Orders of the Day — Land, Heald Green (Requisitioning)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd August 1965.

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

11.48 p.m.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir Walter Bromley-Davenport Lieut-Colonel Sir Walter Bromley-Davenport , Knutsford

The case to which I wish to refer tonight is a classic example of how a Government, whatever their colour, can, merely through carelessness or inefficiency, inflict gross injustice on an individual, and without any remedy or compensation being available to that person.

The case is that of Mrs. Johnson, a widow, whose late husband was the former owner of about 6½ acres at Heald Green, in Cheshire, which was requisitioned by the Air Ministry at the beginning of the war. After paying rental compensation for this requisitioned land for nearly 20 years at the rate of £34 a year, the Air Ministry took steps in 1958 to acquire it by compulsory purchase. The price paid, which was determined under the appropriate procedure, amounted to about £1,900. Mrs. Johnson's husband, who was then alive, had no alternative but to accept that sum, and the sale was completed in July, 1959.

The land was used by the Air Ministry to house a maintenance unit, but it seems that at the time it insisted on the compulsory purchase it had very little use for it, and, indeed, only 10 months later, on 25th May, 1950, the Ministry informed Mr. Johnson that owing to a change of policy it no longer required the property, and it went on to state that after the removal of its assets the land would be available for sale at open market value. The Ministry inquired whether Mr. Johnson would be interested in reacquiring it, in other words, in buying back his own land which he had been forced to sell earlier, for about £2,000.

All this was admittedly in accordance with the procedure laid down after the Crichel Down case in 1954, but, as will appear after, what happened subsequently there was so much delay and inefficiency in making the land available for repurchase by Mr. Johnson that Mrs. Johnson, who lost her husband, has suffered grave injustice, as I shall now proceed to show.

When the Air Ministry informed Mr. Johnson that it had no further need for the 6½ acres which it had compulsorily purchased only 10 months previously, he made it quite clear that he wished to repurchase the land subject to a reasonable price being agreed. The Air Ministry replied, very appropriately, that this would have to be decided by the district valuer, but from then onwards intolerable delays occurred.

In July, 1960, the Air Ministry informed Mr. Johnson that although it was arranging for the sale of the assets on the land to take place on 21st July that year, it did not know when it would be able to forward instructions to the district valuer. The only consolation that the Ministry could give was that it would certainly not be less than three years from then. It seems to me quite incredible that such a delay should have been contemplated at that time, if, as the Ministry said, the property would be available as soon as the assets thereon had been disposed of, and when it had arranged for that sale to take place on 21st July, 1960.

However, it is surely an elementary principle that when real estate is offered by one party to another and the latter accepts at a price to be agreed on, in other words, at open market value, the value should be assessed at the date of offer of acceptance. Continued correspondence took place between Mr. Johnson and the Air Ministry between the middle of 1960 and the middle of 1962, when the Air Ministry informed him that at long last the land had been cleared of assets and was available for disposal. It added that it had to forward the necessary details to the district valuer within the next few weeks. It was not until more than a year later—in May, 1963—that the district valuer first communicated with Mr. Johnson's representative with regard to planning permission for any use which he might have in mind for the land which he wished to repurchase.

Then, in August, 1963, the district valuer came out with a price that he was prepared to recommend, namely, the sum of £25,000—more than 13 times the price which had been paid for the land to Mr. Johnson four years previously. Naturally, Mr. Johnson was unable to agree that this was a fair price for him to pay, seeing that he had agreed to take back the land in 1960, when its value approximated far more closely to the sum that he had been paid for it in 1959—about £1,900. But the only response that came from the district valuer was a communication, two months later, on 2nd October, 1963, in which he said that the price was no longer £25,000 but £35,000.

Can one imagine such cruelty? I did not know that people could behave like this. This was a jump of £10,000 in two months. Such ruthless action is scarcely believable. It is hardly surprising that Mr. Johnson informed the district valuer that the price was wholly unacceptable to him, since its magnitude was due only to the endless procrastination of the Air Ministry and the district valuer in dealing with the matter.

Perhaps I may recapitulate this disgraceful story. In 1939, the Air Ministry requisitioned this property and paid a yearly rental of £34. In 1959, the Ministry acquired the land for roughly £1,900. Ten months later, in May, 1960, it stated that the land was no longer required by it, and my constituent replied that he was willing to repurchase and asked what the price was. Endless bureaucratic delays occurred, and over three years later the property was offered back for £25,000. After Mr. Johnson had protested at this figure, two months later the district valuer raised the amount by £10,000, to a total of £35,000, or 19 times the amount originally paid.

This is legal robbery on the grand scale, and robbery of a helpless widow. It took the Ministry 20 years to decide whether or not it wanted to purchase the property, and having purchased it by compulsory powers—my constituent was forced to sell—it took 10 months to decide that it did not want it after all, and it then took three years to decide to offer back the land at nearly 20 times the original price—in other words, a jump from £1,900 to £35,000.

Every day, in this wicked old world of ours, injustice is done to the citizen in the name of the law. Because it is the law, sheer robbery like this is justified. No decent man or woman would approve of such conduct. All that this Government and previous Governments have done is to carry out the law of the land.

But the whole point is that this would never have happened but for the endless bureaucratic delays, which were no fault of my constituent. I heard this morning from the Minister that the property is now being sold to the Cheadle and Gatley Urban District Council for £35,000. Has the Minister no power to help my unfortunate constituent? It is treatment like this which drove the unfortunate Mr. Pilgrim to take his own life. It is when people are old and lonely that they are sometimes driven to suicide, when they are brooding over such treatment as this.

The Ministry made a profit of about £33,000. Is there no compromise? Surely, the Air Ministry, with its vast resources and power, might at least share some of the profit which has arisen through this perfectly legal but shabby and cruel transaction with this unfortunate widow?

12.2 a.m.

Photo of Mr Gerald Reynolds Mr Gerald Reynolds , Islington North

The hon. and gallant Member for Knutsford (Sir W. Bromley-Davenport) has made a damning indictment of what happened in regard to town and country planning and land prices under the Administration which he supported from these benches for 13 years, from 1951 until October of last year. It is what happened then which accounts for the complaint which he is making.

I thought that the hon. and gallant Member was a little unfair in comparing this case with the Pilgrim case, which was a different kettle of fish, that of a man who bought a piece of land without realising his position. This case was different, in that the owner was compensated for a piece of land which was taken from her for a particular purpose.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman said that the Ministry made a profit of £33,000 out of this deal. His real contention is that his constituent ought to have been allowed to make a profit of £33,000, that that would have been all right. But, because of the state of the land and what has happened in the last 13 years and the dates involved in this, the Ministry has made a profit. He would have been satisfied if his constituent had made it. I must tell him that there is nothing which can be done under the law as it stands to split the profit, which was his proposal.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman went through the details of the acquisition and subsequent disposal of the land at Heald Green. So far as the Service Departments are concerned, there will be a need for continual reappraisal of our land holdings and the use which we make of them over the years. From time to time, there will be the acquisition of some land for a particular purpose and, from time to time, in changed circumstances, there will be disposal of land at present held by the Service Departments, because we must keep our land holdings in step with changing defence needs. At the same time, we must release such land as we can, which is not required for strictly Service uses, for development, housing and other purposes.

The Prime Minister said last week that a White Paper on land policy will be produced in the next few weeks and that a Bill will be brought before the House after the Summer Recess, so I do not want to say anything about future policy, except, clearly and definitely, to make the point that it is the policy of the present Administration that land values, which are created by the community, must, when the property is sold, accrue to the benefit of the community as a whole. That point will be dealt with in greater detail in the White Paper and the legislation with which we shall be dealing after the Recess.

Mrs. Johnson, the hon. Member's constituent had, as he has said, 6·6 acres of land requisitioned—together with 25 other holdings of land ranging in size from half an acre to 100 acres requisitioned during the war for the erection of the R.A.F. station at Handforth. A total of about 350 acres was taken over at that time. But the previous Administration found themselves in an awkward position as December, 1960, approached, because in accordance with the statements in 1951 of Sir Winston Churchill, the then Leader of the Opposition, and then of the Government, that his intention was to set the people free—a sentiment which the hon. and gallant Member at that time no doubt wholeheartedly supported—part of that setting free process was to get rid of powers of requisition which the Defence Departments then had.

The then Air Ministry knew that it would need to have this station continuing in use after December, 1960, but, knowing that its powers of requisition would disappear at that date, it had no option but to negotiate for the compulsory purchase of that area. Had the hon. and gallant Member not been quite so keen at that time to set the people free in that way it is quite possible that the Air Ministry would never have had to compulsory purchase that piece of land, but, because of the circumstances of that time it had no option but to use its powers to purchase the land. As the hon. and gallant Member has said, the land was purchased by the former Air Ministry in July, 1959, for £1,892.

The notice to treat for that sum was served in March, 1958, and the £1,892 purchase price represented the existing use value of the property at the time; that is, agricultural use value plus the development value assessed under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947. Here, Mrs. Johnson was rather unfortunate, because had the notice to treat been served after 29th October, 1958, the Town and Country Planning Act, 1959, would have applied, and she would not have had the benefit of the development value under the 1947 Act, but the benefit of increases in the value of the land to the time of acquisition in 1958. Unfortunately, the Town and Country Planning Act, 1959, fixed that date of 29th October, 1958, and presumably the Government which the hon. and gallant Member supported had some particular reason for fixing that date. But the notice to treat having been served before that date, nothing could, or can, be done in a retrospective form.

The Air Force station closed in January, 1960, when the site was offered back to the former owner, in May, 1960. But it was made clear then that the actual site could not be released until it had been cleared of all the buildings, huts and equipment that were on it, and which had to be sold or removed. The hon. and gallant Member severely criticised the Air Ministry for taking such a long time, and said that because of the bureaucratic process of the Ministry it was unable to clear the land until November, 1962. It is not for me to defend his right hon. and hon. Friends who were in office then, but having looked at the matter it seems to me that the Department went as fast as it was able to clear the land and make it ready for disposal—because the land could not be disposed of until it had been cleared of the buildings and other equipment then on it. So, up to November, 1962, there was, I admit a delay. I think that the delay was justified. I do not think that there was any other option but to deal with the matter in that way at that time.

But there was delay by the former owner of the land. Having been informed in November, 1962, that the Ministry was ready to negotiate, there was some delay by the former owner—I do not know the reason for the delay, and I do not criticise—in appointing a surveyor to negotiate with the district valuer and the Air Ministry on the price to be paid for the land. There was a gap between November, 1962, and something like May or June, 1963, which I do not accept was due to the Air Ministry. The hon. and gallant Member may, perhaps, criticise the Department for the period to 1962, but I cannot accept his criticism in respect of the period after that.

In August, 1963, the district valuer fixed the value at £25,000, and an offer was made to the former owner, but we could not get acceptance of that offer. As the hon. and gallant Member has said, time dragged on to October, 1963, by which time, under the previous Administration, the value of the land had jumped from £25,000 to £35,000. The hon. and gallant Member ought not to be surprised at that. Any member of a local authority or any private purchaser would have been aware of the trend in the price of land at that time, which was entirely due to the policies of the former Administration. They created a completely free market in land, and the increase in the value of the piece of land with which we are concerned here was a direct result of that. I think that the hon. and gallant Member would have been justified in criticising the Air Ministry had it not raised its offer to take account of the increased value, which was partly the general one and partly due to the planning permission which had been given.

At that time, the owner of another piece of land on that airfield was offered the return of his land for £15,000. He accepted it and, within a matter of days, he sold it to a developer for £16,000. I do not think that the district valuer's conception of the value of that land was far out, because one owner bought it for £15,000 and sold it within a few days for £16,000, thus making a profit of £1,000. The hon. and gallant Member would be on better ground if he criticised the district valuer for undervaluing the land by £1,000, rather than supporting his constituent.

We come, then, to the 24th October, 1963, when the district valuer had to report to the Air Ministry that he was making no progress and could not agree a price with the former owner. So there was a period of 11 months with no progress at all. In February, 1964, it was decided by the previous Administration to put up the land for auction, after correspondence with the former owner, and the hon. and gallant Member was informed of that decision by the Under-Secretary of State for Air.

The main difference that has occurred since October, 1964, is that, acting in accordance with the policy of the present Administration, as the urban district council has intimated its desire to buy, we have agreed to sell by private treaty, whereas it was the former practice to insist that a local authority should go to a public auction and bid for a property. We are selling the land to the urban district council for £35,000. It was made perfectly clear that the former Air Ministry purchased a piece of agricultural land for £1,892, and I have heard no complaint about the price paid. As I say, we purchased a piece of agricultural land, but we are now selling a piece of land on which planning permission has been given for the erection of housing.

Due to the policy of the Administration which the hon. and gallant Member supported for 13 years, the value of that housing land is now £35,000. If we had sold it to anyone, either the former owner or anyone else, at under the true value, we should have enabled that purchaser to go straight out and sell it to someone else for the market price, and so make a very large capital profit for no effort whatsoever.

The Government believe that increases in the value of land which have been mainly created by the community should accrue to the community as a whole, whereas the hon. and gallant Member is saying that he thinks that the profit or some of it, ought to accrue to his constituent.

In view of what has been agreed, we have decided to sell the land to the council. It will be used for the provision of housing accommodation for Manchester's overspill. It will be used to the best value of the community, and the community will make good use of it. What the hon. and gallant Member is saying is that his constituent should be able to make a capital profit out of it. I am sorry, but I cannot accept the view that he has put forward. I am satisfied that my predecessors in the former Administration acted quite honourably and properly, and that there was no undue delay. I am sorry. I cannot help in any way.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.