HL Deb 29 January 1975 vol 356 cc483-98

Viscount RIDLEY rose to call attention to the progress in the reclamation of derelict land in the United Kingdom in recent years; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, may I first express my gratitude to your Lord-ships for the opportunity to debate this subject. We have not debated it for just over three years and there has been much development since then. It is not at all a romantic subject; indeed, the whole problem of derelict land is as unspectacular and unexciting as anything that could come before your Lordships' House, but I think that this is largely because it is very much a non-political subject. In a country which at the moment is so deeply divided on many matters it is good that we can occasionally find ourselves dealing with something where both sides of the House can get things done without interruption. In this case we have such an example.

The message I wish to give to your Lordships this afternoon is a simple one. The reclamation of derelict land in Great Britain has so far been very much a success story. It is little more than 10 years since any serious attempt was made to tackle this problem. By the end of 1973—and for reasons to which I shall refer later these are the most recent figures—in England alone we had restored something like 26,000 acres of dereliction. I regret that I cannot give the figures for Scotland and Wales, but they, too, were considerable. The average cost of this has worked out at just over £2,000 an acre and the total sum spent in the last eight years is just under £60 million. I hesitate to pepper my speech with statistics, for nothing can be duller, but these essential facts may help to give perspective to the subject before your Lordships. I submit this figure is a very good investment indeed for the country; not only that, there is the excellent effect it must have on the depressed areas where there is derelict land. This alone makes the work which is being done extremely valuable.

It would be right for me at the outset to pay tribute to those involved in this work. I think I can say without argument that the past three Governments—the present one, the Conservative Government and the Labour Government before it—were in absolute agreement as to the measures which had to be taken to get this work under way. The Government's grant ranges from a very generous figure of 85 per cent. in development areas, to 50 per cent. in the more prosperous areas, with intervening figures, such as 75 per cent. in National Parks, for example. This may sound a large percentage grant, but it is a matter of history that only when the grant rose above the 50 per cent. for the depressed areas did anything really begin to move.

This very high grant has been of great help where the burden has been heaviest, in the North, in Scotland and in Wales. It is a matter for argument whether the 85 per cent. grant is yet high enough. It may be a fruitless argument to continue to debate that; some would have it higher, some would think it is fair enough as it is. But the level of the percentage of this grant is less important than that there should be a guarantee which is as strong as possible that the grant will continue for as long as it is necessary to finish the job. Of course, I am not at this moment apprehensive that any change in the wind is about to appear here. I hope the Government will give those involved the maximum possible assurance that it will be possible to continue the grant. There is no evidence either that any county council or other local authority is being forced to abandon its plans for restoration, or even to postpone them. It would be tragic if this happened. We must recognise that local authorities are meeting their share of the costs through borrowed money. This makes the importance of continuity of the grant even more obvious.

I should also like to thank those in the Department of the Environment who have been very kind in helping me with facts and figures for this debate. I have had a lot of contact with several country councils who are more deeply involved all over the country. If I had had time I should have liked to visit many of their schemes because, where possible, this is something that anyone interested should do. The message which comes through from all the county councils involved is that, one and all, they stress the importance of continuity in keeping a staff of trained people together to continue this work. The acquisition of these sites can in itself be a lengthy business and they must continuously plan and build up a programme. The contractors who are responsible for the work need to know in advance what might be coming forward. It is relevant here to say that as most of this work is done in the winter such information is of real benefit to those employed by contractors.

Difficult technical problems have been overcome. For example, the type of vegetation which will grow on these places, and the problems of coping with a coal spoil heap which is burning at a temperature of over 1,000 degrees centigrade. I should not like to single out too many individuals responsible for the successes—this is always a dangerous thing to do. But Mr. Atkinson, the county planning officer of the County of Durham, must have special mention as a pioneer in this field. He has given a lead to so many other places. That county, which has suffered so much from dereliction in the past, is an example to all the others. In Wales I have been much helped by the county planning officer of Mid Glamorgan, to whom I shall refer briefly later; and in Scotland I think we should pay special tribute to the county planning officer of Fife, Mr. Taylor; he deserves a special word for what he has done for that county. I have had a chance to see what Fife has done. In particular, there are most dramatic photographs of what things looked like before and afterwards. It is remarkable and magnificent to see sheep grazing on perfect grass fields within twelve months of the start of the scheme on a very unpleasant pit heap. I would not wish, and it would be totally wrong, to go into these things in detail this afternoon. Fife has created from an extremely unpleasant area a large series of lakes and islands which are open for recreation, and which deserve the highest possible praise.

So far I have been talking mainly about coal and similar extractive industries. It is perhaps surprising to find, of all the counties in England, that Cornwall has the worst acreage, nearly 16,000 acres, in need of treatment. I have not had any personal experience of this, but the problems are caused by the china clay industry and they are very different from those that coal leaves behind. After saying that this is a success story, it will come as a surprise to your Lordships to know that in fact the acreage of derelict land has been increasing over the past ten years. It seems as if things are going backwards. For example, the English acreage has risen from 85,000 acres in 1964, to 97,000 acres in 1971. This is not so bad as it sounds. The reasons for it are that the definition of derelict land has changed considerably in the intervening period, and a great many sites, which were previously in the process of being worked, now come into the category only when the working ceases so the situation is not so bad as it might appear.

Recently the Government have undertaken a survey of this problem throughout the country. I had hoped to have those figures for this debate. I have seldom ever won a place in the ballot for debate, let along come out top at the beginning of the year. Perhaps I should have hoped to come out a little lower in the list and then I could have given the figures. I hope that the Government will give us some idea when these figures are likely to be published; and whether, when they publish them, they will consider making clear to the country the success that has been achieved, and how we wish to continue this and, in some form or other, give the widest possible publicity to what is happening. The English total on the latest figures, as I have said, is over 97,000 acres, of which it is thought some 65,000 acres will justify treatment. I do not have any accurate figures for Scotland, but it is thought that about 15,000 acres, mostly concentrated in coal fields, are also involved. The latest figure which we know for Wales puts the acreage at about 13,000. But these figures may be wrong.

So we may assume that about 90,000 acres in Great Britain will need treatment to restore them from dereliction. If we assume that the cost of this will rise from the £2,000 which I have mentioned to something like £2,500 per acre, the nation will need to spend about £230 million to complete this work. This is a large sum of money, but it would be spread, inevitably, over at least ten years and possibly up to 20 years. That makes it a possibility. Against this, one has to set the value of the land which will be restored. At that price, if it was restored only for agriculture in an island as overcrowded as this one, we should find ourselves with a very good investment indeed. Much of this land will become even more valuable than for agriculture; after a period some of it will be capable of being used for industrial or housing purposes. I do not think the country need be ashamed of having to face up to a bill of that magnitude.

There are several other aspects of this problem to which I should like to refer, but I do not wish to speak for too long as I know that this is a short debate, and there are many other speakers. It is frequently said that those who caused the dereliction should be made to pay for it in some form or other. This sounds admirable. But what it means is that we should impose a levy on the Coal Board, who, through no fault of their own, are the principal offenders. They cannot get the coal out without creating dereliction. If we imposed such a levy, that would push up the price of coal and that is not the object of the exercise. If possible, some tax, some small contribution, should be levied on those who cause dereliction. There are complaints from Mid Glamorgan regarding the unhelpful attitude of the National Coal Board in tipping waste in the same area where extensive restoration is proceeding. This is the kind of thing I hope can be sorted out.

The question of compensation is a matter which is now before the Stevens Committee and it would probably be wrong for me to go into this in greater detail at the moment. I think most local authorities feel that they could have some small contribution from owners of the land in that they might be persuaded to give the land or at least to sell it for a very small sum to the benefit of the tax-payer and the ratepayer, in order that the cost of land acquisition might be reduced. In the North of England I understand the average figure—though averages are always hopelessly misleading—of cost of land acquired from the National Coal Board is about £150 per acre. This is not a high percentage, but it would represent a valuable contribution if it were possible to achieve it. The National Coal Board is always extremely helpful in selling its derelict land in almost all cases I have heard of, and the approval is always obtained. British Railways, throughout the country, always appear to give quite the opposite impression.

There is another absurdity which I think should be tackled. The most evil-smelling dead pit heap carries no liability for rates, but if someone uses part of it, for roadworks or a similar profitable purpose, then rates are levied on it as it is a "business". This seems to be a nonsense. I should have thought it ought to be the other way round: there should be a heavy rate on derelict land which is reduced the moment restoration is started. We might then have a number of private schemes going on at that level. The Professional Institutions' Council for Conservation—I apologise for such a mouthful—have just published a valuable report on the subject which I commend to those who are interested. They make a number of suggestions which I will not go through in detail now.

There is, however, one suggestion which I would strongly oppose, perhaps predictably in view of my own involvement; that is, that instead of leaving this matter to local authorities with Government aid as at present, there should be regional reclamation units covering the whole country. I most strongly suggest this is no time to do this. I cannot see any advantage in this. There is at present a useful joint venture, for example, between Lancashire and Greater Manchester, working across their boundaries. This proves that it can be done and I would suggest that this is the way to do it. In ten years local authorities have in fact broken the back of many of the problems. I know that so far not half the acreage has been dealt with, but we must recognise that the worst and most offensive schemes are the ones that people wish to tackle first. The ones that have been dealt with include nearly all the most unpleasant and noxious areas. Having reached this halfway mark and having achieved considerable success—for which they deserve praise—most county councils would not like to see any change made in the present system; and, of course, following the recent reorganisation of local government, further difficulties for their staffs would be unpopular and unwise.

This is a short debate and I have, unfortunately, already spoken for longer than I intended. There are other problems to which I could have referred—for instance, those referring to gravel extraction and to the serious problem of iron-stone in Northamptonshire and other mineral workings in Wales, Scotland and England. We cannot afford to ignore any supply of land if the cost is not too unreasonable, if we can possibly manage to reclaim it for the general good of the community. I hope the House will take note of the progress made and encourage the continuation of this work.

I can remember well ten or twelve years ago we held a meeting in the North East to form a branch of the Civic Trust, and people asked us, not always very kindly and perhaps sometimes rather cynically: "Can you really see the pit heaps disappearing?" The pit heaps at that time dominated the area and it seemed a hopeless pipe-dream; but now so many have gone that it is almost unbelievable. There are very few noble Lords, certainly on this side, who have lived all their lives within a mile of a pit heap, as I have. I can only say that now the heap I have looked on all my life has gone, I have the feeling that I shall miss it, at least from a distance. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, I think we should all be very grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, for initiating this debate this afternoon. It would not be amiss if I began my speech by giving the definition of derelict land: Derelict land is land so damaged by industrial and other developments that it is incapable of beneficial use without treatment. The last debate on derelict land was held in this Chamber in December 1971, as the noble Viscount has already mentioned. Since then I regret to say that we have neither been keeping pace with the problem nor, alas! even holding it at bay. The acreage is still increasing every year on a very large scale. In 1971 it was estimated that the area increased every year by about 3,500 acres and the official figure for that year was 64,000 acres. In 1975 the figure I have been given is approximately 80,000 acres—lower than that which was stated by the noble Viscount—but the increase is steady and unfortunately we do not seem to be making any progress.

It should be noted that the term "derelict land" does not include areas of land for which someone has a definite responsibility: for instance, disused railway sidings, railway cuttings, embankments on the motorways, heath and moorland, which no one appears to farm in any way. There is also a vast amount of virtual wasteland in and around aerodromes. So we must come now to the actual land which is covered by the definition, and this includes disused spoil heaps, worked-out mineral excavations, old industrial sites, unused derelict buildings, and so on. Thus it will be seen that the majority of areas with this problem are old industrial areas such as Lancashire, Yorkshire, Northumberland and Durham, the industrial parts of Wales and Scotland, the coal mines of Kent and the china clay and tin mines of Cornwall. Then we come to one of the more confused problems. This concerns cases where a contractor has not fulfilled his obligations in restoring the land, which thus remains in derelict condition. It is therefore the responsibility of the local authority to enforce the fulfilment of this stipulation in the contract.

It is of vital importance that the reclamation of land should be very carefully planned, otherwise one may find that buildings or land are cleared and holes are filled in, and then nothing happens to them, so that once again they become derelict. Unfortunately, there are many examples of such sites and all that happens then is that local inhabitants use them to dump their broken bottles, bed-steads and various other forms of rubbish. One of the remarks my noble friend Lord Amulree made in 1971 is still true today, and that is his reference to "the curious anomaly of the planning law".

Today colliery tips are still not subject to planning permission in certain instances, so once again we have more derelict land each year and the only way in which this particular eyesore or bane can be removed is if local authorities have more control over collieries. I should like to know, also, whether any agreement has been reached with the National Coal Board whereby it would be obligatory for them to restore their opencast mining sites and not to have the option to compensate the owner instead. Sometimes, of course, the boot is on the other foot. I know of one firm which had a large area of gravel pits which, ultimately, they wanted to turn into a boating and leisure centre. Due to the non-co-operation of the planning authorities they were unable to achieve their aim for nearly three years. This was due entirely to the unbelievable difficulties put in their way by those authorities.

My Lords, it is no good going on reciting details and particular instances of this vast problem. The time has come late, but not too late, to do something about it. Let us consider some ways and means whereby this problem can be over-come. First of all, let us take publicity. This is a matter where public opinion is of the highest importance. Many local authorities who have successfully completed reclamation schemes have obtained as much publicity as possible in all forms of the media. It should also be possible before a scheme is started to find out from the local people their own views. It may be that they can produce some good ideas as to how this reclamation should be done. It is, however, probably not a good idea for the Department of the Environment to produce pamphlets, photographs, books et cetera, as derelict land varies so much from one part of England to another that the specially prepared material may well be completely unsuited to local conditions. The timing is of course absolutely vital for local authorities to acquire the right amount of land in the right place, and to have a positive and rolling plan to deal with it. In the past there have been unnecessary delays in acquiring ownership of derelict land. This has been a serious obstacle, and while I am not an advocate in general of compulsory purchase powers there are however some cases where it is absolutely necessary that these powers should be used.

It should be possible for local authorities, with other parties concerned, to agree in principle right at the beginning, so as to ensure that the reclamation work can be carried out with the minimum of delay when each site is ready. It may be of interest to your Lordships to know three of the reasons why this has not always happened. The present owner of the site may be unwilling to commit himself in advance, or he may change his mind, or, due to the recent reorganisation of local authorities, the land may be under a different local council. However, there seems to be some progress in policy-making in the last two years in some parts of the country by discussions between the National Coal Board's local organisation and the local authorities towards agreeing a definite programme for restoring disused pit heaps at specific times. Unfortunately, we have a shortage of specialists in land reclamation in local authorities which possibly causes delay, and this delay has, since the councils have been conglomerated, been made even worse. It is difficult for local authorities with large programmes to keep to their forward planning, but every effort should be made by them to avoid this ever-increasing acreage that we arc presented with every year from becoming larger.

Yet another difficulty is the district valuer. Valuations may vary wildly on both sides, and therefore protract the time before any such reclamation can start taking place. Possibly there are means whereby procedures could be expedited and improved. The Department of the Environment has now, I believe, asked local authorities in certain areas to make a forward plan of six years instead of the previous plan of three years. Local authorities have also, I believe, been asked to report when their land acquisition is falling way behind their programme so that if necessary some help can be given to them.

This brings me to the subject of grants, already mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley. Some grants have been agreed in certain instances to be paid on land acquisition costs before the actual reclamation work has started, thus enabling the local authorities concerned to plan their future with much more certainty. Grants up to 85 per cent. can be obtained by the local authorities. But, alas! though this, as has been mentioned, sounds a large grant, there are rich and poor local authorities and, unfortunately, it is mainly in the poor areas that the majority of derelict land exists. Some of the poorer councils cannot find the extra 15 per cent. needed ; and I, together with the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, would like strongly to suggest that in certain cases this grant should be raised to 100 per cent. Another possibility of help would be a transport subsidy whereby, for instance, PFA (which stand for pulverised fly ash), which is very prevalent in Nottingham, could be carted next door to fill up the clay pits of Bedford.

In the majority of cases, due to the fact that a lot of derelict land is of substantial and considerable size, it is most certainly necessary that this should be done through the local authority with guidance from the Department of the Environment. Nevertheless, there are smaller areas which can be dealt with more than adequately by private enterprise, if the local authorities are not too narrow-minded and hidebound in their ways. If a private company wishes to reclaim a derelict area, I myself can see no reason why it should not be allowed to do so provided that the end product is satisfactory.

Reverting to the local authorities, who may have a substantial and large programme, possibly of two or three hundred acres a year, would it not be pertinent for them to consider forming a special branch headed by someone with suitable capabilities and knowledge, and with the right professional skill and expertise to satisfy the local conditions? I believe that the Department of the Environment's regional offices have already advised local authorities on these lines. Although I said earlier that the acreage of derelict land was increasing every year, nevertheless some progress has been made in the last three or four years, and provided that the grants are not cut down and that we could reclaim at least another 20 to 25 per cent. more land each year than we have done in the past, then we could achieve a high degree of success, particularly in the worst areas, by 1981, which I believe is the target date.

There is one other practical question which I should like to ask, and that is for some details of TDBs—tendering on dual bases. This is a system whereby the contractor makes two quotes, one for using his own filling material and the other for using industrial waste. I believe that a large part of the M62 was built with industrial waste. I should like to know how many times in the last year firms have been asked for TDBs and how many times these have been accepted. If firms do not like using this method, because I gather it sometimes proves more costly, maybe they could be encouraged to do so through some form of subsidy. Our natural resources on this island dwindle and diminish every year and if we do not get on top of this problem of reclamation right now not only will we suffer, but our children will suffer even more. The Labour Party Manifesto stated that speed was the essence of the solution of this problem. My Lords, let us hope that their target date of 1981 will be achieved.

3.39 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the House is grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, for raising this question this afternoon. We know he has had a great interest in this subject over many years. The debate today has given us the opportunity to discuss it for the first time since 1971. When the noble Viscount mentioned that he was to raise the matter, he said, "You are bound to be interested because you have so much dereliction in the North-West". And so we have. Our dereliction is in direct proportion to the region's success in the early and middle days of the industrial revolution. Coalmining and cotton manufacturing were on such a massive scale that the North-West region produced more wealth for Britain than any other region in the British Isles. But this early success turned into a gigantic problem when the coal ran out and the cotton trade was undermined by cheap textiles from the Far East. Although the region has vigorously diversified into other industries this problem of dereliction still remains. No wonder that, since World War Two, there has been a revolution against the type of society which allows the despoiling of the countryside and which wastes resources of man and materials.

It has been interesting to listen this afternoon to the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, and the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, making useful and constructive suggestions. These derelict areas are a blot on the landscape and a blot on the social conscience, and it is about time that we set about getting rid of them. Since 1945 Governments of whatever complexion have perforce been sympathetic and have taken action. It was a Labour Minister of the Environment speaking in Stoke in 1970 who said that the problem would be cleared up within ten years. That was far too optimistic. We have overlooked the fact that, as both previous speakers have said, we are currently creating our own dereliction as time goes on. Semi-used old industrial properties become empty and are eventually closed and become derelict. Extraction industries continue to work out seams and sites.

Examples are easy to find. Greater Manchester (where reluctantly we in Saddleworth have been put since 1st April) is a case in point. A large number of mills lie empty or are only partly used, with little prospect of ever being used profitably any more, and the estimates show that 40 per cent. of industrial properties are pre-1914 in age. Three and a half million feet of industrial floor space has been vacant for more than five years—an instance of creeping dereliction which five years ago was never regarded as dereliction at all. Indeed, figures of dereliction brought out before the local government reorganisation of last year have had to be seriously revised. For instance, in the Greater Manchester area it was estimated that there were about 6,000 acres of dereliction before reorganisation. But figures taken out in the last few months show that the figure of 6,000 acres is too low ; in fact, it is getting on for 9,000 acres. Add to that the amount in the new Lancashire county and it is getting into the region of 12,000 acres, and it will need a gigantic effort to get rid of it.

It cannot be overstressed how difficult it is in the first place to create momentum for this kind of work and how necessary it is for it to be maintained. You cannot do this work in fits and starts and we should be glad of a declaration of intent by the Government that they will in no circumstances slow down this work or make the criteria for dereliction any narrower than it is. The old Lancashire County Council—a fine authority if ever there was one—seized with the importance of this problem assembled a team in 1969, which was recognised as one of the most comprehensive and successful in the country. The noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, paid a tribute to it in his speech. By 1974, it was getting into its stride and reclaiming up to 500 acres a year. It is fortunate that local government re-organisation has not broken up this team, because Lancashire County Council and the Greater Manchester Council sensibly got together and kept the team intact. It was agreed that the incidence of dereliction should be divided roughly two to one between Greater Manchester and the new Lancashire County Council.

I stress this point because it is important that Government financial support through key sector funding and 75 per cent. grant on net cost should continue as a minimum, because any disruption in the work of this team will result in delays which cannot be made good for many years to come. We must never slow down this work; if we do, local authorities will be left with an intolerable burden and I will tell your Lordships why. They will have to maintain large areas of derelict land which they have bought for future reclamation work. It must be remembered that assembling the land is still the most onerous and time-consuming part of reclamation, and in allocating the funds that are available a careful balance has to be kept between buying land for future programmes and carrying out the job on the site.

Already in Lancashire the difficulty of meeting the 25 per cent. share of total cost which local authorities have had to find has meant some reduction in land purchases, which could mean the slowing down of reclamation work in two or three years' time. What should be done? First, more positive incentives are needed if a significant impact is to be made on the situation. Secondly, the definition of dereliction should be extended to include buildings which, although partly or even wholly still in use, are evidently dilapidated and in need of clearance. Thirdly, the introduction of legislation similar to that for housing, whereby industrial or storage premises in a condition below the required standard can be acquired and cleared, whether at site value or on some "grey area" basis, would be a godsend to our area.

Fourthly, for buildings in less serious condition some way should be found to enable and encourage firms to renew or modernise their premises—for example, some measures similar to house improvements. Experiments and investigations have been going on, and I am sure the Minister would find very acceptable figures available in the North-West. Fifthly, at the moment in this area we are receiving a 75 per cent. grant, which is not enough. Development areas get more, and the grants for derelict land are higher. The sheer size of the problem in the North-West should make it eligible for a larger grant. If this could be done, I am confident that the problem could be tackled far more quickly.

Finally, may I say that, while this work is not going fast enough, we pay tribute to those who have been working on it in the last few years both in National Government and in local government. Let us also pay tribute to those voluntary organisations which have been bringing to the notice of the public the necessity to do something about it. I am thinking of the Civic Trust of the North-West and its many branches in every town and urban district. I am thinking, too, about the river associations, such as the Tame and the Medlock, which have rendered absolutely marvellous service. They are people who are devoted to getting out and doing something about these problems. I am also thinking of the volunteers who came last weekend to plant 300 trees in an area which had been forlorn, desolate and drab for years.

There is a growing feeling in the North-West that we might be able to get to grips with the problem more quickly if we had the benefit of devolution on the basis of what is being considered for Wales and Scotland; it is a big enough and a viable enough part of the country to support devolution. May I say that the Government should be taking notice of this welling-up of opinion in parts of the country like mine. We believe that we should be of equal status, especially when we have such a big job to do. There is no question that when work of this kind is done pride is taken in it, in a way which does not come from any other source. People become proud of their localities again. What this country needs above everything else is a sense of pride in local achievements. For God's sake, my Lords, let us get on with it.