HC Deb 21 January 1988 vol 125 cc1201-9

'Any lease of land for military purposes to a Secretary of State shall cease to have effect if the land ceases to be used for military purposes.'.—[Mr. Dobson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

10.54 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 5, in page 1, line 14, at end insert— '(2C) No land or property within a national park shall be leased by the Chancellor and Council of the Duchy of Lancaster for military purposes to a Secretary of State for more than 21 years and the lease shall cease to have effect if the land ceases to be used for military purposes.'. No. 7, in schedule 2, page 2, leave out lines 8 to 11.

Mr. Dobson

New clause 1 and amendments Nos. 5 and 7 refer to what might be described as military use of Duchy of Lancaster land. At present, the use of land belonging to the Duchy of Lancaster is restricted by the provisions of the Military Lands Act 1892. That restricts the capacity of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall to grant leases for military purposes to a maximum period of 21 years. That section in the Military Lands Act also requires such a lease to cease if the land is no longer to be used for military purposes. Our Victorian predecessors obviously anticipated what might be described as the Crichel Down principle, as long ago as 1892. The Bill would provide for no restrictions whatever on the capacity of the Duchy of Lancaster to lease land for military purposes.

On Second Reading, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster claimed that there was a need to lift the restrictions that generally applied to leases granted by the Duchy, because developers would not be willing to take a lease of Duchy land for as little as 99 years because they would not be able to obtain the funds on the market for an invesment on that basis. One may think it strange that the sharks in the City, who are trying to make money in about 20 minutes flat, find a 99-year lease too short a period over which to lend money. However, that is apparently the case. I am dubious about some of those claims about the present state of the market in property speculation, but that is what we have been told.

Over the past few years, the Government have brought forward proposals that extended the maximum period of leases of the Crown estate and the Duchy of Cornwall from 99 years to 150 years. The Bill would lift that time restriction altogether. Whatever justification the Chancellor of the Duchy has put forward for lifting the restrictions on urban land that might be the subject of speculative property developments into which the Duchy might like to enter in, say, the Savoy estate around the Strand, which is undoubtedly its most valuable property, that has absolutely nothing to do with lease of land for military purposes.

Our Victorian predecessors were clearly sensible and prudent in deliberately limiting the power of the Duchy to grant leases of land for military purposes. At that time—1892 — they thought that a maximum period of 21 years was quite sufficient to alienate land for use for military purposes. They also required that such a lease should cease if the military use ceased.

Those requirements cannot possibly have any effect on the sites and properties in the Savoy part of the Strand on which the Government are attempting to justify the general changes. If the Army, the Navy, the Air Force or the Marines want to lease a piece of Duchy land, they do not have to raise the capital for it on the market—at least so far. No doubt the Prime Minister is considering privatising the armed forces, in which case they would have to raise money on the market if they wanted some of the property. Therefore, the lessees do not face any problem in having a restriction as short as 21 years. It seems wholly artificial for the Government to suggest that, in the case of leases of land for military purposes, the present limit needs to be either extended or lifted altogether.

11 pm

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

I am slightly confused by the arguments put forward by my hon. Friend. I am not clear whether he is arguing that there is likely to be military activity in the Strand, or whether there is any likelihood of the Army and the Navy having leases in the Strand. I can understand why the Army and the Navy might want leases in Victoria street, but the Strand is slightly outwith my comprehension.

Could my hon. Friend, the shadow Leader of the House, explain the exact relationship between the Strand, the Savoy and military leases? I am at a loss, and I think that some of my hon. Friends are as well, to relate military leases with what is happening around the Savoy. I know that sometimes men, and even women, of military bearing are seen going in and our of the Savoy, but I cannot quite relate the military context to that of the Savoy properties. I hope that my hon. Friend will explain the connection.

Mr. Dobson

I am sorry if I have not made the position sufficiently clear to a person as acute as my hon. Friend, whose constituency has such a long name that I can never remember it. The Duchy of Lancaster, in its peculiar way, owns more land in Yorkshire than in Lancashire, but the bulk of its property—36,000 acres—is agricultural land. A further 15,000 acres is moorland in north Yorkshire and south Wales, and the estates include 175 agricultural tenancies and about 3,000 acres of woodland. But, quite distinct from that, the Duchy holds the freehold of properties in the Manor of Savoy—as it was — along Lancaster place, the Embankment, Savoy hill and the Strand—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is that why they do not have television licences?

Mr. Dobson


Mr. Hal Miller (Bromsgrove)

Could the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) help his hon. Friend by referring him to the Savoy operas and the Duke of Plaza Toro, who led his regiment from behind? That would seem to me to be the military use involved.

Mr. Dobson

I would not suggest for a moment that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is leading from behind, although in his role as a Cabinet Minister he seems always to be one step behind someone in the House of Lords.

Mr. Foulkes

I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that the Chancellor is the very model of a modern Major-General. Hon. Members will notice that I did not sing that, for obvious reasons.

Can my hon. Friend tell me, while he is reading out the property owned by the Duchy of Lancaster — I think that he has a clear account of it there—whether any of it is in Scotland, and particularly whether any of it is in the constituency of Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley? That will give him a clue to the name of my constituency.

Mr. Dobson

To the best of my knowledge — I am dependent on a parliamentary answer, and we can all make our own assessments of the accurancy of parliamentary answers—no property of the Duchy of Lancaster appears to be within the whole of Scotland, least of all in — [HoN. MEMBERS: "Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley."]

The position is this. The property that the Duchy owns at the end of the Strand, which is less than three acres, is of immense value. It is developed land, and it offers immense gains to those who are willing to join the Duchy in speculating there, if they knock it down and put up new buildings. It is for those purposes that the Chancellor of the Duchy has come to the House and said that 99-year leases are too short and that these far-sighted people in the City wish to invest for 150 years or more in that property. However, they are unwilling to invest for about five years in something productive, such as a factory. Indeed, they are willing to invest in property there only if they have leases for 150 years or more.

That is not the case with agricultural land so far or with moorland in the north Yorkshire moors national park. In the patches of agricultural land and in the property in north Yorkshire and south Wales there are examples of land which is presently let for military purposes. None of that land requires a lifting of the Victorian maximum for a lease of land for military use, which was set in 1892 at 21 years. Therefore, it would be consistent for the Chancellor of the Duchy to accept the restrictions which are proposed in the new clause.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Is my hon. Friend sketching a position which shows that the Government, in a shabby manoeuvre, are allowing the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to link up with speculators of the sort condemned by no less a personage than Prince Charles—who, one would have thought, might have had some influence in the Tory ranks, but apparently not—and to raze buildings to the ground in order to build monstrosities with long tenure which the Prince and many ordinary working people, with just as good an eye as the Prince, have long deplored because they ravage the skyline of our capital city?

Mr. Dobson

It is undoubtedly the case that the Duchy of Lancaster wishes to join private speculative developers in the further development of land on the Savoy estate. I am not sure in this case whether the Prince of Wales, who is also Duke of Cornwall, is entirely, so to say, in the clear in the matter—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must remind the House that references to the royal family, particularly if used in support of arguments, are not in order.

Mr. Dobson

It might undermine my argument, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I make no reference to the Duke of Cornwall, but not very long ago the Duchy of Cornwall came to the House to seek to extend the maximum period for its ordinary leases from 99 to 150 years.

Mr. Foulkes

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like clarification from you. We are talking about the Duchy of Lancaster. Is it in order in doing so to make reference during the debate to the Duke of Lancaster?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It is certainly in order to refer to the Duchy of Lancaster in so far as it is relevant to the debate. I am saying that it is not in order to invoke in argument, to criticise or, indeed, to praise members of the royal family. That is the distinction that I am drawing.

Mr. Foulkes

And that includes the Duke of Lancaster?

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Dobson

I am glad that that point has been clarified.

I am subject to correction, not necessarily directly by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is gracing us with his presence, but by those who advise him. So far as I know, the Duchy of Cornwall remains subject to the 21-year maximum period for leases of land for military purposes. My copy of the legislation currently in operation suggests that that restriction still applies to the Duchy of Cornwall; and to the extent that the Duke of Cornwall is responsible for that, it is praiseworthy.

As it is extremely unlikely that there will be any military, sub-military or semi-military use of the expensive Savoy estate and its surroundings at the end of the Strand, or of the other urban properties owned by the Duchy in Harrogate, and—in bits and pieces—in Leeds, Leicester, Bradford, Lewes and London — I assure my hon. Friends that I am referring to Lewes near Brighton, not to Lewis in Scotland—

Mr. Skinner

Have we any assurances in the Bill that the Kuwaiti Investment Office cannot extend its little empire beyond the oil industry and get on to the end of the Strand? I do not know what repercussions that might have. Perhaps we should be discussing whether there are any such safeguards.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We must stick to leases for military purposes.

Mr. Dobson

To the best of my knowledge, the Duchy of Lancaster is completely indiscriminate in this matter, and is willing to sell to anyone who has the money. I do not know whether it would be willing to let a lease to the Kuwaitis if they wanted it for military purposes — to keep the discussion within the rules of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker — but as far as I know, if some potential speculator or developer has the money, the Duchy will deal with him, whatever his nationality or origin. As I have been trying, and perhaps failing, to explain, it seems extremely unlikely that there will be any military or paramilitary use of the really valuable urban properties of the Duchy of Lancaster, yet that is the basis on which the relaxation of restrictions is proposed in the Bill.

The bulk of the property that might be let for military purposes will be rural, probably in north Yorkshire or south Wales. A considerable quantity of the land that might be used for military purposes is likely to be in national parks or other beautiful areas, far from major centres of population; so wildlife, flora and fauna are likely to be damaged by use for military purposes. That applies not only in the areas that are leased but to areas outside their boundaries. We should try to keep military uses to a minimum, particularly in areas of significant beauty such as I have been discussing.

In 1892, when the Military Lands Act was passed, the number of people in the British armed forces was much greater than it is now, yet our Victorian predecessors felt it right and proper to place these limitation restrictions on the use of Duchy of Lancaster and Duchy of Cornwall land for military purposes. We should stick by what they did.

There is a great deal of technological change in military affairs at present, and it is ludicrous that the Duchy should be empowered to enter into leases for the use of land for military purposes that might be rendered wholly out of date within five years. Even if a lease ran out, it would still be possible for the Ministry of Defence to keep the property and deny ordinary people access to it on the ground that it might be needed at some time in the future. We should keep that sort of alienation of useful, beautiful land to a minimum.

11.15 pm

If there is not some hidden explanation for the Government's proposal to apply this to military land, I cannot see any reason why the Chancellor of the Duchy, who is here tonight, should not be quite willing to accept the specific terms of this new clause and the two amendments. The new clause provides: Any lease of land for military purposes to a Secretary of State shall cease to have effect if the land ceases to be used for military purposes. One would have thought that it was in the interests of the Duchy of Lancaster to have that power in the Bill. It seems to me that it is ceding some of its powers as a landowner to the Ministry of Defence unless it maintains the protection that was provided in the Act, part of which will be amended by the Bill.

Amendment No. 5 would he less restrictive in a sense than the new clause, because it would provide: No land or property within a national park shall be leased by the Chancellor and Council of the Duchy of Lancaster for military purposes to a Secretary of State for more than 21 years and the lease shall cease to have effect if the land ceases to be used for military purposes. That element of protection that we propose would apply only to Duchy of Lancaster land within a national park. There is no way on earth that a property speculator is going to demand a 150-year lease on property in a national park—unless such parks are going to be privatised as well. It may be that this is a sort of paving measure for all sorts of monstrous activities on the part of the Government.

Finally, amendment No. 7 would delete from the schedule of Acts to be repealed the section of the Military Lands Act 1892 which maintains the protection that I have been advocating. It seems worth recalling at this point that at one time the Duchy of Lancaster had no restrictions on the way it conducted its affairs, and the Crown chose then to dispose of its assets, get the capital and spend it. That bears a remarkably close resemblance to the policies of the present Government, who are selling off public assets and using the capital as revenue, which would be unacceptable to the auditors of any private organisation. If they were not the Government, they would get done by the auditors.

Parliament, in its wisdom, decided over the years that this was not a sound way of going on and that if Crown revenues were to be maintained, restrictions should be imposed. One of those restrictions was the restriction on the use of the Duchy's land for military purposes. It seems to me that the reasoning applied by our Victorian predecessors is wholly sound and solid. The Prime Minister talks about Victorian values. These are Victorian values set out in a Victorian Act of Parliament. If the Chancellor of the Duchy wants finally to get that position in the Cabinet where he is the boss of his own Department, and get the failed property speculator who is his boss in the House of Lords out of the way, the best thing he can do is stick by the Victorian values in the Military Lands Act 1892 and accept the new clause that I am proposing.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister of Trade and Industry (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

The Bill's purpose is to free the Duchy of Lancaster from some rather outdated restrictions on its ability to lease land. The Duchy of Lancaster is a fairly substantial landowner, as the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) has described from an accurate answer to a parliamentary question. Obviously, it is the duty of the Duchy to administer the estate in the best possible way to maintain the long-term health of the estate and to obtain. a reasonable return for the benefit of the privy purse.

All that the Bill, including the part that we are now considering, seeks to do is to put the Duchy on exactly the same footing as any other major landowner, with no legal restrictions that are no longer required, but with no intention of behaving other than as a sensible developer and maintainer of its land.

As far as I am aware, in Committee and again today, no one has so far raised the slightest criticism of the behaviour of the Duchy towards any part of its estate. It is fair to say that in modern times the Duchy has given rise to no kind of controversy. I do not think that we are responsible for any undesirable development; if anybody thinks we are, I shall be only too anxious to consider such representations about the way in which we are dealing with the estate or any of its tenants or property.

The Bill is necessary because in the last century quite a bit of legislation was passed which put restrictions on the Duchy's ability to manage, lease and dispose of its land. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the origins of the oldest legislation with which we are dealing go back to times when the estate was beginning to be managed somewhat irresponsibly, when royal finances were in a fairly desperate state and parliamentary interest in the Duchy may not have been as strong as it should have been. However, largely in the early 19th century, all kinds or restrictions were placed on the Duchy which at that time were essential to make sure that the estate was not run down and capital used for discharge of royal debts over which Parliament thought that it should take an interest.

It is an anachronism that all this legislation still lies on the statute book. Modern practice in the management and development of land has changed. Some of the restrictions are now getting in the way of our being able to develop some of the more important holdings of land in a desirable way. That is the principal purpose of the Bill and the repeals that are covered by this part of it.

Mr. Dobson

Does the Minister accept that the collapse of the speculative property market in the early 1970s would suggest that, as well as modern practice being around, there is also modern malpractice? The fact of the matter is that the restrictions presently placed on the Duchy of Lancaster, which, as the Minister said, has a good record for managing its estate, spring partly from the fact that it is restricted and does not do anything stupid or venal as do a considerable number of other property companies.

Mr. Clarke

Sensible practice and development of land in the end depend on well judged decisions being taken on good advice about what is right for a particular plot of land, a well-put-together proposition and the Duchy acting in its own best interests and entering into a lease with a developer on terms that the market at that time is used to and requires for that kind of development.

I have no evidence that at the time of the collapse of the property market in the early 1970s, these statutory restrictions on the Duchy played any part in protecting the Duchy against any schemes that might otherwise have gone ahead. I do not think that any of the provisions of the Acts that we are now repealing have had the slightest practical effect on anything for many years, except that now they inhibit the Duchy's ability to contemplate some of the more ambitious development schemes that we would like to have a look at, in particular for parts of the Savoy estate.

We are dealing with the Military Lands Act 1892. The hon. Gentleman is concerned with one of the least significant of the statutory restrictions. First, let me describe the extent of our interest in military land. To the best of my knowledge and belief, the entire Duchy estate has one drill hall used by the Territorial Army. That is the full extent of our military property that I have been able to discover on, admittedly, a fairly cursory search. That drill hall is not let under the 1892 Act, nor is it covered by that measure. So at present we have absolutely no property covered by the Act and I think that we have not had any covered by it for a long time.

The Duchy is at present not contemplating any military use for any part of its estate. So not only is the provision about which we are talking applicable to absolutely no real live situation, but there is nothing pending which is likely to cause us to need to look at the provisions of the 1892 Act.

Mr. Foulkes

In view of the extensive nature of the lands of the Duchy, is it not surprising, given the extensive military activity throughout the United Kingdom — I have land in my constituency being used for that purpose — that no Duchy lands are being used for military purposes, apart from the Dad's Army type of drill hall to which the Minister referred? If I were permitted to refer to the Duke of Lancaster, I would ask whether this had anything to do with the fact that she is also Commander in Chief of the armed forces. Is it not strange that none of the Duchy's lands are being used for that sort of patriotic purpose?

Mr. Clarke

The great majority of land in the United Kingdom is not used for military purposes. The bulk of the Duchy of Lancaster comprises agricultural estates, historic castles, some woodland, some moorland including that of the national parks—so we are sensitive to the need to preserve the wildlife and its natural beauty—this urban estate in the middle of London and estates in a few towns in the north, including Harrogate.

I do not think that the military have seen any use for it; we have not received any applications for its military use and none has been let for years. So this important 1892 Act which the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras is defending has not played a great part in our nation's affairs, or even the affairs of the Duchy, for a long time.

The Duchy would contemplate the use of its lands for a military purpose only if any of the military authorities showed interest in any of it, which they are not doing at present, and if the national interest in some way required part of the land to be made available for military use. We would contemplate that only if that hypothetical situation arose, and we would go along with that only if we were persuaded that the national interest was involved. We would give a lease for more than 21 years only if that were requested, and then only if it were in the interest of the Duchy.

The Duchy is not giving up any landowner's powers by this measure. We will remain in the position of any other landowner approached by the military authorities for the possible use of its land, and we would be able to accept or refuse in the usual way, subject to the normal representations of the Secretary of State for Defence or whomever wanted to use it.

We are talking about a wholly academic point—the repeal of a late 19th-century piece of legislation which has not made the slightest difference to any part of the County Palatine for years and is not likely to make any difference in the future. While the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras put his case well, he is pressing a minor point by this and later amendments standing in his name.

Mr. Dobson

Is it not a fact that the Duchy would lose a power, since the measure would make any land used for military purposes revert to the Duchy as soon as it stopped being used for those purposes?

Mr. Clarke

Our power would be to let or not to let our land, in the same way as any other landowner would make that decision, and to let it on whatever terms and conditions we wished, with a possible reversion if it was not needed for military purposes. At present, the 1892 Act imposes a constraint on the Duchy because, unlike most landowners, this statutory provision would restrict us to 21 years and make the land revert if the military ceased to use it. With the repeal we would still be free, like any other landowner, freely to consider any approach by the military authorities, in the event of any approach being made.

I think that this is a minor point. Given the fact that this opportunity is being taken to repeal obsolete law, we might as well repeal the lot. There will not be many Duchy Bills; now that there is one, we might as well take this opportunity to get rid of all the 19th-century legislation that is no longer serving a worthwhile purpose.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras gave no reason for a 21-year limitation. He used the most extraordinary argument—that, because it was thought to be right in 1892, for reasons which, as far as I can see, he has not looked up, it must still be right in 1988. That is not a proposition that usually commends itself to the House. Our Victorian forebears no doubt had some reason at the time for imposing the restriction, but none of us knows what on earth it was. As it no longer has any application to the current management of the Duchy land, I suggest that there is no need for it to continue. Therefore, I hope that the House will reject the new clause and the associated amendments.

11.30 pm
Mr. Dobson

Does the Minister not accept that a 21-year lease was the standard short lease in 1892?

Mr. Clarke

It may have been, but it is not now. The fact that it was the practice in 1892 should not guide us when legislating in 1988.

Mr. John Marston (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I am interested in what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said about Victorian Acts of Parliament. For eight years I have listened to his revered leader saying that this Government were based upon Victorian values. Why is he suddenly throwing them out of the window in this callous manner?

Mr. Clarke

In the parlours of Victorian England, their values may have been regarded as largely determined by the Military Land Act 1892, but I doubt it. I think that this Act was regarded as fairly obscure at the time that it was passed. I do not think we shall be shattering Victorian values if we repeal it now.

Question put and negatived.

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