HL Deb 26 May 1993 vol 546 cc354-7

7.44 p.m.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

When I became deputy chairman of the Commission for the New Towns in 1992—and here I declare my interest—having had ministerial responsibility for the new towns a decade or so before, I found that there was a problem facing the commission arising out of a gap in the 1959, 1981 and 1985 Acts. No specific delegation powers exist for the commission.

Sections of the statutes require the commission to make certain judgments to carry out its functions. For example, the legislation states: as soon as it considers it expedient to do so"; due regard being had to the considerations specified in subsection (2)"; or consideration which is less than the best reasonably obtainable". There is an implied power to allow officials to carry out the day-to-day administration of the commission, but where an Act of Parliament imposes major functions on it, only the commission's full board of members can exercise them.

In 1987 the commission took two counsels' opinions. A further conference was held in 1992 with another Queen's Counsel, and all three confirmed the legal position as I have summarised it. Those opinions were made available to the department. The possibility was raised of what is known as a "letter of comfort" for the Minister, but that was not acceptable and the advice given to the commission was that it would not cover us at all.

We met the Minister, who agreed that delegation was required but that there was at present no appropriate government Bill and no time for such a Bill. We rather naively thought that the Housing and Urban Development Bill seemed right, but the Long Title prevented an amendment being put forward.

Perhaps I may explain the background. The commission's board meets 11 times a year. Its membership is selected from persons who have expertise in the world of property or who have held government or local government office and who have special knowledge of the matters with which the commission deals.

The position is that the commission holds extensive property throughout 21 new towns in England and Wales, valued at over £1 billion. There are many tens of thousands of separate properties owned by the commission. We have a staff of about 750 and we make extensive use of outside consultants. Typically, over 100 property transactions are entered into every month. All of those are presented to a property committee of members of the commission whose deliberations have to be confirmed by the board meeting.

The net effect is that members' time and attention are wasted on receiving reports and endorsing recommendations on many hundreds of minor matters during a year; for example, the sale of garden extensions, the sale of free-standing garages, grazing agreements etc.

More importantly, as your Lordships will understand, the commission is operating in a difficult and competitive property market. Without the necessary authority to approve deals between board meetings, there are considerable difficulties in letting premises and closing deals when at the conclusion of negotiations the potential customer is told that there will be a wait of several weeks pending approval of the deal by the commission's board. Therefore the effectiveness and efficiency of the commission is unnecessarily impaired.

What I ask for in the Bill is not unusual. It has been recognised by Government and Parliament that it is appropriate for public bodies such as the commission to delegate routine matters to officials or committees, as appropriate. Those of us who serve in local government know that only too well. It is illustrated in the terms of appointment of accounting officers for non-departmental public bodies. It is also illustrated in the constitution of the National Rivers Authority, as set out in the Water Resources Act 1989, as well as the constitution of the proposed urban development corporation, as set out in Schedule 16 to the Housing and Urban Development Bill, which received its Third Reading only yesterday. The omission, therefore, in the New Towns Act 1981 can be remedied only by primary legislation. All we require is the same power as the urban development corporations have been given. I trust that the Second Reading will be granted.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Finsberg.)

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, first of all I do not profess to be a good substitute for my noble friend Lord Williams, who is not here to deal with this matter. Nevertheless, I am not unfamiliar with the general background, having served on many local government and new town Bills in another place. In this House I have spoken for my party on local government matters for many years.

I share with the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, the feeling that this is a proper matter—namely, delegating authority from a major body to a smaller body—for an amendment to an Act of Parliament. I just take it as, if that is how it has been done, that is how it has got to be done. Therefore our job tonight is to listen very carefully to the persuasive arguments, which undoubtedly are greatly relevant. We all understand. We all served in local government, and we recognise the importance not just of delegated authority but of the terms under which that authority is given.

I read the Bill very carefully. Looking at the power of delegation under sub-paragraph (a), the important words are: who has been authorised for the purpose, either generally or specifically, by the Commission". In other words, there is a proper procedure, a proper proposal, a proper undertaking, a proper liability and a responsibility, codified properly.

When one looks at the powers of the committee or sub-committee which needs this procedure tonight, they have been properly authorised. The noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, does the House a service by pointing out some of the minor matters which have had to be delayed simply because the terms of the Act needing to be complied with did not allow a speedier process.

We on these Benches, certainly in this matter, do not enter at all into the demise of the new towns or the eventual demise of the New Towns Commission. We recognise that tonight we have been asked to approve a speeding up of power, properly controlled, properly documented, and properly the subject of scrutiny by other people.

If the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, intends to make even the odd comment at the end, I should simply be interested to ask what kind of consultation there has been outside the commission itself, perhaps with the other local authority associations, with local communities or in any other way. I do not say that that is required. But this would be done by a normal board of directors or management. My experience is in the Co-op Society. If we wanted to delegate power we should not have to go back to the membership. But I should be interested to know whether any steps have been taken simply to get a feel that this is right. Certainly I believe that it is right, both democratically and in a business sense. Therefore we support and approve this very modest measure.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, it may be helpful if at this point I gave the Government's view on this Bill. I understand that the need for the Bill has arisen because, as the New Towns Act is silent on the matter, the board feels constrained to deal personally with every minor issue relating to the disposal of the commission's assets. The commission feels that this is not an effective use of board members' time and prevents them from deploying their staff in the most efficient way. It is making it difficult to conclude sales of property and potentially impeding the rate at which the commission can dispose of its assets.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment has discussed with my noble friend Lord F'insberg the proposals contained in the Bill and we are broadly sympathetic to its purpose. I hope therefore that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading so that it can proceed in the usual way for more detailed consideration in Committee.

7.54 p.m.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for what he said, and also the noble Lord, Lord Graham, who outside this Chamber I would call my friend, for what he said.

There has been no consultation because no consultation was possible. The board of the commission is in the position that unless it gets these powers, it has to continue with this time-wasting process. We were advised by no fewer than three sets of legal experts (the people who usually make the money in these matters) that for safeguarding the public purse and ourselves we had to get this addition to the statute, so on this occasion there was no body that could be consulted. Had there been one, we would certainly have done so. I hope that that will satisfy the noble Lord.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, it does satisfy me. There is also the very great stop-gap that the Department of the Environment continues to have an oversight of the activities of such bodies as the New Towns Commission. I cannot believe that the propriety of what has been proposed as an amendment, as the Minister has said, is not seen as sensible and realistic. So the point is well taken here.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I have responded to the debate, and I therefore commend the Bill to your Lordships.

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