HC Deb 24 April 1986 vol 96 cc488-94

'All vacant, dormant, derelict and underutilised land in public ownership listed on the register held at the Department of Environment shall be deemed for the purposes of this Act to be Simplified Planning Zones.'.—[Mr. Steen.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

In a nutshell, the new clause is about waste. It is designed to help the Government in the objective, which they have put successively to the House and to the country, that derelict public land must be got rid of. It is not just derelict land that we must make better use of, but derelict public housing. On 1 April 1983 there were 305,000 houses which were difficult to let. One needs to reflect on the amount of waste in public housing. We have a great number of acres of public land that are not fully utilised.

It is worth mentioning by way of introduction an answer to a question in April 1984, two years ago. The junior Minister in the Department, who is still the junior Minister there, told me that there were 766,779 sq m of vacant office space in public ownership. That figure is so astronomical that it is difficult to comprehend. We have a great deal of land, we have housing and we have office space that is totally vacant and surplus to requirements and we should get rid of it.

The purpose of this new clause is to accelerate the sale of derelict, dormant, vacant and under-utilised land in public ownership. That means the ownership of land by Government, local government, health authorities, county authorities, district councils, water boards, the Coal Board, British Rail and electricity boards. The House knows the list; the amount of land is astronomical. We have had a number of debates about the scale fo the problem of vacant land. We have had a great number of Adjournment debates and questions and Ministers have always been helpful, but the House should know the scale of the present problem.

Some people say that 100,000 acres of public land are vacant, dormant and derelict while others say it is one third of a million acres. The figures may be academic, but, in order to get precise figures, a former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), said in 1981 that there was no point in talking about one third of a million acres or 100,000 acres and that it would be better to have a register. I was not a great supporter of the register because it seemed to me to be another delaying tactic, but to give my right hon. Friend his due, he set up a register and in July 1982 it showed that 95,329 acres of public land were registered. In January 1983 that figure had risen to 107,612 acres. In July 1983 it went up again to 110,543 acres, and in January 1984 it rose yet again to 112,167 acres of vacant, dormant, derelict and under-utilised public land.

We know that a lot of vacant land is in public ownership and we also know that the amount of land on the register is only the tip of the iceberg. That is because there is no requirement to register land that is under one acre and a great deal of public, vacant, dormant and derelict land is under one acre. One does have to register land that is scheduled for use by a public authority within, I think, two years but it may have been reduced to one year. On 29 March 1984, there were 4,426 acres of unused and under-utilised land surplus to requirements in health authorities. Why should health authorities have 4,426 acres of publicly owned land that is not being used? Such land is a national, wasting asset and one that is not being used for the benefit of society. It is land that is hoarded by public health authorities.

It is not just the health authorities that are at fault. Let us look at the Department of Energy, a Government Department. It has 311 acres of vacant land. What is it doing with that land? Why has the Ministry of Defence got nearly 2,600 acres of vacant land surplus to requirements? Why is that land not being used? But if the Ministry of Defence hoards 2,600 acres what about British Rail? Although people say that British Rail is improving, two years ago it had nearly 15,000 acres surplus to requirements.

According to the figures that I have, on 1 January 1984, although British Rail had nearly 15,000 acres of vacant, dormant, derelict or under-utilised land, it disposed of only 1,000 acres. At that rate it will take 15 years to dispose of that land. I will not trouble the House by listing all the other public undertakings hoarding land that is vacant, dormant and derelict. However, I shall name a few of them. British Gas has 1,700 acres; the National Coal Board has 2,200 acres; the port authorities have 2,800 acres; the electricity boards have 3,600 acres; and the water authorities have 2,500 acres. So it continues.

7.15 pm

The amount of vacant public land that is not being used is a national disgrace and a national, wasting asset. I have mentioned the land on the register, but I should like to give the estimates of the amount of public, vacant land that is unregistered. The well-known and eminent authority on land use, Miss Alice Coleman of King's College, London, estimates that one third of a million acres of public land is lying dormant. It is that one third of a million acres which this new clause aims to correct.

The purpose of the register was to provide a means by which the Secretary of State could direct the disposal of land hoarded by public authorities. That was why, in 1981, the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley, set up the register procedure. He wanted to get the public authorities to put the land on the register and if they did not have good reasons for holding it, he could make orders for them to get rid of it.

It was mildly disappointing that in answer to a parliamentary question on 21 March 1984, over two years ago, a junior Minister advised me that no orders for disposal of the land had been made. That means that two years ago no orders had been made, and the number of acres of land on the register continued to rise. The Government have put that right, and when-the Minister is replying to this short debate perhaps he will tell the House how many disposal orders have been made.

I understand that the figure on the register today is no longer 112,000 acres, the figure that it was a year ago. It is now 110,000 acres. I congratulate the Government on reducing the number of dormant, derelict and under-utilised acres of land on the register by 2,000. At this rate it will take about 50 years to get rid of all the public land on the register, but about 300 years to get rid of all the dormant and derelict land in public ownership, not to mention private ownership. By means of this new clause we seek to find a device to speed up the process by which this public, derelict land can be released.

As the House will know, the problem of public, derelict land is not a new one. The then Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) produced a White Paper, "Policy for the Inner Cities", in 1976–77, in which he highlighted the problem of derelict land. The right hon. Gentleman told the House that he would write to every nationalised industry and ask them to review their holdings. I am afraid his letter in 1978 did not produce any goodies, because by 1981 one could not see whether any land had been released. The nationalised industries may have reviewed their holdings, but nothing much happened.

The idea of the register was to focus attention on public authorities that were hoarding land, and was aimed at stimulating action. The House would like to hear from the Minister who is to reply what action is being taken, what action can be taken in future and what he feels about the time scale if it will take 40 or 50 years to release the publicly owned land that is on the register. The House, and I think all hon. Members, want to know why it is taking so long to release the land on the register, and what steps the Government will take to speed up the process. That is what the new clause is aiming to do. I think we must congratulate the Government in selling off the land and producing the orders, but it is all too slow and somewhat bureacratic.

Perhaps I could be excused if I mention the splendid book—which I am sure all hon. Members will have read—which I wrote about four years ago called "New Life in Old Cities". [Interruption.] I am grateful for the Minister saying that it was a good book. I will send him a complimentary copy because I am told that it is much better than Horlicks.

In that book, I suggested that the simplest way in which public vacant land could be released—I have asked many questions on this point since—is for the Government to auction it off to the highest bidder. It is an attractive idea. On the steps of the principal town halls of the country the mayor will be standing, wearing his chain saying, "What am I bid for this piece of land?" Why should it not go to the highest bidder, provided that there is a covenant that the land should be developed, shall we say in a year or two, so that if it is not developed it goes back into the auction market and to the private sector? At least it would get it moving.

I suggested, to avoid a flood of land on the market by way of auction, that the public authorities should decide on 25 per cent. of their land that is surplus to requirement, and sell part of it off every year, so that it will take four years to get rid of their surplus requirement. At the present moment, with the amount of land on the register, it would take 30, 40 or 50 years.

The Minister said on a number of occasions that the problem with the auction is the problem of negative land value. Let us avoid those sites which have negative land value, and just auction off the sites that do not, so that the amount of public vacant land on the register will be reduced.

The Minister would be well advised not just to look at local authorities—although I am critical of local authorities—but also at the nationalised industries, and, just as important, the old Government Departments. The Government cannot preach until they get their house in order. There is a lot of public land in Government ownership which should be released.

We have to give the Government due credit because they have embarked upon a number of important approaches to release public vacant land. The Government have a derelict land grant on reclamation projects, and I am told that Government spending is in excess of £75 million this year. There are about 71 acres involved in reclamation most years. There are enterprise zones, which have reclaimed land, and there are the new town corporations, the Merseyside and London Docklands Development Corporations through to the regeneration of the Chatham docks.

Perhaps most successful, there has been the urban development grant where £65 million of Government grant sparked off £295 million of private investment. Let it not be forgotten that this Government are the first to mobilise private money to reduce the amount of derelict land. There is the urban aid programme of some £300 million, and the joint public and private partnership. There is the Wavertree technology park, which has created some 2,000 jobs in the old marshalling yard in my former constituency.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Henley was right to say that if we put public money in, private money will follow, but there are other ways of doing it which are quicker and more enterprising.

I pass over inner-city enterprises, Operation Groundwork, the Liverpool garden festival, the new one in Stoke-on-Trent. In spite of all these wonderful initiatives, I still believe that there is one third of a million acres of land in public ownership which is vacant, dormant and derelict.

Let us look at the consequences, and why this new clause is of such significance. An artificial shortage of land in the primary urban areas actually creates a force for development beyond the city boundaries on the good agricultural land outside, on the green field sites, and pressure is put on the green belt. If these vacant sites in public ownership are left surplus to requirement in the inner city, developers have to look outside it to build houses to satisfy the market demands.

I want to give a specific example to the House to explain why this new clause has such relevance. In the city of Plymouth, which abuts my constituency, and is a large urban conurbation, the market forces, according to the city council, demand that it has a land bank of approximately five years' supply— around 250 acres, or 50 acres a year. Through good housing management, it managed to find this 250 acres. In 1980 it went to the Devon county council to talk about the structure plan and said, "If we look ahead, market forces will continue to demand more and more land for housing. We must go outside the city boundaries." That was included in the Devon structure plan for 1980. It was agreed that some 60 acres of prime agricultural land in my constituency of South Hams should be allowed to be built on, even though there were many many acres of dormant, derelict, public land within the Plymouth boundary. For example, there are some 200 acres belonging to the Ministry of Defence which is vacant, dormant and derelict. There is land belonging to the county education authority. There are many acres of land belonging to British Rail. What has happened is that the Devon structure plan includes green field sites and agricultural land outside the city boundary. If this clause is passed, the simplified planning zones will apply to public vacant land and allow the owners of the land to release the land much more easily.

I am pleading with the House this evening to agree to a clause that will enable our principal city areas to release their land much more easily. A simplified planning zone—which is the framework of this Bill—applied to this land would mean that instead of land outside the city boundaries being included in a structure plan—because there is a shortage of land inside the city—that land could be built on first.

My information is that in Plymouth's case it would mean that the land outside could be taken out of the structure plan, and land inside in public ownership, whether Ministry of Defence, or the British Rail 20-acre Friary site, or the land belonging to the education authority, or horticultural land on the outskirts, could be used rather than good agricultural land outside.

The Government have repeatedly said that public land must be sold off and that good agricultural land must be saved. They said that about the Okehampton bypass. They said "We must not go to the north of Okehampton, we must go south. We must go straight through the national park because is far better that we save the good agricultural land to the north." So too in Plymouth: they could use good derelict vacant land in the centre of Plymouth rather than go outside to use good agricultural land.

All this new clause is doing is easing the problems for the Government. It is easing the planning regime when it comes to public vacant land on the register. It helps the developer; it gives them extra encouragement, and the incentive to buy public wasting land.

This clause is about saving a national wasting asset. It will not solve all the problems, but it is a step in the right direction. It is another weapon in this Government's armoury in their battle to rebuild the inner cities and declining urban areas, and compel public authorities to stop hoarding land.

I pay tribute to the Minister and his Department for what they have done to date. There is more to be done and I hope that the aim of this evening's debate is to help accelerate the sale not just of the 112,000 acres on the register, but of the other 200,000 acres of public vacant land which is currently being hoarded all over the nation.

Mr. Allan Roberts

I hope that the Government are opposed to the new clause. The Opposition certainly are. It would have the interesting effect of declaring simplified planning areas in rural as well as inner-city areas. The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) must have realised that, but he may not have realised how it would anger those of his hon. Friends who are opposed to simplified planning zones in rural areas.

7.30 pm

We do not want a major debate on the hon. Gentleman's simplistic view of how to deal with vacant, dormant and under-utilised land. The new clause refers only to land in public ownership. I represent an inner-city area where there is a great deal of dormant, derelict and under-utilised land, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the reason why it is in that state—whether it is in public or in private ownership—is that no one wants to use it. The hon. Gentleman suggests that builders are forced to go into green belts or other land that is not derelict or dormant. In fact they prefer to do so because it is easier and cheaper to build on. Most dormant, derelict and under-utilised land has a negative value. In my constituency the development corporation has removed the negative value from much of that land, but private developers will still not build on it even though it is being made available.

Things are not as simple as the hon. Gentleman suggests. However, we oppose the new clause because we do not want simplified planning zones spawning uncontrollably like amoebae all over the place.

Mr. Steen

Why not?

Mr. Roberts

If that is the intention, we might as well abolish planning altogether. No doubt some Government Members would wish to do that. People throughout the country are afraid that if, unfortunately, the Government were returned for a third term they would destroy planning as we understand it, which protects people and the environment.

Mr. Tracey

The House is familiar with the ingenuity of my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen). His speech tonight was typical. He has ranged widely. The Government are grateful for the considerable compliment that he has paid them. In particular, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing will be grateful for my hon. Friend's remarks about the pressure on authorities to dispose of derelict land.

New clause 8 introduces an interesting proposition, which is superficially attractive but is not precisely relevant to what we are trying to do. The new clause would effectively and automatically designate all sites on land registers as simplified planning zones. No regard would be taken of the merits of individual sites so designated. It would not be possible for adjacent land to be considered concurrently with such sites as possible simplified planning zones. Some sites might not be suitable to be simplified planning zones at all. The new clause would remove some of the local planning authorities' discretion in deciding where simplified planning zones should be set up.

Mr. Steen

I was grateful for the Minister's opening remarks. My point is that, in spite of the planning regimes, the Government's efforts and the many millions of pounds made available to release vacant public land, there are still 110,000 acres on the register. Something must be done to release that land. If it is not to be auctioned off, we must withdraw the planning regime that is preventing it being developed.

Mr. Tracey

My hon. Friend can rest assured that we have taken careful note of what he said. We shall read his speech in some detail in order to see whether it contains a gem that we have missed.

There is the question what sort of planning permission would be bestowed by the deemed simplified planning zones that my hon. Friend has mentioned. We do not want to declare SPZs and just tell people to go and fill in the details without regard to the circumstances of the case. I accept that a good number of sites on the land registers may well be suitable for inclusion in the simplified planning zone regime. However, we believe that we need a flexible and selective way of achieving our aim. The current provision in the Bill would do exactly what we are attempting to do. With all due respect to my hon. Friend, we do not believe that the new clause is needed. I hope that he will seek to withdraw it.

Mr. Steen

Before I consider withdrawing the new clause, I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) was just now rising to speak. I should like him to have the opportunity to say something if he wishes to do so.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

I was indeed rising to my feet, but I believe that the House is anxious to make progress. In view of the Minister's reply, I hope that my hon. Friend will agree to withdraw the new clause.

Mr. Steen

In view of those helpful comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to