HC Deb 04 March 1981 vol 1000 cc259-61
3. Mr. Iain Mills

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will take steps to ensure that all local authorities supplying information on the value of land held for publication in the register of vacant and under-used land do so on a comparable basis.

14. Mr. Bob Dunn

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will seek powers to compel local authorities to dispose of vacant and under-used land.

20. Mr. Bevan

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress has been made in the setting up of registers of vacant and derelict land; and what steps he plans when the registers are complete.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

The compilation of registers for 33 districts and London boroughs is under way, with the aim of publication in April. Public bodies are providing information according to standard criteria, under guidance from my Department. This does not include information on land values. I already have power to direct the disposal of land entered on a register, but I am hoping that the publication of site details, coupled with supporting work by the local authorities and business communities, will in most cases be enough to activate disposals.

Mr. Mills

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, but will he try to ensure that no delay arises from either bureaucratic or cost reasons due to the overvaluing of land in public hands?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says, since I think that overvaluation can be a major stumbling block to the release of land. I shall certainly want to look at that, although it will be a matter in which the district valuer will have a crucial part to play.

Mr. Dunn

How much time will my right hon. Friend give to local authorities to make an effective start on the disposal of vacant land before he takes action?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend will understand that it is not just a question of the local authorities. It is all publicly owned land. I intend that the review of the registers should begin as soon as practicable, under the leadership of my Department, after the establishment of the registers in April.

Mr. Bevan

What further steps will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that the land referred to in his original reply is released for sale or is utilised as quickly as possible, without regard to historic or book values, so that high valuation prices do not inhibit its being dealt with?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend will understand that, in the end, value is the figure which a particular piece of land can realise on the open market, and I shall have to bear that in mind. However, I assure him and the House that no time will be lost in scrutinising the lists of sites that appear on the registers. I have already begun the process of setting up a tripartite team in each area, consisting of a representative of the local authority, of my Department and of the private sector, to go through every site on those registers, and I shall want to be satisfied before I agree that such sites should remain in the public sector.

Mr. Spearing

In view of what the Secretary of State has said, will he confirm that the real purpose of these registers is to force local authorities to sell public land, whatever the future value of that land to the public might be? Why is he putting on statutory or semi-statutory tribunals representatives of private landed interests?

Mr. Heseltine

I think that in his quest to find some sinister motive the hon. Gentleman has grossly misrepresented the situation. The power to direct disposal lies in my hands, subject to the House, but I am entitled to look for advice on the widest possible basis, especially in these matters, if I may say so, following the precedent established by the Labour Secretary of State when he put forward the proposals for the urban programmes in the first place. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are no sinister motives. I am just trying to get land released so that jobs and wealth can be created, which I should have thought was an objective that he would support.

Mr. Heddle

Since land is our most valuable natural resource, is it not criminal that local authorities, statutory undertakers and public corporations are sitting on land, and will my right hon. Friend therefore consider extending this register beyond the 33 local authorities to the country as a whole?

Mr. Heseltine

As this was a new method of achieving the disposal of land, I felt that it was right to proceed at a reasonable pace in the first instance and to take 33 registers as a means of finding out how the process worked. I am now considering requiring local government as a whole to declare its holdings of land in general. This would mean that there would be availability of knowledge, but that would not be the same as establishing a register in the first instance. The establishment of a register carries with it the power of compulsory disposal, and that would be the second step if I felt that the revelations coming from disclosure of land in the hands of local government justified such a register.

Mr. Graham

As the Secretary of State has taken power to order land on the register to be disposed of to private interests, will he now put his belief in competition to the test by instituting a register of privately owned land and then taking power to order that to be sold to public undertakings?

Mr. Heseltine

What the hon. Gentleman fails to understand is that the private sector cannot afford to hold land. There are already all the disciplines of the market place. If it was so apparent that devices of that sort were necessary, why did the Labour Party not introduce them?