HL Deb 23 July 1982 vol 433 cc1084-7

11.34 a.m.

The Earl of Avon

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.—(The Earl of Avon.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The EARL OF LISTOWEL in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Powers of Secretary of State]:

The Earl of Caithness moved the following amendment: Page 2, line 43, leave out ("80") and insert ("90").

The noble Earl said: In moving this amendment, I would apologise to the Committee because it was printed incorrectly in the first place. This is a small amendment but is of major importance. It deals with the question of why the Government are not supporting and encouraging wholeheartedly private applicants, nationalised industries, and statutory undertakers in their efforts to reclaim derelict land. My noble friend Lord Avon said on Second Reading, on 16th July at col. 591: 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". If that is the policy, then why do not the Government actively pursue it to its conclusion?

They are happy to give a 100 per cent. grant to local authorities and the English Industrial Estates Corporation which, incidentally, has been partly financed from private funds since July 1980, but when it comes to private applicants the grant is limited to 80 per cent. One might have expected that treatment from another party, but hopefully something better from this Government. There is considerable derelict land available for reclamation which is in non-local authority ownership, but incentives and parity are needed to release this land. Why should these owners enter into a project with a probability of a built-in 20 per cent. loss? Why are the Government deliberately discriminating against the private owner who has the added disadvantage that he has to borrow money at probably higher rates of interest than local authorities can from the banks, the insurance companies, or the market?

Under the present policy, the private sector will have to pass on the additional costs following reclamation to the eventual buyer or user. In most cases these costs cannot be passed on. The result is that the land will not be reclaimed and another green field site will be chosen for development. The present policy will mean a continuation of loss of good agricultural land, which is running at an average of 45,800 acres a year. It will mean that the derelict land bank will only increase and consequently so will the inner city problems.

I had hoped that this Government would not be a party to such a policy. I would have liked to try to amend the increase of the rate of grant from 80 per cent. to 100 per cent. but the Government set themselves against this in another place, and so I hope that they will accept my very reasonable compromise of 90 per cent. After last night, I am no longer sure that all noble Lords wish to see derelict land improved, but I hope that most noble Lords will and that they will also wish to see a situation where the private sector can play its part constructively and take a lead in these matters. The Government hope that they will do so will, alas, be in vain unless they change their present proposals. I beg to move.

The Earl of Avon

I understand my noble friend's concern that the private sector, which in this case includes the nationalised industries, should receive the maximum aid possible to help them to go in for the reclamation of derelict land which they themselves own without having to involve local authorities. The Government want to encourage this new opportunity not only for its own sake but also for the sake of the local authority programme. In so far as the non-local authority sector can take on land reclamation directly, to that extent the task will not fall upon local authorities. They will thus be able to devote grant-aided expenditure on other schemes. We have set out specifically to encourage the private sector by introducing these grants.

I do not pretend that in the immediate future this effect on local authority programmes will be more than marginal. The noble Earl referred before in our earlier stages of this Bill to the "paltry" £1 million provided this year compared to the £45 million for local authorities. But until we can be clearer on what the future take-up by the private sector is likely to be, this start which the Government are suggesting should, I believe, be properly modest.

I appreciate the care with which my noble friend has presented his case, which he put very cogently. I also appreciate his ingenuity in tempting me with 10 per cent. rather than a complete percentage rise. However, his concern is to promote this take-up by the private sector to a degree which nevertheless will leave some incentive to carry out work with the self-interested virtues of sobriety of judgment and economy of outlay. This is the kernel of the matter and exactly what preoccupied the Government when they decided that 80 per cent. struck the right balance and that this was the highest rate it was considered now correct to go to.

As I said on Second Reading, the Government are prepared to look at the rate again in the light of experience over the next 12 months, and this will be done. If any of your Lordships have the opportunity during this time to encourage the private sector to take advantage of these grants, that would help in the review. I hope my noble friend Lord Caithness will accept that this is a reasonable way to proceed and will be prepared to withdraw his amendment on that understanding.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My noble friends and I agree that it is desirable that reclamation of derelict land should be tackled both in the public and private sectors. We have noted the increase which has already been proposed by the Government, from a 50 to 80 per cent. grant in this area, which we think is a good stimulus and should be a sufficient stimulus in assisted areas and derelict land areas to encourage private developers to take more seriously the development opportunities in derelict land areas which exist, while—to use a phrase of the noble Earl on an earlier occasion—providing for the most economic use of public funds in this private sector territory. I listened with admiration to the ringing phrase about the desirability of combining sobriety of judgment with economy of outlay. Those words will add the noble Earl's name to those who propound distinguished observations in your Lordships' House. We think 80 per cent. is about right.

The Earl of Caithness

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, for his limited support. Clearly the support is there, although I should have hoped he would have come a little further down the road with me. I am also grateful to my noble friend for his reply, which I anticipated, although I had hoped it might have been a little more generous. A start was made by the Government two years ago when they introduced a 50 per cent. grant to private applicants. That failed because the private applicant had to start a scheme with a 50 per cent. built in loss. He now has the encouragement of having to face only a 20 per cent. loss. Can the Minister confirm that he will look at the matter within 12 months if there is no take-up of the grant by applicants? We shall by then be running towards a general election and I fear for the future, should this party not be re-elected, and for private applicants in particular, who are desperately keen to grasp the nettle of reclamation of derelict land but who might not be able to do so with another party in power.

The Earl of Avon

I am pleased to confirm what I have already said, that in the light of experience over the next 12 months the Government are prepared to look at the matter again. I am sad that my noble friend should be so pessimistic about our chances. I feel I shall be here for at least another six years.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

I rise simply to point out that the party represented on this Bench propose to adopt a most reasonable approach to this question after the next general election, so the noble Earl need have no fears.

The Earl of Caithness

Is the party on that Bench adopting a reasonable approach now? If so, they must support me. In any event, I am grateful for my noble friend's comments and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Remaining clauses and the schedule agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment. Report received.