HL Deb 27 March 1984 vol 450 cc204-12

7.48 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

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.—(Lord Wallace of Coslany.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD AYLESTONE in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Duty of certain councils to provide allotment gardens]:

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Aylestone)

I should point out that the correct wording of Amendment No. 1 is as follows:

"Page 1, line 8, leave out from ("and") to end of line 11 and insert ("in exercising their duty under the Allotments Acts 1908 to 1950 to provide allotment gardens shall take into account the number of persons on such a register." ").

Lord Wallace of Coslany moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 8, leave out from ("and") to end of line 11 and insert ("in exercising their duty under the Allotments Acts 1908 to 1950 to provide allotment gardens shall take into account the number of persons on such a register." ").

The noble Lords said: I apologise for the error. The final section of the amendment is in line with the original part of Clause 1. The amendment amends Clause 1 so that it merely requires allotment authorities to maintain a register of prospective allotment tenants and to take into account the number of persons on such a register in exercising their duties under the Allotments Acts. Clause 1 as originally drafted was criticised right, left, centre and middle by all sections of those who spoke in the House, except myself. I recognise that criticism and accept it. I thank noble Lords for it. Now we have this amendment which is a simple amendment and which is really a paving amendment to the rest of the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, on the series of amendments that he has brought before the Committee this evening because they very much improve the Bill. Amendment No. 1 in particular meets a point which, as the noble Lord has said, was raised in several parts of the House and it was the only serious fault that we on these Benches found in the Bill. We are delighted that the noble Lord has been able to amend the Bill in this thoroughly satisfactory way.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I should like again to support the good sense of those outside the Committee who clearly have assisted my noble friend Lord Wallace in seeking to improve the Bill at all stages. Of course there will be other stages after tonight and—who knows?—when a wider audience looks at what we have done tonight, there may be even more improvements on the way.

I take the point made by the Minister on Second Reading about the disparity between the treatment of people waiting for houses and people waiting for allotments which, under the original wording of the Bill, could certainly have appeared to imply that there was a greater urgency or priority to provide allotments for people who wanted allotments, than houses for people who were waiting for houses. This amendment quite clearly applies a little brake on the wideness of the area over which it is possible to lay down duties on authorities to provide allotments. Therefore, we from the Front Bench will certainly support the amendment.

Lord Skelmersdale

As has already been referred to, it is an open secret that, during the debate on Second Reading, the Government displayed little enthusiasm for the Bill. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, was disappointed that he did not seem to be getting "goodwill from the Government". Instead he said: I am afraid that they rather stunned me with a bucket of cold water".—[Official Report, 24/2/84; col. 1029.] Nevertheless, I am pleased to see that, in coming forward today with these amendments, the noble Lord has heeded my words about some of the failings of the Bill. I recognise that the noble Lord has done what he can to make the Bill more acceptable and I am grateful to him for his efforts. I still have doubts about the need for such a Bill and I am not entirely happy with all the amendments. But the noble Lord may be reassured to know that the water is not quite as cold as it was previously.

As regards this particular amendment, the Allotments Acts 1908 to 1950 already place an obligation on local authorities (but not the inner London boroughs where the duty is discretionary) to provide "a sufficient number" of allotments where the authority is of the opinion that there is a demand for them, and waiting lists are, of course, a main way of assessing demand. As, however, the statutes are not specific about the extent and nature of allotment provision, it is appropriate that each authority should be free to decide for itself what proportion of its resources to devote to this purpose, bearing in mind the availability of land and all other demands on the finite resources which are available.

The amendment that is proposed improves the clause considerably but, as in Amendment No. 3—which we shall reach a little later—we are still averse to additional statutory duties being imposed on local authorities.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

I shall not say much about that. The Goverment are, I think, beginning to relent a little. If the noble Lord looks at Amendment No. 3 which arises in Clause 3, he will see that we have taken account of the new Government reorganisation and that, of course, includes inner London boroughs. Apart from that, I take on board what the noble Lord has said. I do not think that there is any need for me to think of further amendments. I will trust in my luck and no doubt trust that the Government will have a nice kind heart in due course. We shall have to wait and see.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 2 [Accounts and application of receipts]:

7.54 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Coslany moved Amendment No. 2: Leave out Clause 2 and insert the following new clause:

("Application of monies and receipts

2. Monies and receipts which fall to be applied in accordance with section 32(2) of the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 (sale of superfluous or unsuitable land) shall not be applied for purposes other than allotment garden purposes except where the auditor appointed for the purposes of section 15(3) of the Local Government Finance Act 1982 (general duties of auditors) has certified that allotment garden needs have been met.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 2 as listed on the Marshalled List. I accept that there was a great deal of difficulty as regards this provision and it was severely criticised by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. My friends and I have done our best to try to meet the suggestions and criticisms that the noble Lord made. I could in point of fact speak at great length on this amendment, but I do not intend to do so.

The amendment rewords Clause 2 so that when superfluous or unsuitable allotment land is sold or exchanged for more suitable land, the sale proceeds and monies received by way of equality of exchange shall not be used for purposes other than allotment purposes, unless the auditor has certified that allotment needs in the council's area have been met.

Of course there is far more in this amendment than meets the eye, because it brings in the question of charitable foundations and public trust, and the ethical considerations arising directly out of charitable foundations of allotments. Not all allotment gardens are of course just founded by local authorities as such. They are a very important part of the social fabric of urban and village life. Many plots have been in the same family for several generations. Indeed, as I told the House previously, my family is now starting again.

I should like to interpolate at this point that last time I mentioned my secret method of getting bumper green pea crops. It appeared in Garden News last week. I am arranging for stencilled copies of this secret to be available in the Library in due course to all noble Lords. I understand that the noble Lord wants to criticise this amendment severely and I shall listen to what he has to say with great care. I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale

As far as giant green peas are concerned perhaps the noble Lord might like to get in touch with the Henry Doubleday Research Association or indeed the National Vegetable Research Association, but I shall leave that matter to him. I am not going to be quite as severe as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, thinks. This amendment improves the Bill to the extent that it removes the proposed obligation upon authorities to keep separate accounts of receipts and expenditure and the duty which would require them to publish annual accounts. As amended, however, it would require monies and receipts arising from the sale of allotment land not to: be applied for purposes other than allotment garden purposes except where the district auditor … has certified that allotment garden needs have been met". Following the enactment of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980, local authorities have been able to use any of the proceeds arising from the sale of allotment land for other purposes without the consent of the Secretary of State, provided they are satisfied that the money is surplus to allotment needs in accordance with the provisions of Section 32(2) of the 1908 Act. I see no reason for changing these arrangements to the extent proposed by the noble Lord in requiring a certificate from the auditor before the proceeds of sale can be applied for other purposes which I consider to be unnecessarily bureaucratic.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I rise to support the intention of the clause. It is quite clear that sometimes one does not get the words right. But I am sure that the Minister understands very well the agitation, if not the anger, of many people who want to maintain the existing acreage of allotments, but who are aware of the fact that in this day and age—when there is severe pressure from the Government on authorities to find money from their own resources—there will be authorities who will look with covetous eyes upon the possibility that, by one means or another, they will be able to produce a situation in which it can be said that there is no longer any need or demand for allotments and the land will be sold and the monies will be used to keep down general rating needs.

The Minister and I had an interesting exchange on the Town and Country Planning Act in respect of surplus land from the sale of either hospital sites or hospitals. We on this side of the Committee are very sensitive—and I do not say that it is our prerogative—about the fact that, as long as there is a need for it, we want to maintain land in allotment use. My noble friend, quite rightly, pointed out the charitable nature of many allotments, and yesterday he had a good example of how the charitable base of our society in housing matters is under attack. I would not want to see a charitable base on land under attack. Allotments are very precious to a community. They may not be used by everyone. I hesitate to say that they are part of our heritage but they are part of our tradition. They are very well respected and are used by communities. I certainly support the amendment. Whether it will be resisted, pushed or improved is of course in the hands of my noble friend. But we certainly support the intention that the value of land which ceases to be used on one site for allotments ought to be put into a fund and. unless it is said otherwise by the auditor, should continue to be used for allotment purposes.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

I accept to a great extent the criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. I thank my noble friend for supporting me in the way in which he has. As the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, pointed out on Second Reading, there was no need to reopen arguments about the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980. However, there is a great problem here and there is a danger, because local authorities are under pressure to try to find some way of raising money. I know that it is Government policy to reduce expenditure and I am not arguing about that. Some local authorities may have increased allotment rents to the point of discouraging people from using allotments. When the local authorities reach that situation they can obtain permission to sell the land, which will fetch in a considerable sum, for housing. So there is a temptation there.

I am trying to say that, irrespective of the argument about an audit, there is a clear need for an independent audit to be introduced before allotment monies are diverted to other purposes. I could go into the reasons, but I mentioned most of them in my opening remarks. There may be some other safeguard which could be introduced, and I should be grateful if the Government can tell me their ideas on what the safeguard should be. There must be a safeguard, because I know that many local authorities are thinking in terms of trying to get rid of allotment land in order to use it for housing, which in this day and age is a very profitable business indeed. But I still move the amendment, and I shall consider very carefully what has been said. If we can come to some agreement on an amendment, clearly I shall be pleased to do so.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Publication of statistics about allotment gardens]:

8.5 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Coslany moved Amendment No. 3: Page 2, line 8, leave out ("The Secretary of State") and insert ("The council of a district, parish, community or London Borough").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 3. This is quite a simple amendment. The clause, as amended, will require allotment authorities to publish an annual statement of the numbers and area of allotment gardens provided by them and of the number of persons on waiting lists. As originally drafted, the clause would have placed the duty on the Secretary of State to publish statistics; but, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, pointed out—and he was quite right—the Government would have extreme difficulty in complying with such a requirement.

As allotment statistics are important for planning purposes in preparing a recreational strategy and in assessing the amount of food production from allotments, it is right that allotment authorities should publish a simple statement recording this information annually. It need not necessarily be within one month, but could be at some suitable time. My argument has been reinforced by documents and a letter which I have received from someone—I do not think he is a professor—who is training students in many aspects of gardening. He has experienced great difficulty in obtaining adequate statistics. He quoted two authorities to me and they are about the only two that he could find that had adequate statistics available on all aspects of their allotment gardening activity. Therefore, I am reinforced on this point. I do not think that I need say anything further. I beg to move.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I rise briefly to support the value of this amendment. I can understand the Minister making noises that the department has enough on its hands. Reference was made during the Second Reading debate to the value of the Thorpe Report. But again there is uncertainty over the precise extent of allotmenteers in the country. In the Local Government, Planning and Land Act, the Government—and this was without our blessing—laid a whole range of additional duties on local government to provide a wide diversity of statistics and information. To the extent that the Government will claim the credit for opening the books and the doors of local authority activities, we are saying, as we said in another place—and I remember saying it myself on the Floor of the House—that the use to which statistics can be put, let alone the basic need for providing statistics on something which, I repeat, is part of a community, is very sound and can be very valuable.

As my noble friend has said, we do not want something elaborate. We merely want a line of statistics among other statistics, so that when one wants to refer authoritatively to the precise position, a local authority will know best and will produce those statistics. Therefore, I support the amendment.

Lord Skelmersdale

On the previous amendment, when the noble Lord, Lord Graham, was speaking about the Bill, I may not have been very clear in my explanation. However, as long as the local authority feels that there is still a need for allotment gardens, even though it was pressurised in the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Graham, suggests, it would then need the permission of the Secretary of State to sell. This was something which was retained in the Local Government, Planning and Land Act, about which the noble Lord has just complained a little. As I said on Amendment No. 1, Amendment No. 3 would still involve increased bureaucracy on the part of local authorities—not departmental staff—at a time when the Government are seeking to achieve, with all the full panoply of aids which they have summoned up, substantial reductions in staffing levels.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

I do not think that the Government's criticism of this amendment is fair. It seems to me that if one is to have any kind of allotment system at all, the publication of a simple statement of where that system stands from year to year is a basic necessity. It is not to be labelled as "bureaucracy" or "unnecessary"; it is something to which every ratepayer is entitled. I believe that this is a good amendment and a good clause.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

I simply cannot accept what the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. has said. Quite frankly, the Government are overstating their case about local government expense. They must have it on their brains. I wish that they would try to calm down a little over this business of local democracy, and so on. From my experience, this amendment simply needs one efficient junior clerk to keep a simple record of applicants' names and the number of plots that are let, and to publish them from time to time. It would be quite simple. The authorities which do this have the information available, but they do not make it public. If a council do not have any allotments, they do not have to keep records. They can keep records when they have allotments. It is quite a simple matter. Any decent little junior clerk, trained at one of our excellent comprehensive schools, can do the job in only a little part of their time in a year. It is ridiculous to say otherwise.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 3, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 1 [Minor and consequential amendments]:

Lord Wallace of Coslany moved Amendment No. 4: Page 3, leave out line 44 and insert ("should have a vehicular access, adequate fencing and").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 4 standing in my name on the Marshalled List. This is quite simple. Line 44 originally used the word "shall", and the Government and many others objected to it. The amendment now lays down standards to be achieved wherever possible. Circumstances may vary, particularly in rural areas, as far as some of the laid down conditions are concerned, but it is most desirable that standards should be set: that local authorities are still, under the amendment, free to use their initiative and to formulate their own rules. We have now reached the stage where allotment gardens have gone beyond the labouring classes and are becoming a desirable asset for the community at large, for the middle classes and even impoverished noble Lords.

This is done with the best of intentions: to set an example of what we hope to achieve. It is nothing more nor less than that.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 1, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Repeals]:

Lord Wallace of Coslany moved Amendment No. 5: Page 4, line 13, column 3, leave out ("Section 23") and insert ("In section 30(2) the words "or is resident more than one mile out of the borough, district or parish for which the allotments are provided." ").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 5. I must confess that when my friends who have been helping submitted this to me, I could not understand what it was all about, so I had to find out. I can tell the Government (in case they have not yet found out) that this amendment does two things: first, it removes the reference to the repeal of Section 23 of the 1908 Act since this section is no longer being replaced by Clause 1 of the Bill, as amended. Secondly, it amends Section 30(2) of the 1908 Act. The situation is this: at present a tenant who moves one mile outside the administrative area of his allotment's authority is liable to forfeit his plot. There is no reason why this should be so; it is totally contrary to the recreational status of allotments. That is why the amendment seeks to give the plot-holder the right to remain on his plot.

There is a further point. Successive Governments —and I blame nobody in particular, although I am looking rather strongly at the Benches opposite—keep changing local authority areas. One chap who has been working away—who probably followed his father and has now got his grandson beginning to help him— suddenly finds his local authority boundary altered. Legally that chap has to lose his allotment, not because he moved a mile out of the area but because the Government moved him by altering the map. This is downright stupid. With all due respect, I do not think the Government realise this. I certainly did not realise the full implications until I began to delve into the details.

My strongest point, surely, is the fact that we keep messing about with local authority areas, and sometimes we do not even know where a certain area is because the name of it has been changed. Something has got to be done and I hope the Government will accept the amendment and assist me to get this Bill passed. I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale

I think the explanation for this amendment is rather fuller than that which the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has just given us.

There are three reasons under which an authority can repossess an allotment: if the rent is in arrears for not less than 40 days; if the tenant has not observed the rules affecting the allotment not less than three months after the commencement of the tenancy; and if the plot-holder lives more than a mile out of the borough, district or parish for which the allotments are provided. So, irrespective of whether there is a change of boundary because of a local boundary commission or whatever, I would certainly accept the need for the repeal of my third reason brought about by the amendment, because it would reflect today's circumstances in which many allotment holders may reside more than a mile from the authority which provides the allotments. For once, I am in full agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

Hooray! I compliment the noble Lord on this result; it is very refreshing. We have now reached the end of it. I do not wish to say any more because I will be completely out of order if I do so. We must now wait until Third Reading.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 2, as amended, agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported with amendments.