HL Deb 22 May 1990 vol 519 cc827-30

7.32 p.m.

Lord Reay rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 14th June 1989 be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order we are considering this evening seeks to vest in the London Docklands Development Corporation two plots of land currently owned by the London borough of Southwark. Your Lordships may find it helpful if I explain very briefly some of the background.

As your Lordships may know, the LDDC is an urban development corporation established under Part XVI of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980. It is one of 10 UDCs in England. Its statutory objective is to secure the regeneration of London Docklands. To achieve this it has a wide range of powers to carry out projects, including powers to acquire, manage and dispose of land.

Through land ownership the corporation can clear dereliction and assemble larger sites for development. On occasion key sites need to be acquired to ensure effective regeneration of adjoining private land. Acquisition is preferably carried out by negotiated agreement but sometimes, with the approval of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, compulsory purchase procedures are necessary. Where the land is in public ownership, my right honourable friend may introduce a vesting order under Section 141 of the 1980 Act. It is one such order we are considering today.

Your Lordships will be aware that the LDDC is discharging its regeneration remit with spectacular success. For example, almost 2, 000 acres of derelict land have been reclaimed. Some £7 billion in private investment in Docklands has been secured, bringing in 28, 000 new jobs and 17, 000 new homes. The LDDC has a large community programme too, including funding for social housing, education and training projects. Access to the area is being eased by new road and public transport links. Local people now have an improving quality of life and far more choice and opportunity in jobs and housing. In summary, therefore, the LDDC seeks a positive partnership with the private sector. It aims for balanced programmes extending the benefits of regeneration to the local communities. That is the general background.

The two sites included in this vesting order are very small. They cover a total of just 0-17 acres between them. But they are key sites for Docklands regeneration. Both are needed by the LDDC to ensure effective and comprehensive development of the surrounding private land.

The first plot is the stub end of a disused piece of road. The council has not objected to it being vested in the LDDC. The second plot is a riverside site known as Odessa Wharf. The owner of the surrounding land—the Jacob's Island Company—proposes that it should be laid out as public open space so as to provide a window to the river from the area behind. The Jacob's Island scheme is designed accordingly and offers the prospect of high quality comprehensive development. The LDDC agrees with the developers' proposals and has given appropriate planning consent. But during seven years of negotiations between Jacob's Island and the London borough of Southwark, the council has constantly refused to sell the land for use as public open space.

As recently as September 1989 the council refused an offer worth the equivalent of £4 million an acre for the site for use as public open space. The council had instead its own proposals for housing on the site and it chose to take those through planning appeal to public inquiry, which it lost.

The council still refuses to sell Odessa Wharf, but is now willing to grant a licence to the developer to use it as open space. That proposal is not acceptable to the LDDC as the statutory regeneration authority for the area. The LDDC's legal advisers doubt whether the licence would be enforceable should there be changes in the ownership of the surrounding land. The LDDC is not a party to the agreement, and cannot enforce it, and the licence would lapse after 10 years should the existing development proposals fail to materialise. For these reasons the corporation seeks ownership to ensure with absolute certainty that the Odessa Wharf will be used as public open space and that the wider site can be developed comprehensively. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is promoting this vesting order to achieve that purpose. I commend this order to the House.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 14th June 1989 be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].— (Lord Reay.)

Lord Mcintosh of Haringey

My Lords, this is a most bizarre story—much more bizarre than will appear even from the fact that the order is dated 1989 and is signed by Nicholas Ridley as Secretary of State for the Environment.

The history which has been so clearly explained by the noble Lord, Lord Reay, in introducing the order is a much better version than that given by Mr. Colin Moynihan in the Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments in another place last week, which was quite rightly shot down for a host of inaccuracies and other difficulties. Even so, we have a very strange story taking place over a period of years. If the parties involved were of different political complexions it would call down the thunder of many noble Lords who are crowding the Government benches—as indeed noble Lords are crowding these Benches.

As the noble Lord rightly said, the history started in 1983 when the Jacob's Island Company, which owns the surrounding land, went to Southwark Council to buy land for open space. As the noble Lord again rightly said, Southwark Council had other ideas and sought between 1983 and December 1989—when the final decision was taken—to build housing on the site. It is now agreed between Southwark Council and the Jacob's Island Company that the land should be kept as open space. What they are not agreed on is that there should be a sale of the freehold, and therefore they are not agreed that there should be a vesting order. It is not only Southwark Council which objects to the vesting order; it is the Jacob's Island Company also, which takes the view that the vesting order is not necessary.

If the lawyers of the London Docklands Development Corporation are indeed dissatisfied with the conditions of the licence, as it is the planning authority it has the power to ensure that the land is never used for anything other than open space. I suggest to the House that the fact that this has gone on for so long and that we are using the vesting of land procedure when both the ultimate user and the owner of the land are agreed that it is not necessary is an extraordinary state of affairs.

If the London borough of Southwark were trying to intervene between a developer and the owner of land, many noble Lords on the Government Benches would say that that was a gross intrusion by a wicked socialist council. But here it is the Government and the London Docklands Development Corporation, as the planning authority, who are seeking to intervene and overturn an agreement between the owners of the land and developers of the surrounding land. If there are any difficulties about the security of the licence, let them go to it and put it right. The LDDC is not short of powers to see that its planning wishes are fulfilled. After all, the whole of the urban development corporation procedure was set up to give the development corporations virtually authoritarian powers.

I do not conceal my feeling that right from the very beginning the boundaries of the LDDC were set for political rather than for rational planning reasons. None of this part of Southwark is part of Docklands in the real sense. It is part of the area on the side of the Thames which has a large number of warehouses giving access to the river. But it is not part of Docklands and was never considered to be part of Docklands when the Docklands regeneration was first envisaged. It was included in the Docklands right up to Tower Bridge in order to make it easier for the LDDC to make a pr of it out of the development of the land for commercial purposes. It comes ill of the Government to seek to close of f the last little loophole available to the London borough of Southwark to achieve financial benefit for itself and for its hard-pressed community charge payers from the use of this land.

It is not as if there were any financial benefits to the Government as a result of the vesting order. There has not been a district valuer's valuation of the Odessa Wharf site. But the Jacob's Island Company offered £625, 000. Under the vesting order taxpayers will have to pay £125, 000 to Southwark for the site, which is far below what it would otherwise have received. Presumably, the land, having been acquired under the vesting order, will then be sold to the Jacob's Island Company for less than it would otherwise have paid.

In his introduction the noble Lord said that the land was needed by the London Docklands Development Corporation. I challenge that. The idea that a planning authority for the whole of Docklands should need the complicated bureaucratic procedure of a vesting order to acquire 0-17 of an acre of land is frankly ridiculous. It does not make sense. There are perfectly good compulsory power procedures which could have been adopted. There was no need for the vesting order procedure. We now have a conflict between the Government and the London Docklands Development Corporation on one side and the London borough of Southwark and the Jacob's Island Company on the other.

It is an abuse of parliamentary procedures that we face an order of this nature. It is an abuse that it should have taken so long—and I do not go into any of the hybrid instrument arguments—to reach this House. There has been substantial bureaucratic delay and the result should not be accepted by this House.

Needless to say, in line with the conventions of the House I shall not challenge an order which I understand last night went through the other place on the nod. However, I cannot refrain from saying that we are deeply dissatisfied with the way in which; the matter has been handled by the Government and by the London Docklands Development Corporation.

On Question, Motion agreed to.