HL Deb 21 October 1975 vol 364 cc1246-60

2.59 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Birk.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The EARL OF LISTOWEL in the Chair.]

The CHAIRMAN of COMMITTEES (The Earl of Listowel)

Before I call Amendment 1A, I should point out to the Committee that if this Amendment is agreed to I cannot call Amendments Nos. 1, 2 or 3.

Baroness YOUNG

Before speaking to Amendment 1A, at lunchtime today I received from the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, a suggested grouping of Amendments. I am very happy to agree to the proposals which were made yesterday in the House, and indeed to future proposals that she might make in this respect. But it is very difficult for us, at approximately one hour's notice, to take all the Welsh Amendments as a start, particularly as some of them apply to the later Schedules. I wonder therefore whether the noble Baroness would agree that it would be better to take the Amendments in the order as they are on the Marshalled List rather than as suggested in this letter.


We are at the disposal of the Committee on this matter. It was thought convenient, to avoid repetition, that we should discuss the associated and consequential Amendments following the main Amendment; but if the noble Baroness thinks that would be unduly burdensome—and I am bound to say she has my sympathy because there are a multitude to consider—we shall be quite happy to fall in with what is proposed. That does not mean that I want to encourage any repetition of arguments, but I know that noble Lords opposite will always seek to avoid so unworthy a charge being laid against them.

Baroness YOUNG

I should like to thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. I think there will be plenty to discuss in this Bill without having any repetition at all! In this instance my suggestion really is very much to the convenience of this side of the Committee. If at a later stage it is found possible to reach an agreement on the grouping of Amendments, we should be very glad to do so.

Clause 1 [Definitions]:

3.1 p.m.

Lord SANDFORD moved Amendment No. 1A:

Page 1, line 10, leave out paragraphs (a) to (c) and insert— ("(a) in relation to England means the council of a county or district, the council of a London borough, the Common Council of the City of London and the Greater London Council, a development corporation as defined in section 2 of the New Towns Act 1965, or in section 2 of the New Towns (Scotland) Act 1968, the Peak Park Joint Planning Board, the Lake District Special Planning Board; (b) in relation to Scotland means a regional, general or district planning authority within the meaning of Part IX of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, or a development corporation as defined in section 2 of the New Towns (Scotland) Act 1968; (c) in relation to Wales means the Land Authority for Wales established under Part II of this Act or a development corporation as defined in section 2 of the New Towns Act 1965.")

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 1A. Noble Lords opposite will already know that we very much dislike this Bill. We very much dislike the procedure we are being asked to adopt in discussing it and, I am sorry to say, we very much dislike the layout of the Bill as well. This Amendment is a probing Amendment, to see whether or not we can extract from the noble Baroness or the noble and learned Lord some undertaking that this Bill will be looked at while we are handling it in this Chamber and before it goes on to the Statute Book, if it does go on to the Statute Book, to see whether or not it would be possible to tidy up the definitions, expressions, interpretations and soon in the kind of way which is illustrated by this Amendment. Other places where these strictures apply are in Clauses 4 and 6, which both contain whole sets of definitions. I can see there is some distinction between them, but it really would be very much easier if, rather than their being broadcast all over the Bill, they were set together in one place.

Baroness BIRK

As I understand it, this Amendment seeks to produce a consolidated definition of "authorities" for the purposes of this Bill. It does this by deleting most of the contents of Clause 1(1) and substituting revised definitions which also incorporate the substance of subsections (3), (5) and (7) of the same clause. I do not think the purpose is entirely clear, since the clause at present starts with three simple definitions of the authorities who are to operate the scheme related to England, Scotland and Wales respectively. Further definition of some of the terms used in subsection (1) is provided in the later subsections of the clause, in particular definitions of "local authority'' in England, which is found in subsection (3), and in Scotland, which is in subsection (5). There is a definition of new town authorities in subsection (7). I agree it would seem possible to reorganise the definitions in the way suggested, but frankly I find it difficult to see that very much would be gained. In any case, I would draw the attention of the noble Lord to the fact that the Amendment cannot be accepted as it stands, because it is defective, paragraph (a), dealing with England, containing a reference to the New Towns (Scotland) Act 1968. Therefore I must resist the Amendment.


I have already explained that I do not intend to press the Amendment, so that is all right. I had thought not to get an explanation from the noble Baroness as to how Clause 1 would work—because with a good deal of care and toil one can find out—but I was seeking to get from her an undertaking to look at the Bill to see whether or not it would be possible, during its passage through this Chamber, to carry out some consolidation of the kind which is illustrated by this Amendment. Perhaps the noble Baroness could go just a little further before I ask leave to withdraw the Amendment, and say that she and her noble colleagues will bear this point in mind, to see whether the Bill can be made just a little easier to read and to grasp.

Baroness BIRK

Any point that is raised will certainly be kept in mind; but I am sure the noble Lord will agree, particularly in view of what the noble Baroness said, that it is probably better if we deal with these points as they come up. I will certainly put the point to the Parliamentary draftsmen, to see whether a different approach to the definitions might be made.


We should be very grateful to the noble Baroness if this could be looked at, because one of the problems that has always been pointed out regarding this Bill is the difficulty of understanding it, even in the case of a professional. To a layman, it becomes almost intolerable, because if one looks at the definition clauses, definitions appear in Clauses 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 15. For those people—and there will be many—who are not professionals in these matters, the mind will almost burst trying to find a way through the Bill. I should have thought that the Amendment moved by my noble friend had some substance to it, because Clause 1(1)(b) says: in relation to Scotland means a local authority or a new town authority, and then that is described in the same Amendment without one having to turn over the page to discover what "the local authority "or "new town authority" mean.

Baroness BIRK

In order to save time, since we have a long way to go, I have just said that I will look at this again. I hope that noble Lords opposite will be satisfied with that.


Before the noble Baroness takes it back for consideration, may I say from these Benches that we shall seek every opportunity of trying to support the Government over this Bill. There may be many occasions when we shall be unable to do so, so I should like to seize this opportunity to say that it seems to me that, although I fully understand the wish to shorten this definition clause, looking at the two together, setting it out in extenso as has been done in this clause is rather more understandable to the layman than the way in which the thing has been compressed in the alternative which is offered by this Amendment. Therefore I hope the noble Baroness will be able to consider that aspect of the matter, and it may well be she will eventually come to the conclusion that the original version represents the better drafting.


We have registered the point, I think, and therefore I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.9 p.m.

Lord ABERDARE moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 10, after ("England") insert ("and Wales")

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 1. In order to meet the point made by the noble and learned Lord and avoid being repetitious, I should like to couple Amendment No. 3 with No. 1. My noble friend Lord Balfour has put down a similar Amendment, which is No. 3. It may well be that this ties in with other Amendments of his, but so far as I am concerned Amendments Nos. 1 and 3 were put down specifically for the purpose of exploring the Government's reasons for treating Wales differently from England and Scotland. For that reason, I put down these Amendments rather than pursuing the matter by putting down innumerable consequential Amendments which I should have done had I been anxious to press this matter. It is really only in an endeavour to get some information from the Government that I move Amendment No. 1.

We have never had any real reason given by the Government as to why, in the case of Wales, there should be a Land Authority, while in England and Scotland the provisions of this Bill are envisaged as being carried out by the local authorities. In an endeavour to see what was in the Government's mind, I went to what I thought was the most authoritative source in this Chamber, which was the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, during the first of our two Second Readings. There I found her in full praise of the local authorities and giving many reasons why the functions should he given to local authorities. This was the debate on 4th August, at col. 1319 of the Official Report. The noble Baroness said: If you want to use a pair of scissors you need two blades for it to work. Planning is one blade, ownership the other. The marriage of planning and ownership is not a new idea. This argued strongly in favour of the local authorities. The noble Baroness went on to speak of democratically elected authorities who should carry out these functions and said that a key advantage of making use of local authorities is that we can build on what is there. All this was in praise of local authorities which were carrying out the functions in England and Scotland, and not a word of justification for setting up a Land Authority in Wales in contradiction to all she was giving such kind words to.

On that occasion, the noble Baroness, Lady White, sought the reasons why Wales should be treated differently, and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said—and I am quoting from col. 1364: … because it is a much smaller area than the whole of England, it seemed possible to operate through a Land Authority. That would seem to imply that the Land Authority was the better means of dealing with this matter but it was only because Wales was a smaller area and it was practically possible in Wales that it had not been applied to England; but that, again, seems to contradict what she was saying before about the merits of leaving it to local authorities. So I am left in complete confusion. I cannot understand for a minute why there should be a Land Authority in Wales and why in England and Scotland the matter should be left to the local authorities. We have never, as I have said, had a straightforward reason. It has been said that this is a more flexible way and the Government are being flexible in treating Wales differently. I am all for treating Wales differently if there is a good reason for doing so. Flexibility is an admirable virtue, but it surely has to be justified and there would have to be good reasons why Wales should be separately and differently treated.

Certainly in conversations I have had with people in Wales the only explanation that has been given is either that the Secretary of State for Wales did not consider that local authorities were capable of handling these responsibilities, which I can hardly believe would have been the Government's reason; or, much more likely, that it was in line with their proposals for an Assembly in Wales. Some functions had to be found for the Assembly and here was a chance to set up a body which eventually could be put under the general guidance of a Welsh Assembly. Certainly this has a certain verisimilitude if we are to believe the Paper that was leaked from the Cabinet Committee in which it was allegedly said that for Wales the picture is of a system devolving wide Executive powers but within a constitutional framework much more akin to a major regional authority and in much more evident and practical subordination to Westminster. If that is the Government's thinking on the Welsh Assembly, then of course the Land Authority fits neatly into the picture despite the fact that it is completely incompatible with all the other protestations that have been made from the Government side about the merits of leaving this matter to local authorities. So I hope that the Government will be able to give us a rather more solid justification for treating Wales differently.

May I go on to ask one or two specific questions because, since the Land Authority has become more or less accepted as inevitable in Wales, a number of conversations have been taking place between the Government and the local authorities. The Government have sought to appease some of the annoyance of the local authorities at being overlooked in this case in Wales, by saying they will devolve certain powers from the Land Authority on to the local authorities and the local authorities will act as agents for the Land Authority. I should like to put three fairly specific questions on this matter of the agency agreements between the Land Authority and the local authorities. First, does the Land Authority have to give separate approval for every transaction that is undertaken by an agent authority, or will the Land Authority give an agent authority general directions and then allow the local authority to proceed on its own initiative?

The Welsh Office recently issued a document, dated October 1975, on arrangements in Wales in connection with the Community Land Bill. That document seems to envisage the need for separate approval by the Land Authority of each proposed acquisition of land by a local authority under agency powers. Paragraph 7 of the document says: Agency arrangements will not involve delegation of executive responsibility"; and paragraph 8: The identification of such sites for acquisition could hardly be delegated to an agent authority". From those two quotations it would appear to me that it is the Land Authority which will decide what land is to be bought and all that will be left and delegated to the agent authority will be the mechanics of purchasing that land. I wonder also whether this will apply to the disposal of land. Will the local authority under its agency powers be able to make its own decisions as to the disposal of this land, or will it have to seek in every case the approval of the Land Authority for Wales? That is my first question.

The second is that there may be cases of local authorities who find themselves unable to accept an agency arrangement or, having accepted such an arrangement, are unable to carry it out. In such circumstances we have been told the Land Authority could take over responsibility from the agency authority. The assurance I should like to ask for is this. If the agency were a county, before the Land Authority took over that agency would it be offered to the appropriate district? Or, in the case of the district being the agent, would a new agency first be offered to the appropriate county? This would seem to be a straightforward and sensible way of proceeding: that if one or other, the county or the district, for one reason or another is not able to accept an agency arrangement, then the appropriate district or county that could take it on would have a chance before the whole responsibility was taken back by the Land Authority.

The third and last question I should like to ask is this. Although it is clearly implicit in what has been said, I should like a further absolute assurance that in a case of an agency arrangement being made between the Land Authority and a local authority the full cost of carrying out the functions under this Bill would fall on the Land Authority itself and not on the ratepayer. I beg to move.

3.20 p.m.

The Earl of BALFOUR

I should like to take this opportunity to support my noble friend. At the same time, I should also like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for having sent me various papers on the Community Land Bill in connection with Wales. In the general principles issued by the Government—and it is something which immediately causes concern—is this statement: Possible disputes between a local authority and the Land Authority as to who would acquire land would be settled by the Secretary of State. Immediately, we realise that this kind of problem could arise. If your Lordships will look at Schedule 4, paragraph 7, on page 59, that indicates that disputes have already been foreseen by the Government.

My noble friend has already referred to paragraph 8 of this document but I should like to take it a little further, purely on the grounds of my experience in the past as a county councillor in Scotland. It states that: The Land Authority shall have power to buy land which they consider suitable for development. The identification of such sites for acquisition could hardly be delegated to an agent authority. As I stressed at Second Reading and can only stress again, it is very important that before any land is acquired by any form of local authority or even by a statutory undertaker it should be reasonably well surveyed, and a determination made, that that land can be supplied with all services—water, sewerage, drainage, electricity and whatever else may be involved. To divorce planning, which is clearly the indication here, from land acquisition seems to me to be very serious indeed and is something about which I feel absolutely convinced the Government are wrong.

The paragraph continues: Any purchase of land must also have regard to the authority's budget so that the Land Authority will need to take into account from the outset the financial viability of any development in mind for sites to be acquired. Before anybody goes ahead and buys land, it is most important to make quite certain that it is wholly suitable for the development that is anticipated. I should have thought that in that field no better people exist than the local authorities in Wales. Again, I should like to refer to paragraph 12, which states: Consideration is being given to the future relationship between the Land Authority and the proposed Welsh Assembly. Though the Government have yet to take final decisions on a detailed devolution scheme, it is possible that the Assembly might be given powers in the field of housing and planning. This alarms me even further.

When your Lordships' House discussed the local government Acts, as they are now, of 1972 for England and 1973 for Scotland, it was realised by all sides how very important it was to leave the function of housing at district level. In the case of Wales it is now, perhaps, to be taken out of the hands of the district council—it is not even to be left in the hands of the county council—and put into the hands of an even more remote body, the Welsh Assembly. I must be fair to the Government, for they state: However, the Government have made clear their intention of issuing a White Paper setting out detailed proposals on devolution in the autumn. I do not believe that that has yet come out.

May I now refer to various clauses in the Bill and take extracts from them in respect of the Land Authority which is proposed to be set up for Wales. I will begin by asking your Lordships to look at Clause 16 on page 15, which states that for the whole of the United Kingdom, except for Wales: (1) There shall be a land acquisition and management scheme for the area of each county authority. (2) The scheme shall be prepared, and from time to time revised, by all the authorities in the area of the county authority acting jointly. (3) The scheme shall be for the performance by each of the authorities in the area of the county authority of the following functions— (a) the acquisition by those authorities of land with a view to development. I am sure that this is something which should apply to the whole of the United Kingdom if this Bill becomes an Act. However, if your Lordships will turn over the page you will see that subsection (12) says that: This Section shall not apply in Wales … Clause 17 deals with general duties, and subsection (1) reads: In exercising their functions … every authority shall have regard to—

  1. (a) the desirability of bringing development land into public ownership, … and
  2. (b) the desirability of securing the proper planning of their area."
Subsection (2) states: In considering whether any land is development land, an authority shall have regard to— (a) the provisions of the development plan … and, in paragraphs (b) and (c), to planning permission and any other considerations. Subsection (3) reads: In considering whether any land in Wales is development land, the Land Authority for Wales shall (except in a case where planning permission is in force for the carrying out of relevant development on the land) consult the council of the county, and that of the district, within whose area the land is situated. I should have thought that one of the most important things to be considered was whether planning permission had been granted.

Subsection (2) of Clause 18 says that: It shall be the duty of all the authorities … to arrange between them for all outstanding material interests in land which is needed for the purposes of designated relevant development to be acquired by one of those authorities (including a local authority in Wales whose area includes the land). Unfortunately, if we turn over the page, the Bill says: An order under this section— (a) shall not he made before the land acquisition and management scheme for the area of the county authority has been prepared; except, again, that subsection shall not apply to Wales. So Wales is left out in the cold. I am greatly concerned about the separation of the whole region of planning.

I should like briefly to refer to Clause 41. There it says: Except with the consent of the Secretary of State, a principal council shall not dispose of a material interest in any land. So far as I can see, that means disposing of it even to the local authority, or vice versa; and in the case of Wales, with a local authority housing development which has been completed, I am wondering whether or not in future local authority tenants there will be paying a rent to the local authority for the house that the local authority built, and another sum, perhaps somewhat like the ground rent that exists in England, I understand, to the Land Authority. There is certainly nothing clear in this Bill in that respect.

Then Clause 44 says: The Secretary of State may direct a local authority or the Peak Park Joint or Lake District Special Planning Board to dispose of … any land …". But, so far as I can see, not land connected with Wales. Then, if we turn to Clause 47, dealing with reserve powers, we sec there: The Secretary of State may act under this section in a case where it appears to him expedient that an authority should cease to be responsible for exercising"— any function under any Act. The Secretary of State may by order transfer any such function to himself or to another authority or to a body corporate. Yet, once again, if we turn over the page we find the words: This section shall not apply in Wales. In other words, these special powers of the Secretary of State clearly do not apply in Wales. Schedules 5 and 6 again do not apply to Wales, and whereas I feel strongly that the local authorities, with their elected councillors and with all the local knowledge of those elected councillors, should be dealing with very complicated procedures of planning and land acquisition, to create a Land Authority for this relatively larger area of Wales and to have that handled by a mere 6 to 9 people is, as I said at Second Reading, the most perfect example that I have ever come across of sending a boy to do a man's job.

May I ask your Lordships now to look at the Marshalled List of Amendments—


May I interrupt the noble Earl for just a moment? Do I understand that he is speaking not only to Amendment No. 2 but to all the other fifty or so Amendments which are tabled in his name?

The Earl of BALFOUR

I want to save time but I want to sense the feeling of your Lordships' Committee. I must make it perfectly clear, I think, because Amendments start to fall fairly quickly, that there are many other Amendments on which I have separate points that I should like to raise, but at this early stage I think it would be as well for us to be clear on exactly what is happening to Wales which is creating an entirely different situation from anything else that exists in the United Kingdom. I am most concerned. I have no axe to grind; I have no connection with Wales. I am putting this forward from sheer local authority experience. I do not wish it to be considered as a political point or because I happen to be on the Back-Benches. That has nothing to do with it. I am interested purely from the point of view of efficiency and management of what I consider so strongly to be a field that, to a great extent, should be managed by a district authority in England, and the fact that things that require so much local knowledge are being handled by this very remote body, causes me the greatest concern.

I will not waste your Lordships' time but I am going to put forward the basic ideas at this time. I should like to refer to Amendment No. 43, which completes my argument, and also briefly to explain why these Amendments are tabled and what is being done.


I wonder whether it would be convenient for me to suggest that at this stage we should confine the debate on Amendments Nos. 1 and 3 to the question of the need and desirability of a Welsh Land Authority, and then perhaps at a later stage deal with the Amendments tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Balfour, suggesting that it would be to the benefit of Wales to enjoy the arrangements existing in Scotland. With great respect to the noble Earl, I think if we keep those matters separate we may have a tidier debate.

The Earl of BALFOUR

I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, and I should like to accept his suggestion; but I should like to support my noble friend Lord Aberdare in his Amendment as well.


I wonder whether I might make one or two observations of a more general nature than those which have fallen from the lips of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, and the noble Earl, Lord Balfour. I confess to being bewildered by some parts of this Bill and how it is going to work out in relation to Scotland and to Wales. When we come to the Question, That Clause I shall stand part of the Bill?, I would like to say a word or two about Scotland, but for the moment I will confine myself to Wales. The general observation that I want to make is this: I think we are getting ourselves into great difficulties in this Bill because here we are carrying out a great radical reform of the land law, not only of England but of Wales and of Scotland, and we are carrying that radical and very detailed reform through before we have made up our minds upon the problems of devolution of power of Government to Scotland and to Wales.

In the past in this country we have often got wrong our priorities in timing. I suppose the most remarkable example of getting wrong our order of priorities in timing was the way in which we set up a Royal Commission to consider the whole problem of the reform of local government prior to the setting up of the constitutional Commission to consider the problem of devolution, and in particular, of course, devolution to a regional level of government. It would have been logical to do it the other way round, or to have done it all at the same time. In this Bill, I am wondering whether we are not making that same error: that is, we are setting up in Wales a structure of a particular kind, with a Land Authority and then the local planning authorities below it, each performing different functions. We are setting all that up before we know what the Government have in mind, except in the most general terms, for devolution to Wales. What we do know is that the Government have in mind a form of what is called "executive devolution". We know that much, but we do not know what the relationship is to be between that Welsh Assembly exercising those executive functions and the local authorities below it. We do not know whether the local authorities will be subordinate to the Welsh Assembly, or whether they will still be responsible to Central Government at Westminster and Whitehall. None of these things do we know, yet here we are creating a very detailed system of reform of the land law, and conferring precise powers upon the Welsh Land Authority and upon the local authorities.

The question I want to ask is this: in carrying through this great measure of change, are not we pre-empting decision about the form devolution will take when it is carried through in Wales? I should have thought it would be very much more satisfactory if the Government had first made up their minds what measure of devolution is to be conferred on Scotland, and what measure of devolution is to be conferred upon Wales. Then, the Government could have considered whether it would have been appropriate, for example in the case of Wales, to confer on the Welsh Assembly the powers now being conferred on the Welsh Land Authority. We are doing this the wrong way round. I do not want this Bill to go wrong, but I am afraid that we are doing it the wrong way round. We should make these decisions in the field of land law, before making the vital decisions as to what is to be the future relationship for a long time to come between the Welsh Authority, or call it what you will, and the Welsh local authorities, otherwise we are courting disaster. I suppose it is now far too late to hope that the Government might hold back this Bill in order to deal first with the problem of devolution, but I certainly think that would be a wise course for the good government of this country in the future.


For the purpose of hearing the Statement at present being made in another place, I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

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