HC Deb 10 May 1976 vol 911 cc114-22
Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

I beg to move Amendment No. 31, in page 19, line 14, at end insert— '(bb) study centres, exhibitions, trails and other facilities for giving information about natural features, flora, fauna, agriculture, forestry, industry, archaeology, history and traditions of the locality.'

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we are to take the following amendments:

No. 32, in page 19, line 17 leave out 'premises ' and insert 'facilities'.

No. 33, in page 19, line 18 after 'social', insert 'educational'.

No. 34, in page 19, line 20 leave out ' or premises '.

No. 35, in page 19, line 31 after second ' provide ', insert 'or lend '.

No. 37, in page 19, line 36 at end insert— '(2A) A local authority may for the purpose of subsection (1) above use or allow to be used any land or buildings held by the authority for any other purposes at such times and in such manner as would not conflict with those other purposes, and the authority may carry out such works or make such provisions as would enable any land or building held for other purposes to be also used for the purpose of subsection (1) above.'.

No. 38, in page 19, line 36 at end insert— '(2B) Subsection (2A) above shall not authorise any authority to contravene any covenant or condition subject to which any land or buildings may be held without the consent of the donor, granter, lessor, contributing authority or other person entitled in law to the benefit of the covenant or condition.'

No. 39, in page 20, line 27 at end insert— '(7) In section 53(1) of the Education Act 1944 (which authorises the provision by local education authorities of recreational facilities for persons receiving primary, secondary or further education) the words "with the approval of the Minister" are hereby repealed.'

No. 188, in Title, line 9, after 'enactments', insert— 'to amend section 53(1) of the Education Act 1944'.

Mr. Blenkinsop

The main question here is that Clause 18 gives local authorities power to provide or to contribute towards the provision of a wide range of recreational facilities, but a number of bodies—including the Youth Hostels Association—are concerned because they are not satisfied that that covers the provision of a wide range of semi-recreational or semi-educational facilities. I am sure that that is a matter of concern to my hon. Friend and to all others who enjoy these facilities.

The provisions were clearly available under the Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937, but those provisions have been repealed or are being repealed by provisions in the schedule to the Bill. Therefore, even though the Minister said when the matter was raised in somewhat different form in Committee upstairs that it was the general feeling that these matters were covered under the new wording, he agreed that he would consider the matter and if he found it necessary would suggest some suitable wording.

Suitable wordings have been thrown round the Chamber in a whole mass of amendments this evening, but no suitable amendment has been suggested to deal with the point at issue here, and that is why these amendments have been put forward. We are most concerned that field study centres, exhibitions, trails, and so on, that are organised from youth hostels should be within the range of matters to which local authorities can contribute if they wish.

We also seek to ensure in one of the amendments that school buildings can be used outside of school time, during holidays, and so on, for hostel and other comparable purposes. We are not satisfied that the word "premises" covers the kind of school facilities that could be used. We are thinking also of outside facilities. To cover ourselves we have included an amendment to the Title of the Bill, although I was not certain that that is required.

Although my hon. Friend has not been able to put down amendments on the Order Paper, I hope that he will accept all my amendments, or at least give me a satisfactory answer for not doing so, otherwise he may find himself barred from youth hostels. That would be a tragedy that I am sure neither he nor I would wish to happen.

Mr. Guy Barnett

I should be exceedingly sorry to find myself excluded from youth hostels, as a former very considerable user of such institutions. I sympathise, as a lover of the countryside myself, with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) concerning the work of local authorities and other bodies in the countryside, and the educational aspect of such work.

I draw my hon. Friend's attention first to the clause as it stands, and in particular to the wording, in subsection (1), that those powers include in particular powers to provide. The subsection then gives an illustrative list of a number of things which local authorities are permitted to do under the clause. It is not an exhaustive list—there could well be arguments against describing them specifically—and is only an illustration of a number of the possibilities available.

It is important also to point out that confusion might be caused with provisions which would be more appropriately found within Education Acts rather than in a Bill of this sort. That argument was put in the Standing Committee.

The clause updates Section 4 of the Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937 to take account of modern forms of recreation such as are listed in the clause and to which I have already referred. The amendment is concerned with the giving of information about agriculture, forestry and other such matters. That is clearly a form of education or instruction and is a matter appropriate to the various Education Acts.

It is true that a broadly similar provision occurs in Section 12 of the Countryside Act 1968, which deals with the provision of facilities in or near national parks. But that reinforces the point, because the provision is appropriate in that context. It would not be appropriate here, and for that reason I cannot recommend the acceptance of the amendment.

As to Amendment No. 32, in our view the insertion of the word "facilities" instead of "premises" is unnecessary and undesirable. The list is merely illustrative, and without prejudice to the generality of the powers to provide recreational facilities of any kind.

Amendment No. 33 would extend the illustrative list of powers to provide premises for clubs and societies with social or recreational objects to include clubs and societies with educational objects.

Amendment No. 34 would remove the reference to premises in section (1)(e). Subsection (1)(e) of the clause makes it clear that the power to provide recreational facilities includes the power to provide staff to look after the facilities or premises referred to in sub-section (1)(d).

The danger of the amendment is that it would be liable to create doubt and confusion. The list of facilities is intended to be illustrative, as I said earlier. Having made it clear that facilities may include premises, it seems sensible to put it beyond doubt that the power to provide staff relates to premises also. The whole purpose of the subsection is to make quite clear what local authorities can do.

Amendment No. 35 would give local authorities power to lend buildings, equipment, supplies and assistance of any kind in addition to their power to provide such items. As subsection (2) already empowers local authorities to make facilities available for use without charge, the amendment, in our view, is superfluous and should therefore not be passed by the House.

The effect of Amendments No. 37 and No. 38 would be to enable a local authority to use any of its land or buildings, no matter under what powers they were held, to provide recreational facilities under the clause, provided that they were not used in such a way as to conflict with the powers under which they were held. The amendments would also empower the local authorities to carry out any works or to make provision for the land or buildings to be so used, provided that this also did not conflict with the powers under which the land or buildings were held. The proposed subsection (2B) makes it clear that the powers proposed in subsection (2A) would not authorise an authority to contravene any covenants or conditions under which the land is held without the consent of the person who benefited from that covenant or condition.

The amendments are similar to one moved in Committee. No adequate reason was given for that unprecedented amendment. The only information given in Committee was that local authorities wished to provide farm trails and dual use of school premises and that it should be easier to build other recreational facilities on pleasure grounds. We examined this point, and on the whole, again we found that it was not possible for the Government to accept it.

I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend but, while accepting all that he says about the extension of activities into the educational field and in other ways, I do not think that it would be appropriate to incorporate into the Bill his series of amendments.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I am, naturally, very disappointed, having been given not a single ray of hope, whereas hon. Members opposite have had all sorts of offers made to them. It seems to me that my hon. Friend, by rejecting the amendments, has left local authorities still with some doubts in their minds whether they are able to assist in this work. Local authorities are very tight-fisted bodies—all the more so in present times—and I fear very much that the measure as it stands will have a damaging effect upon the work of the Youth Hostels Association and similar bodies. This is unfortunate, as we have always wanted to give encouragement in this direction.

In as much as the Education Acts and similar provisions can be used, no doubt they will be used, but it would be infinitely easier and more satisfactory to have joint powers here in this provision, which is where these bodies wish to have them. I therefore regret the Minister's answer very much indeed.

I shall not delay the House by seeking to divide it—that would be a foolish thing to do—but I am by no means satisfied with the Minister's answer. I shall endeavour to have the Ministry harried in another place, as we cannot make any progress here. I hope that after discussion in another place, there will be a rather more encouraging and helpful reply than I have had from my hon. Friend tonight.

In the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I beg to move Amendment No. 36, in page 19, line 32, at end insert 'and that the power of provision includes in the case of land power to grant leases upon such terms as the local authority thinks fit'. The amendment is not totally unconnected with the short discussion and debate which has just taken place. I wonder how many letters hon. Members receive from constituents about recreational facilities, playing grounds, and the like. Certainly my postbag is burdened from time to time with representations from people who feel strongly about the lack of facilities or the need to improve existing facilities. Parish and community councils have a heavy responsibility in recreational provision

Although Clause 18 is meant to replace Section 4 of the Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937, it does not appear to have retained the far-reaching powers of leasing under that Act. Section 4(1) of the 1937 Act says that local authorities may manage those lands and buildings themselves, either with or without a charge for the use thereof or admission thereto, or may let them, or any portion thereof, at a nominal or other rent to any person, club, society or organisation for use for any of the purposes aforesaid. Clause 18(1) does not seem to include that power of leasing.

Clause 18(1) and (2) refers only to direct provision or the giving of licences. Surely no one would interpret the words charge or charges in subsection (2) as including rent. Thus the effect of the repeal of Section 4 of the 1937 Act is that the leasing powers have been repealed and this could have far-reaching effects on the activities of local and community councils.

The Minister may answer my case by saying that local authorities have adequate powers of leasing under Sections 123 and 127 of the Local Government Act 1972, but I do not believe that these are the same, for local authorities have either to obtain the best rent or get the consent of the Secretary of State, except in the unusual case of short tenancies.

Parish and community councils have made longish leases of between 28 years and 40 years by the thousand under the 1937 Act and its predecessor, the Public Health Act 1925. Nobody has ever suggested that the law or the practice was unsatisfactory—quite the reverse.

In the ordinary course of events one would normally expect many more such leases to be made or renewed. The provisions of this Bill will generate correspondence with Government Departments which has been considered unnecessary for half a century. The clause in its present form also appears to put in doubt the status of existing leases. It certainly puts in doubt the future of small organisations, mostly charitable, whose leases are on the verge of expiry and who were expecting a fairly simple renewal.

In interviews with civil servants, representatives of the National Association of Local Councils were assured that it was not the intention to abridge the powers conferred by the 1937 and 1958 Acts. If that is the case, the amendment, which restores the position, will surely be welcome to the Minister and his officials.

The Physical Training and Recreation Acts are relatively far more important to parish and community councils, which use them all the time, than to other authorities. Especially important is the provision which enables public amenities to be provided through voluntary effort. Surely we want to do everything possible to encourage the continuation of voluntary effort. The Physical Training and Recreation Act 1958 was a Private Member's Bill brought in at the National Association of Local Councils' urging. Obviously the Association is deeply concerned in this matter.

This is an important amendment. I was happy to withdraw the last amendment I moved, but I hope that we shall get a positive and constructive reply to this proposal, which is of the utmost importance to local and community councils.

Mr. Guy Barnett

I shall try to be as constructive as I can. I know that the National Association of Local Councils is particularly concerned about the point which the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) has made.

Under the Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937, local authorities have a very wide power, which has been used extensively, to lease land, for example, for playing fields at a nominal rent to sports clubs. Many village playing fields and village halls are held on such leases.

Under the clause as drafted, any land held for the purposes of those powers or the 1937 Act will be leased under Sections 123—principal councils—and 127—parish and community councils—of the Local Government Act 1972. This is more restrictive. It requires the consent of the Secretary of State where land is leased at less than the best consideration. This could result in the Department receiving many thousands of requests for such consents, and most of these would be from parish and community councils.

It is agreed that local authorities should have the same freedom as they have under the 1937 Act. This can be achieved by a general consent under Section 128(1) of the Local Government Act 1972 and such a consent to the disposal of property held for the purpose of Section 4 and property held under this clause for purposes corresponding to those of that section will be given before Section 4 is repealed.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I am grateful for that clear exposition of the Government's case, though I do not think it fully answers my case.

I had a suspicion that the Minister would refer to Section 127 of the Local Government Act 1972. That section will be used to excuse a great deal, now and in the future.

Bearing in mind the fact that we have the opportunity of making representations in another place and the fact that I am not totally dissatisfied with the Minister's reply, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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