HL Deb 12 April 1999 vol 599 cc500-1

2.45 p.m.

Lord Cadman asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why they have decided to end the moratorium on the sale of former railway land by the British Railways Board in advance of the publication of the review of such sales and consultation with the railway industry.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the suspension of sales of land while the British Railways Board reviews its property portfolio remains in force. The board has submitted a report to the Government. We shall take into account the views of the new BR chairman before taking a decision. In the meantime, we have agreed that the BR board may proceed with sales of a limited number of sites where there are legal commitments which predate the suspension, where the land is to be used for transport purposes, or where there is some other reason for urgency.

Lord Cadman

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that one of the last rail accessible facilities for the removal of asbestos from redundant railway equipment is to be lost to the industry because planning permission has been granted in respect of the site in Glasgow, which is owned by the British Railways Board, for a supermarket development? Does not that fact demonstrate the need for full and proper consultation before any disposals of former British Rail land are made by Rail Properties Ltd., which seems to care little for the long-term needs of the industry? Further, when will the Government realise that the needs of the rail industry should be put before the short-term aims of those who seek profit from such sales?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the whole point of the suspension of sales, except where legally binding commitments apply, was to ensure that we had an adequate assessment of the implications of any potential sale. The Springburn Road, Glasgow, works, to which I believe the noble Lord is referring, was subject to an option agreement which gave the adjoining landowner the option to purchase the site. That option was exercised back in May 1998, at which point the board was legally bound to sell the site. Therefore, the sale process has been allowed to continue despite the general suspension of land sales.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House, first, whether he is satisfied that the land required for extending the capacity of Birmingham New Street Station is still safeguarded? Secondly, can the noble Lord tell us why he has not yet provided a list of sites which have been sold or where a sale is being discussed? These are all publicly-owned properties and the money from such sales will go into the public purse. Therefore, I see no reason why such information should not be made public.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, Birmingham New Street is of course Railtrack rather than British Rail land. I understand that negotiations are taking place between Railtrack and developers in that respect. However, that process is not subject to the suspension that applies to British Rail land. Nevertheless, we would expect Railtrack to strike a balance between its own commercial interests and its obligations as a licensed network operator to maximise the transport benefits. As regards the list of properties disposed of by British Rail, I can tell the House that I have today replied to a written Question tabled by my noble friend Lord Berkeley. My response updates the Written Answer I gave to him on 16th March. Accompanying that will be a full list of the sites involved, a copy of which will be placed in the Library of the House.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I await the Answer with keen anticipation; it will be very interesting. However, I remain slightly suspicious because the freeze announced last summer started thawing the very next day. Having read the list, and assuming that there are still some interesting sites left, can my noble friend the Minister explain whether the wider railway and freight industry—and I declare an interest here as chairman of the Rail Freight Group—will be consulted on future sales and whether the strategic rail authority will be able to purchase or take over from British Rail the sites which seem specifically important?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the assessment by British Rail indicates that only about 10 per cent. of its sites would be appropriate for transport use. The intention is to list those sites and, it is recommended, offer them to transport operators and local authorities who might put them to transport use. The strategic rail authority, and indeed the new chair of British Rail, will need to take a view on the process. However, that is the position at present.