I do not. wish to detain the House unnecessarily at this late hour, but the matter that I wish to raise is important to individual rights and personal freedom. I wish to, speak about the procedure relating to compensation for development land and the unfair and unsatisfactory way in which it is administered. It concerns particularly the Land Compensation Act 1973, the White Paper "Development and Compensation—Putting People First" and the Land Compensation Code entitled "Your Home and Compulsory Purchase".
I maintain that in the case that I am raising the objectives of these measures have not been reached. I refer to the River Mole flood alleviation scheme. This secheme was introduced after the disastrous floods in my constituency in 1968 along the River Mole, the River Thames and the River Ember. They were almost repeated and a disaster only narrowly avoided in October 1974.
The flood alleviation scheme was introduced through the efforts of my predecessor and myself and as a result of great pressure from constituents after the floods. I am very much in favour of the scheme, because it is a much-needed measure to prevent a similar disaster.
The scheme was the subject of the last Adjournment debate that I initiated and I should like tonight to examine the other side of the coin—the injury to those victims who may be subject to what is called desirable developments. Although the White Paper to which I referred was introduced by a Conservative Government, I believe that its provisions are supported by the present Government.
The White Paper makes several important points. There is to be a "new approach" on the quality of everyday life, and it adds:
… a balance must constantly be struck between the overriding duty of the State to ensure that essential developments are undertaken for the benefit of the whole community and the no less compelling need to protect the interests of those whose personal rights or private property may be injured in the process.
This dilemma is at the heart of contemporary political debate. Sometimes the State is seen as playing the role of a juggernaut, putting roads before homes, riding rough shod over the rights of individual citizens.
It is a conflict of right with right—the public's undoubted right to have a new road
or school or waterworks and the private person's right to enjoy his home and garden. undisturbed.
The opening part, which sets out the purpose of the White Paper, concludes:
The Government believe the time has come when all concerned with development must aim to achieve a better balance between provision for the community as a whole and the mitigation of harmful effects on the individual citizen. In recent years this balance in too many cases has been tipped again the interests of the individual. A better deal is now required for those who suffer from desirable community developments.
I am certainly not unmindful of the expense of compensation where houses and land have to be taken for development purposes. Indeed, the White Paper says that the measures it foreshadows will mean that some kinds of development will cost more. That, of course, we all must accept. But I believe that proper compensation for individuals should not be sacrificed to the particular economic expediency of the day. We are going through a difficult time in the economic climate, but that does not undermine the principle that the individual must get proper compensation for what he or she will lose.
In a nutshell, my constituent, Miss K. Lechner, has her home on the banks of the River Ember and it has been there for 33 years. To her it is not just a bungalow; it is Home Sweet Home. Miss Lechner has her every comfort and a nice garden, and there she is perfectly content and happy. But this particular property is required by the Thames Water Authority for the flood alleviation scheme. That means taking the whole of this property.
One of the decisions that I contest is that no compensation is being given for her home but only for the land on which it stands, and that land comprises about 550 square yards. The reason why no compensation is being given to her for her home is that many years ago, in 1951, her home was graded as "unsuitable for human habitation."
The story is that Miss Lechner, who is an elderly lady, acquired this 560 square yards' plot in 1943. Her intention was to build a bungalow, but that was not approved by the local authority because of the danger of flood. She then raised the level by six feet, but that was not approved because the carriageway, the short lane leading to the house, was only eight feet wide. There was a caravan standing on the site and she replaced it by a larger caravan and rested it on brick pillars. She added two extensions. One was a small kitchen and the other was a bedroom and a bathroom and this home, which then resembled a bungalow, had all the amenities of water, electricity, telephone and so on. The interior was covered with sheet aluminium, and painted, and the whole effect is very satisfactory. A glass verandah was added, brick steps and a patio. Miss Lechner also revetted the river wall and built a wall on the edge of the river 70 ft. long.
In 1951 after she had lived there for seven years undisturbed, the local authority brought into effect the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 and served an enforcement notice on her to quit because it was said that her home was unfit for human habitation. Following that, councillors from the local authority visited her home and disputed the order. They considered that her house and grounds were in apple-pie order, and in 1954 consent was granted for her to remain there for as long as she wished or for the rest of her life.
After she had lived there for 32 years, during which time there had been no inspection by council officers, the 1968 floods came, a new channel was required 110 feet wide, and there was a public inquiry. An alternative course was proposed, but it was turned down.
The Land Compensation Act 1973 was brought into effect by the acquiring authority, the Thames Water Authority, which then became legally responsible for compensation but, because many years ago the house had been graded as unsuitable, the authority said that it was unable to pay compensation for her home, only for the land. The compensation offered was a paltry £6,000. Yet, the Land Compensation Act is supposed to tip the balance in favour of the individual who is threatened by such desirable developments.
I shall run over what I consider to be the unfair aspects of this case. First, Miss Lechner is not to be compensated for her home, only for the plot of land on which it stands. The lack of a home on the land obviously detracts from that value. An independent surveyor 10 years ago estimated the worth of the property as £19,000. That, perhaps, was putting it a little on the high side.
The second unfair aspect is that, if the house is considered to be unsuitable, it is wrong that Miss Lechner should have been allowed to remain in an unsuitable house for 33 years. Council officials said that that was done as a favour, but I suggest that councils do not perform actions as favours. They perform them as duties or they do not perform them at all.
During the 33 years there was no inspection by officers of the council, no sanitary notice was served and now the home, although not unsuitable enough for Miss Lechner to be evicted during the whole period of 33 years, is not suitable enough to enable her to receive compensation. The authorities concerned cannot have it both ways. Miss Lechner falls between two stools.
The third unfair aspect is that the Thames Water Authority has after all perhaps been generous because it has offered her rent-free accommodation—which the authority would purchase for £16,000—for the rest of her life. But that is a lower level of compensation than would be payable for the home she occupies. Miss Lechner has steadfastly refused to be beholden to anyone. She wants to be independent, to stay independent and to live in her own home, not as the tenant of anyone else. In any case, with the outgoings on rates, the income from the £4,000 which the authority would offer in these circumstances would be hardly enough to maintain Miss Lechner in a much larger house where expenses would probably be twice as great as they are at present where she is able to live comfortably.
The fourth unfair aspect is that it can be argued that the unfitness order was attached to Miss Lechner's right to stay voluntarily for the rest of her life in her home, but with compulsory purchase she is now forced to go involuntarily, and the whole basis of the argument is therefore changed. It is unfair that an unfitness order should still attach and carry with it the effective liquidation of Miss Lechner's home and its value.
The law in this respect says that compensation shall be for the market value of a home. Miss Lechner's home is parcularly well cherished and cared for and some intrinsic value should attach to the owner or occupier of such a home and not just the market value. After all, the value to the owner must be enhanced when it is taken from a person involuntarily as compared with when it is given up voluntarily and put on the market by free will.
The sixth aspect which I consider to be unfair is that Miss Lechner is offered less compensation if she is re-housed by the authority—that is, the compensation will drop from £6,000 to £4,000. The Minister will realise that this is not in accordance with the law, and the rule on it is contained in the publication "Your Home and Compulsory Purchase" page 10, paragraph 46, where it says:
Is it true that my compensation might be reduced if I accept rehousing?
The answer is this:
No. It is illegal for an authority to reduce on this account the amount of any compensation to which you have a right or the amount of any other payment such as home loss payment, well-maintained payment, or disturbance payment.
Therefore, I consider that the authority is acting wrongly and against the law.
In conclusion, the main point is that the provisions of the Land Compensation Act 1973, the White Paper "Putting People First", and the Land Compensation Code seem to be honoured more in the letter than in the spirit, and it is clear that the spirit of the Act is being ridden over roughshod by the apparatus of the State. It is not my object to raise expectations which cannot be fulfilled. The procedures which have taken place have been in accordance not with "Putting People First" but, I suggest, with putting people last.
I wish to pay a tribute to Miss Lechner as an individualist who does not wish to be beholden to anyone, who provides for herself, who prizes her independence above all else and who, although she has suffered much mental anguish, has shown great courage and determination in the long years in which she has suffered some degree of harassment over the subject of her home. I believe that she personifies the claim that the Englishman's home is his castle, and I wish that we had more like her. I appeal for generosity in the settlement of this case.