HL Deb 18 March 1971 vol 316 cc572-8

3.47 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Bill implements the undertakings to abolish betterment levy and to dissolve the Land Commission given by present Ministers when in Opposition at the time the 1967 Act was going through Parliament, in the Election manifesto and subsequently in my Statement to your Lordships' House on July 22 last.

The Land Commission were established by the Land Commission Act 1967 with wide powers, under Part II, to acquire and dispose of land for development, operating through a Land Acquisition and Management Fund; and under Part III, to assess and collect a levy (known as betterment levy) on the development value realised in land transactions or at the start of development. The Commission began to exercise these functions on April 6, 1967, the first appointed day under that Act.

On the land side, this Bill abolishes the Land Acquisition and Management Fund (at the same time writing off its outstanding debts of rather less than £13 million) and charges the Secretary of State with disposing of the land held by the Commission. To facilitate this disposal, the Secretary of State is given a new power to acquire neighbouring land if necessary, though only by agreement and not by compulsory purchase as the Land Commission were able to do. On the levy side, levy is no longer to be chargeable on development and transactions as from July 23, 1970, the day after my Statement. Instead, powers will be taken in the 1971 Finance Act to collect a percentage of development value since July 22 through other taxation legislation.

Allowing for the lengthy processes of notification, assessment and possible altercation, including reference to the Lands Tribunal, we expect it will lake two or three years to collect all the outstanding levy due in respect of development and transactions prior to July 23 last year. To allow for its collection by the Land Commission up to the time of the abolition of the Commission (we hope to make May 1 the appointed day) and by the Secretary of State after that, most of Parts III and IV of the Land Commission Act have had to be retained, including 12 of the original 17 lengthy Schedules. The Bill contains powers for these to be repeated by order in due course so as to tidy up the Statute Book once the provisions have been spent.

Turning now from that general summary to the detailed contents of the Bill, Clause 1 is the heart of the Bill. Subsection (1) of that clause makes betterment levy no longer chargeable in respect of acts or events after July 22, 1970. It empowers the Secretary of State to make an appointed day order abolishing the Land Commission—that is subsection (2)—and transfers on the appointed day the functions of the Commission and their property rights and liabilities to the Secretary of State—that is subsection (3).

Here perhaps I should say that it is intended that the Secretary of State for the Environment will discharge the functions in England and Wales; and the Secretary of State for Scotland in Scotland. Subsection (4) and its associated Schedule 1 specifies some technical amendments to the 1967 Act associated with the abolition of the betterment levy notifications, and repeals those parts of the Land Commission Act either already superfluous or which will become so when the Commission cease to exist. Subsection (5) facilitates the proof of instruments made by the Commission in legal proceedings.

So far as the first of these subsections is concerned—the abolition of the levy as from July 22—transactions occurring after that date will be subject to capital gains and corporation tax. Details of how that taxation will operate were set out in the Written Answer given in another place by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on December 2, 1970. Those are to be found in the OFFICIAL REPORT of the House of Commons, column 421. On subsections (2) and (3), I have already referred to our intention to make the Appointed Day Order on May 1, and from then on the Department of the Environment will be responsible for cases in England and Wales and the Scottish Development Department for cases in Scotland. As a practical matter, in order to minimise administration costs the technical work of assessment, et cetera, is being concentrated at Croydon, which is the only one of the Land Commission's offices that is being retained to wind up the Commission's affairs. On May 1 that unit will become part of the Department of the Environment. A small section at St. Andrew's House will do the corresponding work on Scottish cases.

Subsection (4) provides for the amendment or repeal of those parts of the 1967 Act that are specified in Schedule 1. The amendments and repeals are divided between those coming into operation on the passing of the Act (Parts I and II of Schedule 1) and those coming into effect from the appointed day (Part III); that is to say, when the Land Commission are dissolved. The subsection also provides that as from the appointed day the 1967 Act shall have effect as amended by this Bill. This enables the Secretary of State to use such of the powers of that Act as he requires to discharge his winding up functions, notably assessment of some £9 million worth of levy and the collection of £27 million worth. Where the powers under the 1967 Act will no longer be needed, those sections and complete Parts are being repealed now, and the Secretary of State is empowered to repeal the remainder by Order, laid in draft, when they are finally spent. So much for Clause 1.

Clause 2 is the financial clause of the Bill, winding up the Land Acquisition and Management Fund, requiring all future sums received by the Secretary of State to be paid into the Consolidated Fund, and providing for the use of voted monies to carry out the functions and meet the liabilities he is taking over from the Land Commission. It is expected that the debts of the Fund will amount to rather less than £13 million, together with a small amount of interest accumulated since the last interest payment was made. Subsection (1)(b) of Clause 2 provides for this debt to be extinguished, the effect of which is to add to the amount of the Consolidated Fund's residual liability for the National Debt. As the Commission's land assets, vested in the Secretary of State under Clause 1(3), are sold off, some £8½ million should be paid into the Consolidated Fund.

Subsection (2) of Clause 2 requires the Secretary of State to pay into the Consolidated Fund all receipts from betterment levy, after deducting, as the Land Commission now do, any necessary monies for repayments where, for example, levy was overcharged or wrongly charged; and, of course, receipts from the sale of land. In addition to the usual accounts and reports from the Comptroller and Auditor General, it is the Secretary of State's intention to set out in due course in a departmental publication an account of the winding up of the Commission's affairs.

Turning to Clause 3, your Lordships will see that this is about land disposal. It requires the Secretary of State to dispose of the Commission's land holdings in such a way as appears to him expedient in the public interest, and it prohibits the acquisition of any more land, apart from land needed to facilitate disposal of those holdings. Any such acquisition would have to be by agreement, as the clause specifically rules out compulsory purchases for this purpose. Provision is made for monies to be voted by Parliament, like all the other expenses of winding up the Commission and the levy, and, as I have said, Clause 2 has already provided that the sums received for the land in due course will be paid into the Consolidated Fund. The general policy will be to dispose of the land as quickly as possible, consistent with the need to do so to the best advantage and in an orderly manner, and the Land Commission (having where practicable given the original owners first offer) already have this in hand through a series of public auctions. Some parcels of land may have to be held for a period of years because of lease complications or to enable the best disposal of them to be made—for example, as serviced building land—but the general aim is to dispose of as much as possible right away.

Subsection (1) of Clause 3 makes it clear that this does not prejudice the power of the Commission, or the Secretary of State, to complete purchases initiated before the passing of the Act. This is necessary because some of these acquisitions will not have been completed by the appointed day, and the Secretary of State must have power to carry on with these transactions to which he has been committed. It may be necessary for the Secretary of State (or, between the passing of the Act and the appointed day, the Commission) to acquire additional land near land already owned by the Commission, in order to be able to dispose of the Commission's land to the best advantage—for example, land to round off a site or to form an additional access to a site. Powers to do this are contained in subsection (2). We do not in fact expect to make extensive use of this provision. Clause 4 makes the normal provision made by successive Governments in respect of members of public boards.

It is the Government's intention that the legislation concerning the Land Commission shall be repealed when this can be appropriately done. Clause 5 provides for the repeal without the need for a further Bill when it appears to the Secretary of State that the legislation is no longer needed. As it may be some years before all disputed levy cases have been determined and the levy collected, and because it may also be some years before the last claim for compensation has been settled in respect of land acquired by the Commission, no Order can be made under this clause in the near future. When an Order is made, it will be in effect little more than an Appointed Day Order for tidying up the Statute Book, because the remaining provisions of the Land Commission Act 1967 and the other enactments will be spent. It will be laid in draft before Parliament.

Clause 6 deals with the consequential amendments and repeals to other Acts by bringing in Schedules 2 and 3. Subsection (1) of Clause 6 introduces Schedule 2, which amends parts of the Town and Country Planning Act 1968 and the Town and Country (Scotland) Act 1969. This retains the definition of the date when a development is taken to be begun, so that the provisions of these Acts (and also the Transport (London) Act 1969) about a time limit on planning permissions may continue to operate; and also in its appendices sets out in full provisions in the Planning Acts about general vesting declarations which refer, as a sort of shorthand, to certain sections of the Land Commission Act. Subsection (2) introduces Schedule 3, which makes the necessary associated repeals in the two Town and Country Planning Acts, the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1957 and the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967.

Clause 7 covers the short title, interpretation and extent. Subsection (2) of that clause defines "appointed day" as the day on which the Land Commission are abolished and the Secretary of State takes over. Subsection (3) provides that, except in so far as it repeals Section 1(5) of the 1967 Act, the Act shall not extend to Northern Ireland. This is because the 1967 Act itself did not cover Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I doubt whether there is any need for me to go through the Schedules in any detail or at all as I have, I hope, already made sufficient reference to them, and to their purpose and their contents, in the course of going through the clauses. I hope that that will be a sufficient explanation of the purposes and the contents of the Bill which I beg to move.


My Lords, I do not wish to delay the proceedings, but may I ask one question which I think is important because some of us have seen this kind of thing happen before. When these parcels of land are being dispersed and put up for auction, will the Minister ensure that the maximum amount of publicity is given, in the ordinary Press and elsewhere, so that everybody will have an opportunity and not only those concerned with land and particular professional people, who may gain this information much more easily than the layman in this avenue of public affairs? Has the Minister got the point I am trying to make?


Yes, my Lords, I have got the point, but I have not anything to add to the process which I described; namely, that the land is first offered to the owner, then to the local authorities, and then at public auction. All public auction involves publicity.

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