HL Deb 12 July 1961 vol 233 cc261-8

8.54 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty The Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Crown Estate Bill, has consented to place Her Majesty's interest, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purpose of the Bill.


My Lords, this Bill is intended to complete the reorganisation of the administration of the Crown Estate following the report of the Committee on Crown Lands in 1955 of which Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve was Chairman. The Crown Estate Commissioners who were appointed under the Crown Estate Act, 1956, were asked, as one of their tasks, to review the Crown Lands Acts so that these might be brought up to date. The existing Crown Lands Acts under which the Commissioners operate go back over the years to 1829. They set out in some detail how the Crown Estate should be managed. The present Bill repeals these detailed Acts. It sets out the general duties of the Commissioners and gives them authority to manage the Crown Estate on behalf of the Crown without being tied down to detailed control over their management either by the Statutes or by the Treasury.

The Crown Estate is primarily an estate in land and the Bill provides that it should continue to be so. However, there are also valuable urban properties, some of an historic or artistic nature, in and around Landon, such as the Regent's Park Terraces, Regent Street, Carlton House Terrace, Richmond and Blackheath. The agricultural estates in England and Wales cover some 180,000 acres and in Scotland over 100,000 acres which include considerable areas of hill and moorland. There are also over 11,000 acres of forest land, the bulk of it in Windsor Forest.

The Crown Estate Commissioners have a really formidable task and I am sure the House will agree that we are indebted to Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve and his fellow Commissioners for the service they have rendered since 1956 in managing the Crown Estate. We now seek in this Bill to help them in the full and proper discharge of their duties, by giving them up-to-date powers rather wider than they now have and by removing some of the restrictions that have hampered them in the general management of the Estate.

Clause 1 puts them—for the first time—under the general statutory duty to maintain and enhance the value of the Crown Estate and the return obtained from it, though with due regard to requirements of good management. It also re-enacts the provisions of the 1956 Act under which the Commissioners are subject to the directions of the appropriate Ministers—at the present time my right honourable friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Scotland.

While the Bill in general gives the Commissioners the independence recommended by the Committee on Crown Lands, Clause 2 incorporates provisions designed to enable Parliament and the Treasury to know how they are discharging their responsibilities. These include the making of Annual Reports to Her Majesty and to Parliament, the keeping of proper accounts and the submission of these to the Comptroller and Auditor General and to Parliament, and the supply to the Treasury of any information they require.

Clause 3 deals with points of management. The most important is the requirement in subsection (1) that the Commissioners shall not dispose of an interest in land except for the best consideration which in their opinion can reasonably be obtained, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, but excluding any element of monopoly value attributable to the extent of the Crown's ownership of comparable land. Although the provisions and powers are largely based on existing provisions and powers, there was some criticism in another place on the grounds that the general duty of 'the Commissioners to maintain and enhance the Crown Estate, which is the new provision I have already referred to in Clause 1 (3), coupled with the instruction to obtain the best consideration which can reasonably be obtained under Clause 3 (1), may lead 'the Commissioners to be unduly exacting or avaricious in the course of their duties. This is not in fact a fair interpretation, and that is made clear by a number of important qualifications incorporated in the Bill.

First, the general duty is itself subject to the qualification that there must be due regard to the requirements of good management. There may be cases, for example in the letting of farms, where it would not necessarily be good management to take the highest bid because, like any good landowner, the Commissioners would have regard to the general competence of the bidder, his ability as a farmer, his farming programme, his financial standing and his reputation. Secondly, in applying the requirement to obtain the best consideration, the Commissioners must have regard to all the circumstances of the case and this would include, for example, the use to which the land is to be put, whether for a commercial undertaking or not, and whether, and if so to what extent, that use might benefit directly or indirectly the Crown Estate.

Thirdly, any element of monopoly value is to be excluded. This arises in particular out of the difficult problem of valuing rights to use the foreshore and the bed of the sea which are part of the Crown Estate, and where the Crown Estate may appear to have a monopoly or a near monopoly. The application of the Commissioners' general duties when dealing with foreshore and seabed cases has been very closely examined by the Government and the Commissioners. Where any appreciable sum of money is involved such cases will be referred by the Commissioners to the Valuation Office who will advise the Commissioners as to what is a reasonable consideration in the circumstances of the case, after giving the valuers of the intended purchaser or lessee an opportunity to express their views. The Commissioners have agreed that they will be willing to accept the figures assessed by the Valuation Office on the basis of instructions that the Commissioners have agreed with the Government.

There are also certain qualifications contained in the following clauses of the Bill. Clause 4 enables the Commissioners to make grants of land at less than the best consideration, or to make contributions for certain public or charitable purposes provided that this would be in the interest of the Crown Estate or of persons residing or employed on the Estate. Clause 5 defines the Commissioners' special duties in regard to the management of the Windsor Estate. In this case the duty is to continue the present policy of preserving the character of the Windsor Estate as a Royal Park and Forest. But the Commissioners will be entitled to dispose of land for public use in exchange for land of a similar acreage contiguous to the Windsor Estate.

The rest of the Bill is to all intents and purposes either a re-enactment of existing statutory provisions—since this is a consolidating as well as an amending Bill—or a tidying up of the present position. Clause 7 which deals with the powers of the Minister of Works in Regent's Park comes into the tidying up category. It may not be generally known that the Zoological Gardens occupy land which is at present divided in regard to management between the Minister of Works and the Crown Estate Commissioners. This clause will now have the effect of putting all land occupied by the Zoo under the management of the Minister of Works. My Lords, I have dealt with the main provisions of this Bill, but, of course, if there are any points which other noble Lords would care to raise I should be only too pleased to clear them up in so far as I am able. In the meanwhile, I commend this Bill to your Lordships on the grounds that it carries out the recommendations of the Committee on Crown Lands, gives the Commissioners the up-to-date powers they need to carry out their duties of looking after the Crown Estate with maximum efficiency and at the same time greatly simplifies the statutory provisions. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. (Lord Hastings.)

9.6 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friends on this side of the House approve of this Bill as the logical completion of the reorganisation recommended by the Trustram Eve Committee, and we hope that it will facilitate the task of the Commissioners. There is a curious old-world flavour about some of the Bill. It traces the Crown Estate back to the Domesday Book, the Schedule to the Bill repeals part of a Statute of Charles II, and the part about the Crown ownership of the foreshore and the seabed up to the three-mile territorial limit has an old-world ring about it. I wonder, incidentally, whether this ownerships of the seabed has been a factor in consideration of the international negotiations on limits of territorial waters.

One point on the management of the properties causes one some anxiety, and I wonder whether the noble Lord can give us any enlightenment. He drew your Lordships' attention to the fact that the Commissioners are charged with the maintaining and enhancing the value and the returns from the estate with due regard to the requirements of good management, and they are told to sell only at the highest price. Those are difficult requirements to meet at the present time. There are a great many estates where it may be that they manage them well and profitably, but very much to the detriment of the general public by indiscriminate building and commercialisation of the properties. We know that the Crown are not subject to planning legislation, and it would therefore be perfectly within their rights, it seems to me, for the Crown Estate to follow the deplorable example of the Minister of Aviation in allowing advertisement on buildings on London Airport. If the Commissioners are really to follow their instructions and make the maximum revenue out of the property—which I suppose is what is meant by "good management"—what is to restrain them from lapses of taste such as we have discussed in your Lordships' House to-day or yesterday?

Then there is Clause 1 (4), about the directions that can be given by the Ministers to the Commissioners, and I hope the noble Lord will tell us that the Ministers would have no hesitation in giving directions to the Commissioners to ensure that the Crown estates generally are managed and developed with due regard to the public interest, to the common good and the general amenities, and to the requirements of good planning and development.

I must say that it gives one great hope that the Commissioners do act in an enlightened way when one sees what nay have done to Regent's Park Terraces. It was a long time ago when the Gorell Committee made the first recommendations for those Terraces, and I think it was the Government of which my noble friend Lord Attlee was Prime Minister which authorised the first steps for restoration. I see that work is going on actively now in restoring the Terraces, and a particularly ingenious piece of restoration and reconstruction has been done in Park Crescent whereby the front elevation of the Crescent has been reconstructed as an exact replica of the original, and yet behind it there are eight storey blocks of flats in the luxury class, which I imagine will bring in considerable revenue to the Crown Estate.

I think the Nash Terraces as a whole have been most excellently dealt with by the Commissioners: they have acted in the most enlightened way and have taken the best advice; and that encourages us to hope that they will act in an equally enlightened way in the future. But, all the same, there is a conflict between the requirements of good management and those of good planning and the Minister's power to give directions. I hope that that reserve power will never have to be used, but I see it is there in reserve so we may be confident that the estates will continue to be managed to the best advantage of all of us.

9.12 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for welcoming this Bill on behalf of the Opposition and I will try to reply to the points he made, in particular about the question of economics clashing with the public interest. Of course, as the noble Earl has pointed out indirectly, and as everybody knows, the revenue from Crown estates go to the Exchequer, and they are run on behalf of Her Majesty for the public benefit.

When it comes to planning, I think that the Commissioners really find themselves in much the same position as a private landowner. The landowner normally will sell only land which will not interfere with the natural and better development of his agricultural estate. He may, on occasions, have to sell land for economic reasons, but he will be very careful where he does so. But once that land is sold, of course, the people who buy it come under planning control. The same position arises with Crown estates. Although they are not themselves subject to planning control, they become subject to planning control when people take the building leases on them. The Commissioners always seek to co-operate with the planning authorities and expect to conform to provisions contained in development plans. I hope that will satisfy the noble Earl sufficiently because the Commissioners do take great care in this matter and, as I have said, the people who take over the land, whether they have bought it or leased it, are definitely subject to planning control.

I am sure the Estate Commissioners will be grateful to the noble Earl for pointing out the fine work they have in fact done in Regent's Park Terraces. They have always taken very great care of the historic buildings in their charge and, I think quite rightly, claim to have a very good record in that respect. As to questions on direction by the Minister, as the noble Earl said, reserve powers are there and can be used, but I think that it will probably not be necessary. The Crown Estate Commissioners are a body of very experienced and reputable people who have done a very good job, and I have no doubt that under this new Bill they will be able to do an even better job than they have done in the past. I am most grateful to the noble Earl for the welcome he has given this Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.