the principles underlining these matters.

To begin with, there is no dispute, and there can be no dispute, that the property as such is blighted—that is, it has been shown on a plan published by the former Minister of Transport in the previous Government to be affected by the proposed northern terminal of the M23. I accept without any argument that as such the property is not saleable. The plans in question were published in July, 1969, but, as my hon. Friend will know, these plans provoked considerable objection and controversy.

Parliament has rightly laid down that where there are objections to plans of this kind the statutory procedures for consultations and for providing an opportunity for people to object and to have their opinions taken into account must be followed.

The then Minister of Transport announced in December, 1969 that a review of the proposals would be put in hand to take account of objections and various other changes. Regrettably, these are very complicated and difficult questions and, because of such things as the Greater London Development Plan Inquiry and the whole question of roads which may be built in this area, the review has not even now been completed, and I am advised that it may still take some time before it is completed. Therefore, I regret that I am not able to say today when this property will be compulsorily acquired for highway purposes. I accept at once, as my hon. Friend has quite properly said, that this is a very unfortunate situation for people such as Mr. Waycott caught in that position.

I fully appreciate that the ownership of an unsaleable property is a responsibility—some might say a cross—which most people would prefer not to bear. However, the Town and Country Planning Aots, which govern the right to serve blight notices requiring advance purchase, do not provide that all owners of such properties shall have a right to require my right hon. Friend or other authorities to purchase such properties. These Acts, as subsequently amended by the 1968 Act, do not provide that all should be so compensated; they lay down a number of conditions which have to be fulfilled so that a blight notice can be served.

There can be no question but that the conditions governing the classes of property in respect of which such notices can be served are fully met in the case of No. 1 Acacia Road. However, the law as it stands also prescribes criteria which have to be met, not only in respect of the classes of property but also in respect of the classes of ownership. Only certain specified classes of property owners are entitled to serve blight notices, and, broadly speaking, these are owner-occupiers and mortgagees. They do not include absentee owners or, for example, investment owners.

When Mr. Waycott served his blight notice on the Department in March, 1970, he claimed to be able to meet the criterion of owner-occupier. In fact, he had come into the ownership of this property by inheritance from his mother who had died in the previous October.

Mr. Robert Taylor

I am certain that Mr. Waycott had no intention of misleading the Ministry. This was inadvertent; it was a question of incorrectly filling up the necessary blight notice. It was not Mr. Waycott's intention to suggest that he was an owner-occupier when he was not.

Mr. Griffiths

I accept what my hon. Friend has said on behalf of Mr. Waycott. It may well be that Mr. Waycott would not put forward his blight notice in any other way than by filling up the necessary form suggesting that he was an owner-occupier. The fact remains that there was no evidence that Mr. Waycott himself has occupied the property since the death of his mother, and certainly not for the requisite period laid down in the Statute.

Although, therefore, Mr. Waycott is the owner of the property, he cannot be construed as being the owner-occupier. This is what the law says. As such, I am afraid that he is fairly and squarely outside the classes of person to whom the blight provisions of the Town and Country Planning Acts apply. As such, he is not entitled, as the law stands, to serve a blight notice. That is why the former Ministry of Transport had no option, in these circumstances, except to serve the counter notice refusing acceptance of Mr. Waycott's blight notice. This was done in April, 1970.

It is relevant at this point to remind the House that when the Town and Country Planning Act, 1968, was passed through the House an Amendment was moved by one of my hon. Friends and supported by my hon. Friend who is now the Minister concerned, which would have had the effect of extending the right to require advance purchase of property by service of a blight notice to beneficiaries. Such a provision, if accepted, would have brought people like Mr. Waycott within the scope of the blight provisions and entitled them to require purchase.

My hon. Friend mentioned the views of the Conservative Party. They were expressed by my hon. Friends in Committee on the 1968 Bill, but I regret that that Amendment was not accepted. That is the present position. Therefore, as the law stands, the simple fact is that Mr. Waycott is not covered. As my hon. Friend is aware, it would not be appropriate, and I doubt whether you, Mr. Speaker, would allow it, in a debate such as this to discuss the merits of amending legislation.

However, in pursuance of the pledges we gave at the last General Election, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has ordered a comprehensive review of the whole code of compensation and, indeed, of all of the anomalies and unfairnesses which exist. When we took office work was already going on in this respect, but we came to the conclusion that that work was unsatisfactory. It was not going far enough, it was not going fast enough.

The Secretary of State, therefore, instructed officials within the Department to go ahead more rapidly and to broaden the review to take in the very many anomalies and inequities which exist not only in cases of this kind but in many others as well. I assure the House that this review is now going ahead with all speed, and the Secretary of State has announced his intention, as soon as it is ready and it has been possible for him and his colleagues to take decisions on this matter, to publish a White Paper setting out the details of the Government's proposals in this matter. He has also said—I think it was in the House—that he hopes to introduce legislation following up that White Paper at the earliest possible date.

So on the point of principle, and it is a very real one, I can assure my hon. Friend that this Government are fully aware of the inequities and the anomalies and, indeed, the injustices which do occur when motorways or many other public works are required to be built and blight or injurious affection is placed upon private citizens' property. We are well aware of this, and we are undertaking action to remedy as many of the anomalies as we can, but I am bound, as indeed is my right hon. Friend, as things stand, by the law as Parliament has made it.

As I said at the beginning, as far as Mr. Waycott is concerned, he still has opportunity which, so far as I am aware, he has not taken up, to offer evidence that his inability to sell his property is causing him severe financial hardship. I do not know whether this is so or not, obviously, but invitations both from my officials and from my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock (Mr. Michael Heseltine) have been put to Mr. Waycott and his representatives, and also to my hon. Friend on his behalf.

To sum up, the position is as follows. Under Section 48 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1959, my right hon. Friend is permitted at his discretion to purchase properties not immediately required for highway purposes. My right hon. Friend is not unwilling to exercise these powers in respect of properties like Mr. Waycott's which are affected by blight, but only where an owner is in a position to demonstrate, as I have said, that he needs an immediate sale because he is suffering severe financial hardship. If Mr. Waycott can show that this is so, then his case will be looked at sympathetically but unless such hardship can be shown I am afraid that we would not be justified in using public funds to purchase his property, as the law now stands.

To conclude, my hon. Friend has enumerated a point of principle which the Government have pledged themselves to deal with. I cannot say to him that the conclusions of my right hon. Friend's review will necessarily cover every particular case of the kind my hon. Friend has in mind. I cannot, because I do not yet know what that review will throw up or what conclusions the Government will reach upon it, but my hon. Friend has illuminated an injustice in principle which requires to be set right, and it is certainly this Government's intention to do so as soon as we are able.

Mr. Robert Taylor

May I please express my thanks to my hon. Friend for what I consider to be a very encouraging reply?

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Two o'clock.