HC Deb 08 February 1978 vol 943 cc1426-30
1. Mr. Durant

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what estimate he has of the acreage of derelict and unused land held by nationalised industries.

4. Mr. Nicholas Winterton

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what estimate he has of the acreage of derelict and unused land held by local authorities.

16. Mr. Montgomery

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what estimate he has of the acreage of derelict and unused land held by the water authorities.

17. Mr. Sainsbury

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what estimate he has of the acreage of derelict land and unused land held by the Property Services Agency.

18. Mr. Stanbrook

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has for securing the early development or use of unused land owned by local authorities and other public authorities.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Peter Shore)

No reliable estimates of the total acreage of derelict land have been made since the 1974 survey of derelict and despoiled land, which put the total for England at 106,000 acres. This survey did not provide figures broken down by ownership. Neither did it cover land classified as unused—a category for which there is no commonly agreed definition. The figure for the Property Services Agency is 580 acres. Many local authorities have their own figures, though these are often compiled according to different definitions, and cannot, therefore, simply be added together.

My aim is to concentrate efforts to secure early development of unused land in those areas where the problem is most serious, particularly the inner city areas. I have recently written to the main nationalised industries and statutory undertakers concerned asking them to make a preliminary survey of their vacant and underused sites in the inner city areas. Proposals for dealing with the problem will be an important part of the programmes currently being drawn up by the partnership committees.

Mr. Speaker

I shall follow my usual custom of first calling the hon. Members whose Questions are being answered, and then other hon. Members. Mr. Durant.

Mr. Durant

Does the Secretary of State agree that these are appalling figures? Do they not illustrate the urgent need to put pressure on the chairmen of the nationalised industries to dispose of this land, particularly in inner city areas, where, if we are to tackle the problem, we must have the land made available?

Will the Secretary of State further consider the possibility of a local Domesday Book in which particulars of land owned by the local community, by local government and by the nationalised industries could be displayed, so that people could know who owned the land?

Mr. Shore

I can see the attractions of having, as it were, an up-to-date register of land in the areas. I know that the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) spoke on this matter some months ago. I believe that by far the most important thing that we have to do is not so much to identify land, which is generally known to local authorities, as to take steps to see that that land is put to good use, and that is not easy to achieve.

Mr. Winterton

Is the Secretary of State aware that the worst offenders among those who hold on to derelict land are nationalised industries and local authorities? Is he further aware that 80 per cent. of urban land requirements could be met from derelict land at the present time within those urban areas? Will he treat rather more seriously and with deeper dedication the moves that he has now started in the inner city areas to develop derelict land at the earliest possible date?

Mr. Shore

The fact that I have recently written to all the chairmen of the nationalised industries indicates that I believe that they can make an important contribution.

It is true that there is a good deal of unused or derelict land owned both by local authorities and public corporations in the inner city areas, but we should be very foolish if we did not understand how these accumulations have come about. A great deal of local authority land is land which previously held tenement buildings and slums which have been pulled down, and which is now left to the local authorities to make good use of. But we are aware of this and will push forward, particularly, in the first instance, in the partnership areas.

Mr. Montgomery

In the survey that the Secretary of State is undertaking he said that he was contacting the statutory authorities. Does that include the water authorities? If it does not, why not?

Mr. Shore

It includes the water authorities along with other statutory authorities and the nationalised industries.

Mr. Sainsbury

The Secretary of State referred to 580 acres of derelict land owned by the Property Services Agency. Will he assure the House that we will be told more about it? Will we be told why the land is held, and where, in the report to which we all very much look forward?

Secondly, in view of the importance that he attaches to this subject, will the right hon. Gentleman's Department now support the second land use survey?

Mr. Shore

I believe that the best thing for the hon. Gentleman, if he wants a detailed breakdown of the PSA, is to table a Question to that effect. I shall then happily give him such information as we have.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Does the Secretary of State agree that a great deal of this derelict and unused land is held at quite unrealistic book values? Will he take some action to write down some of those values to a realistic figure?

Mr. Shore

I agree with my hon. Friend that this is an important point. However, I would make plain that when local authorities dispose of land they are required in law only to do so for the best price that can reasonably be obtained. I think that those are the exact words. If the price turns out to be lower than the price that they paid for it, they are free to accept that price.

Mr. Litterick

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Conservative Party does not know what it is talking about when it talks about unused, derelict sites, and so forth, and about public ownership? However, as he has given an assurance to the House that he is now seeking to put pressure on public bodies to use derelict land—this will be welcomed by the Labour Party, at least—will he assure us that he will seek to bring pressure to bear on private owners of derelict sites, with which my constituency is all too much defaced?

Mr. Shore

I believe that we should have the whole picture before us. It is not just a question of local authority and statutory undertakers' "land"; there is also land in private ownership which is not being properly used and is derelict land. Therefore, local authorities which are drawing up what I hope will be much more effective strategies for land use and development in their areas should consider all land, regardless of ownership.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Will the Secretary of State take on board once again the right way of dealing with derelict land that is lying idle, namely, to put on it a site value tax?

Mr. Shore

I should have been surprised had the hon. Gentleman not put that point. It has at least certain superficial attractions. This matter was considered thoroughly as recently as in the Layfield Report, and great difficulties were then revealed.

Mr. Rossi

I welcome the Secretary of State's conversion to our ideas on those matters. There has been much conversion by him in recent months over the whole range of housing and land. We welcome the fact that at least practical common sense is prevailing.

I have news for the Secretary of State. We welcome the survey that he has asked to be conducted amongst nationalised industries, but I conducted my own survey amongst—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Even Front Bench Members must ask a question.

Mr. Rossi

Is the Secretary of State aware that the survey that I conducted amongst the chairmen of nationalised industries shows some very interesting results? Is he aware, for example, that the British steel industry, whose finances are not in the best of order at the moment, can only reply that it has 25,000 acres of land, inherited on nationalisation, of the financial consequences of which it has no idea?

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must have fair play. The hon. Gentleman is, I fear, taking a little advantage.

Mr. Rossi

I hope that I am always fair on these occasions, Mr. Speaker. May I ask the Minister why he restricts his survey to the nationalised industries and does not extend it to local authorities, in whose hands vast quantities of land are held at the moment at unrealistic figures? Will he bring this into use for the benefit of the economy?

Mr. Shore

Yes, Sir.