HL Deb 15 April 1980 vol 408 cc120-4

2.52 p.m.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how much derelict land is in public ownership.


My Lords, this information is not readily available. The last national survey, made in 1974, showed some 43,000 hectares of derelict land in England, but this was not broken down by ownership. So far as vacant or unused public land is concerned, to the best of my knowledge there are no national statistics although some local authorities do maintain their own records.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, while I thank my noble friend for that reply, would he agree that these statistics are very important? May I ask my noble friend what action the Government plan to ensure that as much unused and derelict land as possible is developed for public use?


My Lords, it is always useful to have statistics but the problem of compiling them in the way that they will be most effective is quite difficult, not to say costly. That is why we have not seen further such surveys in the last few years. As to the steps which the Government are taking to see that more unused and underused land is released for development, there are a number of such steps, including the repeal of the Community Land Act, the reduction of the development land tax rate and the raising of the initial threshold of exemption, the streamlining and speeding up of the planning system and procedures and the abolition of the "first offer" procedure among Government departments, local authorities, housing corporations and nationalised industries, thus saving months, or even years, in releasing surplus public land. In addition, the Local Government Planning and Land Bill will require registers to be compiled in certain designated areas of unused or underused land in public ownership. The provisions include a proposed power for the Secretary of State to direct the disposal of land demonstrably surplus to the requirements of its present owners.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, while I thank my noble friend for that list of good things which the Government are doing, may I ask him whether he will review again whether the statistics of unused and derelict land could be updated annually, or biennially, or even triennially?


My Lords, it so happens that at the present time we are considering when the next derelict land survey should take place, but clearly decisions on such matters have to be taken bearing in mind not least the central and local resources which it would consume.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that under the previous Government the Minister of State in the Department of the Environment wrote to the chairmen of public bodies owning and managing land in designated areas of the countryside with instructions that due consideration should be given to the purposes of designation in the management of that land? May I also ask the noble Lord whether that instruction is endorsed by the present Government?


My Lords, I was not aware of the letter to which the noble Lord refers, but I should certainly have thought that anything which encouraged the bringing forth of land for beneficial use rather than that it should lie unused, derelict, or whatever, could be only to the good.


My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend can enlarge on what he said with regard to the likely enforced disposal of land owned by public authorities under the legislation which the Government have in mind? Would that include land owned by nationalised industries—for example, mudflats that are underdeveloped?


Yes, my Lords, it would very much include that kind of land. Indeed, it should include any land for which there is no foreseeable use. That can be only to the good, and I am sure that everyone I know endorses the rectitude of that line.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Derelict Land Unit which I set up in the Welsh Office after the Aberfan disaster of 1967 has done the most remarkably good work? May I ask him what steps the Government are taking to encourage the Derelict Land Unit to extend its operations not only in Wales but in England and Scotland as well?


Yes, my Lords, I am aware of that. Whereas at present local authorities are required to acquire derelict land in order to reclaim it with the aid of grant, the Local Government Planning and Land Bill contains a provision—Clause 92—which will enable grant to be paid in future direct to the private sector and public bodies other than local authorities. The grant is to cover net loss only.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many allotment holders are very unhappy about the fact that they will lose their allotments for building land? Will Her Majesty's Government consider issuing a directive to local authorities that if they are taking allotment land for building, where there is derelict land it might be rejuvenated into allotments?


My Lords, we are talking of two separate issues. The Question relates to derelict land, and I have referred to unused and underused land. The noble Earl's question refers to allotment land, which itself is the subject of proposals contained in the Bill. As noble Lords may have seen in the last few days, there is considerable concern about that particular kind of land. We share that concern. I hope that there will be no difficulties and that there will be a continuation of the use of allotment land. I am not sure whether that reply fully answers my noble friend, but it is a subject which is at the present time under discussion both in another place and elsewhere.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether he has the constant co-operation of British Rail in this matter? Can he also say whether or not it is a fact that British Rail have a great deal of unused and extremely valuable land which is lying derelict, with rusty rails upon it or huge banks alongside it, all of which could make a much more substantial contribution to public use?


My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord. That is precisely why one of the provisions contained in the Bill is along the lines which I described.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there is a second land use survey being carried out by Dr. Alice Coleman of the University of London and that that land use survey shows all derelict land and all underused land? Is the noble Lord also aware that they are short of money for the printing of maps and that this is extremely important and extremely valuable documentation which shows what is happening to land in the whole of the United Kingdom?


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for reminding us of the survey to which he refers, of which I do know. I shall certainly take away the point he makes about the problems which they seem to be encountering.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the point I wanted to make in regard to the "Beechingisation" of the railways is that it may now be wise for the Government to look into the future use of all the manpower which was wasted with the destruction of the railway routes, for the saving of energy in the future by new means of transportation?


My Lords, with respect, I suggest that that is not really related to the Question.


My Lords, I do not know whether your Lordships may feel that we have probably gone far enough along this road, apart from the fact that the poor noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, has risen to his feet about three times. Perhaps the noble Lord will put his question and then we might pass on to the next business.


Thank you very much, my Lords. Would the noble Lord agree that much of the British Rail land described by my noble friend consists of disused railway tracks which are long and narrow and with no opportunity for development, and would he agree that the £20 million contribution of the British Rail Property Board to lessening the railway deficit last year was substantial and worthwhile?


My Lords, I am bound to say again that I think that strays a long way from the original Question. I take the point made, but I am not in a position to confirm or otherwise the second part of the noble Lord's observation.

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