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Extension Of Powers To Lease Duchy Land

Volume 125: debated on Thursday 21 January 1988

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

I beg to move amendment No. 8, in Page 1, line 8, after 'Duchy', insert

'within Greater London and the District of Harrogate'.
The amendment seeks to restrict the deregulation of the Duchy of Lancaster, if I may describe it thus, to the Duchy's property in those areas on which the justification given by the Chancellor of the Duchy is based. Throughout the whole piece he has made it clear that the problem of partnership developers wanting longer leases than 99 years is apparent in the urban areas where the value of the land is extremely high.

The Chancellor has made no suggestion—indeed, no one in his right mind would make such a suggestion—that anyone has said that they will not take an agricultural lease because it runs for less than 150 years or that people refuse to buy a lease for less than 150 years for shooting on the north Yorkshire moors because they cannot raise the money on the market.

The justification for lifting the restrictions is based upon the alleged need to develop further the estate owned by the Duchy around the Savoy in the Strand, and possibly in Harrogate, which I understand is the Duchy's next most substantial land holding in an urban area.

We must get this matter into perspective. So far as I can discover, there are 2·5 acres on the Savoy estate, including the Savoy chapel and the surrounding garden. It is understood that no revenue is derived from them. Presumably the Prime Minister did not pay anything when her son got married at that chapel. One would have thought that that marriage would have occasioned some revenue, but apparently not.

On the assumption that the Duchy does not intend to redevelop the Savoy chapel and its garden, there are probably less than two acres of land on the Savoy estate available for development. Therefore, the whole justification for lifting the statutory restraints on the conduct of the Duchy are based on the possible needs of two acres in central London as against an estate of 36,000 acres of agricultural land. There are 2,800 acres in Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire, 13,000 acres in Staffordshire, Cheshire and Shropshire, 10,900 acres in Lancashire and 9,300 acres in Yorkshire. On top of that there are 15,000 acres of moorland in north Yorkshire and south Wales, most of which is subject to common rights, and some other smaller sections of developed property in Leeds, Leicester, Bradford, Lewes and parts of London other than the Savoy estate.

I believe that it is preposterous for the Chancellor to say that he must lift all the restrictions on all the thousands of acres of land on the basis of a justification that springs from problems arising on less than two acres of land down the other end of the Strand. Such a justification is an absolutely preposterous absurdity.

The Chancellor has mentioned absolutely no need, let alone backed it up with argument, for the lifting of the restrictions to apply to the rest of the Duchy's estate anywhere in the country. The problems are specific to the limited urban sites. The proposal in the amendment would limit the lifting of the current restrictions to areas within greater London and the district of Harrogate. That is wholly proper and reasonable. I am happy to concede that if it is reasonable for the Duchy of Cornwall and the Crown Estate to have restrictions lifted in respect of their urban property, it is all right for the Duchy of Lancaster to have restrictions lifted in respect of its urban property. But it is to stand the whole thing on its head to change the law affecting such a large area of land simply because of' the problems of one small area.

The Chancellor of the Duchy and I read the history of the estate completely differently. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is a lawyer, and one might have thought that he would believe that the law affected people's behaviour. Apparently he does not. He seems to think that the existence of a body of law over a considerable period has had no effect whatever on the conduct of the Duchy of Lancaster. As a junior Minister, and now as a senior Minister, he has brought Bill after Bill to the House on the basis that if one changes the law, one changes the way in which people do things. Yet he now says, "You can change the law and it will not make a ha'p'orth of difference."

I cannot believe that. Perhaps that is because I am not a lawyer and hold the law in more respect than the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is so familiar with it. However, his proposition that changing the law does not change the way in which organisations act is preposterous. It is just as preposterous to suggest that we should change the law covering 50,000 acres of land because of the problems that occur on less than two acres. I hope that he will come up with a better justification than hitherto for the sweeping deregulatory changes that he proposes.

The hon. Gentleman spoke to the amendment in his usual pleasant manner and style, hut he used fairly strong language, calling the Bill an absurdity and the argument that we should lift the restrictions on the more rural parts of the estate preposterous. With respect, his argument contains a slight illogicality. The main restriction that the Bill seeks to repeal is the 99-year restriction on anything in the manner of a building lease with which the Duchy is still fettered. He says that there is not the slightest prospect of the Duchy ever wanting to give a lease for more than 99 years in the moors of Goathland. He then says that because of that we should keep a restriction legally to prevent the Duchy from granting a lease for more than 99 years.

The hon. Gentleman demands that we maintain the present restrictions in the law for those parts of the estate where he says they are meaningless and ineffective anyway. It is probably true that most of the 19th century provisions have never had the slightest effect upon the behaviour of the Duchy in the moorlands of south Wales and north Yorkshire, the agricultural estates of Cheshire and Lancashire or the large tracts that the hon. Gentleman described. It would be nonsense for the Bill removing the restrictions to apply only to London and Harrogate. I now realise the logic of that rather curious geographical definition.

The hon. Gentleman sought to identify the urban part of the estate, where he thinks that the repeal of the restrictions might have some relevance. As he conceded, he has not mentioned all the urban areas; he mentioned Bradford, Leicester and Leeds in passing in his own list. In addition, we have property on the outskirts of Crewe, Pontefract and Newcastle-under-Lyme. Furthermore, the Duchy is perfectly free to acquire—

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the property in Pontefract is a castle? I doubt whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman would try to raise revenue on a castle.

12 midnight

I do not think that we are considering a major building lease on the castle. The hon. Gentleman is quite right on that point. However, that is not the only property that we have near the town of Pontefract, although the castle is probably our most distinguished holding there.

The Duchy is perfectly free to acquire more land. It is not a fixed estate and it does not simply comprise all the land owned by John of Gaunt. The Duchy manages the estate and sometimes makes acquisitions and sales. We have no means of knowing whether the Duchy will acquire property in future and the present limitations in the law would impose restrictions for no good purpose on the ability to manage the estate. Therefore, I think that the hon. Gentleman's point is not worth pressing.

It would be nonsense to keep all the old restrictions on the parts of the estate where the hon. Gentleman argues that the estate has no relevance. While we are taking the opportunity to free the Duchy from restrictions, we might as well do that properly and not include the extraordinary amendment which would involve passing an Act that would apply only to London and Harrogate. No doubt that would be unprecedented in 19th and 20th-century legislation.

Amendment negatived.

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 1, line 14, at end insert—

'(2D) Before any new lease shall be granted for any land or property forming part of a National Park, or area of outstanding natural beauty or of special scientific interest, the Chancellor and Council of the Duchy of Lancaster shall consult (a) the appropriate National Park Board, (b) the Nature Conservancy Council, and (c) the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; and in the event of any of these bodies objecting to the terms of the new lease the Chancellor and Council of the Duchy of Lancaster shall only proceed following an affirmative resolution by both Houses of Parliament.'.
This amendment is intended to provide additional protection for land owned by the Duchy of Lancaster in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and areas of special scientific interest.

It is particularly appropriate that we should be trying to provide additional protection now because we understand that the Secretary of State for the Environment is considering privatising property owned by the Nature Conservancy Council. If the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is a reluctant deregulator at times, his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is an absolutely fanatical deregulator. After all, his family made its money out of deregulated coal mines a long time ago. There is every reason for him to be in favour of deregulation to try to get them back as quickly as possible.

The Government are in the process of introducing a great deal of deregulation in rural areas. I have mentioned the idea of selling land belonging to the Nature Conservancy Council. There are also substantial proposals in the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for change in the approach to the control of development in rural areas. We have the opportunity tonight to provide additional protection for some of the property which lies within the public sector at the moment, if I can describe the Duchy of Lancaster in that way.

It would be right to place restrictions now on the granting of new leases in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty or areas of special scientific interest, as the Bill proposes to lift all other restrictions. We need some compensatory protection. If there is to be no limit to the period for which leases can be entered into for such sensitive areas as national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and areas of special scientific interest, it is only proper to introduce some restraints to ensure that the purposes of the national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and areas of special scientific interest are protected. It would be a failure on our part to allow the Duchy to have utterly free play over the land in those areas, as is envisaged in the Bill.

The amendment proposes that, before the Duchy enters into any new leases, with its new unbounded powers under what will be the Duchy of Lancaster Act 1988, where the lease is granted for any land or property forming part of a national park, area of outstanding natural beauty or special scientific interest, it shall consult the appropriate national park board, the Nature Conservancy Council or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. If any of those bodies objects to the terms of these new, utterly unfettered, leases, the Duchy of Lancaster will be able to proceed only following the affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament. The Chancellor may say that that is going a bit far and that it might not be the best way of providing the protection that we are seeking.

I have no great brief for the amendments that I have drafted. They may be faulty in their detail, but they are not faulty in their intention. It is right and proper to add this compensatory protection. I hope that the Chancellor will accept the wording as it stands or promise that some protection will be introduced when the Bill goes to the House of Lords.

I was a little puzzled when I read the Bill and its Committee stage, but, having heard the Chancellor, I am completely confused. I gained the impression that he was trying to say that he wants to put the business of the Duchy on a more professional basis.

I note that there are two clauses missing from the Bill. The first should be to get rid of the post of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. In reality, a professional organisation would have a highly paid chief executive. I understand that the Chancellor is paid £2,000 per annum. I do not know whether, for the work that he does, that is highly paid or not.

Under the present arrangements, the person holding the post is a politician—he may be a very good politician—and for political reasons he needs to be in the Cabinet. The Prime Minister is of the opinion that the right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot be trusted with a Department so she has made him Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I do not want to offend the Chancellor, but the cap fits.

Perhaps the Chancellor will say how much of his time is spent on the duties—

Order. I realise that the hon. Gentleman has not been a Member of the House for long, and I have allowed him a preamble. I hope that he will come to the amendment.

Amendment No. 6 is specific and if it is not dealt with it would consume more of the Chancellor's time if he had to bring it back to the House because of a disagreement. One of the Chancellor's predecessors in the 1930s said that he spent half an hour a week on the business of the Duchy.

Parts of the Duchy's property—other than the Savoy, which does not have much wildlife; it might at various times of the night—lie in areas of outstanding natural beauty, such as Cheshire, Staffordshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire. Unfortunately, it has sold its land in Cumbria.

If the Duchy were to be put on a par with the private sector, its tax arrangements would have to be altered. I understand that the Duchy's taxes go straight into the privy purse.

We should not expect to get rid of the Duchy or change its tax position, because it is something special which should be preserved. The Duchy is not a property company; it has looked after the countryside and its wildlife since 1265, so far as I am aware. There is no reason why, for short-term financial gain, we should change that or endanger any of the areas of outstanding natural beauty. Therefore, we do not need to change the leasing arrangements of the Bill, and perhaps we need to accept the amendment. If I have one criticism of my hon. Friend's amendment, it is that there is an omission from it, but I hope that the Minister will accept that we should consider it.

Being a Cumbrian Member of Parliament, I am aware of the debate that took place only yesterday in my area about the problem of fox-hunting in the national park. I hope that the Chancellor or the Duchy will consider whether, as well as protecting the wildlife in the area, we should ban the use of hounds for hunting animals on land that is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster. It is barbaric that we should allow that practice to continue. Although it is part of our history—just as it is part of the history of my constituency that we did not allow Scotsmen to walk around the city after dusk and we also used to hang sheep stealers — —[Interruption.] There were exceptions with regard to Scotsmen. Although it is part of our history, it should be forgotten. Therefore, I should be happy to hear the Chancellor of the Duchy say tonight that he is prepared to accept the spirit of my hon. Friend's amendment and to consider banning the use of hounds for hunting animals on Duchy land.

I am entirely in sympathy with the spirit and intention of the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). Although I do not go along with the arguments of the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) about field sports on Duchy land, I share his desire to look after its natural beauty.

The amendment seeks to get the approval for every new lease that we enter into of the appropriate national park, the Nature Conservancy Council and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I have been a member of the RSPB for years. I am not sure whether I have got my new status correct, but I think that I am now a fellow — [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] It is an absolute qualification for being Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I am sure that my colleagues on the Duchy Council share a general desire to make sure that we look after the wildlife and preserve the countryside on tracts of land that are owned by the Duchy, inside the national parks. So far as I am aware, the Duchy has never been accused of doing anything to damage sites of scientific interest of national park areas—certainly not in my time in the House. However, I shall look at any complaints, if people can find any, in any part of the County Palatine.

The Acts that we are repealing have not had much to do with that. Previous legislation allowed building leases up to 99 years. During a 99-year lease one can do a lot of damage to a stretch of moorland or to the foreshore that we own. In this case, I do not think that it is legislative protection that has made the Duchy a reasonable custodian of the areas of natural beauty that it owns.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras correctly predicted that I would think that his amendment went too far. In his enthusiasm, he has sought to require that every new lease should require consultation with the three bodies, and that if any one of the three objects to a new lease it should have to come to both Houses of Parliament for an affirmative resolution. In the areas of land that we are discussing, enormous numbers of transactions could be described as new leases. The amendment would mean that every cottage letting, every farm letting and every sporting letting would have to be submitted to each of the three bodies for its opinion.

I am not sure that any of the three bodies concerned would welcome that, because they would require substantial staff to be able to handle the flood of matters on which they would have to report back, and we would have an unnecessary restriction on the whole estate.

12.15 am

In case the House feels that the Duchy Council and I are a band of amateurs for seeking to protect the national parks—the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) understandably doubted my qualifications for being chairman of the Council managing such a large estate—I hasten to assure the House that I receive £2,000 a year, which is probably all that I am worth as Chancellor of the Duchy. My belief when I was appointed that the £2,000 was a bonus extra to my salary as a Cabinet Minister was rapidly shattered: my Cabinet salary is docked by the appropriate amount, to ensure that I am not better paid than any of my colleagues. The hours that I spend on the Duchy each week are therefore not wildly rewarded, but they are rewarding in themselves.

More to the point, there is a professional staff. There is a clerk to the Council, and people with expertise in surveying all the aspects of the estate who carry out a good deal of the management of the Duchy lands, and do so very well.

I hope that the House is persuaded that the Duchy is an extremely reasonable custodian of areas of great natural beauty and interest, and that this proposal would be excessive and probably unworkable.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, That the Bill be now read the Third time. [Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.