HL Deb 20 January 1959 vol 213 cc563-6

3.15 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I do not think I need keep your Lordships very long in moving the Second Reading of this Bill. It is a straightforward Bill, and its purpose is to vest in my right honourable friend the Postmaster General certain deep-level chambers which were constructed under the Emergency Powers. The Bill, therefore, should really be regarded as part of the process of making possible the elimination of the emergency legislation relating to land, of which we have already had the Land Powers Defence Act and Opencast Coal Act as major measures. The only reason why this Bill was not presented last year with the others is that it was not possible to complete all the necessary preparations for it in the time. It is a Hybrid Bill and therefore, by Standing Orders, plans and a book of reference had to be deposited in this House and with the local authorities and Government Departments concerned by 20th November. Notices had to be published in the Press and served on the individuals affected. To compile the book of reference meant approaching each of between 400 and 500 owners, lessees and occupiers of the surface properties under which our works are constructed, so that they will have a proper opportunity to see how they are affected by the Bill, and, of course, to object to it if they so wish. I have arranged, for your Lordships convenience, for a copy of the book of reference and of the plans to be in the Library.

I must say a word about the works. Shortly after the war small underground shelters which had been constructed mainly in the borough of Holborn for the Ministry of Home Security were taken over by the Post Office. They were extended and they were adapted. In 1953 similar works were begun in Manchester and in Birmingham. All these works are now complete, and consist of underground rooms with connecting passages more than fifty feet below the surface of the ground. They are used for essential Post Office purposes. They have a number of access and service shafts, but those all come out in surface property which the Post Office either owns or in which it has acquired the necessary interest. There is therefore no surface property to be vested under this Bill, but simply these deep underground works. Their extent, of course, is marked on the plans to which I have referred.

The Bill itself is quite short. Clause 1 vests in the Postmaster General the works which I have been talking about, except, of course, those parts in which he already holds an estate or interest. Clause 2 deals with compensation and provides that the Postmaster General shall not pay compensation for the subsoil vested in him by this Bill. If, however, at any time there is any subsidence in surface properties above these works which is caused by their falling in or not being kept watertight there will be a liability on the Post Office to pay damages. The tunnels are very deep and I do not think this is a very likely occurrence, but the clause follows the pattern of Section 5 of the Underground Works (London) Act, 1956. Clause 3 arises from the rather complicated origins of the London works. Subsection (1) safeguards the rights of the British Transport Commission in relation to points of junction of their works with our works. Subsection (2) saves certain agreements between the various Ministries, the London Passenger Transport Board and the British Transport Commission. Clause 4 is financial.

There is also one more point that I must mention. I said that these works are very deep below the surface, and that normally building operations above them will not be affected by their existence. It is possible, however, in these days for multi-storey modern buildings to have foundations going down perhaps forty or fifty feet. If this should happen, there might be some risk, unless precautions were taken, to the stability of the buildings themselves, as well as to the safety of the Post Office works and their contents. There is nothing in the Bill to guard against this eventuality, but I understand that it is the intention of my right honourable friend, after the passage of the Bill, to ask the Minister of Housing to issue a direction under Article 9 (3) of the Town and Country Planning (General Development) Order, 1950, to ensure that he is consulted about building in the vicinity of the works. This direction would not have the effect of restricting development of the surface property but would simply require the local planning authority to consult with the Post Office before reaching a decision on any application. That is the normal procedure followed by the Ministry of Housing to safeguard public interest when development is proposed in the vicinity of such things as explosives depôts, airfields, and so on, simply by making sure that the appropriate department is consulted. As I say, the direction would not restrict the right of surface owners to develop their properly. I thought it right to draw your Lordships' attention to this point as it is related to the purposes of the Bill. I do not think there is anything more I need say, and therefore I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Chesham.)

3.24 p.m.


My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, for the clear explanation he has given of a Bill which at first sight would seem to lead a layman into all kinds of channelled thoughts. I think the position simply is that we have to pass this Bill in order to ensure that the Post Office side of this matter is properly carried out. Some of us who during the war, in our Service connections, were vitally interested in some of the properties that are now taken over by the Post Office, are happy that they should be so vested. It is essential that they should be maintained and should be put to equally good use in the future as they were put then. We hope that the use to which they will now be put by the Post Office will lead to increasing efficiency and economy in the Services.


My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Viscount for what he has said.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him a question on one point? He said that modern multi-storey buildings might require foundations going down to near the depth of these works. He has said that in such a case a developer would not be restricted in developing the surface land. But if such a building does require stronger foundations, owing to the presence of these works underground, who would pay?


My Lords, perhaps I did not make myself entirely clear on that point. I was trying to explain that it was preferable to have this method of direction whereby any applications for work—over the top—should be the subject of consultation with the Post Office. We did not wish to stultify development overhead, as it were, which one could not do in any other way. What is really intended is that in such odd cases as there may be where such buildings are intended, following consultations it might be found that the foundations could easily be moved, or a shore put in, or something like that, which would make everything safe. If, on the other hand, the scheme was such (I do not know whether the noble Earl wants me to go into great detail) that the development had to be prevented, then in certain normal cases the compensation clauses under the Town and Country Planning Acts would apply, and of course the Post Office would be responsible for indemnifying the Department concerned.


My Lords, I do not want to keep the House from the far more exciting business of the Deer (Scotland) Bill, but Clause 2 looks a little obscure. I give the noble Lord notice that I should like to look at it again to see whether any Amendment is called for to make it clearer than it appears to be at this moment.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and referred to a Select Committee.