HL Deb 19 April 1993 vol 544 cc1273-362

4.36 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 142 [Objects of Agency]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 176GZB: Page 146, line 9, after ("secure") insert ("in accordance with the terms of any unitary or development plan").

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 176GZB is grouped with a number of other amendments, including the debates on whether Clauses 153 and 154 should stand part of the Bill. Perhaps those debates may be taken in their place in the Bill; I have had a word with the Government and the Opposition Front Benches about that. Therefore, I shall not speak to them now.

Amendment No. 176GZB proposes that the agency's work in securing the regeneration of land is in accordance with any unitary or development plan which is in place. That is not to suggest a top-down approach, as the term might lead one to believe, but rather a bottom-up approach, for the following reasons. The process of forming and adopting unitary development plans or local plans is or should be a democratic and participative procedure, involving an assessment of the needs and aspirations of the community—both the local and the wider community—by the local authority in conjunction with that community. The plan will be prepared; a draft will be the subject of consultation; it will be re-drafted and it may go to a public inquiry. The inspector's views will be discussed and there will then be debate on the plan in its final form before it is adopted. At every stage, those who are concerned with the planning of their communities will have the opportunity to make representations and to have what may often be positive ideas incorporated in the plan. In modern jargon, that amounts to what some people call "ownership"; in other words the local community feels that the plan is to be supported because the community has had a hand in its construction.

As I often do, I accept the temptation to try to solve all the world's problems in a local plan. I have been party to such an exercise. But it means that the decision about a particular site taken in the context of a plan is also taken in the context of priorities and proposals that have been assessed by a democratically accountable body which has undertaken that exercise in an open fashion, because that is what local government is about. It means that priorities can be set: for instance, the needs of employment compared with those of housing. It means that there can be a proper assessment of the infrastructure necessary before particular development begins in order for such development to succeed: for instance, transport.

We all know (if we did not, the noble Lord, Lord Sefton, would remind us) that one problem—perhaps the main problem—with Docklands is that the transport infrastructure is following very slowly on the heels of building what is inevitably being termed a whole herd of white elephants. I visited Docklands this morning. It was a jolly jaunt by Riverbus but it felt a little like a toy-town exercise. I support the Riverbus and have said so in this Chamber before now; but the Riverbus and Docklands Light Railway are not the proper infrastructure for a city the size of Plymouth.

The construction of a plan means that local pressures can be addressed in an open fashion. There will be, for instance, an assessment of the density of housing development in an area and the need for parking standards—an assessment of how much car parking should be provided for within the curtilage of a particular site. Dealing with what might appear to be relatively minor matters can mean that development which may be difficult for the neighbourhood to stomach can become development with which it can live. For instance, if that development is to provide greater employment, it will be to the good of the whole community and the new occupants will not start off at odds with those who have lived in the area for some while.

I believe that we need to include this reference in the Bill. Experience with the urban development corporations is that the Government require the statutory planning authorities to conform to a UDC's strategies and not vice versa. It would be quite right to set the context in its correct order in the Bill.

I believe that it is also necessary to ensure that local plans are given full weight at public inquiries. It would be salutary for legislators to attend a public inquiry on a planning application. One sees then that a major developer who has instructed a legal team with great expertise can sit back and let that team deal with the legislative framework and the plan framework. If those are not clear, the lawyers will have a field day. I am aware of times when that has happened. Too often it is forgotten that the end process of the legislation that we debate comes down to precise decisions. The proposals that we discuss in general terms have very local, very precise but huge implications.

I mentioned plans and inquiries. To take but one example of a site developed not in accordance with the local authority's own priorities, in the Isle of Dogs the LDDC granted permission for luxury housing on prominent sites zoned for industrial use by the local authority. That is what I mean about using the plan to set the priorities between the different needs. I do not believe that it is enough to rely on the honeyed words that we have heard to the effect that the agency will work in co-operation with the local authority. This amendment is a way of putting those words into the Bill.

Finally and briefly, perhaps I may mention one other amendment in this group: Amendment No. 194. It takes the point further and I welcome that. It states that the agency is "to further" the plan. It is not merely to work within it but to further it.

I give a guarded welcome to the further guidance which is given by the Secretary of State to the experience in London. In 1988, 75 pages of advice by the London boroughs turned into 14 pages of seamless prose in the former guidance by the Secretary of State, in which it was not easy to distinguish the policies. But that was several Secretaries of State ago. I hope that things are improving. I beg to move.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I should like strongly to support this amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and also to speak to other amendments in broader terms, including Amendment No. 187D, which focuses on land disposal, tabled in the names of myself and my noble friend Lord Williams.

Two-and-a-half years ago I was involved for the first time in the work of your Lordships' House back in November 1990 with the Planning and Compensation Bill. That Bill was based on the Carnwath Report. Given growing concern that under the previous Secretary of State, the late Lord Ridley, there was a presumption in favour of developers which was putting the planning procedure under strain, the Government accepted that argument in the Bill and in the Act moved away from the presumption in favour of the development to a presumption in favour of the local plan where that plan was based on full and proper consultation and it was integrated with both the county structure plan and regional planning guidance. Following that Act, where a development proposal conflicted with a local development plan, there was an expectation that on appeal the inspector and, if necessary, the Secretary of State would normally expect to rule in favour of the local plan. All districts were required to produce such plans. They were mandatory. The Minister at that time, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said that there would thus be a clear framework against which planning applications could be considered.

Some Members of this Chamber, including my noble friend Lord McIntosh, argued that the UDCs, which were exempt from local planning requirements, represented a black hole. My noble friend cited the instance of Southwark which had contested 47 of its UDC's proposals but on only five occasions did the local authority view prevail. There was a recognition too in the private sector—I quote the Building Employers Confederation—that, the transfer of CPO powers from the local authorities to the URA … may undermine any potential for success". A private firm, Travers Morgan, said that UDCs' use of full development control powers had been contentious and allowed UDCs: to take too little heed of approved development plans". Two-and-a-half years ago we argued that UDCs represented a black hole, despite mandatory local plans which would be presumed in their favour by the Secretary of State, and I am afraid that the evidence has proved us right.

Why then is the Minister willing to see black holes reappear within URAs? The Minister at the time accepted that UDCs normally would be included in plans after appropriate consultation between the planning authority and the corporation. She said that there should in future be no such black holes. Why then do they now appear? If the local plan, consistent with the structure plan of the county and regional planning guidance, has gone out fully to local consultation and if it holds firm under appeals, why should we permit a URA, if it is designated, to drive a coach and horses through that plan? The Minister will say that it will not; it is a working partnership. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, that has not been the experience in UDCs, despite ministerial sweet words to the contrary. What matters is what is on the face of the Bill and not the assurances given by the Minister in Committee. We have learnt to our cost what has happened with the UDC.

Those black holes, as they are, will subvert the Government's requirement, which we support, for mandatory local plans. They will subvert the value of public consultation and subvert the policy of integrated district, county and regional plans. And it will all be quite unnecessary. After all, if the URA has a good case and the local authority's development plan is anachronistic, inflexible or out-of-date, then the URA can go to appeal. I am confident that the Secretary of State can devise a fast track for that appeal to be heard if it is necessary.

There is no need for a designated area status, given the right of appeal. And the existence of such black holes undermines the concept of partnership which the Minister, one hour ago, was assuring us was at the heart of the concept of the URA. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, quite rightly, if the URA is to be effective, it must have major implications for physical infrastructure, for roads and traffic use, perhaps for conservation areas, recreational space, housing, densities, tree preservation, noise and all the other things.

If half of the members were local authority members, no doubt they could come to a sensible meeting of minds on planning issues. But given that the membership of the URA, which may only be six strong, will be operating nationwide, how can they possibly understand the local issues that are fed into a development plan and then seek to take upon themselves development control powers? The Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies did not need to declare UDI from planning. We are now paying the bill for the UDCs which did. Why will the Minister not learn? If the Government will not learn from their own mistakes, from whose mistakes will they learn?

In the House of Commons the Minister made reassuring noises. He said: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, where a local council has followed a democratic process and a plan has been approved by the Secretary of State, that plan must be the main guidance for planning and development in that area. That will apply to the URA just as much as it applies to other prospective developers or those who bring together schemes"—(Official Report, Commons, 14/1/93; col. 829.) If the Minister meant those words, then the only way to make them stick is to put them on the face of the Bill. Otherwise they will be empty sweet nothings. It is in order to give body and substance to the ministerial statement that we support the amendment.

Lord Northfield

This brings us to the heart of what I was saying a little earlier, and also to what my noble friend Lord Sefton was saying in regard to partnership. We are entitled to something stronger than the Minister has so far indicated.

If one read the six or eight pages in the Bill dealing with the matter, one would think that it is just an urban derelict land clearance agency. The Minister may say that of necessity it will look like that because the powers to acquire land, which are central to the success of the body, must be carefully spelt out. But we need some assurance. Clauses 142 and others speak widely of directions given by the Secretary of State. They are not spelt out and there are no guidelines for him as to the way in which those general powers are to be used. We therefore have a definition of a derelict land clearance agency which is then made broader—we hope—simply by directions given by the Secretary of State in the exercise of those powers.

I hope that I am not being unduly suspicious, but, given the history of the past 13 years of which I spoke earlier, in which the Department of the Environment bitterly rejected and despised this idea throughout the whole of the 1980s, one suspects that the Bill was conceived by Mr. Heseltine when he returned to that department. He is an enthusiast for what I believe in; that is, for the wider role, for the partnership, for the body working with local authorities. But now that he has left the department, the Bill has been watered down to come back with something like an urban derelict land clearance agency. I know that that was not his idea when in the Cabinet he fought for and won the concept of an urban regeneration agency.

We therefore need the kind of assurances that are prompted by the amendment. For example, when the urban development corporation was set up in the West Midlands—I am glad to see my noble friend Lord Archer present—I raised the matter at the time and nothing was done. I was near to it in Telford in Shropshire and was able to view it. I invited the local authority of the urban development area in the West Midlands to come to Telford to see how it could work in partnership with a development corporation, as we were doing as a new town corporation working in partnership with our local authority. The local authority came over and was enthused by the idea of a partnership with the new urban development corporation for the West Midlands. However, when it was set up, nothing happened. It became another urban clearance agency redeveloping derelict land without regard to the wider need to work with the local authority as a catalyst to provoke a total redevelopment plan for the whole of the darker area of the West Midlands.

This time we must stop that happening. The new national agency must be a body more akin to the rural development commission which worked with a small staff, not trying to do too much itself but stimulating and helping local authorities along the road with the powers and small amounts of money available to help along the process. If we get back to the narrow definition which the Bill seems to spell out, we shall lose all the possibilities to which many of us have been pointing for a long time.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

Perhaps I can ask the indulgence of the Committee while I say something on a subject about which I know very little. I want to put something on record. I sat for three years on the Sheffield Development Corporation and we worked extremely closely with the local authority. The local authority was represented on the corporation and we worked —I believe it still works—closely on transport, housing, redevelopment and all the issues that have been mentioned. I only wanted to say that there is at least one UDC that to my knowledge does what is being regarded as right.

Lord Norrie

I should like to speak to Amendment No. 194, which was mentioned briefly by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. It deals with the important issue of how the Urban Redevelopment Agency relates to the planning system.

On Second Reading my noble friend assured me that the agency would be subject to normal planning controls. However, that does not mean that it will avoid unnecessary conflict with national and local planning policies and objections. Amendment No. 194 would require the agency to seek further central and local government planning policies. Those are agreed after extensive public consultation, and the achievement of their objectives should be kept a key priority.

I am concerned that the agency will be able to propose developments that cut directly across agreed planning policies; for example, in the green belt or on an urban wildlife site. Since the planning system and the proposed agency seek to make the best use of land resources, I cannot see any objection to an obligation on the agency to further land use planning policies. That would allay a great deal of anxiety on the point.

Lord Strathclyde

At the beginning of this afternoon's Committee, I made clear what the agency was all about. It therefore comes as a surprise that so many Members opposite should seek to disagree with what I said and put forward their own explanations. I was surprised by the attacks of the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, who wishes to take credit for the genesis of the idea of the Urban Regeneration Agency and I do not take that away from him. The noble Lord, Lord Sefton, brought with him his ideological baggage. The noble Baronesses on the Front Benches said that the agency will not work in partnership with local authorities. It was only the honeyed words of my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth that finally set the record straight. This agency is about partnership. It is about working with local authorities, the private sector, voluntary organisations and anyone else who cares to have an interest in the land in question. It is not another agency taking powers away from local government. That point is fundamental to the essence of the debate.

5 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Does the Minister's statement that this is not about taking powers away from local government mean that he is now withdrawing the power of the URA to seek designated area status, thus removing the planning powers from the local authority?

Lord Strathclyde

We shall come to discuss those amendments in the very near future. It is in the generality that this is not taking powers away from local authorities. There may be certain instances for certain fixed reasons, which I shall explain in due course, as to why the agency may require reserve powers. But in the generality the purpose of the agency is to work very closely with local authorities. If partnership is successful—the noble Baroness says that partnership should be successful—there will of course be no need for those designated powers.

Furthermore, there are no black holes in the development plan system. All development control authorities, whether local authorities, the UDC or the URA, have to work on the basis of the development plans for the area. That is why I feel that the amendments are unnecessary. We have been careful in framing the provisions of the Bill to preserve the integrity of the planning system and to place the URA firmly within it at all times. The new development plan system which came into force in 1992 will make an important contribution to ensuring that development and growth are sustainable. It will mean that environmental, social and economic objectives are properly reflected in all planning decisions whether or not they concern the URA. Projects undertaken or supported by the agency and developments on land formerly owned by the agency will require planning permission, normally from the local authority. Local authorities must have regard to national and regional planning guidance issued by the Secretary of State in preparing structure plans, local plans or unitary development plans. All development control decisions, whether or not they concern the URA, must be made in accordance with development plans unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

Even within a designated area the URA would not have the power to make or alter development plans. It too would have to make development control decisions in accordance with the local authority's plan unless material considerations indicated otherwise. It is of course possible that the agency, or a developer whom it has helped, could put forward proposals which do not accord with development plans. So could anyone else, including a local authority. The planning system allows for disagreement and its resolution, as any robust, practical system must. If a proposal conflicted with a development plan the applicant would need to produce convincing reasons to show why the plan should not prevail.

It is important to be clear that development plans are not, and cannot be, prescriptive. Planning policy guidance explains that they are a framework for rational and consistent decision-making. If there are no other material planning considerations then development control decisions must be made in accordance with plans.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. Can he tell us what a material consideration is? What he seems to be suggesting in his reply is that if a development control decision is of such substance that it contradicts the development plan one goes through to appeal, but if it is a material consideration in a designated area one does not need to go through to appeal—one grants oneself planning permission. Can the Minister clarify the position?

Lord Strathclyde

I should be very glad to do so but perhaps I may continue from where I left off in the first instance. Plans may not always be up to date. Local circumstances may change, or the policies and proposals in the plans may have been superseded by more recent guidance.

The noble Baroness asked about material considerations. In principle any consideration which relates to the use and development of land is capable of being a planning consideration. Whether a particular consideration falling within that broad class is material in any given case will depend on the circumstances. That is what was given in the case of Stringer v. MHLG in 1971. Material considerations must be genuine planning considerations. They must be related to the purpose of planning legislation, which is to regulate the development and use of land in the public interest. The considerations must also fairly and reasonably relate to the application concerned. Much will depend on the nature of the application under consideration, the relevant policies in the development plan and the surrounding circumstances.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Perhaps I may—

Lord Strathclyde

I really must finish this part of my reply as otherwise the noble Baroness will not understand. The courts are the arbiters of what constitutes a material consideration. Over the years the scope of what can be regarded as material has been clarified by judicial authority. All the fundamental factors involved in land use planning are included, such as the number, size, lay out, site and design and external appearance of buildings and the proposed means of access, together with landscaping impact on the neighbourhood and the availability of infrastructure. I am delighted to give way to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I thank the Minister for that helpful response. What he has shown is that where there is a material consideration there is a presumption possibly in favour of that at appeal. Hence his reference to the courts. That is to be welcomed. In that case, if appeals will cover the issue of material consideration, why do we need designated status at all?

Lord Strathclyde

I said earlier that this is not the amendment on which we need to discuss why there should be or why there should not be designated status. The point is that it is a reserve power to be used where there may be an unhelpful or uncooperative local authority and where there may well be a requirement for having designated area status. But we shall come to that in due course.

My noble friend Lord Norrie spoke to Amendment No. 194 which, with Amendment No. 176GZB, would have the effect of preventing material considerations from being taken into account when a proposal is put forward by the agency. In any other case they would be taken into account. This is inequitable. Where the agency has treated land and sold it to a third party then any subsequent planning application will be made by that third party. I hope that disposals by the agency will not lead to unnecessary conflict over land use. But it may not be possible to know whether difficulties will arise until detailed planning permission is sought. And again, it is right that all material considerations should be taken into account. It is not possible to legislate against all differences of opinion and changes of circumstance. Applying the planning system to the URA as it applies to everyone else is the very best way of achieving a proper balance.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, quoted my honourable friend Mr. Redwood in another place when he said that the URA would work within the development plan. Those words are not empty sweet nothings. They are very much a statement of the legal position under the Bill as it stands. Therefore I hope that the Committee will agree that the amendments will not add to the framework which the Bill provides for the agency. They are unnecessary and I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw them.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I put down Amendment No. 183B which rather to my surprise was grouped. As a result—it was entirely my own fault—I was not here in time to speak to it. I would have suffered my disappointment in total silence had it not been for some of what my noble friend has just said. As I understood him, he said that this agency was about partnership. I fail to understand that. I wonder who it is a partner with. I have read Schedule 16 fairly carefully and I find no reference in it to anyone except the Secretary of State and the agency itself. There is no suggestion as to where the Secretary of State might look to make appointments. The local authorities seem to have very little chance of an effective entry into those processes.

I hope that my noble friend will explain to me. It may be that I am deficient in understanding where this partnership business is to come in. It is necessary that there should be some partnership. In all this business of the development agency I detect that frame of mind on the part of government which says that the only people who are competent to understand these matters are ourselves. That carries me back to a remark made very long ago in this House that the gentlemen in Whitehall really know better what is good for people than the people know themselves. I question that. When I read clause after clause and schedules in a Bill the whole implication and meaning of which is that Secretaries of State are the possessors of some kind of divine, supernatural intelligence, then question marks occur to me. I hope that my noble friend will explain how this great partnership is to occur against the present background.

Lord Strathclyde

I am very glad that my noble friend Lord Peyton has joined us this afternoon. He raises a very pertinent point. Although he was not with us earlier this afternoon he was with us at Second Reading on 23rd February. In col. 89 of Hansard I said that the URA, will work in partnership with local authorities, the private sector, voluntary bodies and others involved in the revitalisation of vacant and derelict land". Therefore, there is nothing new in any of this. My noble friend has heard it before. He may have forgotten, but he is well aware that our proposals are centred around the idea that the agency is not a bulldozer in its own right but that it is there to work with people on the ground in order to solve some of the problems which have been created by derelict land.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

Far be it from me to underrate the exciting content of my noble friend's speeches, to which I always listen with rapt attention. I was devastated not to be here earlier this afternoon to hear him on this subject again. What puzzles me is how he can say in the course of his speech that a partnership is so important without mentioning the word or the prospective partner in the Bill.

Lord Strathclyde

That is because the Bill is interested in setting up the agency. How it will operate depends on the guidance and the instructions that the Secretary of State will give to its chairman, my noble friend Lord Walker, and to statements which Ministers have made not just from this Dispatch Box but also in another place.

Lord Northfield

Perhaps the noble Lord will help us by going a little further on that. He has said that he has now come absolutely clean with us and that the Bill must define the legal powers to acquire land—that is what Bills are about —but that the rest will come in guidance. When are we going to see that guidance? It is very hard for us to take it just on the promise that there will be this kind of guidance. We have been let down before.

Lord Swinfen

Before my noble friend responds, perhaps I may say that we often hear about guidance. There must be some thought given as to what kind of guidance is to come. What is the Government's current thinking? They must have started to think on this particular subject having said that there will be guidance.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

I am surprised that there is so much confusion on this point. We have never made any secret of what the agency is about, who will be its chairman, how it will operate and what this Bill does in terms of setting up its legal framework and accountability to the Secretary of State and through him to Parliament. Its purposes and objectives are laid out very clearly in the Bill. I suggest to my noble friend and the noble Lord opposite that, if they have not read the terms, they should do so to see what the aims and objectives are of the agency. Ultimately of course it is up to Parliament to censure the Secretary of State if it feels that the agency has not done what Parliament believed that it was setting it up to do. But no Member of this Committee can point to a statement made by Ministers which contradicts the main objective of working in partnership with people that I have stated throughout this afternoon.

Lord Sefton of Garston

Does that mean that we shall have an opportunity to debate those forms of guidance which are coming from the Secretary of State?

Lord Strathclyde

Many things can be debated in this House. The noble Lord has never been slow in coming forward with questions and in censuring Ministers on a whole range of activities. There will be a management statement and a financial memorandum published for the agency as there is for all NDPDs.

Lord Sefton of Garston

Will that come before the Bill is passed?

Lord Strathclyde


Lord Sefton of Garston

I see; a lot of good that will do.

Baroness Hamwee

When I introduced the previous amendment this afternoon I said that I was sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, was not in his place at that time as I looked forward to his caustic criticism of the words referred to in his amendment. I believe that there will be no restriction on the noble Lord moving that amendment when we come to that point this afternoon and if he cares to do so. From the debate which we have just had it is clear that there will be a good deal of support for him.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I am very much obliged to the noble Baroness for her encouragement.

Baroness Hamwee

Everything that the Minister has said begs the question as to why he is so resistant to writing on to the face of the Bill the words which encapsulate the sentiments which he has expressed. There will be further opportunities today and no doubt later to deal with partnership. What he has said will bear reading and some of us will make efforts to translate it into the proper terminology.

As regards the planning system, perhaps I may ask the Minister a very serious question. Are the objects of the agency as set out in the Bill a material consideration? I believe that the relationship between the words of the statute and the plan and whether they will be a material consideration will be of great moment to local planning authorities. It is a very serious question and one which I would not like the Minister to answer on the hoof if he feels that this is not the time to do so. I would like to come back to it if he feels that this is not the time to deal with it.

Lord Strathclyde

I may need to write to the noble Baroness to expand on my answer. I believe that the essence of the answer to her question is no and that it is not a material consideration.

Baroness Hamwee

I am glad to hear that. I shall be even more glad to have a letter from the Minister confirming that. He said that the local plan may not be up to date and may be superseded by guidance. That is the kind of comment which makes us fear for the robustness of the local plan when applied in inquiries. He said that the courts are the final arbiter of what is a material consideration. One hopes that it is only very rarely that the issue comes before the courts. I was glad to hear that the Bill preserves the integrity of the planning system. I would like to read again what the Minister has said. For the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Norrie moved Amendment No. 177: Page 146, line 10, leave out ("regeneration") and insert ("environmentally sustainable development").

The noble Lord said: I have three amendments in this group and should like to deal first with Amendments Nos. 177 and 187 which aim to highlight the important environmental role which should be played by the new urban regeneration agency. Government Ministers have acknowledged that one of the agency's most important tasks is to reclaim vacant and derelict land so that the environment of urban areas is improved and the countryside protected from development. I am disappointed that this important environmental role is not fully recognised on the face of the Bill.

My first amendment, Amendment No. 177, would change the agency's main objective to one of achieving environmentally sustainable development. That would be consistent with the Government's support for sustainable development at the Earth Summit in Rio last year. The effect of the amendment would be to ensure a better mix of environmental and economic benefits and to avoid unnecessary conflict. For example, we have not run the risk of controversy over the development of an important wildlife site on vacant land.

My second amendment, Amendment No. 187, would make the agency subject to an environmental duty. I understand from my noble friend that the agency will be subject to an environmental duty under Section 11 of the Countryside Act 1968, but I fear that that is not strong enough. The importance that is attached to the environment today is much stronger than it was 25 years ago and the Government have strengthened the 1968 duty in respect of such bodies as the National Rivers Authority and Scottish Natural Heritage. I hope that they can do the same for the urban regeneration agency.

I also recognise that Clause 142 includes the objective of creating an attractive and safe environment, but that does not address all the matters raised in my amendment nor does it imply a positive commitment to further the achievement of these environmental objectives. We are all aware of the importance of protecting and improving the environment, and I hope that my noble friend the Minister will not miss this opportunity to place environmental responsibilities on this body so that it complements other environmental initiatives.

I turn now to Amendment No. 178 which would require the urban regeneration agency to undertake an environmental assessment when setting its priorities. My noble friend made it clear during Second Reading that the agency would be subject to the same environmental assessment requirements as other developers when proposing particular building projects. My amendment would extend that to require the agency to look at the environmental costs and benefits of different options when setting its overall policy and objectives. I know that my noble friend is concerned that the agency should not become bogged down by unnecessary administration and bureaucracy and I share his concern, but that would not be the effect of my proposal. An environmental assessment would help to maximise the environmental benefits achieved from the agency's limited resources by exposing the best environmental options. It would also involve the public in the agency's activities and would help to secure public confidence in its operations.

I am also aware that my noble friend is examining the guidance that the Government will issue to see whether it can address the matters raised in my amendments. I hope that, as many in the Chamber have said this afternoon, he can shed some light on what will be contained in his guidance and on the timetable for its production. I would welcome the inclusion of advice on environmental matters, although I do not think that that is an effective substitute for the statutory requirement to undertake an environmental assessment. I beg to move.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

We on this side of the House support this group of amendments as they seek to include the concepts of conservation and protection within the objective of urban development and regeneration. There are fears, however, that the Urban Regeneration Agency will seek to build and develop land rather than conserving open spaces which may increase local amenities and enhance the urban environment. It will be under pressure to show short-term gains and clear-cut achievements as opposed to securing the long-term environmental benefits of having green and open spaces within towns.

I turn now to Amendment No. 184A. Some areas in cities and towns have no official environmental designation but have considerable value for people and wildlife. They include the areas between railway lines, for instance. There has been a recent case in West London involving a triangle of land between railway lines which was of considerable value for its trees, wildlife, birds and small rodents. Its development was successfully fought. It seems to me that the Urban Regeneration Agency might seize on such bits of open space and use them to show that it is developing and changing the city landscape. Other things, such as urban farms, enhance the quality of life for local people, especially school children, and can benefit their education by introducing them to environmental concepts.

As we know, the regeneration of derelict land often causes damage to wildlife. Ponds are drained and places are tidied up so that there is little left for people to enjoy in the way of birds, animals and trees. That has already been acknowledged by the Department of the Environment in the administration of the derelict land grants scheme. It now supports ecological surveys of derelict land to identify and protect valuable areas. It would be a pity if the Urban Regeneration Agency worked against that important objective.

Turning to Amendment No. 186A, old industrial sites, such as old quarries and old railway lines, provide varied environments within city areas and may form good reserves for wildlife. The remains of old industries are increasingly becoming of archaeological importance, which is another reason why that has been mentioned in the amendment. They may not yet have achieved the status of SSSIs or ancient monuments but, taking a long-term view, they may well do so in the future yet they may be threatened by some of the short-term pressures on the Urban Regeneration Agency.

Finally, I return to sustainable development, a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie. Amendment No. 187C addresses the self-same important issue. Sustainable development is something to which we committed ourselves at Rio and it is something which requires imagination and thought for the future rather than for just short-term gains. It is important to keep our options open. One of the problems is that we do not know what will happen to the environment in the future. Human activity may require different types of areas within towns. As we know, the world cannot sustain the current rate of development although we endlessly exhort people to enhance their lifestyles, to buy more things and to live faster and more richly. However, we know very well that the world will not be able to sustain perhaps even our current standard of living. The average Western rate of resource consumption cannot be achieved by the global population which already has aspirations to have refrigerators, cars and so on. In some ways perhaps we should not be seeking enthusiastic development but something like a steady rate instead. That is the point that Amendment No. 187C addresses, as do the amendments on sustainable development that have been tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie. It is very important that our short-term gains do not jeopardise our long-term concern for future generations and for the people yet to live in our towns.

The Earl of Lindsay

In supporting all of the amendments in this group, which have been tabled by my noble friend Lord Norrie and noble Baronesses opposite, I wish to speak to Amendment No. 187A which stands in my name. It seeks very much the same improvement as that of Amendment No. 187, which has been tabled by my noble friend Lord Norrie. The distinction between the two amendments is that the wording of Amendment No. 187A seeks first to clarify the responsibilities of the new URA in as unambiguous a manner as is sensible. Secondly, the wording seeks to follow established precedent. The wisdom of this general duty has been recognised for other bodies.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said earlier, things are often done better in Scotland and Wales. I therefore draw your Lordships' attention to Scottish Enterprise, to Highlands and Islands Enterprise and to the Enterprise and New Towns (Scotland) Act 1990. They, like the proposed URA, also have responsibilities for the use and appearance of derelict land, but included in their general duties is a duty to safeguard and improve the environment and to safeguard natural beauty, flora and fauna. The amendment does not intend to be a straitjacket on regeneration. From my professional experience of the environmental side of development I am aware of the distinction between a cumbersome or inflexible restriction and the sensible safeguard that should not stifle viability, innovation or wider public benefits.

I have seen such safeguards motivate a sensitivity and a calibre of input which can lift developments from being merely mediocre to being impressive. Conversely, I have been involved in projects where the lack of a specific regard has led to needless ambiguity and carelessness. One site which springs to mind near the south coast saw the futile destruction of a precious stretch of willow and rushtrian wetland near a new light industrial complex. It posed no problems. Its removal brought no commercial or other advantage to the client or the occupants, but the planning process failed through one of its duties being insufficiently clear to those charged with its implementation.

The amendment seeks to remove any such ambiguity and must enhance rather than compromise the main purpose of the URA.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

I too support the amendments dealing with the environment, especially sustainable development. There may be a controversy as to whether the Brundtland definition of sustainable development is the right one. We may never arrive at the perfect definition, but I support the concepts of trusteeship and stewardship contained in the amendments.

Paying due regard to the environment is not confined to the end product. We need to have regard to the process of development; for instance, the movement of spoil when large buildings are being developed. Although we may be talking about a relatively small scale impact, it is still a significant one on areas which have to suffer the consequence of development.

Amendment No. 179 also refers to the environment and those whom the development should benefit. I suggest that it should be: principally for the benefit of the people resident in the local authority area in which the land is situated". I accept that the size of the local authority may change between this debate and the Bill's introduction; nevertheless, the point remains. From now on I shall try to mention the London Docklands a little less frequently, but we must recognise that as a result of that experience never again should there be large-scale regeneration which leaves local people saying, "This is all very well. This is beautiful. It would be wonderful for the new occupants, but what does it have to do with us? What about the people who were here before this started?"

Regeneration must not exclude the local authority. To make the most cynical point on this, and leaving aside all argument about moral responsibility, regeneration which imposes development without taking account of the impact locally and which brings in a new community that has no relationship with the existing one is a recipe for social unrest. That may be a cynical argument, but nevertheless it is a real one.

We must not encourage a "them" and "us" attitude by, for instance, seeing the development of attractive riverside housing for incomers when there is a serious need for the rehabilitation of housing, if not new build. Transport which caters for commuters coming in to do a day's work in the regenerated area which does not engage local people does not address the needs of local people.

An anecdotal, but perhaps telling, tale about Docklands is of the large numbers of people who lost their television reception because of the high buildings. That point did not seem to have been thought through fully before the work took place. That is the type of thing which alienates people. It is a tiny point. But the major point is also important.

Lord Northfield

Lest the Minister should think that I am just a continuous critic today let me say three things. First, there has been a considerable change in the private sector over all these matters. From chairing a company involving all the big developers I can tell the Committee that all this country's major housing developers which will be involved under the Bill when it is enacted are now very conscious of their duty to the environment. They are spending huge amounts of money to safeguard important sites. I know of housing that has been sacrificed for badgers. There are many interesting stories like that which have come about as the result of proper public pressure. We are pushing at an open door here so far as concerns the private sector.

Secondly, the Bill contains safeguards, as the Minister has already said. Development plans will have to be followed. They will include protection for the environment, archaeological sites and so on. Thirdly, the environmental impact assessment itself which will have to be provided will give every opportunity for any dangers that the development might cause to be brought out.

I am satisfied, even if the amendment were not accepted by the Government, that times have changed enough for us to be slightly more confident about these matters than we were, say, 10 or 15 years ago.

Lord Strathclyde

I am of course grateful to my noble friends Lord Norrie and Lord Lindsay for introducing their amendments and putting forward their concerns so eloquently, as did other noble Lords, especially the noble Lord, Lord Northfield. He said that the private sector now realises its full responsibilities towards the environment and that firms which do not look after the environment in the way they do business can only suffer in the long term. Likewise, the Government have made clear their commitment to sustainable development and growth and to ensuring that environmental concerns are reflected in all areas of policy.

As a general principle, therefore, I support the aims of this group of amendments, but I hope to demonstrate that the Bill already achieves all that they are seeking or that they are inappropriate. It is important to recognise that the creation of environmental and social benefits already lies at the heart of the URA. Every piece of derelict and contaminated land that it cleans up and brings back into use will be a net gain for the environment.

Tackling vacant, derelict and contaminated land will not only remove blight; it will also reduce the pressure on greenfield sites. The agency is to be established to help rein back urban sprawl by refocusing development on the neglected hearts of our towns and cities. In rural areas it will be able to clear up dereliction and contamination and provide in its place green space, new recreational land or new employment opportunities.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, said that the agency should take account of the green space in urban areas. Of course the agency's remit of regenerating vacant and derelict land does not mean that development is the only option. It will want to create green space on land that it has reclaimed. That is an important means of improving the quality of life within a formerly derelict area and attracting private investment to it. We shall set targets for the amount of land, including green space, reclaimed by the agency. The agency will be expected to work within a policy framework set for it by the Secretary of State.

In framing the provisions setting up the agency we have ensured that it will always work within the safeguards of the normal planning system. That is the means of reconciling the community's needs for different types of development with its requirements for recreation and open space and with the interests of conservation.

There are a number of important issues raised by these amendments. First, there is the question of sustainable development. Following the Earth Summit in Rio in June 1992, the Prime Minister committed the United Kingdom to preparing a sustainable development plan by the end of 1993. That will set out a national strategy for balancing economic activity with the protection of the environment. It will look at the role of all sectors in safeguarding the needs of future generations.

Our commitment to sustainable growth and development is reflected in the new development plan system. That is designed to ensure that environmental, social and economic factors are consistently taken into account. Local authorities must give appropriate weight to those factors in preparing their development plans. That feeds through to development control decisions, which must be made on the basis of the plans which authorities prepare. The URA will always operate within this structure. The new clause in Amendment No. 187C is therefore unnecessary.

Amendment No. 177 would make the agency's main object "environmentally sustainable development" instead of regeneration. That, I suggest, would be too narrow. I have already explained that economic and social factors must also be taken into account. Furthermore, "development", as normally understood, implies property development. "Environmentally sustainable development" of course means much more than that. But I feel that "regeneration" better encompasses the removal of contamination or severe dereliction and the creation of green space and providing land for recreational uses.

Secondly, there is the question of taking account of the environmental effects of the agency's work. Amendment No. 178, tabled by my noble friend Lord Norrie, and Amendment No. 179 address that issue. It is something which the Government take very seriously. We are committed to ensuring that environmental considerations are taken into account at all levels of decision making. In our view, the proper way to ensure that that happens when development is under consideration is to embed procedures within the planning system. In that way all proposals for new development are treated alike and can be easily compared with the single framework of the development plan.

As Members of the Committee are probably aware, local authorities should carry out an environmental appraisal of all their policies as their plans are being drawn up. Plans need to make adequate provision for development as well as protecting the natural and built environment and ensuring provision for recreation.

In addition, the URA itself will be expected to consider environmental effects in developing its general programmes. The guidance which we have produced on Policy Appraisal and the Environment was intended primarily for government departments but will also be of relevance to the agency. The agency's corporate plans will be submitted to the Secretary of State and in considering them he will seek to assure himself that they have followed its precepts and examined the environmental impact of each part of their programme.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Is he aware of the existence of the London Ecology Unit, which advises the London boroughs on precisely those matters? Is it envisaged that the agency will consult the unit from time to time and that it will have the power to contribute to the unit's funding?

Lord Strathclyde

I do not suppose that there will be anything to stop the London Ecology Unit from making its information available to the agency. I am sure that the agency will gratefully receive that information. However, I suspect that funding will fall outside the agency's remit, although that may not be the case.

However, many impacts cannot be fully examined at policy or programme level. The proper place for detailed environmental impact assessment is therefore at project level. EC Directive 85/337 requires environmental assessment to be carried out before developmental consent is granted for certain types of project which are likely to have significant environmental effects. We have implemented that directive for projects in England and Wales by the Town and Country Planning (Assessment of Environmental Effects) Regulations 1988. Those regulations will apply to projects undertaken or supported by the agency just as they apply to private developers, local authorities, government departments and other sponsored bodies.

A third issue is that of the environmental duties of the agency. Amendments Nos. 187, 187A, 179B, 186A and 184A, tabled by my noble friends Lord Norrie and Lord Lindsay and the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, address that. The agency will already be subject to Section 11 of the Countryside Act 1968, which requires public bodies to have regard to the desirability of conserving the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside in the exercise of their functions relating to land. The amendments suggest adding further explicit duties which would be different to, and could compete with, those in the Countryside Act. They might even be misinterpreted by other sponsored bodies which do not possess such a duty as an indication that they do not need to take environmental considerations into account.

It is important that the agency's objects should remain sharply focused. It is a development body, all of whose development projects will require planning permission. National planning policy already aims to protect an environment regarded as being of a high quality and to improve a poor environment. It seeks to protect nationally important archaeological remains and to see that the case for preserving other remains is properly considered.

I have also explained that the creation of environmental benefit lies at the heart of the agency's work. But we do not wish the agency to take on long-term management responsibilities for land and buildings. It will hold land and buildings only in the short term, prior to passing them on to the eventual owner who will take full responsibility for their condition and management. Further duties, particularly that suggested in Amendment No. 184A, could imply that lasting management should be part of the agency's work and could require it to take on responsibilities that properly belong to the eventual owner, thus restricting the pace of regeneration. It would not therefore be appropriate to add further environmental duties on the face of the Bill.

I apologise for the fact that my reply to the amendments has been lengthy. However, as I said at the beginning, the issue is extremely important not only as regards the role of the agency, but as regards the world in which we live and the public's anxieties about the quality of the environment. I hope that I have reassured my noble friend and that he will withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

Before the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, responds, I wish to ask the Minister a specific question arising from his reply. He may have covered the matter; if so, I apologise. Clause 142(4) (a) gives as the first object of the agency: securing that land and building are brought into effective use". Does the Minister therefore accept that effective uses include, first, the conservation of areas of land whose ecology is particularly sensitive; and, secondly, open space in an urban environment where that open space contributes to the quality of life?

Lord Strathclyde

Yes. I may not have answered that point in my reply; but according to the way in which the noble Baroness put the question, I agree that those issues would come under that clause.

Lord Norrie

I am grateful to the Minister who I believe has given a very full reply to all those who spoke to amendments in this grouping. I should like to see what appears in Hansard tomorrow before deciding what to do at the next stage. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon moved Amendment No. 177A: Page 146, line 11, leave out ("one or more") and insert ("such").

The noble Baroness said: My anxiety about the clause was enhanced by the Minister's reply to the previous amendment. He appeared to talk in the same breath and sentence about land which is vacant, unused or ineffectively used and land which is contaminated or derelict. The amendment addresses the way in which the clause is laid out. The clause appears to set a priority on developing land which is vacant or unused over developing land which is contaminated, derelict, affected or unsightly. That is a matter for some concern. As I said on the previous amendment, the Urban Regeneration Agency may well first seize upon for development land which is vacant or unused, whereas that may be the land which is of most benefit to the environment.

Therefore, the amendment attempts to set some kind of prioritisation of land use on the Urban Regeneration Agency. It suggests that priority should be given to areas which are polluted as well as those situated in an urban area which are vacant, unused or derelict. That will avoid the easy temptation of addressing the development of land which is merely vacant which may have environmental uses, recreational uses or uses as a green lung within a town space.

Therefore, the amendment attempts to impose a rather different order of the description of land referred to in Clause 142. At the very least I hope that the Minister may address the order in which the paragraphs are placed. He may tell us why land which is vacant or unused appears first under subsection (2) when the Urban Regeneration Agency should first address land which is contaminated, derelict, neglected or unsightly.

Amendments Nos. 177B and 179A are consequential on Amendment No 177A. I beg to move.

Lord Strathclyde

It will obviously be important for the agency to establish clear and widely understood priorities. As its name implies, it will concentrate on urban sites. It will concentrate also on vacant and derelict land. Clause 142 goes into considerable detail about the kinds of land on which the agency will operate. Within that framework, we intend to give the agency as much discretion as possible to determine its priorities in the light of local circumstances, the proposals it receives and the wider economic climate. The financial regime which will be a key element of the guidance to which Clause 142 requires the agency to have regard will require the agency to produce a corporate plan. Among other things, that plan will set out the agency's objectives and priorities. The department will use that plan to check that the agency's programme strikes the right balance.

Once the agency has determined its priorities within the framework set by the Bill, and cleared them with the Secretary of State, it will make that information widely available. It will use the annual report that it is required by Schedule 16 to produce to set out its priorities and to look forward, to some extent, to its strategies and plans for the future.

In addition, we expect the agency on occasion to publish guidance to local authorities, developers and others about its priorities and the grants and other assistance that it will make available. All sides will gain from the spread of that information, not least the agency, which will wish to work in close co-operation with local authorities, the local community and local businessmen in developing its projects. Such co-operation is more likely to be productive if all sides are well aware of its priorities.

However, those priorities cannot be set in tablets of stone at the outset. They will need to change and develop to reflect changing needs and opportunities. And yet, these amendments seem to wish to do that by setting out a once and for all list of priorities on the face of the Bill. Of course I share the noble Baroness's assessment of the importance of developing priorities. I hope that I have demonstrated that that will be a key task of the agency.

On the other hand, the amendments go too far by requiring the agency to secure the regeneration of all contaminated urban land that is also vacant, unused or derelict before moving on to tackle other categories. That would remove most of the agency's discretion in setting its own priorities and would prevent it from undertaking any work in rural areas in its early years, no matter how great the need. It is important that the agency has the flexibility to employ to the full its own expertise and that of its development partners. It will need the ability to respond to its local contacts in determining its own priorities.

On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will be reassured by my description of the process by which the agency will establish flexible and well-understood priorities. I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

I thank the Minister for that reply. I am not wholly reassured because I believe that the guidance to be given to the Urban Regeneration Agency should at least encourage it to address the more difficult types of land. I agree that the agency needs to be able to exercise discretion and set its own priorities according to area. However, it would be useful were the guidance which we are promised at some uncertain date in the future to contain encouragement to address the more difficult areas first rather than seizing upon those which are open and vacant.

I shall look at the Minister's reply with interest. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 177B to 183 not moved].

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon moved Amendment No. 183A: Page 146, line 27, at end insert: ("() For the purposes of subsection (2) above, contaminated land shall refer to any land which is entered in a register maintained in accordance with section 143 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment addresses quite specifically the question of contaminated land. One of the objectives of the Urban Regeneration Agency is a safe environment. It is under that heading that we are particularly concerned that the Government no longer propose to set up a register of contaminated land. I wonder how people will be reassured about their safety if there is no information as to which sites are contaminated and whether they can be developed without considering the effects of long-standing industrial pollution which may well be a feature of the derelict land which the Urban Regeneration Agency is committed to improving.

The Bill refers to contaminated land but there is no definition of the term in the Bill. We hope that there may be clarification in the guidance. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether the guidance will include a definition of what is contaminated land and how that will be identified within a local authority area if we are not to have a register of such land.

The Government have a responsibility for health and safety. Now that the register of contaminated land is not to exist, we wonder how they will carry out their responsibilities in that regard. The public also has a right to be reassured about the matter. It seems to me that there will be considerable local disquiet if the Urban Regeneration Agency is to develop areas which may have been contaminated and used for various kinds of industrial use on which there is no formal information.

This amendment seeks to address that. However, if there is to be no register, it is difficult for the amendment to succeed. Perhaps the Minister will give us some guidance on this point as to how they will replace the register which we have all been promised. I beg to move.

Lord Strathclyde

I understand the point on contaminated land which the noble Baroness makes. The Committee will know that on 24th March I announced that we were withdrawing our second set of proposals for registers and instituting a review of the authorities, powers and duties bearing on contaminated land. No statutory instrument under Clause 143 will therefore be made for the foreseeable future; indeed, I cannot rule out amending or repealing Clause 143. Under Amendment No. 183A, as the noble Baroness quite rightly recognises, the agency would have no powers in respect of "contaminated" land until the necessary statutory instrument was made.

The agency's central task of land regeneration will of course involve the renewal of contaminated land. Decontamination for its own sake will not be its primary aim. But it will join its efforts with the many other bodies working to clean up such land. The agency's work in that area will, therefore, be considered as part of the far wider review that will take place.

The more specific point concerning the Bill is that the agency should not have to wait for the outcome of the review before beginning to work on contaminated land. That might prevent it from tackling important sites for no other reason than that they contain some element of contamination. I am sure that that is not the intention of the noble Baroness; indeed, I am sure that she merely sought clarification of our policies. We still understand the importance of contaminated land and that is why we have instituted the review. These are difficult and complex matters and the previous solutions that we had were not the right ones.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

I thank the Minister for that reply. I accordingly beg leave to withdraw the amendment which, of course, does not make sense in its present form.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil moved Amendment No. 183B: Page 146, line 28, leave out subsection (3).

The noble Lord said: Unhappily the amendment was grouped with others and I was foolishly unaware of the danger involved. Therefore, I was not present in the Chamber to take part in the debate on the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I should like to take the opportunity to express my anxiety about Clause 142(3) which states that the agency is to have the advantage of "guidance" from the Secretary of State. It also states that the agency will act: in accordance with directions given by the Secretary of State and that, in other matters, it will need to obtain his "consent". Every now and again it is possible to be swept away with admiration for particular Secretaries of State. But when one is asked to give forever—that is, in so far as I can use such a term—to Secretary of State (whether named or unnamed) powers of the kind envisaged for the agency, I must say that I become very worried. I hope that my noble friend will not think that I am expressing that view in a light-hearted moment without there being any serious thought behind it.

I have read through Schedule 16. It gives Ministers an enormous degree of power. What concerns me very faintly is that there is no possibility of any Secretary of State, no matter how gifted, applying his mind to each and every one of the problems which will emerge in connection with the agency. It will not have the faintest element of representation of the people contained within its boundaries. That worries me greatly. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will take that view seriously and try to allay my great concerns.

From time to time I visit various establishments in inner cities. What increasingly worries me is the money, the plans and the strategies. The money is in the hands of people who are, on the whole, remote from the problems involved. Similarly, the strategies and the plans are hatched and conceived at a distance by men whose intelligence I do not doubt—indeed, for the most part, they are very intelligent people—but, again, they are far away and remote from the problems. As I ventured to express before, they are not always very ready listeners. That is exceedingly important. I certainly do not claim to be an expert, but I do know many people of extraordinary ability and dedication who work near to such problems. Again and again I have become seriously worried that they are not listened to.

Now we have this agency which could play an enormously important part in attacking what is undoubtedly a very vital problem. However, I ask myself: how can it expect to receive the co-operation and enthusiastic support of local people when the one person whom it has to consult all the time for guidance, direction and consent is the Secretary of State or his minions?

I apologise for the fact that I was not present in the Chamber at an earlier stage of the proceedings to express those sentiments. However, I do so now. I hope that my noble friend will take them seriously. It seems to me that they are of great importance. I beg to move.

Lord Northfield

The noble Lord does the Committee a great service in raising the matter. When I mentioned it earlier, the Minister said, "Oh well, there will be a management paper". I did not catch his exact words, but he went on to say that the body would be subject to some sort of management paper which the Minister will issue. I suggest to the Minister that he should take the issue away and return with a more considered statement. We have had a long history of the experience of the new towns and the way in which they approach their jobs —sometimes in happy partnership and other times not in happy partnership with the people and the local authorities. We have also had nearly 10 years of urban development corporations and we know of some of their failures and, as the noble Baroness said, perhaps also of some of their successes as regards co-operation. We also know the approach that I mentioned of the Rural Development Commission which has been consistently, strongly and absolutely one of careful partnership with local authorities, working to the sort of guidance that we think lies behind the Minister's words.

As the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, hinted, surely we have now reached the stage when we are left with only those words. We need them to be more fully fleshed out in such a way that reassures us completely that all those history lessons have been taken into account in proper guidelines, a management plan, or some other document that the Secretary of State will issue to the body under the clause. A considered statement is needed about how the public and this Chamber will be able at some future date to understand and fully ascertain what it is that the Secretary of State is impressing upon the new body as it starts its work. With great respect to the Minister, I do not think that a few statements issues across the Dispatch Box are sufficient in the present circumstances.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I hope that we do not cause the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, any embarrassment if we on this side of the Committee offer him our support for his amendment. Earlier on in a previous debate we too expressed such concerns. The Minister said that local authorities were losing none of the powers and that it was indeed a partnership. However, we have already teased out from the Minister that, in terms of designated areas, the URA will be taking powers from the local authorities and that, as regards points of strategy, it will in turn receive directions from the Secretary of State who is also taking responsibilities away from local authorities. Will the Minister in his reply tell us how these powers to be exercised by the Secretary of State will be integrated with what we currently have, which is regional planning guidance? Does the Secretary of State not already have abundant powers, through regional planning guidance on the one hand and his appeals procedure on the other, to achieve the effects he wishes without having this really rather offensive set of clauses in the Bill?

Baroness Hamwee

The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, will know from comments I made earlier that we, too, support his amendment. The powers that the Secretary of State currently has were enumerated by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. I hope I may add to that list the power to call in applications, right down to the most specific. Now that the amendment has been spoken to, I have the opportunity to ask the Minister whether he can clarify the relationship between subsections (2) and (3) of Clause 142. Subsection (2) sets out the types of land with which the agency may deal without reference to the Secretary of State. But is it the case that land which does not fall within those specific descriptions cannot be the object of its attention unless the Secretary of State gives consent under subsection (3) (c)? Subsection (2), while it includes vacant and unused land and in particular land, which is under-used or ineffectively used", seems to me to refer to perhaps relatively small parcels of land. The major ambition of the agency, which we had understood was within its sights, is large scale regeneration. However, it appears that, where land could be used better but perhaps could not be described as being under-used or ineffectively used, the agency will need to refer back to the Secretary of State on every occasion. Am I right in reading the Bill in that way?

Lord Sefton of Garston

The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, referred to Schedule 16. I had intended to ask a question in relation to that schedule and I believe this may be the most appropriate time to do so. Did the Minister shake his head?

Lord Strathclyde

We shall of course discuss Schedule 16 at some length later on.

Lord Sefton of Garston

This is, however, an apposite moment to refer to the schedule because of the reference that has been made to a partnership between local government and the new agency. I understood, when we discussed the question of guidance before, that guidance would be issued to the agency on how to co-operate with local government.

My noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick raised on a previous occasion financial difficulties that were being encountered in the National Health Service in Wessex. I asked the Minister who replied to him on that occasion whether it was true that members of the National Health Service, acting as trustees, were subject to the same rules and discipline as members of local government. The Minister told me they were not. The Minister suggested in as many words that I could not really expect members of the National Health Service to be subjected to that kind of discipline. However, I did expect them to be subjected to that discipline. If there is to be a partnership in the matter we are discussing, the membership of the agency should be subject to exactly the same kind of surcharge restrictions as are imposed on members of local government. I hope the Minister will give me a straight answer on this matter. Will the members of the agency which is set up in Schedule 16 be subjected to the same rigorous discipline on expenditure as members of local authorities?

6.15 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

I made the point before the noble Lord, Lord Sefton, asked his question that we would reach Schedule 16 in good time. At that point I shall answer his question.

Lord Sefton of Garston

Can you answer it now?

Lord Strathclyde

It is not a matter of answering the question now or having the answer now. The point is that we are dealing with the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil, Amendment No. 183B, and I shall respond to that amendment. This also gives me another occasion to regret the absence of my noble friend earlier on because we had been hoping to discuss this amendment with the first group of amendments.

This amendment would remove the Secretary of State's power to give the agency express consent to operate on particular sites anywhere in England. We want the agency to focus on land which is vacant and derelict or meets the other descriptions set out in subsection (2) of Clause 142. However, the agency will sometimes need to work outside such land: for example, it will take over the role of English Estates, which at present provides industrial and commercial space in assisted areas. I am sure that my noble friend will agree that help should continue to be available in these areas. Often the factories that are needed can be provided on brownfield sites. We will want the agency to try to achieve that. However, sometimes other sites will be appropriate. Therefore it is right that, subject to the Secretary of State's consent, the agency should be able to consider these sites. It will still, of course, work within the framework of the whole planning system at all times. It will need the support of local people. If it does not get that support the agency will ultimately have failed because of what I mentioned when we discussed the first group of amendments: that is, the whole spirit of partnership will be imperilled.

I suspect my noble friend perhaps believes that this particular subsection has far greater worth than is the case. Furthermore I wish to answer the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Subsection (2) sets out the land which it is the object of the agency to regenerate. In regenerating that land it may operate on other surrounding land which does not fall within the definition. In addition subsection (3)—that is the subsection we are discussing in this amendment—allows the Secretary of State to permit the agency to operate on other land.

When my noble friend Lord Peyton held ministerial office there may have been many occasions when he sought to give guidance to the bodies for which he was responsible. There is nothing mysterious in this subsection. I hope I have explained its small effect and I hope that my noble friend will therefore feel reassured.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I feel reassured to a limited extent only. It is a manifestation of my fundamental good nature that I can allow myself to feel in any way reassured. I noted with interest that my noble friend thought I was attaching greater significance to this part of the Bill than it should possess. I seized upon these three or four lines because the Secretary of State figures largely in them. I find it difficult to get away from at least the suspicion, if not the conclusion, that this agency will be not much more than the creature of the Secretary of State and will have little independence from him. We all need help on this issue. I look to my noble friend for some help now. What worries me is the fact that the help is changed into guidance with a capital G and into directions with a fairly large D and into the need for consent. The help then seems to be rather different. I take the point which was made on the Benches opposite that we need to be given a clearer idea than we now have—it would be nice if that were stated in the Bill—to indicate the kind of directions in which the Secretary of State will be looking to establish the partnership which, as my noble friend has said, is essential to the success of the agency in the performance of its very important task.

If it is the wish of the Committee, I shall be happy to withdraw the amendment. However, I tell my noble friend that I shall wish to return to the matter at Report stage. I very much hope that he might even do so himself and put on the face of the Bill an indication of what partnership will mean and what the Government intend it to mean in this particular context. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 184 to 185 not moved.]

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon moved Amendment No. 186: Page 146, line 45, at end insert: ("() by regular consultation with and consideration of the views expressed by the public on its objectives and activities in a manner prescribed by regulations under this Act.").

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 186 continues the theme of partnership. On this occasion it is partnership with the public. The amendment seeks to amend this particular clause of the Bill to add a section which will allow regular consultation with the public about the objectives and activities of the Urban Regeneration Agency.

It has been well established in new developments or the regeneration of our old cities that if one can include the public in partnership, generate enthusiasm for what is happening and obtain their advice and consideration of what is planned, that in itself has a regenerative and motivating effect which improves the social environment for people living in the area.

It is extremely important that the agency works with local people and not against the grain. The previous amendment addressed the question of the people's elected representatives to the local authority, but the wider public should also be consulted about the objectives and plans of the Urban Regeneration Agency. That is what the amendment attempts to achieve.

Amendment No. 193 returns to the vexed question of the guidance and when it will be issued by the Secretary of State. We assume that the proposed guidance will be similar to planning policy guidance notices which are issued by the Secretary of State and which influence the operation of the planning system. The Government have already promised widespread public consultation on such planning guidance and have acknowledged the benefits that has brought. It seems sensible that the guidance which will be issued to the Urban Regeneration Agency should fall into the same category and that before definitive guidance is issued it should be issued in draft form initially for public consultation. I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister can tell us whether the guidance, if it emerges, will emerge first in a draft which can be discussed and considered by those people who are interested in the operation of this particular agency. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

I support both the amendments to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, referred. I wrote myself no notes on either of the amendments because it seemed to me that they were self-evident. I hope that what we have already heard from the Minister today about partnership will extend to acceptance that a partnership cannot be effective unless it includes all the prospective participants and all those who are affected. That must mean the public. I warmly and strongly support the amendments.

Lord Strathclyde

The agency's focus is on the regeneration of land with the broader objective of using that land to promote and provide wider regeneration. To do that it will have to work closely with other initiatives to produce a package of measures designed to bring about lasting regeneration in inner cities and other areas of need. The overall aim of the package will be to bring about renewal which is economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.

If the agency's work is to act as a catalyst for the achievement of that wider aim, it will have to forge close links with a wide range of interests. Local authorities, local communities, businesses, investors, City Challenge companies, TECs and other public bodies will all be involved.

Clearly, then, the agency will have to consult, not as a one-off exercise, but regularly, as suggested by Amendment No. 186. The interests to be consulted and the best form of consultation will, however, depend to a large extent on the matter in question. Furthermore, a single method may not be appropriate for all those concerned even with a single question.

For those reasons I am not in favour of prescribing statutory forms of consultation. I can assure noble Lords that our guidance to the agency will stress the importance of developing close links with local authorities, local communities and other bodies and of seeking their views whenever need arises. How could it be otherwise after all that I have said this afternoon? I know that that is the way my noble friend Lord Walker, the chairman designate of the agency, operates. Good relations are fostered by responsiveness to others. We must therefore give the agency the flexibility to tailor solutions to individual circumstances.

I have referred to the guidance to which Clause 150 of the Bill obliges the agency to have regard. The agency, like other sponsored bodies, will be issued with a management statement and a financial memorandum by the Secretary of State when it is set up. Both of these will be published and updated as and when necessary. They will be supplemented by further detailed guidance on specific issues.

When the agency is in operation guidance may need to be revised and further guidance will be needed from time to time on particular matters. It may be needed quickly, for instance before the agency decides whether to start a project or whether an existing project needs urgent action. It would not be appropriate to undertake statutory consultation before every single piece of guidance is issued as Amendment No. 193 would require.

We consider that it will be essential to the agency's success for it to work closely with local authorities and local communities. I know that my noble friend Lord Walker shares that view. I hope that the noble Baroness will agree that the right way to do that is to tailor its dealings with local authorities and others to suit the very different circumstances that will prevail in different cases. Excessive prescription would hinder its operations.

I do not sense that there is any disagreement about the need for the agency to consult. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendments on the basis of the assurances that I have given.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

Neither of the amendments is particularly prescriptive. They are both cast in general terms about regular consultation. They do not relate to specific instances. In the case of Amendment No. 193 the intention was that consultation should merely be about the initial major set of guidelines issued when the agency is set up. It is not proposed that every time those guidelines are amended there should be further consideration by the public. Presumably there will be a substantial set of guidance notes initially and it would seem sensible if they were issued in draft form. I cannot see that Amendment No. 186 in any way constrains the agency. It is set out in broad terms.

However, I shall read carefully in Hansard what the Minister said, but I reserve the right to return to the issue at Report stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 186A to 187A not moved.]

Clause 142 agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 187B and 187C not moved.]

Clause 143 [General powers of Agency]:

[Amendments Nos. 187D to 188 not moved.]

6.30 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil moved Amendment No. 188A: Page 147, line 29, leave out paragraph (c).

The noble Lord said: I do not wish to repeat all the arguments that I used in support of an earlier amendment. However, we have again an instance of the agency being given very great powers. Clause 142 (3) (c) states that, the Agency shall also have the object of securing the development of land in England which the Agency … having regard to guidance given by the Secretary of State … determines to be suitable for development under this Part". Is it right and appropriate that the agency shall have those great powers, having regard simply to guidance from the Secretary of State, and not be answerable to anyone else?

Baroness Hamwee

I am a little confused. Perhaps the noble Lord can help me. Amendment No. 188A addresses paragraph (c) of Clause 143(2) and not paragraph (c) of Clause 142(3).

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

The noble Baroness is quite right. I spoke to Amendment No. 188A. I should hate to be at cross-purposes with the noble Baroness. Have I misunderstood her or has she misunderstood me?

Baroness Hamwee

In introducing the amendment, the noble Lord referred to Clause 142(3) (c). That is part of the amendment which we discussed a few moments ago. It may have been a slip of the tongue in transposing the figures. Amendment No. 188A refers to Clause 143(2) (c) on page 147 which refers to the disposal of land otherwise than for the best consideration.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her guidance. I apologise to the Committee. I was bewildered by the progress that was made.

Lord Strathclyde

I do not wish to bewilder my noble friend by the progress that has been made. The amendment with which we are dealing is precisely the one to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred, and to which I thought my noble friend was speaking. Amendment No. 188A proposes at page 147, line 29, to leave out paragraph (c). Clause 143 (2) (c) deals with the consent required of the Secretary of State to dispose of land for the best consideration. My noble friend may wish to say a few words.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I am most grateful to my noble friend. I find the problem of navigating the rough seas and conflicting currents of these enormous Bills difficult. I am sorry that I have failed on this occasion. I am grateful to my noble friend —not for the first time.

My amendment seeks to leave out the words, except with the consent of the Secretary of State, to dispose of any land otherwise than for the best consideration which can reasonably be obtained". I do not understand why there should not be an absolute prohibition. Why should the Secretary of State be able to intervene and tell the agency, "You are free to sell land at something other than the best price available"? It seems quite wrong. Therefore this simple amendment provides that the agency shall not dispose of land except at the best price available. The consent of the Secretary of State is immaterial.

Baroness Hamwee

This is one occasion in the Bill on which I may take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. Will the Minister confirm that the provision applies to local authorities under the Local Government Act 1972? I have in mind Section 123, although that may not be the correct section.

At Report stage perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, will extend the proposal to local authorities so that they too have more flexibility. I might then be inclined to support him. However, we are seeking to reach some parallel between local authorities and the new agency so that they operate on similar lines. We need to bear that factor in mind.

Lord Strathclyde

The noble Baroness is correct. There is a similar restriction applying to local authorities. I do not believe that my noble friend's desire was to allow the position to be more flexible. I believe that he wanted it to be less flexible. He did not wish either local authorities or the agency to be able to sell land for less than the optimum price. On the face of it, I agree with my noble friend. However, there is a reason for the provision.

As a general rule, the agency should achieve the best possible market price for any public assets that it sells. It might sometimes be justifiable to sell land at less than the optimum price. For example, it might be sold subject to a condition that it was used for a purpose of benefit to the community. Therefore the Bill allows the agency to do that, but before it does so it must have the consent of the Secretary of State. I believe that that is a necessary and worthwhile safeguard. I hope that my noble friend concurs.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I am much obliged to my noble friend. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 143 agreed to.

Clause 141 [The Agency]:

Lord Archer of Sandwell moved Amendment No. 188B: Page 145, line 42, leave out ("corporate").

The noble and learned Lord said: It may be for the convenience of the Committee if we discuss Amendment No. 189 with Amendment No. 188B.

The amendment is moved in an interrogatory mood. It owes its inception to the curiosity of my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel. I am asked by my noble friend to apologise to the Committee for the fact that he is not with us at present. He is precluded from being present by a public duty but he hopes to join us shortly in our deliberations. I was taught as a child that if the Lord does not come, he sends; and my noble friend sent me. I have not participated earlier in the Committee's debate on the subject. If that becomes obvious in the course of what I say, I beg the Committee's indulgence.

Clause 141 establishes the agency which we have been debating. At the inception of Part III the first matter that we learn about the agency is that it is to be a body corporate. It had occurred to my noble friend that that matter must have been considered by the Government. The functions of the agency could have been carried out by the department. They could have been exercised by officials under the direct control of the Secretary of State. I do not argue for one moment that that is what should have been done; I simply point out that that was a possible option. Fairly clearly, at an early stage it must have been considered whether those functions should be carried out in that way or whether the Government would establish an agency. The decision to establish an agency fairly clearly entails a degree of autonomy. It was intended that the agency should stand a little apart from the department and should have a degree of autonomy. Its membership is presumably to consist of people who have distinguished themselves by their ability to deal with and administer such matters. I assume that they were not intended to operate simply as messengers.

Yet, we come to the problems which have already been discussed by the Committee, some of which were pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. I have the pleasure of agreeing with almost everything he has said up to now. As he said, one wonders whether the agency is intended to be totally under the control of the department. If the noble Lord has shot all my foxes, I could not have wished for them to be shot by anyone better.

We begin with Clause 147, in which we are told that the grants made by the agency are under the control of the Secretary of State. In Clause 150 we are told that the Secretary of State may give guidance, that the agency must have regard to it in relation to matters set out there and that the Secretary of State may give directions to the agency. Then we are told in Schedule 16 that the Secretary of State will appoint the agency.

One wonders whether the degree of control has swung rather far from the autonomy which was presumably envisaged when it was intended that there should be an agency and that those functions should not be carried out by the department. That gave rise in my noble friend's mind to a number of questions. For example, will the Secretary of State or his Ministers in your Lordships' House answer questions about the affairs of the agency? What will be the parameters of those questions? Will the questions be about the policies of the agency or could they relate to day-to-day decisions? In that case we shall probably be more concerned about the day-to-day decisions. Is the establishment of an agency a way of removing those operations from parliamentary control? We should be grateful for any guidance which the Minister can give us when he responds.

A further question arises from the fact—and the wheel has come full circle; we began with this—that the agency is to be a corporation. We would not have expected it to be anything other than a corporation, we would not have expected the members to be personally liable on their contracts or personally liable for the torts of their staff. However, we should like to know a little more about the implications. For example, I assume that the finances will come largely from government grants. I believe that to some extent they will be substitutes for the derelict land grant or possibly the city grant. If that is so, one wonders how autonomous, how self-contained the finances of the agency will be. We are told in the Bill that it will have power to carry on a business or undertaking. Suppose it does that so successfully that it makes a profit. Will that profit be returnable to the Treasury? Will the agency be required to give credit for the profit when its grants are being calculated? Will it be rewarded for its initiative in having more money of which to dispose? What is the position over the finances of the agency?

Coming to Amendment No. 189, it appears that the agency is specifically exempted from being an agent of the Government. The Government will presumably not be responsible for the contracts of the agency, nor for any torts committed by it in the course of its duties. If it were unhappily not to be in a position to meet the commitments of one of its contracts, I assume that the Government would say, "Well, that is no concern of ours".

One of the consequences of that, which is expressly spelt out, is that the agency will not enjoy Crown immunity. I make no complaint about that, I have spent most of my political life arguing that one agency after another ought not to enjoy Crown immunity. However, I believe that what was in the mind of my noble friend Lord Williams is whether that was done because the Government have at last got the message and agree with us that Crown immunity ought generally to be diminished and that that is a general policy, or whether it is simply part of distancing the Government from the affairs of the agency. The noble Lord laughs, but the implications go a long way.

I do not propose to develop the argument further this afternoon, but we should like to know how far the Minister will be responsible to Parliament for the affairs of the agency; how far, in the last resort, the Government will back the financial commitments of the agency; how far it is intended that the agency should operate generally under the close control of the department; and how far the members who have agreed to serve on it will be allowed to make their own decisions. In that spirit, I beg to move.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness White

I hesitate to intervene in the debate as it concerns only land in England. However, I was the first chairman of the Land Authority for Wales, which, in a modest way, carries out a number of the functions which are suggested for this far greater and more powerful agency to operate in England.

The less one is under the control of a Minister, the better. The Land Authority for Wales, which is still in existence, is the only part of the community land Act which still remains operative. Our experience in the early days when we first operated was that for the most part civil servants in the Welsh Office at that time were by no means experts in what was required for the operation in our case of securing land for suitable development. In the months of February and March, I never knew where my senior staff were because they had been told by the Welsh Office that they had to spend all they could by the end of the financial year. If they did not, it was the usual story: it would be taken away from them. The result was that they spent at least two to three months trying either to speed up land acquisitions —often in an unsatisfactory way—or quite deliberately to delay acquisitions in order to get them into the next financial year. The time, energy and resources that were wasted on that kind of exercise might well occur with this agency, it seems to me, on a much larger scale. The way in which the agency will cover the whole of England with any intelligence seems to me problematical.

Lord Strathclyde

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, said that he had come to this amendment in an interrogative way and was standing in for his noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel. I hope that his noble friend will return very soon because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, made an enormous amount of this amendment, far more than I believed possible. I must say that I was mystified by some of the reasons for the amendment. But the noble and learned Lord made them quite clear. Perhaps in some small way I can try to appease the noble and learned Lord's concerns.

Amendment No. 189 deletes the subsection which makes it plain that the agency does not benefit from any of the amenities and privileges enjoyed by the Crown other than in the very limited case where it acts as agent for the Secretary of State. The subsection puts beyond doubt that the agency will be subject to the health and safety legislation and to the normal taxation regime. I hope that there is nothing mysterious in that. There is no change of general policy. At least, it is not within my competence to make a statement about general policy.

But so far as the URA is concerned, Crown immunity would not be appropriate for the agency since it will be operating in a commercial manner and in close association with the private sector and local authorities. If the agency is to understand and encourage the market, it needs to be subject to its strictures.

The amendment would not automatically grant Crown immunity to the agency, but it would leave some doubt as to its exact status. I think that that would hinder the work of the URA. All sides to a development, not least the agency itself, need to be confident about the legal status of the other partners.

In Amendment No. 188B the noble and learned Lord seems to recognise its effects; namely, that without the status of a body corporate, the agency would be no more than the sum of its individual members. We should seek to avoid that.

With regard to accountability, the Secretary of State will be accountable to Parliament for the operation of the agency and the use it makes of the public resources devoted to it. That responsibility is reflected by the fact that in some cases the agency can only exercise a power with the consent of the Secretary of State. The powers which the agency can exercise only with the consent of the Secretary of State include the acquisition of interests in a company and the provision of financial assistance, which will be covered in our consideration of Clause 147.

The noble and learned Lord asked a good question about who in Parliament will reply for the agency. The Secretary of State and his Minister in this and the other Chamber will answer questions on the policy of the agency in any guidance that he may give to it. But he would not normally answer questions on the day-to-day running of the agency. That is perfectly normal practice in dealing with agencies and there is no mystery in it.

The noble and learned Lord asked about profit. This perhaps answers the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady White. Surplus funds are dealt with in paragraph 6 of Schedule 17. It allows the Secretary of State to recover surplus funds in appropriate cases. But I would expect to avoid the kind of problems that the noble Baroness outlined. I would expect to continue our present policy with English Estates under which receipts are rolled over into future spending.

I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, will pass on my reply to his noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel and that the noble Lord will feel reassured by it.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that information. I was a little troubled when he said that the Minister who will answer in either House will not be answerable for day-to-day decisions, although I suppose that that is a consequence of agreeing to set up an agency rather than working through the department. That makes it all the more important that the agency should work in partnership with all those who are concerned locally. But we take due note of his remarks.

I am also grateful for the other answers which the noble Lord gave. I shall faithfully pass them on to my noble friend, who I am sure will read the debate. At a later stage he may wish to interrogate the Minister further. Meanwhile, in the spirit in which I moved the amendment, I ask leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 189 not moved.]

[Amendment No. 189A had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Clause 141 agreed to.

Schedule 16 [Constitution of the Agency]:

Lord Archer of Sandwell moved Amendment No. 189B: Page 220, line 34, after ("State") insert: ("after consultation with bodies representative of local authorities").

The noble and learned Lord said: The purpose of this group of amendments is to deal with certain questions in our minds relating to the membership of the agency. One aspect of what I referred to a few moments ago as a balance away from autonomy is that members will be appointed by the Secretary of State. That is not surprising. But we were a little curious about the kind of people whom he envisages appointing.

If the Government have directed their mind to that point, I hope that the noble Lord will share their thinking on it. We are now discussing Schedule 16. The first question in our minds was whom the Secretary of State proposed to consult before making appointments. The noble Lord assured us in an earlier debate that the whole idea was that there would be a partnership between the agency and the local authorities. I confess that I was a little perturbed at one stage when I thought he had said that that was so provided that the local authorities were helpful and co-operative. I wondered in whose judgment they had to be helpful and co-operative.

I wondered whether the Secretary of State would consult the AMA, the ADC and the ACC. Even before I arrived this afternoon there was a debate in which my noble friend Lady Hollis indicated some of the problems which arose when there was not a collegiate atmosphere between the agency and the members of the local authorities with whom it had to work. In that case there could not be a greater recipe for disaster.

I recollect occasions in the West Midlands when the Black Country Urban Development Corporation and the Sandwell Council were having what could only be described as unedifying public arguments about policy and who was responsible for certain lapses. I do not attempt to apportion blame. I only say that it might have been better had some attempt been made to ensure that the members of the corporation had got on with the local council. I do not seek to say whose fault it was. Perhaps we can learn from experiences of that kind. It would be very much better if they did not happen again. For that reason we hope that there will be full consultation with the local authority associations.

In Amendment No. 189C we ventured to go a step further and provide that at least half the members of the agency should be members of the local authorities in any particular area. We hope that there will be some response to that.

The next point in our minds was that in any particular area we would hope that there would be someone on the authority who understood the needs of the area. I understand that it would be difficult to localise that too much. The membership of the agency will not he limitless. But I hope that there would be an attempt at area or at least regional representation in appointing members to the agency.

Finally, in Amendment No. 189D we invite the Secretary of State to appoint representatives of all sections of society. To some extent that links with what I was saying a moment ago. I can envisage the impact of someone from London, particularly if he has a London accent and wears a pinstriped suit, in the West Midlands, with which I happen to be familiar. I mean no disrespect. I can equally believe that the same would happen if someone from the West Midlands were appointed to govern the affairs of London. It just happens to be the case that my noble friend and I get on extremely well. But we would hope to go wider than that.

We now come to the question of different sections of the community. A few moments ago my noble friend Baroness Hilton spoke of the importance of a partnership with the local community because, as she said, it was important that the agency should work with the grain of human nature and not against it. In that respect we would hope that, when the needs of inner cities are being considered by the agency, there would be someone to speak on behalf of the ethnic minorities. The Churches have an impressive record on issues relating to inner cities. We are reminded still of the benefit we all received from reading Faith in the City. I hope that consideration will be given to ensure that a representative of the Churches is present when appointments are made.

I simply ask, interrogatively at this stage, whether the Government have given thought to those matters. If so, are they in a position to share those thoughts with us? I beg to move.

7 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

Returning again to the question of partnership it is worth our continuing to address the subject because it allows more members of the Committee to sign up to the need for partnership. I support what was said on that topic by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer.

The groupings contain a number of amendments in my name with which I can perhaps deal briefly. First, Amendments Nos. 189G to K deal with matters on which, under the Bill, the consent of the Secretary of State is required. They are the terms and conditions of the appointment of its staff, the remuneration, pensions and other benefits of its staff. My question is whether the Secretary of State is prepared to trust those he has appointed as members of the agency to deal with its staff. It is quite extraordinary that the Government feel the need to go to such lengths to ensure that the agency does not overstep the mark, if that is what they are fearful of it doing.

Amendment No. 190E concerned declarations of interest. The reason why I tabled the proposal that, instead of what is contained in paragraph 6 on page 222, there should be inserted the provisions of the section of the Local Government Act which deals with declarations of interest, is because of sub-paragraph (3) of paragraph 6.

In local government the standards required by the Act are high. They are often higher in an authority's standing orders and extend beyond matters of contract or agreement. Under sub-paragraph (3), where the matter in respect of which disclosure is made is not a matter of contract or agreement, then the member of the agency can be involved both in discussion and voting unless his colleagues decide that that interest may prejudicially affect his consideration.

That does not take account of human nature. If one of us had a colleague with an interest which he declared, it would be difficult for us to say, "You ought not to vote". It should be a matter which comes direct from the member himself. I find it a difficult provision and wonder why it does not follow the provisions which have applied in local government for a long time.

Lord Strathclyde

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, for proposing his amendments in the way that he did. The agency will be responsible to the Secretary of State for the Environment, who will be answerable to Parliament for its actions and for the way it spends the money that Parliament votes for its use. He must be satisfied that the agency's chief officers will ensure that its affairs are conducted properly and that staff maintain the strictest standards of financial propriety.

Perhaps at this point I could pre-empt the noble Lord, Lord Sefton of Garston, who asked me a question in an earlier amendment about Section 94 and the Local Government Act 1992 and whether or not that applied to the Urban Regeneration Agency members. In paragraph 6 of Schedule 16 the provisions are more restrictive than Section 94. They relate to all interests and not only to pecuniary interests as does Section 94.

Returning to the agency, and in particular to the amendments moved by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, it is essential that the Secretary of State should appoint the chairman and approve the agency's appointment of the chief executive. They occupy key positions in the chain of responsibility. Amendments Nos. 189E and F would prevent him from doing that and therefore damage accountability. The same is true of Amendments Nos. 189G to 189K, which would remove the Secretary of State's control over the terms and conditions of the appointment of agency staff and their pay, pensions and allowances.

In selecting board members we will be aiming for a small, dynamic board with a wide range of skills. But we intend to pick members for what they can offer, not for whom they represent. Including conditions about the composition of the board might make it more difficult for the Secretary of State to find people with the right experience.

Members of the Committee asked about local authority representation on the board, consultation and so forth. There are people from local authority backgrounds, both urban and rural, who may have a great deal to offer. If one looks at the example of UDCs, which are not required by statute to include local authority members, at present there are 34 local authority members on UDC boards. We will naturally wish to consider suggestions from local authorities and local authority associations as to who might best sit on the board. However, we do not wish to consult formally on the board membership. It is quite properly a matter for the Secretary of State, who, as I have said, is answerable to Parliament for the agency.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, suggested that the board members should be representative of all sections of society. I hope that it will be possible to appoint members from a whole range of backgrounds. But I repeat that we must choose members for what they can offer, not for whom they represent. I fear also that Amendment No. 189D, which provides that members of the agency are representative of all sections of society, would lead potentially to an unmanageably large board.

I can assure the Committee that every care will be taken in the appointment of members. I earnestly hope that there will never be a defect in an appointment. But should that happen, I am sure that the Committee would agree that it would not be right for those who have entered into agreements with the agency in good faith to be penalised as a result. That is what Amendment No. 190B provides, and therefore I cannot accept it.

However high the quality of board members, it is important to ensure that they disclose any direct or indirect interest in matters considered by the agency and do not take part in the consideration of such matters. As I mentioned earlier, that is achieved by paragraph 6 of Schedule 16. Amendment No. 190E, which would apply the more restrictive requirement, is therefore not necessary.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, made a valid point about local representation. The agency will have a small, central and dynamic board; but Schedule 16 allows it to set up committees with local representation. We shall come to that in more detail in the next group of amendments. The provisions in Schedule 16 for the appointment and operation of the chairman, the board members, the chief executive and staff of the agency are all well precedented. There is nothing new, nothing mysterious and nothing underhand here. I urge the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

Before the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, speaks, perhaps I may ask the Minister again about Paragraph 6. I agree with him that interests should be disclosed. However, in his response he did not distinguish, as the paragraph does, between contracts, agreements and other matters. One could give many examples of other matters in which a member of the board may have an agreement. For instance, he may be involved with a prospective developer. That may not have reached the point of being an agreement or a contract. I am not clear why those two words have to be included. I had always understood that a contract is an agreement, but there we are. There may be some significance in the use of the two terms. The schedule then refers to other matters and distinguishes the conduct to be followed by the member of the board. As we are in Committee and there will be an opportunity to return to the point, if the Minister would prefer to write to me, I would be happy with that.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

I too am grateful to the noble Lord for the information which he gave us. I say at once that I never suggested for a moment that there was anything underhand. I was questioning not the Government's integrity but their wisdom. We found one of the answers given by the noble Lord to be disturbing. I owe this to my noble friend Lady Hollis who is more numerate than I am. The noble Lord said that around 30 members of local authorities are existing members of UDCs. There are 12 UDCs with an average of about 15 members. I cannot remember now what twelve fifteens are, although there was a time at school when I knew my fifteen times table. However, I know that 30 is a fairly small proportion of that number. If that is to serve as a precedent, we would find it a little alarming. Armed with the information which the noble Lord has given us, we should like to go away and reflect further. In those circumstances, I ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 189C to 189K not moved.]

Viscount Goschen

I beg to move that the Committee stage be adjourned until eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.14 to 8 p.m.]

Lord Archer of Sandwell moved Amendment No. 189L: Page 222, leave out lines 3 to 5.

The noble Lord said: This group of amendments relates to the powers of the agency to delegate its work either to members of the agency or to members of the staff. Paragraph 4(a) of Schedule 16 gives the agency power to authorise a member or a member of staff to exercise any of its powers. Obviously, the agency can act only through its members or its staff so that one expects the power to delegate. But one wonders whether there ought not perhaps be here some parameters within which the delegation can be exercised. I understand that anyone dealing with the agency will be dealing with a particular individual and wants to be fairly happy that that individual has power to commit the agency.

But I am not sure that this provision deals with that problem because anyone dealing with an individual has to satisfy himself that that individual has been authorised by the agency. So they could not be happy that the individual had the power to commit the agency unless they actually looked at the act of delegation. So, fairly clearly the provision is not intended to deal with that problem.

What concerns us is whether any member of staff, however junior, may be authorised to commit the agency to any extent —that is to say, to make a massive grant, to acquire a substantial business or piece of land. If that is the intention, no bank would authorise members of staff to advance money without limits in that kind of way. If it is said that we can rely on the agency to delegate only the powers which are suitable to be delegated to the particular individual, then the question occurs as to why we cannot rely on the agency, for example, to select its own chairman or to do any of the other things which it is precluded from doing by the Bill.

Turning to Amendment No. 190C, paragraph 5(4) says that the agency may set up a committee and appoint to it people who are not members of the agency. The sole limitation is that there must be on the committee at least one member of the agency or a member of the staff. One then wonders what are the proposed duties and powers of these committees. Can a committee, including only one member of the agency staff, commit the agency up to the full extent of its powers? For example, can it decide that it is going to make a substantial grant? Can it decide that it is going to acquire a substantial piece of land; that it is going to exercise any of the powers set out in Clause 143?

Then we come to Amendments Nos. 190F and 190G. Paragraph 7 deals with the authority to use the agency's seal which presumably means to do any transaction on behalf of the agency for which a deed is required. Can any one member of the agency be authorised to use the seal or any member of staff, however junior? In my experience of limited companies, the usual practice is either that the use of the seal requires a full meeting of the board or if its use is to be delegated, it is delegated to a very senior member of the staff.

One wonders about the dangers of appointing junior staff to carry seals which may have very substantial implications. I say that because it is seared into my soul from my own personal experience. I began my working life at the age of 16 as a boy clerk on the district audit staff in Birmingham. I was given a stamp which certified that accounts had been audited. I was preached a sermon about the importance of safeguarding the seal as part of my very self because if it fell into the wrong hands it could be used to certify that accounts had been audited when they had not.

I was told the story of a clerk who had allowed his seal to fall into the wrong hands. It had been used to commit a substantial fraud and the clerk committed suicide in disgrace. On the very next day I left my case containing the seal on the train. I spent the whole day at the age of 16, wondering whether arsenic was a more suitable way of disposing of the matter than the gas oven. Fortunately, I recovered the case before anyone discovered that the seal was missing. I have always attached part of the blame to those who were unwise enough to allow so junior a member of staff to carry so important a seal. So this group of questions has occurred to us. Again, moving in an interrogative mood, I ask the noble Lord to give us the benefit of the Government's thinking on the subject. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

I speak to Amendment No. 190D, which is in this group of amendments. It relates to paragraph 5(4) on page 222 of the Bill. Here again we return to the question of the consent of the Secretary of State. On this occasion the consent is required for the appointment of people, who are not members of the agency, to committees and sub-committees. If the agency is to work effectively, it is almost bound to need quite a plethora of committees and sub-committees to deal with particular geographical areas as well as particular subjects. Is it really necessary for the consent of the Secretary of State yet again to be required to these appointments? The agency is going to be so fettered that it seems that it will spend its whole time asking for consent instead of doing any real work.

Lord Strathclyde

There can be no disagreement between any of us in the Committee about the necessity for the business of the agency to be conducted on a sound basis. It will have an obligation to manage the money voted to it by Parliament and to account to Parliament, through the Secretary of State for the Environment, for the way in which it has done so. At the same time, the agency must be able to do its job effectively. It will need to put in place a management framework that provides clearly understood lines of accountability and includes proper checks and balances to ensure that the highest standards of propriety are maintained.

Major decisions should be taken by the board of the agency. But everything cannot be done by the board and neither is it possible for committees or sub-committees to control all the day-to-day actions of the agency. Individuals will have to be given appropriate levels of responsibility. Delegation needs careful management, as the noble Lord, Lord Archer, described. It should be clear who was responsible for an action and that they were entitled to take responsibility. That is why this Bill puts in place a system of what I believe is properly authorised delegation. Without it, it would be unclear how the agency could operate effectively and maintain proper lines of accountability.

The agency will be able to work throughout England. Local involvement will be needed if its work is to contribute to the wider regeneration of the regions in which it works. That is why this Bill enables the agency to set up committees and sub-committees and to include on them members who are not members of the agency nor of its staff. This will provide the agency with a flexible means of bringing in local expertise without making the main board unmanageably large. Some regions may need only a small presence; others may call for several committees or sub-committees, each covering a particular aspect of its operations or perhaps representing a small area within the region. Requirements may change over time. No one pattern will be suitable for all cases.

In another place the Opposition called for a rigid system of regional and local committees in place of the responsive system which this Bill provides. Amendment No. 190C would now deprive the agency of the regional expertise and local input which the Opposition then advocated so strongly and which we consider will be important to its success. Therefore, I cannot accept the amendment.

The agency will be able to delegate powers to its committees and sub-committees. Since the Secretary of State will be answerable to Parliament for their exercise of those powers, he will naturally need to assure himself that they can fulfil their obligations. It is therefore right that his consent should be required to the appointment of those who are not members of the agency or its staff. That need not be burdensome. A letter or a short description would do. I do not envisage any great bureaucratic muddle in ensuring that the agency has the consent of the Secretary of State.

However, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, pointed out, many agreements entered into by the agency may require the application of its seal. Land transfers, for example, require its application. Acquisitions and disposals of land will be central to the agency's work and are likely to involve large sums. They must therefore be properly authorised. There must be a clear audit trail of decision-making as well as of financial transactions. But I see no reason why authentication of the seal should not be delegated. It is, I understand, common commercial practice and there is no reason why it should not apply in this instance.

The noble and learned Lord asked if a sub-committee could commit the authority up to the full extent of its resources. The terms of the agency's delegation to one of its sub-committees will specify the extent to which it is able to commit the agency. Similarly, it is for the agency to be careful in determining which of its members have the power to apply its seal. The noble and learned Lord gave us a cautionary tale which, I am sure, is one that will guide the decisions of the agency.

I can assure the Committee of our concern that the agency should manage itself well. I have no doubt that it will do so, within the framework provided by this Bill. These amendments would hinder the efficient running of the agency and hold back its work of regeneration—its main purpose. I hope that noble Lords will therefore agree that the amendments are inappropriate and that the noble and learned Lord will withdraw them.

Baroness Hamwee

I regret that this did not occur to me until the Minister was responding to the amendments with regard to sub-committees, but there is one question which should be asked. I find it quite a difficult question to ask but I nevertheless feel that I should ask it in the light of the recent publicity concerning the appointments of members to quangos and the fact that they tend to cluster at one end of the political spectrum, if I can put it that way. Recent publicity suggests that it is rare for members of opposition parties to be appointed to membership of quangos. May we have an assurance that political leanings will not figure in the Secretary of State's assessment of whether or not he will give his consent to the appointment of members of sub-committees?

Lord Strathclyde

I think that I can give that assurance.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

I am grateful. It seems that someone on this side of the House has extracted an assurance from the Minister. That must go down in history as an achievement. I am sorry that in these circumstances I have to mark down the noble Lord because I did not think that that answer was as informative as some of his earlier answers. It was not up to the standard that he had set himself.

There really is no dispute in the Committee about the fact that there is a need from time to time for the agency to delegate its functions. It will need to delegate its functions to a member or to staff. It will need to delegate the right to affix the seal. None of that is in dispute. What we ventured to ask was whether there should be any limit to the powers of delegation. May it do anything by a committee containing only one member of staff? May it delegate any function to a member of staff, however junior? That was the point that concerned us.

The Minister said that we must trust the agency. That is interesting. I suspect that there has been a reversal of roles because we were saying earlier that the agency was too circumscribed but the Minister was saying, "You can't trust the agency to that extent. It must be supervised by the Minister". However, now he is telling us, "It does not require any supervision. You must trust the agency to do what is right". I can only say that in those circumstances we may reflect long upon the information that he has given us and that we shall perhaps return to the matter at a later stage in our deliberations. For the moment, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8.15 p.m.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon moved Amendment No. 190: Page 222, line 11, at end insert: ("() The Agency shall operate subject to the provisions of sections 100A to 100K of the Local Government Act 1972 (access to meetings and documents) as if it were a local authority.").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment relates to the major theme of this evening, which is greater openness to the public and democratic accountability. I urge the Minister on this occasion not just to play a straight bat. I suggest that he goes away and thinks about what has been emerging as a general theme this evening—that the public need to know more about what the agency is doing.

Amendment No. 190 suggests that the agency shall be subject to the same provisions as those applying to local authority meetings and documents. I understand that the Minister in another place said that planning meetings of the board would be dealt with like those of local authorities. It would be welcome if the Minister could agree that that might appear on the face of the Bill and that we shall not simply be given yet another assurance that this is a matter on which some directions may eventually appear at some unforeseeable time in the future.

Amendment No. 191 also addresses that issue and suggests that the agency's annual report should be made available to the public at a reasonable charge. Again, I can see no reason why the agency should not publish its annual report and why that should not be a requirement under the Act. That would at least go some way to assuring the public that the agency is not operating behind closed doors with Government appointees doing things they wot not of. I should be grateful if the Minister could address both those points and give us some sort of assurance that the matter will at least be looked at between now and Report stage, if nothing more. I beg to move.

Viscount Goschen

These amendments both aim to make the operations of the agency as transparent and accessible as possible. We sympathise with this desire for openness but we must be careful to balance it against the commercial confidentiality that the agency must be able to offer if it is to attract the private sector.

Since the agency will be required to work in partnership with the private sector wherever possible, many of the issues coming before its board and committees are likely to be subject to commercial confidentiality. Private companies would clearly be reluctant to enter into discussions on joint developments without this safeguard. This is also true to some extent for local authorities.

Most of the business of local authorities does not need to be subject to such commercial constraints. They will, however, be central to almost all the work of the agency. We should not therefore expect the same provisions to apply to both bodies.

A statutory right of access to the meetings or papers of the URA board or its committees could discourage developers from approaching the agency with their proposals. They might not want to run the risk that it may not extend confidentiality to their scheme.

Any proposals brought forward or assisted by the agency will be subject to the planning process. Normally the local authority will be the development control authority and its meetings will be regulated by the usual rules of access, as modified by the constraints of commercial confidentiality. Where, in designated areas, the agency itself was the development control authority my noble friend Lord Walker has agreed that, in accordance with the principles underlying the Citizen's Charter, the agency will provide as much access as possible to board and committee meetings and documents which relate to the exercise of any planning powers it may possess. It is not, however, possible to make a general presumption in favour of access since, even on planning issues, a significant proportion of the agency's work is likely to be subject to commercial confidentiality.

Amendment No. 191 requires the agency to make its annual report widely available at reasonable charge. Paragraph 11 of Schedule 17 requires the agency to submit its annual report to the Secretary of State. He must then lay it before Parliament. We can assure the Committee that our guidance to the agency will emphasise that it should publish its report and accounts. I hope that the noble Baroness will therefore agree to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

I thank the Minister for that disappointing reply. We shall be returning to the democratic deficit of the Bill at a later stage. I understand what the Minister is saying about commercial confidentiality, but that of course applies also under the Local Government Act. If one applied the same rules, that would allow the public to be excluded from meetings where that was a consideration. I am disappointed, because if it is to be in the guidance that the report should be made available to the public, why cannot it be on the face of the Bill? However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 190A to 190G not moved.]

On Question, Whether Schedule 16 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Sefton of Garston

Earlier I asked about the comparison between the treatment of local government members and members of this agency. The Minister sought to assure me that there is no difference and that the treatment meted out to local government members will be the same as that meted out to agency members, or at least that is what I took his intervention at the beginning of the debate on Schedule 16 to mean. I may have been mistaken.

The Minister nods his head. That seems to me to underline the fact that he thought that the information he had gleaned from the department meant that the treatment meted out to local government members and members of this agency would be the same. If he is still under that impression, I should disabuse him because paragraph 6 does not give that message.

I asked about the district auditor's ability to surcharge members of local authorities. I received no answer. It still amazes me that people who are not accountable electorally to anyone, who are appointed by Ministers to positions of authority, can be treated much better than local authority members in regard to the misuse or careless management of public money.

I could have moved a manuscript amendment. I did not. I could have done that because all I had to do was to give notice to the Deputy Chairman. He would have read it out and then I would have read it out and that would have put the matter in order. I did not do so, although this is a serious situation. As I said earlier, my noble friend Lord Dean asked about the NHS. The amount of money involved was considerable, and if the same amount of money had been wasted—because wasted it was—inside local government by local government members, some local government members would have been bankrupted because of the surcharge. Something should be done to equate the conditions under which members of the agency are to work and those under which local authority members work. If the Government do not do something to equalise the position, will not that prove what I have said all along—that the Government are the enemy of local government?

I apologise for raising the point, especially as I have an appointment at nine o'clock, and so it would be unfair to move a manuscript amendment. I have kept my argument deliberately brief, but I give notice to the Minister that I may raise it again at a later date.

Lord Strathclyde

The noble Lord has no need to apologise. Rather it is I who should apologise for misunderstanding the point that he was making in the first instance. I thought that he was asking about Section 94 of the Local Government Act 1972, and I gave him an answer on that. Of course that was not what the noble Lord wanted. He was asking about surcharges. The roles of members of the agency are different from those of elected members of local authorities. They set no council tax; they levy no money from people; they cannot set an illegal budget; they are controlled financially by the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Treasury. Because the role is so different, I think that the noble Lord will agree that the measures to deal with the problem should also be different.

Schedule 16 agreed to.

Schedule 17 [Finances of the Agency]:

Lord Archer of Sandwell moved Amendment No. 190H: Page 223, line 22, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").

The noble and learned Lord said: In this schedule we turn to the agency's finances, but yet again we are returning to the subject of the balance of autonomy. Schedule 17, paragraph 2, provides: the Secretary of State may … determine the financial duties of the Agency". We asked ourselves why "may" and not "must"? What is the alternative—that the agency's financial duties shall not be determined? Surely it is entitled to be clear as to what are its financial duties. Once again one should perhaps offer a prize for the best-informed guess as to whether it will be the Minister or us on this side who will be arguing that we can trust the agency, or that its duties should be circumscribed.

In this case we say that perhaps the agency's duties should be circumscribed. What troubles us is that if the Minister decides that he will not determine its financial duties, he may infer from that that its finances are no concern of his. Since the agency will be relying on Treasury grants, can we assume that those grants will, where necessary, be forthcoming? Unless we have some commitment by the Minister, because he has prescribed the financial duties of the agency, we feel that here—perhaps one need hardly say it—we should be assured that he will in fact determine its financial duties. If he will, why merely say that he "may"?

I turn to Amendment No. 190J. Paragraph 2(2)(a), again on the basis that the Secretary of State may determine the agency's financial duties, provides that that determination may, relate to a period beginning before the date on which it is made". I assume, although I hope to be enlightened, that the purpose of that provision is to put right something which may be done in error. So if, for example, the agency has entered into a commitment which is outside the previous determination, then those who have dealt with it in good faith will not be told, "What we undertook was outside our powers, and so you will not be paid". I assume that that is the purpose of including that provision. It raises the question of whether the Secretary of State may disqualify expenditure to which the agency is already committed. What happens if it has already undertaken an obligation which is inconsistent with the determination that the Secretary of State makes subsequently?

If that is the case, those who deal with the agency may need to read the Secretary of State's mind before they can have any assurance that the commitment will be met.

I turn then to Amendment No. 190K. Paragraph 4(2) provides that for certain purposes: The Agency may borrow otherwise than by temporary loan". What is a temporary loan; or, perhaps more obviously, what is not a temporary loan? I have never come across the concept of a permanent loan. Perhaps we could be told what the draftsman had in mind when included in the Bill was the expression "temporary loan". If a permanent loan means one which will never be repaid I hope that we shall not be dealing with temporary loans in the Bill.

I turn to Amendment No. 190L. Paragraph 10 of Schedule 17 refers to: any report made by the auditor". It may be that our minds can quickly be set at rest but we wish to know what was in the minds of those who drafted the Bill. That provision implies that the auditor may or may not make a report or may make two or three. Surely it is normal for an auditor to report annually. If it is envisaged that the auditor may make other reports in addition to the annual report, and if we are told that, our minds might be set at rest, although we may be a little troubled about the drafting of the Bill. It may be that the draftsman would wish to reconsider the matter.

I hope that I have not set the Minister an examination paper for which he was totally unprepared—I am sure that I have not—but I shall be grateful for an answer to those questions. In that spirit, I beg to move.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

I understand that the amendments relate to the financial responsibilities of the agency. I share the anxieties of the noble and learned Lord to ensure that the agency's financial powers and duties are established on a sound and accountable basis. That is the whole purpose of Schedule 17.

There must be no doubt about the obligation of the agency to manage and use properly the money voted to it by Parliament. The Secretary of State, who will have to account for it to Parliament, must have the power to ensure that the agency fulfils that obligation. That is, I believe, the thinking behind the first two of the amendments. I can assure the noble and learned Lord that the point is well taken. Before the agency begins its work we shall issue it with a Financial Memorandum setting out its financial duties in considerable detail. The present schedule already ensures that the agency will be obliged to comply with that memorandum and with any future variations to it. When it comes to deciding between "may" and "shall" the Secretary of State will wish to decide what financial duties he should impose on the agency. The agency may wish to go further and impose harsher duties on itself. We would not want to prevent that.

Amendment No. 190J would prevent the Secretary of State determining a financial duty for the agency which related to a period beginning before the duty was determined. But it may, for example, be reasonable to determine duties relating to the accounts for a year before those accounts are finalised but after the year has started. It is sensible and well precedented for the Bill to allow for that.

The third of the amendments, No. 190K, would remove the power to borrow other than by a temporary loan. That is too severe for an entrepreneurial body acting in a highly competitive market. In common with all organisations the agency will need a borrowing facility in addition to its source of income. This is not to say that it will be allowed to run up large debts. Borrowing is an essential tool. But since borrowing by the agency will contribute to the public sector borrowing requirement it must be controlled by the Secretary of State with the agreement of the Treasury. The fact that paragraph 4 refers to a temporary loan being by overdraft or otherwise could imply that it is a short-term loan.

I should like to set the noble and learned Lord's mind at rest in respect of Amendment No. 190L—

Lord Archer of Sandwell

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I believe that I followed his answer to the previous question but I am still puzzled by the concept of "temporary" loan. Is what is meant a "short-term" loan? If that is so, a long-term loan is a permanent loan. The concept of a permanent loan I know from my son but not from any other source.

Lord Strathclyde

That is a fair point. I tried to explain that a temporary loan may be an overdraft and therefore it would be relatively short term. However, I should like to have the opportunity of clarifying the matter and perhaps I may write to the noble and learned Lord.

Initially I found Amendment No. 190L rather puzzling although the noble and learned Lord explained it in detail. The point is that, if the auditor makes more than one report on the accounts, they should all be sent to the Secretary of State, as the clause presently implies. The amendment would leave that in doubt. The noble and learned Lord said that there might be a fault in the drafting. I believe not but I shall check to ensure that the clause means what we think it means.

I hope that I have been able to convince the noble and learned Lord that I share his deep interest and concern in the tight and accountable financial management of the agency. I do not believe that there is any room between us on that issue. I believe that the schedule already achieves what the noble and learned Lord is seeking and I hope that he will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

It is a pleasure doing business with the noble Lord and I cannot say fairer than that. I am not sure that we are totally happy with all his answers but we shall reflect further on the matter. I am grateful for his undertaking that he too will reflect further. Perhaps we can have a further dialogue at a later stage in our deliberations. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 190J to 191 not moved.]

Schedule 17 agreed to.

Clause 144 [Vesting of land by order]:

[Amendment No. 192 not moved.]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 192A: Page 148, line 41, leave out paragraphs (c) and (d).

The noble Baroness said: This is a probing amendment. It leaves out paragraphs (c) and (d) of the definition of statutory undertakers on page 148 of the Bill. Those paragraphs include as statutory under-takers not only the named bodies but, any other authority, body or undertakers specified in an order made", by the Secretary of State, and any "wholly-owned subsidiary" of any of the bodies listed in the first three paragraphs as themselves statutory undertakers.

The question of the powers of the Secretary of State is today becoming like a record stuck in a groove. However, it is again worth asking whether it is appropriate for the Secretary of State effectively to designate a statutory undertaker with all the particular privileges. If "privileges" is the wrong word, at least statutory undertakers are put in a particular position when the agency is dealing with them.

From my reading of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 it appears that the subsidiary bodies and bodies designated by the Secretary of State are not statutory undertakers for the purposes of that Act. I should like to have the Minister's assistance on why there is that distinction.

Lord Strathclyde

Public bodies may need to hold land in reserve in order to carry out their functions in future. But they should not be encouraged to hold capital assets, such as vacant or derelict land, without any idea of how they might eventually be put to use. Naturally, allowance must be made for market conditions, for plans for phased disposal and for the condition of the land. But if the agency can make good use of vacant or derelict land that a public body cannot or will not bring into use, it should be able to do so.

The agency will be expected to explore the options, and to seek agreement in the first instance. If a public body has an effective strategy for land re-use, but there are obstacles to its implementation, the agency may be able to help. If there is no strategy, the agency may be able to assist in developing one.

Land may be in multiple ownership, with each owner having his own views on the future of the land, making it difficult to assemble strategic sites. Indeed, even if owners agree to dispose of the land, vesting can be an efficient way of packaging disparate parcels for transfer together. To take an example from UDCs, land belonging to three local authorities and a number of statutory undertakers was transferred to the Black Country Development Corporation in 1988 and 1989. The corporation was then able to develop an integrated plan for its future. Acquiring such land piecemeal could have been a long drawn-out process.

Vesting of land without agreement is, like a CPO, very much a last resort. We would not encourage its use for small sites of little strategic significance. But its advantage is certainty: the process has a visible end date and on that date the agency may take possession of the land. For larger sites and sites of any size whose impact on their area is sufficiently great, or where fragmented parcels need to be assembled, it is a tool which should be available. I cannot therefore agree to Amendment No. 192.

The Secretary of State will, as I have explained, be able to vest land owned by statutory undertakers in the agency. There have been frequent changes in the status of statutory undertakers recently as a result of the Government's successful privatisation initiatives. It is for the Secretary of State to determine whether a vesting order is made but if a new body, or a new wholly-owned subsidiary, falls outside the existing definition then this option is closed to him. It is important therefore to retain some flexibility in the definition of statutory undertaker. The amendment would remove this flexibility and could mean that the power rapidly became out of date.

Clause 144 follows the UDC precedent. The Town and Country Planning Act does not include vesting powers and the comparison is thus less relevant. I hope that I have explained the matter fully to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Hamwee

It was an interesting answer to Amendment No. 192, which was not moved. The Minister gave the response to my question about statutory undertakers rather as I had expected. He said that it is another matter for the discretion of the Secretary of State. That is not a satisfactory answer but at least it makes the position 100 per cent. clear. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 144 agreed to.

Schedule 18 agreed to.

Clause 145 [Acquisition of land]:

8.45 p.m.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon moved Amendment No. 192B: Page 149, line 11, after ("land") insert ("other than common land").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment attempts to exclude from the provisions of the Bill common land, other open spaces and such places as allotments and so on. It is an attempt to preserve traditional rights and not subject them to the compulsory purchase powers which the agency will have. Open spaces are important to many people in this country and the arbitrary powers which have been given to the Urban Regeneration Agency have, in our view, inherent dangers.

There are precedents for that in the powers of new town urban development corporations, housing action trusts and so on. However, Section 230 of the Town and Country Planning Act also enables local authorities to acquire land for exchange with land originally held for protection as common land or as green belt land. Amendments Nos. 192F and 192G seek to protect that. There is always a temptation to nibble away at the edges of green belt land and there is land which might be passed to the agency; for example, the east Thames corridor. The Secretary of State for the Environment has recently published a consultation paper on the east Thames corridor in which to some extent he sees a role for the Urban Regeneration Agency. However, he does not see it as being responsible for the wider development of larger areas of the country, although his predecessor thought that it might do something on a large scale. A future Secretary of State might also think on a larger scale. Therefore, there are ways in which the green belt is under threat. We believe that Clause 145 should be brought into line with the planning Act in that respect. I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale

As a horticulturist by background, I am extremely interested in the remarks made by the noble Baroness about allotment land. In subsection (3) of Clause 145, I observe that where the land referred to in the first two subsections forms part of a common, open space, fuel or field garden allotment, the agency may acquire land in exchange, which is what the noble Baroness and I, especially in the case of allotments, would desire. Indeed, I believe that that is part of the Allotments Act 1950.

However, I am concerned about the word "may" at the end of line 17. I can well understand why the agency could desire to acquire such lands. I can well understand why in certain circumstances those lands may be built on or regenerated because they have become contaminated by some noxious substance due to a previous use of that land. However, if people are operating on that land, especially for allotment purposes, I believe that land should be given in lieu. I hope that my noble friend will make clear that there is provision either within this clause or elsewhere in relevant clauses of the Bill for that to happen. I am anxious about that use of the word "may".

Lord Strathclyde

Site assembly is often the most important obstacle to the regeneration of vacant and derelict land. The agency's development and reclamation plans will therefore frequently involve the acquisition of land and rights over that land. We intend that the agency should acquire land by agreement wherever possible. But an obstructive owner should not be able to prevent it from tackling an important site where it is able to demonstrate that urgent action is required.

It may often be important for the agency to be able to compulsorily acquire certain new rights over land, rather than the land itself.

Amendment No. 192D would remove the power compulsorily to acquire new rights over land and that would make it much more difficult for the agency to reclaim large derelict sites which may be land logged or unserviceable. It would also encourage the agency compulsorily to purchase more land than it needs since the purchase of the whole site would be the only way to obtain those new rights over it. The amendment, therefore, robs the agency of a cost-effective route.

Lord Williams of Elvel

We are all grateful to the Minister for reading out his brief on the amendments. However, this is a matter of considerable importance. It is a question of common land. If there is a compulsory purchase order on common land—and I speak as did the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, with some personal knowledge of common land—are we talking about urban commons or rural commons or, alternatively, a mixture of both? If we are talking about rural commons, then there is right of access and all sorts of difficulties under the 1965 commons Act, but if we are talking about urban commons then there are other difficulties which would arise under different compulsory order Acts.

It would be useful if the Minister could concentrate on commons and tell Members of the Committee exactly what the Government have in mind and how they justify removing the right of access—which is, after all, the element of commons which came about as a result of the enclosure Acts and which still remains—when talking about something called the Urban Regeneration Agency. I agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, which I think is very valid.

Lord Strathclyde

I thought that the noble Lord was going to ask me about something with which I had already dealt. I am speaking to a group of amendments which includes one on common land. It is one of the amendments to which I think the noble Baroness, Lady Hylton, spoke. Naturally, in the course of my summing up I shall deal with the questions posed by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale and the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. It is an important area and I should like to set the scene about the compulsory acquisition of rights over land. If we do not understand the framework in which this is being done, I suspect that when we deal with the issues on common land we shall become muddled. I hope, therefore, that the noble Lord will bear with me as to why we think that we need these particular powers.

Before dealing with the specific amendment, perhaps I may deal with Amendment No. 192C which requires the agency to consult the relevant local authority before compulsorily purchasing any land. The agency will be subject to the normal compulsory purchase procedures and the safeguards in the existing CPO system will apply in full. All its proposals will be advertised and all those with an interest in the land will have a right to object.

The agency will have already consulted the local authority in relation to any development it intends to place on the site as part of the normal planning process. In addition, as I have already explained, the agency will work in close partnership with local authorities wherever possible. The local authority does not need to be written into the CPO procedure as well unless it has a direct interest in the land, in which case it will be covered by the standard provisions.

Perhaps I may now deal with the specific points about commons, open spaces and allotments which are all important, and especially important in this Chamber as I know that many noble Lords have special interests, technical knowledge and expertise on the subject. I would not expect the agency normally to work on commons, open spaces such as parks, or allotments. Most should already be positive features of the environment. However, common land can become derelict or contaminated. Both they and allotments are as liable to danger from undermining as any other land. Indeed, even if they are in good condition, they may be surrounded by derelict or contaminated land and regeneration of that land may affect them.

When we talk about common land, we are neither talking about urban common land nor rural common land: it is any common land, anywhere in England that could be affected by the Bill's provisions. The work on those commons, open spaces and allotments is not to be undertaken lightly. But if a site is sufficiently important either because of the opportunity afforded by its regeneration or because of the danger—the public safety aspect of not reclaiming it—then it should be tackled.

Amendment No. 192B would remove the agency's power compulsorily to purchase common land. Yet, as I have explained, commons can be just as derelict as land in any other ownership. In the Bill we should not be afraid of tackling the potential problems of contaminated land by way of the agency. If the agency has a good case for purchasing such land to meet its regeneration objectives, it should be able to do so.

Schedule 19 will allow the agency to carry out the work it needs once it has acquired commons, allotments or open spaces. It must of course obtain planning permission. Similar provisions apply to local authorities—such as statutory undertakers, UDCs and HATs. There is no reason for denying them to the URA. Therefore I cannot agree to Amendment No. 194B.

I turn now to Clause 145(3) which concerns my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale. It provides that the agency may acquire land for giving in exchange whenever it purchases common land, an open space or allotments. It is a useful and well-precedented safeguard that ensures that the purchase by the agency does not reduce the total of such land. I cannot, therefore, agree with Amendment No. 192E which would remove that safeguard altogether, allowing the agency to purchase special category land without offering any in return.

As regards the point about the words "may" and "shall" which my noble friend raised, unless the agency is able to show that it will offer suitable exchange land, its CPO of the main land will be subject to special parliamentary procedure.

Lord Williams of Elvel

The Minister has made a very interesting point. He referred to "special parliamentary procedure". But what happens if the URA tries to acquire common land offering land in lieu, which it may do as I understand it under the subsection now under discussion? For example, what happens if, after consulting all those who have common rights in the case of a rural common, it then offers land in a wholly inappropriate manner in a wholly inappropriate place? What would be the result of that procedure?

Lord Skelmersdale

Before my noble friend the Minister rises to respond, I should like to make a further point. Wearing a totally different hat, I must say that I am very interested in special parliamentary procedure—indeed in all parliamentary procedure. Why on earth can we not remove the word "may" and substitute the word "shall" in Clause 145(3) and thereby do away with all this great raft of proposed orders, regulations, special parliamentary procedures and so on which will, by my noble friend's own admission, be necessitated by virtue of the word "may"?

Lord Strathclyde

This is an area at which I am quite happy to look again. But I have to point out to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that the question will not arise because, as I understand it, under current legislation the land has to be equally advantageous. The noble Lord may be a great expert on the subject. I do not pretend to be so. As I said, I am perfectly happy to look again at the matter. However, I do not believe that there is a problem because the land has to be equally advantageous land when offering it for exchange. I have said that I am happy to look further at the matter. If that is not acceptable, I shall write to the noble Lord.

Baroness Hamwee

Perhaps I may ask the Minister a few questions arising from the debate. First, from his statement that the land has to be "equally advantageous", I must point out that I am no expert on the subject. Despite his protestations, I think that the noble Lord may be. We will all have read about the arguments taking place over Oxleas Wood which, as I understand it, concern precisely the same issue; namely, that the land which is being offered in return for a very valuable area of land is merely an area of farmland. Are we talking about the same issue in the Bill?

My second question concerns the comment made at the beginning of the Minister's response regarding common land being urban or rural for the purposes of the legislation. At the start of this afternoon's debate the noble Lord confirmed that rural land would not be the subject of the attentions of the agency. That question arose in the context of concern for mining communities. Is the noble Lord saying that common land, as a matter of definition, may be urban or rural? Perhaps he will confirm that his reply does not affect the reply he gave earlier when he said we were talking about urban land and not rural land.

9 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

I suspect the confusion arose when I said some of the provisions of the agency, particularly as regards whether land was under-utilised, would not apply to rural land. Therefore the agency would not have a role in deciding whether agricultural land was under-used or not. Therefore it is an entirely different context.

Lord Williams of Elvel

The noble Lord has not in the least responded to the question of the noble Baroness. Is the Urban Regeneration Agency entitled, under the Minister's interpretation of whatever legislation is in front of us, to acquire rural common land? If the Minister says that that is not so as that was ruled out by an earlier answer he gave to the noble Baroness, then I would assert that many mining areas encompass rural common land. If the Minister's answer is yes, what is the value of the answer that he gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, earlier?

Lord Skelmersdale

Whatever the answer to that question, all Members of the Committee will be extremely grateful to my noble friend for saying that this is purely a hiccup—I hope I may use that expression—in his mind and that he will look at this difficult issue again. I am afraid that this evening the matter has been rather contentious. He gave me, and probably other Members of the Committee, the impression that that is exactly what he will do. It would be wise of us all to rely on that reconsideration. If we are not happy with that reconsideration, then clearly we can return to this matter at a future stage.

Lord Strathclyde

I believe I made the point that I was quite happy to look again at the issue of "may" or "shall". That is the extent of my confusion on this matter. Perhaps I have confused the Committee in my explanation to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. There is no restriction as regards urban and rural commons. Purchases can be made of both urban and rural commons. The answer that I gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, earlier this afternoon referred to Clause 142(2)(b) which states: land which is situated in an urban area and which is under-used or ineffectively used". There the land is clearly limited to urban areas. It does not apply to rural areas for the reasons I gave earlier on. However, that subsection has nothing to do with common land either rural or urban.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I do not wish to intrude upon this discussion but I wish to congratulate my noble friend on having secured for the Government a powerful ally in their aim to make legislation difficult to understand. Those all wise beings who are responsible for the groupings list have grouped my amendments, which have little to do with common land, with amendments in the name of Members of the Committee opposite. I hope I may be so bold as to refer to my amendments briefly as I do not wish to upset the tenor of the discussion on common land.

The purpose of my Amendment No. 192D is to ask whether we are going down the right road on this matter of compulsory purchase. To give people powers for compulsory purchase is a matter which I believe should not be undertaken lightly. I hope my noble friend will at least take the point on board that there are those in this Chamber who are not prepared, absolutely at the drop of a hat, to concede that such a thing is right.

I hope I may now proceed to a different point altogether, but I am subject here to those all wise beings who draw up the groupings list. I wish to speak to Amendment No. 192H. This amendment is just a plea for good manners, although I appreciate that that is perhaps a lost cause in our time. Clause 146(1) states: Any person who is duly authorised in writing by the Agency may at any reasonable time enter any land". The definition of "reasonable" is a matter of some difficulty. What appears reasonable to those in authority very often appears most unreasonable to those who are languishing under its heel for the moment. I ask my noble friend to consider seriously—it would excite me greatly if he did—accepting my modest amendment which simply states that the agency, in this case, would need to acquire permission to act. Such permission should not be unreasonably withheld. That seems to me a very modest, small amendment. If he accepted that amendment, my noble friend would win for himself great and well deserved applause for having caused authority for once to behave with good manners.

Lord Strathclyde

I am, of course, delighted to respond to my noble friend Lord Peyton. Perhaps I may offer him some advice as regards the groupings list. First of all, I am not one of the great beings who decide on the groupings list. Secondly, perhaps before the next stage of the Bill, my noble friend should study his amendments and their position in the groupings list. Further, he should note that the groupings list is informal and if he wishes, at any time, he can unbundle the groupings and he can speak to the amendments when they occur on the Marshalled List. I hope that that information will be useful to my noble friend.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I have several points to make to my noble friend. First, I never accused him of being one of those all wise beings who are responsible for the groupings list. I merely wish to draw my noble friend's attention to the fact that those people are not in a hurry to communicate their decisions to others. One does not always wish to be seen to be quarrelling with their decisions. I assume they are trying to be helpful and therefore I do my best to comply with their decisions. On this occasion I find it helpful to comply with their decision as it has enabled me to point out how ridiculous their decisions can sometimes be.

Lord Strathclyde

In that case, when we reach the Report stage I shall offer my noble friend a tailor-made service and point out to him where his amendments are in the groupings.

Lord Williams of Elvel

It may help the Committee if I point out that there appears to be an error in the Marshalled List in that Amendment No. 192H in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, falls within Clause 146 and not, as in the Marshalled List, Clause 145.

Lord Strathclyde

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, has spotted something that I had not. I am sure that he is quite right. I am not sure quite what the Committee should make of that but perhaps the easiest course would be to deal with the amendments in the order in which they appear in the Marshalled List.

Perhaps I can deal more substantively with the two points which my noble friend Lord Peyton raised. He asked in connection with Amendment No. 192D why we provide for compulsory purchase. Compulsory purchase in this area is well precedented. However, my noble friend is right; we should not give that power lightly, and we do not. Compulsory purchase orders are extremely difficult to obtain. They are used only at the end of a long line of options. I would feel that in many ways the agency had failed if it had to resort to using compulsory purchase orders to any great extent. But it has to have that option as a power of last resort.

Secondly, my noble friend proposed an amendment, based on common sense and what he termed good manners, concerning powers of entry. The agency will, like any other purchaser, require a surveyor's report before acquiring land and buildings. That will enable it to judge what it needs to do to make the land suitable for development and to ensure that it pays a fair price. Therefore, Clause 146 confers a power of entry for the purposes of survey and valuation. It includes a wide range of safeguards to protect the interests of owners and occupiers. If the land is occupied, then 28 days' notice must be given of the requirement to inspect. I believe that that is a very fair and appropriate period. The surveys themselves must be undertaken at a reasonable time. I would assume that to mean within normal working hours. The surveyor or valuer must produce evidence of his authorisation if asked.

I hope that my noble friend will agree that those are good safeguards, seeking to make the agency's powers to enter and survey land dependent upon the permission of the occupier or at least his understanding that that is taking place.

The present provisions provide a careful balance between the rights of owners and occupiers and the agency's need to be able to survey land if it is to carry out its duties effectively. I take the point which my noble friend made but I feel that the balance is about right. I hope that my noble friend will accept my explanation and withdraw the amendment when we reach it.

I have already spoken to the other amendments concerning commons, allotments and so on. I hope that the noble Baroness will agree to withdraw her amendment.

Lord Williams of Elvel

The noble Lord cannot get away with that. He has not spoken about commons to any great extent. If and when the URA exercises its compulsory purchase order powers on rural commons and offers equivalent land, what does that mean?

If the noble Lord would like to accompany me to mid-Wales, I will show him a common of 800 acres behind my house. The common is no doubt under utilised industrially. It has 28 Welsh graziers. If the noble Lord would like to offer land in compensation to the 28 Welsh graziers who have grazing rights on that rural common, as well as to those people who have rights of way and access to open spaces, perhaps he would be kind enough to tell me about it.

What does all this mean in practice? Why are we having this discussion in relation to this rather curious form of legislation? The noble Lord seems not to understand that commons are a special form of ownership. They are not replaceable. We are still waiting for a further piece of legislation on common land, which the party opposite promised a long time ago. It is not possible to determine what is equivalent land in the case of a compulsory purchase order covering a rural common. Therefore, why do the Government try to write that into legislation?

Lord Strathclyde

I hope that I am not being obtuse. Perhaps I may go through the background again. We are not providing that the agency works regularly with commons. A piece of common land may be surrounded by derelict land or land which needs work undertaken by the agency. As a final resort the Bill provides for the agency compulsorily to purchase that property.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

It is disgraceful.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

The noble Baroness says that it is disgraceful. That land may be contaminated or derelict in one form or another. The noble Baroness will not state that all commons are in perfect condition. There will be some common land somewhere which will be derelict. If that common land is not derelict, the provisions of the Bill will not apply. We are only talking about land which comes fully under the obligations of the agency in Clause 142. I believe that noble Lords are making a meal of the issue. However, I am willing to consider the matter further.

I hope that noble Lords opposite do not say that commons should be excluded from the provision. There must be a role which will allow the agency to deal with commons if that is applicable. There is nothing new in that situation. The same situation applies to other bodies, including local authorities, which have their own CPO powers over common land. We are not dealing with anything new, strange or mysterious.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Those bodies are elected.

Lord Strathclyde

The noble Baroness states that they are elected. Let us suppose that we were not setting up the agency. Who would have the powers? The powers would be in the hands of the Department of the Environment, which is accountable to the Secretary of State, who is accountable to Parliament. We have created exactly the same situation. The agency is accountable to the Secretary of State, who is accountable to Parliament. Again there is nothing strange, new, underhand or mysterious. The provision is well precedented.

I have stated that I am happy to consider the matter again. Perhaps I have used the wrong form of words. Perhaps I need to clarify my speaking note, which of course I shall be delighted to do at Report stage.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Before he sits down, will the noble Lord help me? At an earlier intervention, the Minister stated that the URA will need power to acquire adjacent land to make development possible. He now confines his remarks to common land which is so contaminated that it needs to come within the aegis of the URA. Do we have an assurance from the Minister that common land will not be acquired simply because it is able to be developed but only because it is so contaminated that an improvement in the public weal will result from substituting alternative land?

Baroness Hamwee

Before the Minister responds, perhaps I may ask a related question. He stated that we are talking about land which is derelict. I now relate the issue to Clause 142. Does he therefore exclude from the powers relating to common land land which falls within the provisions of Clause 142(3)(c), for instance?—this provides that, for the agency to secure development, it can take other land with the consent of the Secretary of State. I ask a similar question to that raised by the noble Baroness but I relate it specifically to the wording of the clause.

Lord Strathclyde

I can quite easily clarify the position. I used derelict land by way of example. If that was not understood by Members opposite, I make it quite clear now. It could have been derelict land or contaminated land. The point is that the powers of the agency are laid down in the objects of the agency in Clause 142. That of course includes subsection (3).

I explained the reasons for subsection (3) on an earlier amendment. They related to the ability of the agency to set out factory sites having taken over the powers of English Estates.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

The Minister did not answer my question. Often there will be industrial derelict land alongside urban common land. That urban common land need not necessarily be contaminated. It may have been fiercely protected from development by local people against the local authority. However, the acquisition of such land might make development more attractive financially. It is therefore understandable that the URA might cast an envious eye upon that land in order to maximise profits. What assurance do we have that such land will come within a CPO only if it is so contaminated that to swap it improves the public happiness?

Lord Strathclyde

I suspect that the noble Baroness knows the answer to that. The situation which she envisages is not excluded in the Bill, it is not excluded in any of the clauses. We must take a reasonable view of this. I suggest that the scenario which the noble Baroness envisages is extremely unlikely.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

We have had a long discussion on common land, to which I shall return in a future amendment and also at Report stage. It is clearly an issue which raises considerable feeling and on this side of the Committee we are not satisfied with the Minister's answers. However, we do not propose to press the matter to a Division at this stage and I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 192C to 192G not moved.]

Clause 145 agreed to.

Clause 146 [Power to enter and survey land]:

[Amendment No. 192H not moved.]

Clause 146 agreed to.

Clause 147 [Financial assistance]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 192J: Page 150, line 41, at end insert: ("() shall he known as Urban Grant").

The noble Baroness said: I wish to move Amendment No. 192J and speak to Amendment No. 192M but, with the permission of the Committee, I wish to disaggregate from the grouping Amendment No. 192K which concerns housing associations. I do not know how the gremlins also got into this grouping!

Amendments Nos. 192J and 192M, in the names of myself and my noble friend Lord Williams, deal with money. The Urban Regeneration Agency brings together three disparate sources of funds: the derelict land grant; English Estates; and the city grant. That is useful but it remains the case that, as the Audit Commission said back in 1989, urban initiative finance is "a patchwork quilt". Its review in October 1991 noted little improvement. As the Audit Commission stated, there were too many urban programmes simply recycling money top-sliced off previous programmes. That is what the Audit Commission called a "programme overkill" within a strategic policy vacuum. What was needed was one or two programmes properly financed and resourced and with generous terms of reference rather than a plethora of programmes inadequately financed which overlapped and undermined each other.

Amendments Nos. 192J and 192M seek to tidy up that situation to a modest degree and therefore I hope that the Minister will find them helpful.

The first amendment gives the grant a name: urban grant. I think it may be useful, rather like winning the New Statesman competition at weekends. The subsequent amendment would also ensure that its allocation is determined in partnership with local authorities. The Minister has made much of the word "partnership", but unless the disposition of resources is carried out in partnership, again "partnership" is a "sweet-nothing" word. It should be harmonious with other programmes and in particular focus on areas of severe blight which previous programmes have so far neglected. As my noble friend Lady Hilton mentioned earlier, that should mean the prioritising of contaminated land in the first instance.

We want this amendment because otherwise we feel that we may be in the same situation in urban areas as some of us know only too well in the Norfolk Broads, where the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food gives grants to farmers to drain the wetlands and the DoE comes along to give grants to farmers not to take the grants offered by the Min. of Ag. and Fish.

We are especially concerned about the top-slicing of programmes as the urban programme moneys have been cut from £237 million last year to only £80 million in 1995–96. This is a situation in which we see the third round of City Challenge moneys frozen; in which we see abandoned new projects for Section 11; and in which we see a URA which starts (as everybody agrees) under-funded and which will therefore be hungry to impose its own priorities on available money and, if it can, will seek to corral the moneys belonging to other bodies, programmes and agencies, whatever the local and community needs may be.

Finally, this amendment will have one last effect. It will ensure that the URA moneys, which for convenience we have labelled "urban grant"—if the Minister accepts the phrase —maintain their value in real terms. Again, we should learn from past experience and not merely expect to see the grant top-sliced in some future years to satisfy yet another junior Minister's need for publicity and Treasury demands for cuts to fund another programme. If the URA does not have stability and predictability of finance, there can be no long-term planning and if there can be no long-term planning we are wasting a lot of parliamentary time on an initiative which, like so many others, will simply wither on the vine when the junior Minister changes. I beg to move.

Lord Strathclyde

I find it interesting that the noble Baroness prays in aid the Audit Commission and too many urban programmes. By this stage of the Committee the noble Baroness must realise that the whole purpose of the urban regeneration agency is to bring together three programmes: City Challenge, derelict land grant and English Estates. It is to bring all those into one. The noble Baroness's criticism is unfair. I have explained in previous debates that the agency will work closely with local authorities. They play a key role in the regeneration of their areas. We have seen with City Challenge how effectively local authorities can work with central government and other agencies. So the signs are good and we expect the agency to capitalise on that change of approach.

Against that background, effective consultation and joint working will take place on a day-to-day basis. A statutory requirement to consult, such as that introduced by Amendment No. 192M, would be artificial and constricting. It would simply become a bureaucratic substitute for the real co-operation that we expect; in other words, the co-operation that will naturally come from partners working together for common ends, not the kind of false co-operation that the noble Baroness wishes to see through her requirement to consult statutorily.

The amendment also refers to allocating resources other than by competitive bids. This would cast us back to the days when money was allocated as a matter of routine and spent as a matter of routine. Competition is inevitable and healthy and the noble Baroness should not be frightened of it. It is standard commercial practice to assess the quality and value for money of projects when deciding whether to fund them. It represents good business and proper regard for the effective use of public resources. The value of competition in raising standards has been amply shown by City Challenge, which many Labour local authorities—winners and losers alike—have acknowledged.

Perhaps I might briefly quote the Chief Executive of Nottingham who said of City Challenge that: no other regeneration project has, in my experience, ever created the same spirit of partnership and concentrated determination". The same amendment also seeks to specify the types of land which the agency should tackle in order of priority. It would be wrong to constrain the agency's freedom to act in that way. For example, it may be that the development of a derelict site on an urban fringe fits more effectively into a local regeneration strategy and leads to more investment and jobs than a similar development elsewhere which happens to be higher than the artificial pecking order laid down in the amendment. The agency's task is clearly set out in Clause 142. Within that it must be free to make its own assessment of priorities in the light of local circumstances.

Amendment No. 192L seeks to restrict the agency's discretion still further by ruling out the award of financial assistance for the acquisition of land. That would deprive it of one of the most important tools for encouraging others to engage in regeneration. Land assembly is often the key to the success of a project.

Amendment No. 192M seeks to set a minimum on the amount of resources that would be available to the agency after Royal Assent. It links that minimum with the total figure for urban regeneration grants in the financial year preceding Royal Assent. If taken literally, that would include a wide range of grants and programmes from a number of departments which would give a single agency an unmanageably large remit. However defined, a minimum would constrain the flexibility we need to ensure that the agency is properly funded according to its own needs, the task it faces and wider economic circumstances.

The precise funding between initiatives will naturally depend on demand and performance and no government can give indefinite guarantees. The noble Baroness would not expect me to give them. The amendments would restrict the flexibility that should be the hallmark of the assistance offered by the agency allowing it to attract private sector investment many times greater than the public resources devoted to it. On reflection, I hope that the noble Baroness will see that her amendments are misguided and will withdraw them.

9.30 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I thank the Minister for his reply. I only wish that he had listened to my remarks, in which case he might not have said that I had not appreciated that the provision was bringing together three separate sources of funding, since that was my opening statement. However, I recognise that the evening is late and people perhaps become tired.

We welcome the coming together of the funds, as I began by saying. With regard to conflict of programmes, not only did the Audit Commission make the point twice in its report, but it was also confirmed by the Government's research to the DTI on task forces which were established precisely to bring together cost-cutting programmes. It is therefore clear that the Government recognise there is a problem, even though the Minister apparently does not.

I am more concerned with the Minister's answer which seemed to me to be deeply inconsistent. He prayed in aid as a desirable form of partnership "City Challenge". He said that what we wanted with the new URA funding was a proper and not a bureaucratic partnership—partners who work together for common ends. I believe those were his words. He cross-referenced that by comparison with City Challenge, which he praised in abundance.

I do not know whether the Minister has forgotten, but City Challenge is a partnership based around and led by a local authority. Were the URA to function in its finance in a similar way, most of our objectives and anxieties in regard to the Bill would be met. It would ensure local authority representation on the URA nationally; it would ensure local authority representation on local committees; it would ensure full compliance with all planning considerations; it would ensure a full and proper partnership in the allocation of resources.

If the Minister is minded—I am happy to give way to him —to ensure that the URA local committees will be led by the local authorities in the same way as City Challenge, then many of our hesitations will disappear.

Lord Strathclyde

The noble Baroness may have misunderstood. I was praying in aid City Challenge in terms of the competitive aspects.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

No. The Minister went on to do that but first he prayed it in aid as a proper form of partnership and contrasted that with the bureaucratic partnership that, according to him, we would want.

I repeat, if the Minister thinks that City Challenge is such a successful initiative—and this has been a theme that we have spent much of this afternoon emphasising—why will he not learn from it? What makes City Challenge effective? Certainly it is competitive and I shall not argue that part of the speech which is lifted straight out of the CTC speech on a different part of the Bill about competition. No doubt we shall return to that at Report stage. Why will the Minister not learn about the strengths of City Challenge? Its strengths are that the local authority takes the leadership in bringing together voluntary, commercial and private sector organisations, statutory public agencies and it heads a consortium to put in a bid. That is proper bottom-up and co-ordinated planning. That is exactly what is denied us under the Bill.

Lord Strathclyde

There is absolutely nothing in the Bill to stop local authorities from playing that very valuable role in bringing the local partners together.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

In that case, why will the Minister not concede that that should be reflected in the formal structure of the URA, which at present need have no local authority members on it nationally, need have no local authority members locally, may declare UDI from the planning regime and may allocate its financial resources without discussion with the local authority? Perhaps the Minister can tell me.

Lord Strathclyde

I do not wish to go over old ground again and again. We are dealing here with the setting up of the Urban Regeneration Agency. We have explained its objectives. We have explained why the members are selected in the way that they are. The noble Baroness keeps on saying that there must be an important role for the local authorities. I do not deny that there should be a very important role for the local authorities. However, it should not be a statutory role. It should be a voluntary role.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

What role would that be vis-à-vis the URA?

Lord Strathclyde

I do not want to go over my old speeches again, but local authorities have a role as partners and in bringing together local businesses, commercial ventures and voluntary bodies. They can help in identifying sites that the Urban Regeneration Agency can play a part in. There is no end to the role that local authorities can play if they wish to do so.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

As a form of searching around for an answer, that must come pretty close to some of the weaker ones that we have heard today. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 192K: Page 150, line 46, at end insert: ("() Notwithstanding the generality of subsection (1) above, financial assistance given to a registered housing association for the purposes of rehabilitating existing dwelling houses shall be in addition to financial assistance under Part II of the Housing Act 1988.").

The noble Baroness said: The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that grants given by the Urban Regeneration Agency to registered housing associations to enable them to rehabilitate existing dwellings will be in addition to housing association grant and not in place of it or top-sliced off it.

Housing associations in England have had a long-standing involvement in providing solutions to problems of urban stress. During the 1970s and 1980s more than half the capital investment for housing associations was indeed directed at modernising older pre-1919 housing stock. Associations have also been in the forefront as community based resource centres providing as well as housing a range of other local services, including employment. However, because of financial pressures resulting from the Housing Act 1988 the contribution of housing associations to urban renewal has, alas, declined somewhat both as a proportion of the total housing association programme and in absolute terms. As a result housing associations have had less and less to do with the urban programme authorities.

We see in the statistics, with which I am sure the Minister will be familiar despite missing his briefing, that rehabilitation schemes have declined from 51 per cent. of the housing association programme between 1979 and 1989 to 20 per cent. of the post-1989 programme. Similarly, investment in urban programme areas has fallen from 68 per cent. in 1987–88 to 43 per cent. in 1991. In other words, what we have seen is housing associations reducing their involvement in inner city and urban programme partnerships.

Housing associations, many of which were formed to undertake inner city rehabilitation work, remain keen to do so. There is a lot of work still to be done, as anyone who looks at housing in inner city areas will appreciate. But the significant point is, as we all know, that the cost of rehabilitation generally exceeds that of producing new housing on greenfield sites. It is true both of capital and of revenue costs, especially maintenance. There is also a difficulty in getting private finance, despite the new regime, for rehabilitation in a way that there is not for new build. It is nonetheless an important role that can be undertaken only if housing associations can be appropriately funded to do so.

It may be that the Urban Regeneration Agency will see fit, as I hope it will, to involve housing associations in this role to bring back socially rented housing into inner city areas and to rehabilitate it. But for it to be done there has to be top-up finance to bridge the gap between the cost of greenfield development, on which most housing association grant is based, and the higher cost of inner city rehabilitation. Therefore this amendment seeks to ensure that any funding which is given by the new regeneration agency to a housing association to work with it in rehabbing, is not promptly deducted from its DoE HAG grant, but is in addition to it, recognising the special cost and special needs involved. I beg to move.

Lord Strathclyde

Housing associations may sometimes want to join the agency as a partner in a wider development, but it would be wrong for the agency to take on the role of funding the housing associations as this amendment seems to intend. That is the function of the Housing Corporation, which was specifically set up for the purpose. In any case it is a basic rule of government accounting that publicly funded projects should not receive double subsidy. Under the housing action grant rules, contributions from other sources to expenditure that would otherwise be met from HAG are netted off the grant. Therefore, there would be no advantage in the URA providing a grant in addition to HAG.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

That is precisely my point. At the moment any additional source of finance is netted off HAG. We are seeking that it should be additional to HAG where the finance, needs and circumstances as properly ordered, demand it. Otherwise it will not take place. Can the Minister address the substantive issue rather than merely stating again the situation which currently exists?

Lord Strathclyde

The current situation exists for very good reasons. Plenty of money is spent on urban programmes. I cannot see that the noble Baroness has made a case for the Urban Regeneration Agency by adding even more money to that amount. I do not believe that I am going to satisfy the noble Baroness on this point. I suspect that it is one of those areas where there is an unbridgeable gulf between us.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

What the Minister is essentially saying is that, even if the URA thinks it appropriate to top up Housing Corporation moneys to allow the construction of social housing which would otherwise not be constructed, the Government will stop that happening because they will insist that that grant is netted off. We are not talking about double subsidy but topping up the subsidy for additional and expensive needs.

If the Minister does not accept that point, so be it. But what he is doing is restricting yet again the capacity of the URA to act as an urban regeneration agency. He is saying four square that it is about land assembly and land development only because the crucial way of meeting local need is to tackle the problems of local unemployment on the one hand and of the housing stock on the other. What the Minister is doing by rejecting this amendment is saying to the URA that it has no role to play in one of the two key forks of urban policy. So be it. Let us no more consider that the URA is a regeneration agency. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 192L to 192N not moved.]

On Question, Whether Clause 147 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Williams of Elvel

Before we leave Clause 147, perhaps I may ask the Minister a couple of questions. The first relates to subsection (1), where, The consent of the Secretary of State is required for the exercise of the Agency's power to give financial assistance". Is that a general consent? In other words, can he consent to a budget and then all underlying consents are thereby given, or is it an individual consent—that is to say, any time that the agency wishes to submit to the Secretary of State a proposition he will have to adjudicate on it? That relates also to subsection (4), which submits the consent of the Secretary of State to the approval of the Treasury.

My second question relates to subsection (3), the drafting of which I cannot understand. I hope that the Minister will be able to help me. Subsection 3(a) specifies that: Financial assistance may be given … by way of—

  1. (a) grants;
  2. (b) loans;
  3. (c) guarantees; or
  4. (d) incurring expenditure for the benefit of the person assisted",
which I take to be revenue payments if somebody wants to purchase loans or engage in other qualifying expenditure. The provisions continue: but the Agency shall not in giving financial assistance purchase loan or share capital in a company". For the life of me, I cannot see the difference between purchasing loan capital and granting loans if the purchase of loan capital is from the company itself and not from a third party. So, if a company states, "We will issue £10 million-worth of loan capital" which happened to be notes of, say, five years, the agency is apparently prohibited from purchasing those. If, on the other hand, the company says, "We want £5 million please as a loan at five years", the agency is capable of doing that. I simply do not understand. Perhaps the Minister could help me.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

The first question that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, raises is considerably simpler than the second. The answer to the first question is that it is a general consent. The Secretary of State can consent to a general regime to the budget and so on, and the URA will then carry on.

Turning to the second question, what is behind this is the desire not to see the agency buying shares in, say, property companies. That is the intention. The bulk of the agency's work will be in giving direct grants, loans, guarantees and so on, rather than involving itself directly in the purchase of a company's shares. I have some sympathy with what the noble Lord says. A company could so organise its affairs to get round that provision, but I hope that that will not be the case. Perhaps I can ponder further the point that the noble Lord has raised and write to him.

Lord Williams of Elvel

I am most grateful to the Minister for his response, particularly on the second point. It is a common fact of life that a company will issue loan certificates to, say, an underwriter and those loan certificates will be taken up by a third party. Therefore, purchasing that particular loan comes to exactly the same as lending money to the company. It seems to me that in that respect the drafting of the Bill is defective. I understand the objective. It would be absurd if the agency were to say to a third party who happened to hold loan certificates, debentures or whatever in a company, "We will buy your debentures" to no benefit to the company. I quite understand the purpose, but I think that the drafting needs looking at rather carefully.

Clause 147 agreed to.

Clause 148 agreed to.

Clause 149 [Consents of Secretary of State]:

[Amendment No. 192P not moved.]

Clause 149 agreed to.

Clause 150 [Guidance and directions by Secretary of State]:

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Grantchester)

If Amendment, No. 192Q is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 193.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 192Q: Page 152, leave out lines 38 and 39 and insert ("(1) The Secretary of State may from time to time give guidance as to—")

The noble Baroness said: In a moment I shall beg leave to withdraw the amendment—at least, I hope that I shall. I tabled this amendment, together with Amendments Nos. 193A, 193B and 193C, of which Amendment No. 193C is the substantive amendment, because my reading of the Bill made me worry that the new agency would be entirely outside current planning provisions. The Minister has already today confirmed that the normal planning rules will continue to apply, and in particular, that applications will be dealt with within the context of existing structure and local plans.

Amendment No. 193C was intended to provide for the agency to prepare a plan on the same basis as the Town and Country Planning Act provides for local plans. The drafting is taken directly from Section 36 and following sections of that Act. If the Minister can confirm, as I believe he has already done on another matter, that my fears are groundless, I shall seek leave to withdraw the amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Strathclyde

We have already discussed the chain of accountability which must enable the Secretary of State to answer to Parliament for the actions of the agency while giving it the managerial freedom to carry out its task effectively.

As part of the chain, the Bill makes provision for the Secretary of State to issue guidance to the agency and obliges the agency to have regard to it. Amendment No. 192Q would make that guidance discretionary by deleting the requirement that the agency shall have regard to it. That would seriously weaken his ability to set the policy framework within which the agency should operate.

I have some sympathy with what the noble Baroness is seeking to achieve in Amendments Nos. 193B and 193C, but I hope that I can persuade her that the existing arrangements for the production of the agency's annual report and supporting material will achieve all that she seeks. Under Schedule 16 the agency will be required to produce an annual report which the Secretary of State will lay before Parliament. My noble friend Lord Walker agrees that that report should be published. He will also expect it to look forward to some extent to the agency's strategies and plans. In addition, I would expect the agency on occasion to publish guidance to local authorities, developers and others about the grants and other assistance that it will make available. In total that will ensure that the debate on the agency's programme can be well informed. All sides will gain from that, not least the agency itself, which will want to work in close co-operation with local authorities, the local community and local businessmen in developing its projects.

I hope that the noble Baroness will agree that we already intend to provide what she seeks in these amendments. I hope that she will also agree the importance of the provision enabling the Secretary of State to guide the agency. It is a significant link in the chain of accountability from the agency to Parliament. Therefore, I hope that she will fulfil her promise and withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

The basis upon which I said that I would withdraw the amendment was directed to Amendment No. 193C. I invited the Minister to confirm what I think he confirmed earlier this afternoon, but I should like to be sure about that; that is, that an existing local plan will apply, and that applications within an area of an agency and an application where there is a designation order and it is the agency itself which is taking planning powers will nevertheless be dealt with within the context of that existing local plan.

Lord Strathclyde

I apologise if I previously confused the noble Baroness. I can confirm that that is the case.

Baroness Hamwee

On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 193A to 194A not moved.]

Clause 150 agreed to.

Clauses 151 and 152 agreed to.

Schedule 19 [The Agency: land]:

[Amendment No. 194B not moved.]

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon moved Amendment No. 194C: Page 231, line 40, at the end insert: ("() Section 19 of the Acquisition of Land Act 1981 shall apply to land vested in or acquired by agreement by the Agency as if that land were authorised to be purchased under a compulsory purchase order.").

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to the other amendments in this large group, which is based on Schedule 19 rather than on their being on related topics. Amendment No. 194C is intended to cover the occasion when land is either handed to the Urban Regeneration Agency or is sold to it, when Section 19 of the Acquisition of Land Act 1981 would not apply. Other land would not then have to be found in lieu which was equally advantageous to commoners and to other members of the public. We return to the whole question of commons, open spaces and allotments. I shall not go into those arguments, which we have already dealt with. The intention is that the Urban Regeneration Agency should not be able to acquire land without a compulsory purchase order and should not extend to it the generous provisions of Section 19 of the Acquisition of Land Act.

Amendment No. 194D leaves out paragraph 8, which gives the agency the power, where the Secretary of State so certifies, to gain possession of a house in the face of housing legislation. Paragraph 9 gives the Secretary of State the power to extinguish public rights of way where the agency has acquired land. Those paragraphs give considerable powers to the agency and to the Secretary of State. There may be circumstances in which a development requires the gaining of possession of a dwelling or the extinguishment of a right of way. However, it would be wrong to allow such powers onto the statute book without considerable safeguards being written into the legislation. They are not so written at present. In the case of the power to displace persons no appeal process is written into the Bill. The Secretary of State is placed under no particular constraints before certifying an application. The amendment is therefore tabled to enable the Minister to explain that in greater detail.

In the case of the extinguishment of rights of way a process is created under paragraphs 9 and 10 where objectors may submit objections which the Secretary of State will consider. However, paragraph 10 is written so that the Secretary of State may, if he regards the matter as one of compensation, disregard an objection. He may also override it where he is satisfied that he is sufficiently informed.

Paragraph 10(6) enables the Secretary of State, where he considers it appropriate, to cause a public local inquiry to be held. However, it is clear that in practice the Secretary of State could go ahead and pay only such attention as he sees fit to objections raised. Again the impression gained from the legislation is that there is an insufficient regard to the views of the public and that what the Secretary of State decides will become the law of the land without much more ado.

Amendment No. 194F adds a requirement that the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the closure or diversion of the right of way is necessary for the exercise of the agency's functions. As the Bill stands it is necessary only that the agency owns the land; it is not obliged to justify in any way the closure or diversion of a right of way. The amendment also introduces the concept of a diversion of a right of way which currently exists so that it may be used as an alternative to extinguishment. Amendment No. 194G merely covers the question of diversion as well as extinguishment.

Amendment No. 194H is very much in line with what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, suggested earlier; namely, that there should be published plans in relation to some of the matters which the Urban Regeneration Agency is doing—in this specific instance, showing affected rights of way. As the Bill currently stands, it is left entirely to the Secretary of State's discretion as to what form of order he publishes and there is no requirement for any plan at all to be included. That second change would impose on the Secretary of State a requirement to be satisfied that there will still be a reasonably convenient right of way available to the public after he has made the order. For example, if there already exists a convenient alternative close by, then the amendment would allow him to extinguish a path without replacement.

Amendment No. 194J simply tightens the provision and provides that the content of the notice should be more strictly drawn so that it is not entirely left to the Secretary of State's discretion but will be prescribed by regulations. That is common practice for other rights of way orders.

Amendment No. 194K is purely a paving amendment for Amendment No. 194L, which requires that the draft order and plan will be open to public inspection during the objection period; and that it can also be purchased. Again, that is in line with other planning legislation. I hope that the Minister will take it on board that, if the Government are keen to reduce bureaucracy and the difficulties which the public has in dealing with complex legislation, the more planning legislation can be put on all fours so that similar provisions, plans and regulations apply to different aspects of the planning system, the easier it will be for the citizen to understand it.

Amendment No. 194M obliges the Secretary of State to send to local authorities not only the notice but also a copy of the draft order. Amendment No.

194N is a paving amendment for Amendment No. 194P, which again I hope will be helpful to the Government. It suggests that it is not necessary to advertise in the London Gazette, which I understand can be expensive. Currently under the Highways Act there are nine organisations which have to be notified and there are similar provisions in the Town and Country Planning Act. Indeed, in the 1993 regulations there is a list of nine organisations to which notices can be sent. That could mean a considerable saving to the Urban Regeneration Agency. Very few people read the London Gazette. Therefore, in a sense, publication is not publication to interested bodies.

Amendment No. 194R attempts to fill a gap in the schedule as currently drafted. There seems to be no requirement to tell anyone of the Secretary of State's decision as regards the draft order. The amendment suggests that similar publicity should be given to the decision as is given in the first instance to the proposal to make the order. For technical reasons the amendment helps also by defining the word "prescribed" as meaning prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State. I beg to move.

10 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

From these Benches we associate ourselves with these amendments for the various reasons given by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton.

Lord Strathclyde

The noble Baroness has explained most eloquently her thoughts behind the amendments. It is right that the Committee should be concerned with those rights and the role that the agency will play.

Perhaps I may preface my remarks with an explanation about the agency. The agency will normally concentrate on land which, without its intervention, is at best an eyesore and at worst a considerable danger to local people. It will take land whose value is negative and turn it into an asset. It will be able to provide land for recreation, for safe and attractive open spaces and for housing as well as for business and industry. However, the agency will be a special purpose body, set up for certain targets and operating in limited areas. Like similar bodies such as HATs and UDCs, it must have the tools to fulfil its objectives. We spoke earlier at length on its role towards commons, open spaces and allotments. I do not propose to repeat what I said then.

On housing, I would not expect the agency to require possession of tenanted housing expect in rare cases. Nevertheless we must make provision for such cases. I have already mentioned the danger from subsidence. Let us take another example—land which is otherwise derelict may include a caretaker's house or access to a site may affect adjacent houses. Of course there must be safeguards. The Secretary of State would therefore have to certify that possession was necessary. We would expect to see alternatives arranged in line with the agency's duty to facilitate the provision of housing.

Our extensive network of public rights of way is a valuable recreational resource. The provision of recreational facilities is one of the means by which the agency should regenerate land. I hope, therefore, that its work will make a net contribution to ease of public access; indeed, I would be surprised if that were not the case. But, again, we must make provision for the agency's special task as we have for the tasks of other development bodies. The schedule would allow the Secretary of State to make an order for extinguishing a right of way if that were necessary for the agency to achieve its objectives.

The Government have made clear their commitment to improving the network of public rights of way. The guidance which the Secretary of State will issue to the agency will point to our policies in that area. I expect the interest of the users of public rights of way to be properly considered before the agency asks him to make an extinguishment order. I also expect extinguishment without a suitable alternative to be a most exceptional circumstance.

The provisions of Schedule 19 are all well precedented. I do not expect them to be called regularly into play; they are there and they are necessary for the targeted work of the agency. It is an important role that the agency takes on and that has already been debated at length by Members of the Committee and agreed by them. We are seeking to ensure that it works as effectively as possible. I recognise the concern of the noble Baroness, but I hope that she will feel able to withdraw the amendments.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

I thank the Minister for what was a generalised justification for the Urban Regeneration Agency rather than a response to my individual points. I hope that consideration will be given to the individual amendments put forward to the schedule. We are not suggesting that there should be no URA or that the schedule should not exist; I was in fact suggesting specific amendments to it. I had hoped that the Minister would reply. He did reply as regards footpaths, but not as regards the other specific points that I made. We shall of course return to the issues on Report if no amendment is presented by the Government in the meantime. We think that most of them are both helpful and useful and that they are not in any way destructive of the work of the Urban Regeneration Agency. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 194D to 194R not moved.]

On Question, Whether Schedule 19 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Williams of Elvel

Before we leave Schedule 19, I think it appropriate to re-emphasise what my noble friend Lady Hilton said. It is an important schedule. It gives wide powers to the URA which, as the noble Lord quite rightly said, are precedented in different places in different Acts but which, nevertheless, constitute in their ensemble a serious threat to some important environmental programmes that the Government are pursuing on other fronts. Despite the fact that he did not see fit to give my noble friend any specific answers to the amendments that she moved, I very much hope that the Minister will not go away with the idea that we shall not be pursuing them.

I also hope that the Minister will undertake to look seriously—and I do mean seriously; I am not in any way taking the matter frivolously—at Schedule 19. It seems to me, speaking, if I may, for once as President of the Campaign for Protection of Rural Wales, to be an offensive schedule. It does not advance the environmental cause and the cause of the Welsh countryside in any respect whatsoever. I could speak on a CPRW brief for three-quarters of an hour if the Minister wishes, but I shall not do so. However, I hope that before we reach Report stage, the Minister's department will consider this schedule carefully to ensure it is right. I understand that certain powers are needed and I understand that these powers are contained in different parts of different pieces of legislation.

I speak now only for Wales as I cannot speak of the position in England with any experience. Too often in Wales we have experienced sweeping legislation, such as the legislation which privatised British Telecom granting that body planning powers to erect telegraph poles wherever it wished to do so. We have also seen the extinguishment of rights of way and the elimination of open spaces. I mentioned common land earlier. All those matters are important, and I hope that the noble Lord will bear them in mind when he reconsiders Schedule 19.

Lord Strathclyde

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, gives me the opportunity to reiterate my clear understanding of what the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, was proposing in her amendment, and my recognition that these issues are extremely important. No government can treat the extinguishment of public rights of way in any other manner. What I sought to say in my reply to the amendments was that the extinguishment of the rights was a necessary evil. I accept that the extinguishment of public rights of way is an evil. Nevertheless, I have considered the matter carefully, and I shall of course reconsider the whole issue. Nevertheless, I suspect that it is unavoidable for the agency to carry out its work, particularly in those small areas where there may be a conflict with existing public rights of way, without extinguishing those rights of way. That is what is at issue in this schedule. I hope the Committee will allow this schedule to pass.

Schedule 19 agreed to.

Clause 153 [Power to make designation orders]:

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon moved Amendment No. 195: Page 154, line 4, after ("Parliament") insert: ("(aa) shall not be made without the agreement of every local authority consulted under subsection (3); and").

The noble Baroness said: This is another attempt to introduce co-operation with local authorities into this Bill. The Bill as drafted allows the Secretary of State to designate areas where the agency would take over land use planning responsibilities, even against the wishes of the local planning authority. This clearly could provoke antagonism and work against the Government's stated intention that the agency should work closely with local authorities and in partnership with them. A partnership implies equality. The Minister's responses to earlier discussions on this point have very much placed local authorities in a subordinate role informing the agency of various matters and carrying out voluntary work within the community. However, the agency does not appear to be a body working as a full and equal partner which implies respect and trust. A partnership also implies that each side listens to what the other side says.

There are different ways of resolving disputes between agencies and local planning authorities which could allow a national perspective to prevail if conflict emerges. Planning applications can be called in by the Secretary of State for his decision, and appeals can be lodged against planning refusals. But, basically, the agency should in the first place work with local authorities for all the reasons we have given earlier. For example, it is only when a local community works with the planning agency, the Urban Regeneration Agency, and is enthusiastic about the partnership and participates in the agency's decisions that the partnership will work on a local basis. This amendment may seem tiresome and a recipe for disagreements, but it is the only really creative and effective way forward if urban regeneration is to be achieved. I beg to move.

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

I wish to speak to Amendment No. 195A, which is grouped with Amendment No. 195.

It seemed to me that if the Urban Regeneration Agency is to take over planning powers, which is not a matter with which I am at all happy, then at least it should be subject to the same procedures as apply to local planning authorities. I suspect that the drafting of the amendment is by no means perfect, but at least it enables me to raise the issue.

I shall give one example of what I mean. Circular 15/92 deals, among other matters, with statutory publicity. It provides for the type of publicity which is required in the case of different types of development. For example, for a minor development that would be a site notice or neighbours' notification and for a development affecting the setting of a listed building it would be an advertisement and a site notice, and so on. It sets out a minimum which the local planning authority must meet in dealing with applications, ensuring that there is publicity for an application and that those affected may make representations.

That is merely one example. There are many circulars to which local planning authorities must have regard. The amendment is intended to raise the issue of whether or not the agency would be subject to the same regime.

Lord Strathclyde

We have made it clear that the agency should always seek to achieve its objectives by agreement. Interest in its work from around the country already suggests that it will find many willing partners. The agency will be encouraged to act primarily as an enabler for others, taking direct action only where necessary. That will be just as true for areas of large-scale dereliction as for isolated sites. Indeed, the need for partnership will be all the greater in large derelict areas where there may be a large number of different land ownerships.

Normally the agency will have no planning powers. A developer putting forward a proposal with the agency's assistance, or the agency itself, will have to apply to the local authority for planning permission. There may be cases, however, where the more direct involvement of the agency—on the lines of an urban development corporation —is appropriate. A local authority may feel that an area would benefit from that treatment. That has been the case in Birmingham Heartlands and Plymouth where the local authorities have recently welcomed the establishment of UDCs.

In extreme circumstances co-operation may not be forthcoming. I do not expect that to happen—the benefits the agency will bring are too great—but we have a duty to guard against the possibility. That is why we have provided the power for the Secretary of State to designate areas where the URA will have development control powers and, if required, some highway powers.

The Secretary of State will consider the case carefully if a proposal is put forward for designation of an area under this clause. Consultation will take place with every local authority any part of whose area is to be included in the designated area.

The consultation process is important. The aim will be to reach an agreed solution. If in the last resort that is not possible, the decision on whether to bring an order before Parliament must rest with the Secretary of State.

Amendment No. 195 would mean that a local authority could veto designation, no matter how badly it was needed. We must see that that does not happen. A short-sighted local authority should not be able to deprive local communities of the agency's help. Under the amendment a single authority could act as a barrier even if it were only one of a number who were otherwise agreed. We should not allow one uncooperative body to frustrate those which are willing.

Even in a designated area we would prefer as many planning powers as possible to remain with local authorities. The Bill therefore makes careful provision to ensure that if an area is designated the agency will only be given the tools it needs to carry out its special task. It will not have most of the powers of a local planning authority.

Clause 154 therefore enables general provisions relating to all planning authorities to be tailored to suit the special circumstances of the agency. Amendment No. 195A, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, would prevent this. It could lead to more powers being transferred to the agency than are strictly necessary, since general provisions would have to be applied in their totality or not at all. I do not believe that that is what the noble Baroness wished. I hope that I have explained why we have drafted the clause as we have.

Perhaps I may say this to the noble Baroness opposite. I hope that we have made clear that we see designation as an exceptional procedure and that we have framed the provisions in the Bill accordingly. I therefore urge the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Before the Minister sits down, perhaps he will remind the Committee of the distinctive nature of Birmingham and Plymouth UDCs. I am sure that having cited them he would wish to remind the Committee of the ways in which they are distinctive vis à vis previous UDCs.

Since the Minister does not respond, perhaps I may help him. The Plymouth UDC was set up at the request of the Labour City Council. Half of its members are local authority elected members. Its vice chairman is a leader of a local authority. The UDC therefore enshrines the concept of partnership upon which the URA insists on turning its back.

Lord Strathclyde

I had not realised that the noble Baroness was going on about that old chestnut. As I have stated many times, there is no limit to the amount of co-operation that can take place between the Urban Regeneration Agency and the local authority. In fact it is clearly one of the aims and objectives of the agency to create as much partnership and goodwill between local authorities, local businesses, commercial ventures, voluntary bodies and anyone else who may wish to become involved.

Baroness Hamwee

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, reminds me of a little piece of arithmetic which we sought to do earlier today. I do not know that we achieved a result. We had been told that 34 members of all current UDCs are members of local authorities. If half of Plymouth's UDC are members of the local authority that does not leave many members scattered among the remainder of the UDCs.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Half of them are in Birmingham UDC.

Baroness Hamwee

That must leave one or two members for the remainder of the UDCs.

However, the Minister explained why my amendment did not work. I anticipated that it might not. However, I do not believe that he answered my question as to whether circulars of the type to which I referred would apply.

Lord Strathclyde

I hope that the noble Baroness does not believe that I did not answer. The point I made was not so much that the provision would not work. I explained why the provision that the noble Baroness sought to achieve was unnecessary. The noble Baroness gave the example of some of the guidance applying to local authorities which might also apply to the agency. For instance, I would expect the agency to publicise its applications in the same manner as local authorities currently do. If that is the point upon which the noble Baroness wished clarification, then I give that clarification. If there is anything else, perhaps I may write to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

I am saddened by the Minister's reply and his assumption that local authorities will be awkward and difficult. Assuming that the Urban Regeneration Agency sets out to achieve the best for a neighbourhood, one would imagine that co-operation between the two bodies would not be difficult. The assumption seems part of a general pattern of antagonism to local authorities that the Government have exemplified over many years. However, I do not intend to pursue that point at this late hour of night. I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 153 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Hamwee

The statement has been made several times today that there will be no need for the powers contained in Clause 153 and the next clause if the partnership between the agency and local authorities is successful. That begs the question as to whose judgment is to apply in assessing that success.

As the day has continued it has become clear that that judgment is the judgment of the Secretary of State, not of the various other partners—the private sector, voluntary organisations, or local residents. We have also been told that the Bill preserves the integrity of the planning system. In opposing this clause and Clause 154, that is precisely what I seek to do; in other words to leave the planning system as it is.

The side note refers to the power to make designation orders which, in lay language, is the power of the Secretary of State to transfer to the agency the role of planning authority. If one asks the man in the street what a planning authority does, he will not refer, for example, to a unitary development plan, but he will talk about dealing with planning applications. That is, in other words, development control powers. Under Clause 154, the agency can take over those powers. Indeed, under subsection (2) the designation order can provide that the agency will be exempt from the normal regime. I look forward to hearing from the Secretary of State on the question of material considerations and non-application of the local plan to which we referred earlier.

However, it seems to me that Clause 153 must mean that the agency could ignore a conservation area designated by the local authority. It could ignore tree preservation orders; it could ignore all the provisions of a local plan which make development bearable, such as parking standards, and the environmental standards in their various guises which assist residents to come to terms with particular applications.

Democracy and participation are the key to good local planning. In 1983, in my own borough of Richmond-upon-Thames, when there was a change of political control there was a considerable change of procedure. We went from the development control sub-committee taking sometimes 25 minutes behind closed doors to make a decision, to hours and hours in public. But it was with the public participating. Although it is not an easy process, as the noble Baroness says, it will teach us. At the time, I was chairman and I have noticed that my colleagues now take it out on me when we deal with applications in my own ward. However, it was the right thing to do. Whole communities and often large groups of individuals, or it may be one or two individuals, can be affected. The change of procedure allows them to participate—not only to come along and listen but to talk to the committee and have a dialogue. The Minister is looking puzzled but the procedure is very successful. I attended planning committees in other boroughs to see how they did things and in some cases they were remarkably participative and quite sociable occasions.

Development control is, of course, quasi-judicial. In my own borough a certain amount of our time must be taken up explaining to objectors to particular applications that we do not write the rules which we apply. However, it very often means that they go away with a better understanding of the reasons for the decisions. That is democracy on show and a direct matter of accountability.

I said earlier today that it would be salutary for the legislators to attend public inquiries. It would also be salutary for them to attend planning committee meetings and then perhaps to accompany the ward member outside when he talks to his constituents about the decisions that have just been taken.

The rules have been changed since 1983; they apply to all local authorities which can now do much less behind closed doors. It would be an enormous backward step if the agency either did its own thing or was simply thought to be doing its own thing, ignoring local needs and local views because what it did was not public. It would be too easy for the agency to take the fast track towards planning decisions on the ground that the end justified the means. I take the point the Minister made on a previous amendment, but it would be too easy for it not fully to consult either local authorities or local people and ignore the views of local people even if there were an opportunity for them to express them; and if not ignore, at least not pay as much regard to the provisions of local planners as one might like. All that amounts to a recipe for long-term problems.

Clause 154 allows for the modification of provisions as well as completely ignoring them, again reducing the requirement for consultation and perhaps varying the local plan. I make the point again about the local plan because isolated regeneration activities could undermine the totality of the local plan. They could, for instance, change infrastructure demands or change employment patterns.

I am sure the Minister will again talk about partnership. I do not suggest that there should not be partnership. Indeed, I accept that in some cases on the part of the local authority there needs to be a degree of humility and a preparedness to work with the agency and the private sector. In fact I believe that local authorities are much more open to working with other organisations in the public and private sectors than they were five or 10 years ago. But someone has to be the boss and say that if agreement cannot be reached then a decision has to be made. That someone should be the local authority.

I have not gone so far as to say that the Secretary of State's existing powers to call in applications should be varied; but that is something which is out of the ordinary. I believe that Clauses 153 and 154 taken together represent a very retrograde step in the democracy of our country.

10.30 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I too should like to join with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in restating our opposition to Clauses 153 and 154. They are certainly the most objectionable clauses in this section of the Bill. They are certainly objectionable to anyone who, like the noble Baroness and myself, has been involved in local plans, development control issues, building up a structure plan and appeals. We know the issues from that edge. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will take our views reasonably seriously.

The clauses permit on the face of the Bill the URA to have designation powers whereby a URA would become its own development control authority. We insist that for that power to become a development control authority is neither necessary nor desirable. It is not necessary in Scotland and it is not necessary in Wales. Perhaps the Minister can remind us why it appears to be so urgently necessary in England.

Today the Minister has emphasised that all the URA's activities will be firmly within the local planning framework but refuses to put on the face of the Bill the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to that effect. The Minister has emphasised that the measure is all about partnership and refused amendments which would put that into effect on the face of the Bill. He has emphasised that the designation powers will be reserve powers only. It is perhaps now the point to try to tease that out. When does the Minister think that they will come into play? When does the URA need to be its own development control body?

The Minister has given us two answers in the whole of this afternoon. The first answer is when there is a serious conflict between the URA and the local authority. The second answer of the Minister is when the local authority is being short sighted. Can I suggest to him that if that is his view of the planning role of the local authority, he fundamentally misconceives what the local authority is doing?

Planning issues are not a battle between a local authority and a developer, with a developer trying to go one way and the local authority trying to go another.

Lord Hacking

Hear, hear!

Lord Strathclyde

Hear, hear!

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

On the contrary, what the local authority is doing is holding the ring and acting as umpire between the claims of those who wish to develop and the rights and resistance of those who wish that development not to take place. The local authority is not a party in that sense. It is an umpire and guardian of the public interest.

If that is correct—I am happy to see that the Minister nods his head—why do we allow a black hole of development control to subvert it? We are told that it is only necessary when there is serious conflict. Who decides when that situation exists? And if it exists, why assume, as the Minister has done throughout, that the local authority is thereby in the wrong and the URA needs powers to override the local authority?

If the Minister accepts—as he did just now by nodding—that the local authority is acting as umpire, holding the ring, acting as a balance at the behest of those who wish to develop and those who do not, then it cannot be right that that umpire and guardian role should be overridden by a party to the contest—that is, the developer—in the form of the URA. In other words, why assume that when there is conflict it is the local authority that needs to be overridden? Instead, why should not the URA be brought into conformity? Why should local authorities, as guardians of the public interest, not have the right to say no?

The Minister needs to answer that question. After all, the local authority is operating within an agreed, mandatory local plan which has gone out to full consultation to the public; which is in concordance with the statutory structure plan and regional planning guidance. Given that basis, why should the local authority not have the right to say no and, if it does say no, why should that be presumed to be serious conflict? Why should it be presumed that the URA should become a designated authority with the right to determine its own development control?

It is not only undesirable, it is also unnecessary. The Secretary of State has ample powers to deal with those rare reserve situations where there may be an inappropriate local authority position. After all, what can the Secretary of State do? He can call in a planning application. He is the person to whom, via his inspectors, appeals are sent. It is the Secretary of State who issues regional guidance. The problem with that path is that at the point of appeal the arguments are made. If one permits a URA to make development control decisions independent of the appeal procedure, then at no point can the rights or wrongs of that clash of views between the developer on the one hand and the local authority protecting the community interests on the other be displayed, argued and demonstrated in public. That is what the appeal procedure means and that is why, by denying the public the right to hear those arguments, the Minister is insisting that the URA should always hold the trumps.

Appeals are about argument, and if planning arguments cannot be made in public they are not valid and cannot stand up. What will now happen is that local authorities will be silenced when the URA makes development control applications with which they disagree in case it seeks to opt out and become its own development authority. It will then undermine planning quality, as we have seen with UDCs; it will certainly undermine the essence of partnership.

I therefore ask the Minister to reconsider what planning means in that context and what the role of the local authority is. The local authority is not a contestant with the URA; it is holding the ring. The URA is one of many bodies seeking to forward its aims at the cost of someone else. Therefore for the Minister to wipe out that role for the local authority, to wipe out the forum of appeal in which those arguments can be contested in public, is both to undermine the planning system and to silence the democratic voice.

Lord Hacking

I hesitate to interrupt because I have not sat in this Committee before and have not heard the former arguments. But if I may interrupt for a moment, I do so with some encouragement. A few moments ago I said a loud "Hear, hear", and it is the first time that I have had my "Hear, hears" "Hear, heared" by the Government Front Bench. I have considerable knowledge of planning matters generally and of planning matters as handled by local authorities. I ask my noble friend whether he will pay particular attention to the argument—I shall not repeat it—of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who for my judgment produced a persuasive and strong argument.

I would also ask my noble friend to listen to the first half of the submissions made to the Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, which I found extremely persuasive. In the end, when we are trying to create a balance, I felt that the noble Baroness was advancing too strong a balance with local authority planning and not with central government. A sense of balance is required. The argument has been produced persuasively, if I may so, by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Hollis, and we should perhaps move a little towards the balance that they are seeking.

Lord Skelmersdale

I entirely understand the argument that has been produced by the two noble Baronesses. However, looking at Clauses 153 and 154, I would respectfully suggest that they are aiming at the wrong target. They have produced strong arguments why the development agency should do this, that and the other in particular circumstances, but one must remember that those particular and peculiar circumstances arise only after the Secretary of State has done his own thing in making the designation order in the first place and providing in any designation order what shall go into it. Clause 153(3) provides that before making a designation order the Secretary of State shall consult not a few local people around the scene but, every local authority any part of whose area is intended to be included in the proposed designated area". To that extent consultation is well catered for. I only wish that my noble friend Lord Peyton was still in his place because I am sure that he would have a lot to say about the activities of the Secretary of State, as he has in the past. However, I rather suspect—he will have an opportunity at some future date to correct me if I am wrong—that on this occasion he would be saying it with approval rather than in a condemnatory manner, as he was when we all heard him speaking earlier.

Lord Strathclyde

I was very interested in the intervention of my noble friend Lord Hacking, who seemed to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, without having heard my arguments as to why we are introducing these special designated powers. I hope therefore that he will listen carefully as to why they need to be introduced. The case is overwhelming and compelling if one believes that the Urban Regeneration Agency needs certain rights in order to carry out its functions. Therefore, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale for putting his case forward so eloquently.

When I exclaimed "Hear, hear" in agreement with my noble friend Lord Hacking that was to the statement that local authorities play a positive role in planning policy, in holding the hands of developers, in leading them through the minefield and so on. I take none of that away. Local authorities have an immensely important role to play. In fact they have a crucial role to play in planning policy and planning guidance. The noble Baronesses opposite have sought throughout the debate to suggest that this is part of the Government's attack on local authorities. That is simply not the case. It is not true. There is nothing in the Bill which is against local authorities. I wish that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, would stop saying that there is because quite plainly there is not.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has sought to twist entirely the circumstances under which the special designation powers may take place. The noble Baroness has ignored the case where a local authority itself may ask the Urban Regeneration Agency to take over these powers because it sees the Urban Regeneration Agency as having a stature within a local authority area and as being able to bring together partners which by itself a local authority might not be able to do.

Secondly, where the agency looks at an area in which there is a boundary with perhaps two, three or four local authorities, and one local authority, for whatever absurd reason, is being obstructive and uncooperative—the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, will know better than I how obstructive and how uncooperative some local authorities can be: there is no point in the noble Baroness shaking her head because she knows that it is true—would it not be appropriate for the other local authorities to ask the agency to take over special designated powers so as to compel that local authority to co-operate for the greater good to meet the objectives of the Urban Regeneration Agency, which all afternoon we have been told is so good?

The ability for the Secretary of State to designate areas where the agency will have development control and some highway powers is a reserve power. It will not be used unless it is absolutely necessary. We do not envisage any need for designation in the agency's first programme.

There is nothing new in these provisions. They replicate powers in the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 which established UDCs. I know that some Members of the Committee do not support many of the achievements of the UDCs, but it is important to point out that there is nothing unprecedented in these provisions.

I am confident that the great majority of local authorities will welcome the agency's offer of partnership, but we cannot pretend that conflicts will never arise. We have a duty to provide for that eventuality, however unlikely, in the legislation before us. If we do not do so we could allow a situation to develop where the aid of the agency could be cut off from areas badly in need of it. It may be appropriate to designate an area where ownership of a large derelict site is with one authority and access with another, as I have already mentioned.

Finally, designation is not a long-term measure. As soon as the agency has carried out its work in the area of designation, the designation order will be revoked and the agency will move on to its next task. Clause 153 leaves the development plan system entirely as it is, as I have explained again and again during the course of this debate. The agency will have to take full account of all the provisions of a local plan within designated areas, including the matters which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned such as conservation areas and parking standards, in just the same way as the local authorities have to take account of the provisions of the development plan.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said that this was the most important provision in this part of the Bill, or one of the most important.

10.45 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I am sure that the Minister would like to quote me correctly. I said that these were two of the clauses to which we took most objection in the entire Bill.

Lord Strathclyde

The noble Baroness said that she takes great exception to these two clauses. But I have heard that before. When I was at the Department of the Environment and introducing the training and enterprise councils, time and again we had noble Lords opposite saying that there was no role for local authorities or for democratically elected people and so on. We stood where we were and introduced training and enterprise councils, which have been hugely successful. They have worked successfully in partnership with local authorities. Nothing in this Bill stops that partnership continuing with local authorities. The noble Baroness has explained in her opposition to the clause what is a travesty of the truth.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may comment on a couple of the points which he has made. He said that it is not unprecedented and that there is experience of it in the UDCs. That is precisely our point. By allowing UDCs to become their own planning authorities we have seen —all the professional bodies recognise it to be so—a deterioration in planning decision and quality. That is precisely our fear and not a cause for celebration. It is a cause for considerable regret.

The Minister makes much of the point that local authorities may ask for these powers. Birmingham and Plymouth, which have asked for UDCs, are Labour authorities. They sought this to get the extra money and they now have half the membership. Many of our objections to the URA would be met if it had the same membership as the Birmingham and Plymouth UDCs, but the Minister will not concede that. He quotes it to make an argument, but he will not take the substance of the point.

The Minister makes the point that local authorities may together overlap a URA. There may be an individual, recalcitrant local authority and others may wish to see that authority being browbeaten into co-operative behaviour. Has the Minister not heard of the mechanism by which that problem is presently overcome? It is called a structure plan. It co-ordinates and integrates the development plans of the local authorities within the shire counties. Had the Minister been aware of that, he would have seen that there is not the need which he suggests for this browbeating to occur.

Finally, the Minister still fails to answer this point —and I ask him to answer it directly: if Wales and Scotland do not need these reserve powers, why does England?

Lord Strathclyde

I shall not spend much time continuing this debate, but I shall deal with the point about Scotland and Wales. As the noble Baroness knows, I have great experience of Scotland. I was the Minister responsible for the change from the Highlands and Islands Development Board to Highlands and Islands Enterprise. The noble Baroness must not seek to compare Scottish Enterprise and the Welsh Development Agency with the Urban Regeneration Agency. It fulfils entirely different functions in England, as compared with those other bodies for Scotland and Wales. Those bodies have a far greater economic role. They look after tourism and work much more closely with local enterprise companies. They have similarities with the TECs in Scotland. They have far larger budgets. They are altogether different bodies and cannot he compared with the agency that we are setting up today.

Baroness Hamwee

Perhaps I may respond to a couple of the Minister's points. He has said that there is nothing in the Bill against local authorities and that there is no need to exercise the reserve powers if the partnership is successful. He gave an example of two local authorities disagreeing. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said, the framework of the structure plan exists to deal with that situation. If there is a particular application with regard to a particular site which overlaps local authority boundaries and one local authority is "recalcitrant"—in the Minister's terminology —there is also the appeal mechanism. If the planning powers are exercised within the framework of a local plan, why is it necessary for those powers to go to the agency when it has to pay regard to the local plan? Indeed, if an application goes to appeal, it has to be dealt with within the framework of local plan policies.

I do not follow the logic of a good deal of what the Minister has said, but when he says that nothing will stop the partnership between local authorities and the agency, I must advise him that it would be the exercise of these powers that would end that happy relationship.

Clause 153 agreed to.

Clause 154 [Agency as local planning authority]:

[Amendments Nos. 195A and 195B not moved.]

Clause 154 agreed to.

Clause 155 [Adoption of private streets]:

[Amendments Nos. 195C and 195D not moved.]

Clause 155 agreed to.

Clause 156 [Traffic regulation orders for private streets]:

[Amendment No. 195E not moved.]

Clause 156 agreed to.

Clauses 157 to 159 agreed to.

Clause 160 [Power to act as agents of Agency]:

On Question, Whether Clause 160 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I merely wish to clarify what bodies may act as local agents for the URA. Clause 160 specifies that a UDC may become the agent, but may a local authority be an agent for the URA? May a City Challenge partnership be an agent for the URA? Elsewhere the Minister has said that the URA may be a partner in a City Challenge presentation but if, for example, the City Challenge area is smaller than the URA, can the City Challenge team be the agent? In other words, what is the connection between those two, and can the local authority also act as the agent?

Lord Strathclyde

The clause is aimed primarily at urban development corporations and enables them to act as agents for the URA. It is right that local authorities, or City Challenge teams, cannot act as agents for the URA, but that does not stop them from playing an important role in terms of a partnership with the URA. The point here is that the UDCs can act as agents for the URA. That is what Clauses 160 to 164 are all about.

Clause 160 agreed to.

Clause 161 agreed to.

Clause 162 [Adjustment of areas]:

[Amendments Nos. 196 to 198 not moved.]

Clause 162 agreed to.

Clauses 163 to 170 agreed to.

Schedule 20 [Minor and consequential amendments]:

Viscount Goschen moved Amendments Nos. 199 to 201: Page 242, line 47, at end insert:

("Leasehold Reform Act 1967 (c. 88)

.In subsection (1A) of section 21 of the Leasehold Reform Act 1967 (jurisdiction of leasehold valuation tribunals), for the words from "be" onwards there shall be substituted the words "comply with any requirements imposed by regulations under subsection (4A) (a) or (b) below".").

Page 244, line 7, at end insert:

("Rent Act 1977 (c. 42)

. In subsection (1) (b) of section 74 of the Rent Act (regulations), for the words from "by rent officers" onwards there shall be substituted the words—

  1. "(i) by rent officers under this Act; and
  2. (ii) by rent assessment committees whether under this Act or otherwise; and".").

Page 247, line 12, at end insert:

(". In subsection (2) of section 13 of that Act (determination by rent assessment committees of questions relating to purchase notices), for the words from "be" to "particulars," there shall be substituted the words "comply with such requirements (if any) as to the form of, or the particulars to be contained in, any such application".").

The noble Viscount said: These amendments have already been debated. I beg to move.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Schedule 20, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 21 [Repeals]:

Viscount Goschen moved Amendments Nos. 202 and 203:

Page 250, line 17, column 3, at beginning insert:
("Section 41(1).").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Schedule 21, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 171 [Short title, commencement and extent]:

Lord Coleraine moved Amendment No. 204: Page 164, line 8, after ("the") insert ("Leasehold Reform,").

The noble Lord said: In the amendment, I ask the Committee to agree that the words "Leasehold Reform" should form part of the Short Title to the Bill. I quote as a precedent the words "Leasehold Reform" in the Leasehold Reform Act 1967. That is the last principal Act dealing with leasehold reform, enfranchising and matters of that nature. There have, it is true, been minor textual amendments made over the years to the 1967 Act in Housing Acts, but that seems to be no reason why the word "Housing" in the Short Title to this Bill should be used to encompass the leasehold reform provision which take up more or less half the provisions of the Bill.

The provisions enabling flat owners to enfranchise or to take extended leases will affect many hundreds of thousands of people and their advisers, legal and otherwise. It seems only right that it should be possible for those people to see in the Short Title of the Bill where they will find the legislation that concerns them. When they want that legislation, they should be able to find the words "Leasehold Reform" appearing in the Short Title to the Bill. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

One must support the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, if only by way of apology for keeping him waiting for eight hours today. It is a sensible amendment. It is hard enough to find one's way round legislation without the Title being almost deliberately designed to confuse.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

I support my noble friend Lord Coleraine. Something like 70 per cent. of the discussion on Second Reading centred around leasehold reform. Admittedly the debate took place rather excessively on these Benches, but it was a matter that received all-party support. Over 40 per cent. of the debate in Committee has been about leasehold reform, and so it seems to me mildly eccentric that that aspect of this important Bill should have been omitted from the Title.

11 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I too support the amendment. It is obviously desirable that anyone can refer to the Bill by a title which makes its content transparent. The amendment will do so.

Lord Skelmersdale

I have listened to many parts of the Bill and have become involved only today, I am afraid to say. I support the amendment. It is clear that at least two-thirds of the Bill is concerned with leasehold reform and there is no reason on earth why that should not be part of the short title. I am afraid that this is one of the occasions on which my noble friend the Minister has the word "resist" at the top of his brief. I hope that he will take the opinion of the Committee and at least go away and rethink whether the amendment will be suitable.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

If the word "resist" appears on my noble friend's brief, as has been suggested, I hope that that will be resisted if only to the point of saying that the amendment will be looked at again in the light of the unanimous view of the Committee. If the purpose of the amendment is to make it easier to read the legislation which we are now trying to pass there should be agreement on that. I hope that my noble friend will look at the amendment with sympathy even if he has that mark on his brief.

Viscount Goschen

My noble friend is concerned that there is no reference to leasehold reform in the Short Title of the Bill. We understand the anxiety of my noble friend but the general principle on Short Titles is that they should be just that and as short as possible. Their purpose is to provide a short form of reference to the Act in other Acts and elsewhere rather than to describe the contents of the Act. They must be wide enough to cover everything in the Act but need not necessarily describe the main provisions.

The Office of the Parliamentary Counsel has drawn my attention to Sir Alison Russell's On the Drafting of Legislation, in which he notes the desirability of keeping Short Titles short. He also gives a number of examples of Titles which could have been shorter, perhaps the best being a foreign Act entitled The Law for the people who do not pay their taxes before the end of the year for which it is due, 1910.

The choice of "housing" was made because it was felt to be the shortest term which could be used to describe satisfactorily the provisions of Parts I and II. Our feeling is that the choice was rightly made and we do not wish to see the Short Title amended unnecessarily. However, in view of the support expressed on all sides of the Committee, we will take it away and look at it again. I hope that, in the light of that, my noble friend will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Coleraine

I was going to thank my noble friend for his miserable reply but it became less miserable in the last sentence. In the circumstances, and in a more gracious frame of mind, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 205 not moved.]

Viscount Goschen moved Amendment No. 206: Page 164, line 10, leave out from ("except") to ("shall") in line 11 and insert:

  1. ("(a) this section;
  2. (b) sections 113 to 114, 121 to 125, (Calculation of Housing Revenue Account subsidy), 133 to 135, 164(1), (2) and (4) and 169; and
  3. (c) the repeal in the Local Government and Housing Act 1989,"):

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 171, as amended, agreed to.

In the Title:

Viscount Goschen moved Amendment No. 207: Line 11, leave out ("Schedule 4 to") and insert ("Part VI of").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Title, as amended, agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported with amendments.

House adjourned at five minutes past eleven o'clock.

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