HL Deb 16 July 1982 vol 433 cc582-91

11.45 a.m.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. Before I deal with the content of the Bill, may I draw attention to a correction which has had to be made in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum? When the Bill was considered in another place it was amended to enable reclamation schemes carried out by the English Industrial Estates Corporation to be eligible for derelict land grant at the same rates as already enjoyed by local authorities. The resulting change in the memorandum required by this amendment was not. I regret to say, carried through properly. As your Lordships have no doubt noticed, a corrigendum slip has now been provided; the text of the Bill itself is perfectly in order. The Bill I bring before you today is modest in size and chiefly a consolidation measure, but it does contain important new provisions which we hope will be of great advantage to the new drive on derelict land reclamation in England and Wales.

Last December my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced his new initiative on derelict land in England. This initiative is designed to encourage local authorities and the private sector to work together in joint ventures in reclaiming and then developing land for industrial, commercial and other purposes. This is what are called "Category A" schemes. Grant priority is now being given to schemes in which public sector reclamation is immediately followed by private sector development under an already planned arrangement between the authority concerned and a developer. The aim is to bring land with the right potential into productive development, create employment and revitalise rundown urban areas. The Government have been encouraged by the response to the scheme this year, and my right honourable friend has recently issued an invitation to all local authorities to apply for grants for similar schemes in 1983–84. In administering these new priorities local authorities and the department will, if Parliament approves the Bill before us, have the advantage of having all derelict land legislation being contained in one volume instead of being spread out among three or four different Acts as detailed in the memorandum.

Turning to the detailed provisions of the Bill, Clause 1 is devoted mainly to repealing and re-enacting the existing legislation, but it does include three important new provisions. The explanatory memorandum mentions two new provisions, which is correct in drafting, but in fact one of them divides into two parts.

At present, the private sector, nationalised industries and statutory undertakers can obtain grant towards reclaiming derelict land, at the rate of 50 per cent. for every area in England of the net loss incurred in carrying out the works involved. This provision was introduced by the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980. But the take-up of this grant has not been as great as it might have been, and in order to give greater encouragement to the non-local authority sector the Government have decided to raise the grant rate to 80 per cent. in the assisted areas and derelict land clearance areas. This is provided for in subsection (5). In other areas the rate will remain at 50 per cent., just as it is and has always been for local authorities in these other areas. That is the first new provision in the Bill.

The second new provision concerns the English Industrial Estates Corporation. When examining the ways and means to encourage more take-up of grant by the non-local authority sector, the Government decided that the English Industrial Estates Corporation was in a special position. As noble Lords will know, the corporation is essentially an instrument of the Government's regional policy. Its task is to help relieve unemployment in the assisted areas of England by providing industrial and commercial sites as well as premises where the private sector cannot or will not do so. The same functions are performed in Scotland and Wales by the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies respectively. But these two organisations also administer derelict land clearance grant, and they are able to do so at the rate of 100 per cent. The Government think it is important that the English Industrial Estates Corporation when providing premises in the assisted areas should have the opportunity of simultaneously clearing away existing dereliction at the 100 per cent. rate of grant available to the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies. Subsection (5)(b) achieves this.

The third new feature is an extension in the arrangements for designating derelict land clearance areas. At present the Government (in practice the Secretary of State for Industry) makes these designations by order under Section 8 of the Local Employment Act 1972. The purpose of this power is to enable 100 per cent. derelict land grants to be paid to the local authorities in the areas so designated instead of 50 per cent., just as happens in the assisted areas.

Areas so far designated are parts of the West Midlands conurbation and areas centred on Derby, Nottingham, Stoke on Trent, Corby and parts of the London Docklands. The justification for designation is quite simply that the economic situation in a particular locality is such that designation would be particularly appropriate with a view to contributing to the development of industry in the locality. These words are reflected in the re-enactment of this part of the 1972 Act in paragraph (a) of subsection (8). The extension in these arrangements which I have referred to lies in paragraph (b) of subsection (8). This enables derelict land clearance areas to be designated without reference to the justification required in (a) provided the consent of the Treasury has been obtained.

The new provision in subsection (8)(b), which will be exercised primarily by the Secretary of State for the Environment, will enable derelict land clearance areas to be designated where economic reasons may not justify it but where there are other reasons, principally the need for environmental improvement, perhaps of a limited but intensive nature. I do not expect the use of this power to be at all extensive because the areas where derelict land grant is most needed lie largely in the assisted areas and derelict land clearance areas already designated, where of course the need to improve the environment is equally present.

Clause 1 applies only to England as does Clause 3, (to which I will turn to now). Clause 2 is concerned with Wales alone, and I will come to that later. Clause 3 contains two minor provisions. First, in subsection (1) it gives local authorities a general power to carry out reclamation works on land which has collapsed or is collapsing due to underground mining operations other than coal mining. The power to grant aid such work was taken in the 1980 Act. What is missing is a power for authorities to acquire, or to carry out works on, collapsing land, and subsection (1) supplies this.

The second provision, in subsection (2), enables local authorities when purchasing compulsorily land for reclamation to purchase other land which is not derelict but is required in connection with the reclamation—an example is spreading land, a site next to the derelict land which is needed for working purposes. The present power is thought to relate only to the derelict land, and subsection (2) will make the position quite clear. Powers of compulsory acquisition of such working sites are well precedented.

Now may I return to Clause 2. As I said, this clause applies to Wales only. What it does is formally transfer to the Welsh Development Agency, which administers derelict land clearance grant in Wales, the powers given to the Secretary of State for Wales in the 1980 Act. Briefly, they will enable grants to be paid by the agency to any person instead of only to local authorities; first, where land has become or is likely to become derelict as a result of surface collapse due to underground mining operations; second, towards the cost of surveys to discover the extent of dereliction; and, finally, for infrastructure connected with development. These powers are already held by the Secretary of State for the Environment for exercise in England, and were approved by Parliament in the 1980 Act.

The Government are much concerned that, in pursuing their initiatives on derelict land reclamation with its priority towards regeneration of the old industrial areas and urban areas generally, all the forces that can be empowered to spur regeneration should be marshalled together and group action taken to achieve a flow of improvement from initial land transformation through to completed development, with the public and private sectors working jointly to achieve that result. This Bill is designed to makes its own contri- bution to that end, and I commend it to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time (The Earl of Avon.)

11.55 a.m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, may I first thank the Minister for his very clear exposition of the Derelict Land Bill which is before us today, which enables us all to understand it without giving me the burden of having to go over it again or ask many questions which I might have had to ask if it had not been so clearly put before us, both in the Bill and in the Minister's explanation.

We on these Benches welcome the provisions of this Bill. The Government have recognised the importance of consolidating legislation where the provisions are at the moment set out in fragmented form in four different Acts. In parenthesis, I hope that this happy example means that serious and urgent consideration is also being given to the even more complex and fragmented legislation on town and country planning, which has not been consolidated since 1971.

Equally, I think similar consideration should begiven to consolidating the 1977 General Development Order which has also been changed in myriad ways during the lifetime of the present Government. This would give great legislative solace. I hope the Minister and the House will forgive my slight digression, but while we are in the mood for consolidation I thought it better to push the point at this time. Long-term land reclamation schemes in areas like Durham and West Yorkshire have over the last 15 years significantly changed the landscape of major industrial regions, and the reclamation clauses attached to the planning permission in the Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Act, which we saw through this House and another place in 1981, have added to that process in a very positive way.

It is an historical phenomenon with which people have lived for over two centuries now that the productive process of coal mining and other opencast industrial activities have brought ugly and unproductive consequences in their wake. On 26th October 1967 in another place my noble friend, Lord Cledwyn, at that time the Secretary of State for Wales, said, in col. 1911: One of the results of the disaster at Aberfan was to give a new stimulus also to the effort to clear up the land left derelict by industrial processes of the past, a problem of which everyone has long been uncomfortably aware, especially in the mining valleys of South Wales. The objective of this effort is not only to reclaim land now useless so that it may be available for housing or other beneficial use, but also to make those areas more attractive to incoming industry and for those who live in them. I think those words still hold up today, some 15 years later.

Fifteen years later, in spite of some considerable progress, there are acres of dereliction which bring gloom, devastation and depression to the people who have to exist in them. The efforts being made in Toxteth, for example, following the riots last year, are specifically to try to bring enterprise, employment and hope to this explosive conurbation, which has much more than its fair share of derelict land. There are large hideous pockets of dereliction in many districts of our own capital city which have resulted in areas like decayed teeth sticking out, to which industry and commerce are difficult to attract, and from which people move out if they can afford to do so.

Local authorities have shown quite conclusively that they have the expertise and the capacity to carry out such reclamation, but it is essential that resources must be made available to them. Indeed, it is on the question of resources that I do wish to express our first point of concern. In a period of very severe and very harsh local government cuts, the question that must hang over all of us is whether it is going to be realistic and practical to bring what are excellent recommendations into being. It is very important that this should be taken very much into account.

We certainly do not object to the increase in private sector grants, because it is right that this very difficult problem should be tackled both by the public and the private sectors. But I do disagree with those—not the Minister fortunately—Members of another place, and probably some noble Lords here, who feel that the grant to the private sector should have been increased to 100 per cent. As the Minister said in another place at Column 529 on 25th June: I accept that the private sector may not find this the most attractive prospect"— he was talking about there not being a 100 per cent. Grant— but we should bear in mind that that sector has owned derelict land for a long time. It must accept that it has owned land which has fallen into dereliction, but has done nothing much about it. So the Government decided to do something about the grant rate"— but not to lift it beyond 80 per cent.

When making another point the Minister also said that he thought—and this is quite right and ought to be appreciated by those people who are concerned with private enterprise—that it is important for the private sector to have its own stake in this, rather than for the whole thing to be covered by Government grant. In principle we do not object to the grants being made available at 100 per cent. to a wider range of local authorities. But what does, however, concern us is the fact that the Government have indicated that the provisions of the Bill will not lead to greater public expenditure. In fact, that is spelt out as one of the financial effects of the Bill. If that is the case—and I find it difficult, if it is to be effective, for there not to be at least some increase in public expenditure—then the consequences of the Bill could well be that the limited amount of jam available in the form of higher grants, would have to be spread more thinly. Areas with major dereliction problems and substantial and successful reclamation programmes, will have fewer resources to continue their work.

This is something about which the Association of County Councils is very concerned, as they have said in a letter which I received yesterday and which I imagine other noble Lords received as well. They point out: There is currently only £44.7 million available for reclamation of derelict land by local authorities. Of this about £8 million has been allocated to the new priority schemes involving development by the private sector immediately reclamation has been completed, £6.5 million to specially earmarked projects (including for example the Consett and Corby steel works and the Stoke garden exhibition), and the remainder, about £30 million, for ongoing commitments and other new schemes for start in 82/83 … The Association is concerned that some areas in non-metropolitan counties which have traditionally suffered from dereliction, e.g. the coal mining counties like Durham, Northumberland and Nottinghamshire as well as some of the larger cities like Bristol, Leicester, Nottingham, etc. which have derelict land problems, may be penalised at the expense of a few metropolitan centres which may receive the bulk of the money available". It is, I agree, a very difficult problem because the metropolitan centres, to which they refer, are of course in very great need themselves. So it would seem that resources will have to be found when necessary, because they themselves by reclaiming the land will be a very important factor in generating wealth, productivity and employment in this country. We cannot afford any cutback in the derelict land reclamation programme—indeed, it needs to be substantially increased. If there are to be higher grants to more recipients, then the total allocation must be substantially increased. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will be able to say something rather optimistic and not just sympathetic—and something that is positively helpful as regards this matter.

In almost any comment involving power exercised by the Department of the Environment, we return, inevitably, to the by now notorious provisions of the Local Government Planning and Land Act 1980. There is real concern that, if local authorities do take up the grant expenditure available to them, they may then find themselves penalised as so-called over-spenders. That, of course, would be nonsense and would be entirely counter-productive. I should be happy if the Minister could put our minds at rest over that. Let the Government have the courage of their convictions, and, if derelict land restoration is to have the priority that it requires, it must be without any long-stop limitations which may of course please the Treasury, but will ensure that the Secretary of State's objectives are only realised in a very haphazard and uncontrolled way.

I shall return to questions of detailed changes when this Bill is considered in Committee. There is, however, one point to which I should like to draw attention now. There are a number of major sites, such as grossly polluted ex-gaswork sites in areas which attract now—and under the Bill, as I understand it, will still attract—only the 50 per cent. derelict land grants, and which are not being restored because they are not eligible for 100 per cent. grant aid. There are circumstances, I would suggest, when it is at least appropriate to consider the making of grants to specific sites at a percentage higher than would be available on other less grossly polluted sites in a particular area. I hope that this will receive favourable consideration. What I am really asking for is that there should be some flexibility so that, when there is a really outstanding example of an area which is entitled only to a 50 per cent. grant, an exception will be made in that case if the real need can be shown.

I am also concerned about the problem of toxic waste, which is something that not only could cause trouble in the present, but even worse, we shall be burying poison—and it is still being buried—which will affect posterity. A great deal of derelict land is still being used, unfortunately, for this purpose.

All in all, the Bill is a move, certainly a very big move, in the right direction. If it is to have any real impact, it must—and I keep coming back to the same point—be backed by adequate finance. This will result in more employment, better housing, increased production and an improvement in our visual quality of life. Therefore, I welcome the Bill. We on these Benches welcome the Bill and hope to see it not only on the statute book soon, but actively and urgently implemented.

12.9 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the Government are to be commended for bringing forward this Bill and I should also like to thank my noble friend, Lord Avon, for the way in which he explained the Bill to the House. We are all concerned about inner city dereliction and the loss of agricultural land for development. If this Bill helps to remedy the present situation, it must be welcomed; but the tragedy is that, although well-intentioned, it fails to solve the problems of derelict land in private ownership. It is on this point that I wish to concentrate. I am sorry if my speech sounds rather like a Committee stage speech; it is not meant to do so. However, I have to take issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. The noble Baroness read a quotation from Hansard. As she will well know, there are many reasons for land becoming derelict and a lot of the land in private ownership that has become derelict has done so as a result of Government interference, local authority interference and planning authority decisions, and so it is not necessarily the private sector's fault.

In 1980, the Local Government Planning and Land Act was passed and extended the Secretary of State's powers to provide a derelict land grant to private applicants at a rate of 50 per cent. It was a good idea, but bad luck on the private applicant who still had to make up the 50 per cent. loss. Only two years later, the rate of grant is to be increased to 80 per cent. But the catch-22 situation still remains. The Government, on the one hand, are saying how generous and encouraging they are; but the private applicant still has to face a 20 per cent. loss and this will inevitably result in a continuing lack of applicants for grant from the private sector.

Would noble Lords venture into a scheme which already has a built-in loss of 20 per cent. and in the knowledge that they will incur further additional costs which are not eligible for grant and the cost of which probably cannot be passed on to the eventual purchaser? The additional costs to which I refer are, in this instance, likely to be special foundations that are needed for housing or commercial development, and these can be very costly. It would not be in any way an economic proposition.

We have had an indication from my honourable friend Mr. Giles Shaw, an Under-Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, that the question of grant to the private sector might be looked into again in a further 12 months' time. Can my noble friend confirm this and, if there is no improvement in the grant take-up by private applicants, will the rate of grant be increased? If this is so, why have three bites at the cherry in only one term of office? It would be much better to raise the grant now.

At the moment, there is some 60 per cent. or 70 per cent. of derelict land in England in the ownership of the local authorities. There is an allocation of a paltry £1 million for derelict land in non-local authority ownership—that is, statutory undertakers, nationalised industries and private people. On the other hand, £45 million is available for local authorities. Is not that a ridiculous situation and should not the Government say that there is an allocation of £46 million and that the rate of grant will be 100 per cent. for everybody who applies and is successful?

I hope that the Government will be sympathetic to these points when they are raised in detail at later stages, or I fear that the Bill will not solve one of its main intentions. It is similar to the Government's aim of trying to help small businesses, yet when it comes down to details they are only prepared to help in the production of factories for small manufacturing businesses, thus severely limiting the opportunity for small businesses in general. If the overall aim in this instance is to provide finance for urban redevelopment, why do they not do a proper job, having learned the lesson of two years ago?

12.13 p.m.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, briefly I should like to speak on one particular matter. Dereliction in town areas is very likely to produce the situation whereby the area can be redeveloped, and therefore be financially rewarding, whether for the individual or for the local authority. But in the case of a national park, even if the land is restored from its use as pit heaps or whatever, which caused it to become derelict, it is highly unlikely to have any residual value, apart from after a long period when perhaps a few sheep can be grazed on it. Therefore, perhaps my noble friend the Minister can explain why there is only a 75 per cent. grant for local authorities in national parks as against a 100 per cent. grant for land which afterwards will be of some use.

12.14 p.m.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and to my noble friends for the welcome and helpful approach to this particular Bill. The noble Baroness mentioned, as an example, Wales and perhaps I might say at the beginning of my remarks that Wales has led the rest of the United Kingdom in the field of land reclamation. The derelict land unit in the Welsh Office was set up in 1966, following the tragedy of the Aberfan disaster, and in its 10 years of existence it reclaimed some 7,750 acres of land and made a significant start on the major areas of industrial and mining dereliction.

The work of land reclamation was transferred to the Welsh Development Agency, when it was founded in 1976, and the agency has continued to do an excellent job. This is important and useful work which can only be done slowly, but over recent years much progress has been made and the work done with great professionalism. Many areas of the Principality have been entirely transformed; the environment greatly improved, and the threat of unsafe industrial tips removed. Between 1976 and 1979 over 2,000 acres were reclaimed. Since 1979, schemes have been approved to reclaim some 2,000 acres. An additional 2,750 acres are in the agency's programmes for the next few years.

The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, mentioned one particular point in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill about increasing public expenditure. This is a formal statement to indicate that the Bill itself does not imply an increase in expenditure. Increases are a question to be decided by the Government from time to time as a matter of policy. The noble Baroness touched on resources and I shall now attempt to put her mind at rest about that.

It is not the Government's intention that the new provisions in the Bill should have an adverse effect on levels of derelict land reclamation by local authorities. Naturally, it is impossible to predict what will be the size of provision for the future under public expenditure survey decisions taken year by year, but I can say that it is the Government's intention to maintain a healthy and consistent public sector provision for derelict land reclamation.

Following on this, I must make it clear that we expect derelict land reclamation to play a bigger role in urban policy. To this end priority will be given to schemes which, by the development of reclaimed land, bring employment and new vitality to the run-down areas of our cities and towns. Such schemes in future will have a first call on funds.

The noble Baroness mentioned the idea of giving 100 per cent. grants instead of 50 per cent. grants to deserving schemes in non-100 per cent. areas. We think that this would involve difficulties of judgment, and it would be at some odds with the concept of designating areas in general need of economic uplift or environmental improvement in which a reclamation drive is being concentrated.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, before the Minister leaves that point, if there were not only a deserving but an outstanding case, would it be possible for that area to be designated for that purpose?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, if it falls within the criteria, or very nearly so, of economic uplift, yes, it would be. Arrangements have been made for most of the areas which are due to lose assisted status in 1982 to be designated as DCLAs by the Secretary of State for Industry under existing legislation. This will give the authorities concerned continuing entitlement to 100 per cent. grants for reclamation. The necessary order was laid before the House on 9th July.

My noble friend Lord Caithness was particularly concerned as to why we did not at the moment raise the private sector grant from 80 per cent. to 100 per cent. The Government have carefully considered the rate of grant which should be paid to the private sector, nationalised industries and other public bodies to encourage them to reclaim derelict land. The take-up of grants in this sector has been disappointing and we accept that a 50 per cent. rate is too low. We hope that an increase to 80 per cent. in the assisted areas and derelict land areas will provide sufficient stimulus to encourage private developers to take more seriously the development opportunities for derelict land while at the same time providing an incentive for the most economic use of public funds by ensuring that the private sector has a 20 per cent. stake in the cost of reclamation works. I can confirm that if we find that the increase does not work, we shall be prepared to look at it again.

My noble friend Lord Gisborough mentioned the local authorities in national parks. I would point out that the 75 per cent. rate is allowed for reclamation by local authorities in national parks under the National Parks Act 1949. This is a historic rate and has been left untouched. In point of fact, there is practically never any reclamation required in national parks.

The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, also mentioned toxic wastes. As she knows, at the moment we are in the middle of the hazardous waste projects and I hope that she will hear more about that next week. It is part of Government policy to try to regenerate the inner urban areas so that land is not taken at the expense of green fields. On that happy note, perhaps I could commend this Bill, which has been generally received very well by all parts of the House, to the House for Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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