HL Deb 26 July 1961 vol 233 cc1053-9

5.0 p.m.

Order of the Day read for the Bill to be considered on Report.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Report be now received. Your Lordships will remember that on Committee stage a considerable discussion arose between the noble Earl, Lord Lucan, and the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, on the one hand, who put down an Amendment, and myself, on the other hand, as to the precise legal interpretation of Clause 1 (3), of this Bill, with particular reference.to its possible effects on the powers of direction given to the appropriate Minister under Clause 1 (4), especially if Commissioners, in the course of their management of the Crown Estate, were to act contrary to the requirements or wishes of a planning authority.

My Lords, the brief answer is that the appropriate Minister can give directions in such a case; but as the matter is rather complicated, I think I had better set it out in some detail. Before doing so, however, I should like to assure the two noble Lords opposite that I have carried out my promise, and have ensured that most careful consideration has been given to this matter by the legal experts. By that, I do not mean only the legal experts of the Crown Estate Office itself—in fact, I have the permission of the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor to say that the legal interpretation which I am about to give the House has met with his full approval and agreement.

Now Clause 1 (3) of this Bill imposes upon the Crown Estate Commissioners a general duty to maintain and enhance the value of and return from the Crown Estate "with due regard to the requirements of good management", while Clause 1 (4) provides that the appropriate Minister, in giving directions to the Commissioners as to the discharge of their functions, shall have regard to this general duty. The noble Lords opposite have criticised subsection (3) because, they have suggested, it puts upon the Crown Estate Commissioners a duty only to get the greatest possible financial profit from the Crown Estate, and therefore precludes them from taking into consideration the general amenities of the neighbourhood and the proposals of the planning authorities. The noble Lords opposite have suggested, further, that if the Commissioners were to disregard amenities and planning they could not be given a direction to take such considerations into account if, by doing so, they would be prevented from getting the best financial return from the Crown Estate.

My reply to this criticism was that the reference in Clause 1 (3) to the "requirements of good management" must surely enable the Commissioners to consider such matters, but this answer did not entirely satisfy the noble Lords opposite, who felt that perhaps it did not cover some cases which they had in mind. For instance, it might be that a particular development of land in the Crown Estate could not be regarded as being prejudicial to the Crown Estate, either because there was no other Crown Estate land in the neighbourhood or because the particular development proposed was most beneficial for the land in question, though such development might still be injurious to the neighbourhood as a whole or to the overall planning of the neighbourhood.

Although this is true, I am advised that Clause 1 (3) does not require the Commissioners, in a case of this sort, necessarily to put their own financial interests before the interests of their neighbours, but gives them a discretion as to which they shall prefer. If this were not the meaning, there would be no place at all in the Bill for Clause 3 (1), since it would merely be repetitious to add an express provision (as Clause 3 (1) does) that the Commissioners cannot lease or otherwise dispose of land except for the best consideration they can get. Furthermore, I must point out that in Clause 3, subsections (6) and (7), and in Clause 4, subsection (3), there are express provisions which take away from the strictness of Clause 3 (1) but without modifying the general duty. If, as the noble Lords opposite have said, the Commissioners are required by Clause 1 (3) to get all they can on every occasion, these latter provisions would be meaningless and, in fact, would not be necessary.

In considering this question we must look at the Bill as a whole. If we do so, the proper interpretation to put on Clause 1 (3) is that it does no mare than lay down 'a general aim which the Commissioners are to pursue in their management of the Crown Estate as a whole; and that it does nothing to preclude them, in dealing with particular parts of the Crown Estate, from taking account of matters other than financial considerations. From this it must follow that the Minister can likewise take account of them, in considering whether or not he should issue any direction to the Commissioners under Clause 1 (4).

I do not think the noble Lords opposite need be alarmed—if, indeed, they are—because nothing like Clause 1 (3) is contained in the Statutes under which the Commissioners and their predecessors have hitherto operated. Nor need they feel that this is a new duty which would require the Commissioners to change their practice. I can assure them that this is not a new duty, although it is the first time it has been given statutory form. The Crown Estate is, of its nature, that pant of the possession of the Crown which is kept to produce revenue for the Crown. It was precisely for this reason that the division was made in 1851 between this land and the land used for functional Government purposes, when the Commissioners of Works were set up to take over the latter. Before the predecessors of the Crown Estate Commissioners took over, the hereditary possessions were managed by the Barons of the Exchequer. Thus your Lordships will see that the general duty to use the land to produce revenue has always existed. The only change produced by this Bill is that that duty is now set out. The real question to be considered to-day is whether the wording in the Bill is such as to make that duty too stringent. I hope that noble Lords will agree that, taking the Bill as a whole, the duty is not too stringently expressed.

If I may return to the position of the Minister—for this is the crux of the matter—the noble Lords opposite were concerned about how the power to give directions under Clause 1 (4), ties in with the general duty under Clause 1 (3), and whether, in particular, it is open to the appropriate Minister to take a different view from the Commissioners as to what are the requirements of good management. Since Clause 1 (3) does not of itself require the Commissioners to look to nothing but money on each occasion, equally there is nothing in it to prevent the Minister in a particular case from telling the Commissioners that they are not paying enough attention to the neighbourhood as a whole but are concentrating too much on the financial aspect. The Commissioners would be bound under the Statute to carry out such a direction because the act which it would require them to perform would be something that they were empowered to do by the Statute.

My Lords, it is the official, legal opinion that I have just given noble Lords, of course; not my own at all—it is much better than that. I hope very much that the noble Lords opposite will feel satisfied, and that they will not feel it necessary to press their point any further. Of course, I do not wish to rush them, if they wish to consider the matter and discuss it again on Third Reading, but if they do not wish to do so, perhaps they would signify their consent to proceeding with the remaining stages of the Bill. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Report be now received.—(Lord Hastings.)

5.10 p.m.


My Lords, it has required a very long, detailed and complicated explanation to tell us why a few simple words, which we suggested should be incorporated into the Bill, are not to he included. Those words were that, while the Crown Commissioners are to have regard to the requirements of good management, and to maintain and enhance the value of the property, they should also take into consideration the requirements of good own planning. If the noble Lord had Seen his way to accepting those few words—and I have not heard a single word of objection to those words being incorporated in the Bill—all this explanation would have been wholly unnecessary.

What he has told us is that as good landlords they will have regard to these things, and that, if they do not, the Government, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, can give a direction that they should. I am still in some doubt whether the Chancellor can give a direction to require the Crown Commissioners to do something which in terms they are not obliged to do under tie Bill. They may do it, and no doubt, so long as the Crown Commissioners are directed by the spirit of good public relations, they will. But if they decided in a particular case that the stakes were so high that the interests of good management and the return that they could not superseded the interests of good planning, they would be in a position to consider the profit rather than the interest of the amenities of the neighbourhood. In that case, I still say that the Chancellor could not require them to exercise their functions in the way he would wish it.

However, having said hat, I am prepared to admit that the point is, to a great extent perhaps, somewhat academic, because I cannot imagine that the Crown Commissioners would, in fact, wish to challenge a direction if the Minister felt disposed to issue one. If I have the assurance, and if my noble friend is satisfied with the assurance, that in practice the Chancellor will have regard to town planning considerations if, by some chance, the Commissioners should omit them, I shall be content.

This might arise in specific cases of great public interest and controversy. For instance, I do not know who is the owner of Piccadilly Circus, about which there has been a good deal of fuss; but in that case it is no doubt the fact that the interest of getting good value has dominated the interests of good town planning. In such a case (and this is purely hypothetical, because I have no idea who are the owners of Piccadilly Circus),if the owners do happen to be the Crown Commissioners, and if the Chancellor would be prepared to step in and say, "You must have regard to good town planning, even if your return is slightly less", then, as I have said, I do not imagine the Crown Commissioners would want to dispute that, or to go to the courts and say that, under subsection (4) of Clause 1 of the Bill, the Minister has no right to issue such a direction. I cannot conceive of that. So I am content if it is clearly understood that they will have regard to town planning considerations, and that, if necessary, the Chancellor would exercise his power of issuing a direction under subsection (4) of Clause 1. In those circumstances, subject to the agreement of my noble friends, I should not wish to impede the business of the House, and I would agree to the Bill's receiving a Third Reading to-day.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for what he has said, and I am sorry that. I have not been able to satisfy him entirely by getting the inclusion of the additional words in this subsection. I do not think it would be the wish of the House that I should again go over the ground which we covered on Second Reading and on Committee stage, as to the precise difference between good management and town planning, and as to the precise duties and the nature of the Crown Estate Commissioners' Office.

As for the assurance for which he has asked me, I do not on my own authority, of course, give such an assurance, but I cannot help feeling that really such an assurance is implicit in this legal opinion which I have given, and which, as I said, has been approved by my noble and learned friend who sits on the Woolsack. I cannot believe that the Law Officers of the Crown, and therefore the Chancellor of the Exchequer, would in any way differ from this interpretation. I hope that the noble Lord will consider that a satisfactory reply; and I really feel that there is nothing to worry about. I think that he himself is fairly confident that the Crown Estate Commissioners will comply with any such direction, and would not argue the case in a matter of town planning where the Minister became involved. I thank noble Lords very much for their consent and agreement.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Then Standing Order No. 41 having been suspended (pursuant to the Resolution of July 13):


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be read 3a.—(Lord Hastings.)

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed.