Land (Use and Price)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th July 1960.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Hugh Gaitskell Mr Hugh Gaitskell , Leeds South 12:00 am, 18th July 1960

I shall not get into an argument with my hon. Friend about civic centres. I did mention Coventry and I shall not give a general list, but the Plymouth plan is also a fine one.

Equally, one must put on the credit list the establishment of National Parks, with the especially severe control of building which exists within them. Last, but not least, I would put on the credit side the 14 new towns, which have been built since the war. The new towns must be regarded as one of the great achievements of the post-war period. Socially, economically and architecturally they have been an outstanding success.

Having mentioned these items on the credit side, however, I must turn to the other side, where a most depressing picture appears, very different from the hopes of the war and of the early postwar period. First, despite the efforts that have been made to help the areas of heavy local unemployment in Scotland, Wales, and the North of England, the drift to the South of population and labour undoubtedly continues.

For instance, in 1949, the London and South-Eastern and and the Southern regions contained 30 per cent. of the population of Great Britain. By 1959, those three regions had accounted for half the country's total increase in population. The Midlands and the North Midlands regions had only 16 per cent. of the population in 1949, but by 1959 they had accounted for nearly one-quarter of the country's total increase in population. London and the Southern region and the Midlands between them had a net gain of 167,000 insured workers between 1951 and 1958, all at the expense of other regions.

I could go on with quotations of similar figures all showing the same tendency, but I will mention only one special point in this connection. It has been estimated that new office space approved by the L.C.C. between 1948 and 1958 provided employment for nearly 250,000 people in the central area alone, an increase of 25,000 office workers a year. In the first three months of this year, it is interesting to notice, The Times advertised just over 3 million sq. ft. of office space to lot, of which only 400,000 sq ft. was outside the central area. That gives a vivid picture of the magnetic attraction of the great conurbations of the Midlands and the South of England.

Secondly, planning or no planing, there is no denying that the red brick sprawl of these great concentrations of population in the Midlands and the South continues. We have green belts around the cities, but the building continues on the other side stretching further and further into the countryside, a slowly mounting tide which seems never-ending.

Thirdly, an appalling problem of traffic congestion has arisen in our major cities. More people are working in the centres of the large towns and, at the same time, more people are living on the peripheries. More people, going to their offices in the mornings and coming back in the evenings, are trying desperately to find a tolerable means of transport for getting there and back. Public transport is hideously overcrowded in the rush hours and private cars are jammed tight together, bumper to bumper, throughout the city. People spend more and more of their time travelling to work and correspondingly less of their time in leisure pursuits.

Fourthly, the redevelopment of our cities, and the city centres in particular, is not being properly planned and carried out by local councils. It is taking place piecemeal as private developers put up this building or that building, in many cases without serious regard to what a decent, planned development should be.

Indeed, for the most part the councils are helpless to stop this nowadays, because the costs of positive planning, or even of negative planning—the cost of acquisition, on the one side, and the cost of compensation for refusal of planning permission, on the other—are so enormouse that the councils cannot bear them.

Finally, there has been, especially in the last year or two, a sensational and shocking rise in the price of land, as a result of which huge fortunes have been made overnight for landowners and speculators at the expense of local councils and the public generally, who have to buy land at tremendously inflated prices.

I can think of no better way of vividly describing the situation with which we are now confronted than that taken from a leader of the Daily Mail on 21st June this year, which said: A crisis threatens our lovely land. It could be called a Crisis of Property.We all know it. We can all see it. How many people, watching the ever-growing flood of cars and the ever-shrinking space on which to use them, have said: 'A few more years and the whole lot will seize up.'This is but one aspect of the Crisis of Property. Another is the increasing urban migration into the country, the pressure of building space, the appalling rise in land values, the spread of subtopia…What is to be done? The remedy can be summed up in one word: Planning. Too many people, especially Conservatives, regard this as a dirty word and shy away from it. But it is time some real planning was done in Britain…The Government must also tackle the scandal of land prices. 'Betterment value' has become 'Scarcity value'. It is like food profiteering in a besieged town. The rights of property do not extend that far.The time is short. If action is not soon taken we shall be caught in a crowded, noisy, muddled subtopian trap of our own devising. And we shall never get out of it. For all this we hold the Tory Government, by their sins of omission and their sins of commission, entirely responsible. Of course, underlying social forces are at work. We all know that. The population is growing, and growing rather faster than we had assumed. There are fewer persons per house. Families are smaller. People have higher living standards and particularly higher dwelling standards—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Certainly. That is what we all expect. That is what we must provide for. There is a natural desire to own a house and a car, but it is for the Government so to control the influence of those changes that we do not have the muddle, the congestion, the ugliness and the speculation, but that, instead, we realise the high hopes of the war years.

The Government's failure to do this—nobody can deny that the picture I have given of what is happening today is true—can be traced to a doctrinaire dislike of State interference and planning, except in the most negative fashion, combined with determination in one respect only—to give back to private enterprise the right to own and to profit by community development.

What is the Minister's opinion of the situation which has now arisen? Is he satisfied? Does he feel that after his efforts and those of his predecessors we are now having the kind of town and country planning which he expected? Is he satisfied that we are building the kind of country which he wants to see? Does he think that it does not matter that the red brick sprawl goes on and subtopia goes on increasing? Is he satisfied with the colossal rise in land values and the private speculation that goes on? I hope that we shall have a clear explanation of what he feels about all this and whether he thinks that, after all, the legislation is not what it should have been.

If the right hon. Gentleman admits that things have gone wrong, at least that will be some advance, but, from what he has so far said, one cannot be very encouraged. All he has said is that there will be a firm line about the green belts and that they are not to be touched. He has said that we should build higher and that there should be more flats in the cities so as to reduce the pressure of demand for land in that way. However, he has also said that he has no intention of interfering with the so-called free market in land values.

I want to spend some time on the land-price scandal. I hope that the Minister is aware of the scale of this scandal—he should be from the amount of information which has poured out in the Press every day. I could give hundreds of examples, but I begin with a famous speech from the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Sir Basil Spence, who said: Our precious land, so beautiful and so small, has become a casino for the speculators, who are now clamouring to build in the green belts that surround our cities—less, one suspects, because they really want to solve the housing problem, than because there is a fortune to be made if the Minister of Housing and Local Government can be persuaded (and I hope he never will be) to relax his defences. Sir Basil went on: The speculators are cornering the limited supply of building land in town and country and holding the community up to ransom.The money that should be going into better architecture and higher standards is being taken by people who have contributed nothing to the building process. This has grown to the dimensions of a public scandal, and threatens to make good planning and city reconstruction prohibitively expensive. Let me give a few examples out of the many from which one could quote. Mr. Thomson, of the Southern Counties Federation of Building Trades Employers, said: In 1952, a reasonable price for an acre of land for housing development would be £1,500, now builders have to pay £8,000. There was the case of the half acre at Luton, which is said to have been sold for a £¼ million, a plot of land which, according to local surveyors, was bought pre-war for £10,000 to £15,000. There is the case of land bought for school building in Hampshire to which my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) referred earlier this year. In that case the rise in price was from £2,824 to £7,500.s

Another example is to be found in Maidstone. A total of 101 acres were sold for £47,700 on which planning permission for 35 houses had been granted, which meant that the cost of land per house was approximately £1,500.

Then there was the case of Middlesex. The Annual Report of the County Valuer for Middlesex said: The value of land in Middlesex has trebled since the Town and Country Planning Act, 1959. He then proceeded to give a number of examples, one of which I will mention in a moment or two.

There was the case of the estate of 64 acres, at Camberley. In 1958, this was sold for £25,000. In 1960, without any buildings on it, it was sold for £210,000. There was the case at Coventry where an acre of land was sold for £14,250. At Walsall, in Staffordshire, a site of 40 acres, wanted for a training college, would have cost £24,000 before the 1959 Act. It cost £240,000 afterwards.