Report (2nd Day)
86A: Before Clause 17, insert the following new Clause—
“National Infrastructure Commission
There shall be an independent National Infrastructure Commission.”
My Lords, I thank Sir John Armitt for his excellent work in leading the independent review for the Labour Party on long-term infrastructure planning. I also thank Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons for his invaluable work in preparing a draft national infrastructure Bill since the publication of the report. We have been consulting on the draft Bill and have received a positive response from across the infrastructure sectors. The draft Bill runs to 26 pages. Rather than propose all 26 pages as amendments, the House will be grateful that I have purposefully kept this proposed new clause concise and to the point. However, if the Minister tells us that he is prepared to accept the principle of an independent infrastructure commission, we would be delighted to discuss the provisions of the draft Bill with him with a view to subsequent legislation on a cross-party basis.
The case for an independent infrastructure commission is clear. The UK has historically, over many decades, underinvested in key infrastructure, which is why the World Economic Forum ranks the UK 27th for the overall quality of infrastructure in its 2014-15 Global Competitiveness Report. Our long-term infrastructure planning is weak. There is far too much stop-start decision-making and investment, and forging a political consensus in key areas such as airports and energy has proved notoriously difficult. The role of an independent commission would emphatically be not to replace Government, Parliament and the democratic process, but to inform and strengthen them. Under the Armitt plan, an independent national infrastructure commission would carry out an evidence-based assessment of the country’s infrastructure needs over a span of 25 to 30 years, focusing on nationally significant infrastructure —as defined by the Planning Act 2008—and consulting relevant stakeholders. The key economic infrastructure sectors—energy, transport, water, waste and tele- communications—would be considered in parallel, allowing the interdependence between sectors to be thoroughly examined. Projections of economic growth, population and technological change would inform this cross-sector approach. Environmental issues and obligations would be respected and recommendations made by the commission would need to be consistent with achieving the UK’s long-term climate change targets. The result of the commission’s considerations would be a national infrastructure assessment submitted to the Chancellor, who would have a statutory duty to bring it before Parliament within six months, accompanied by any amendments that the Government might propose. We anticipate that the first assessment would be produced within three years of the establishment of the commission.
The national infrastructure assessment would therefore come forward with the Government’s full authority. Ministers would not be bound by the independent commission but changes made by the Government to the commission’s assessment would be clear and transparent and subject to full public and parliamentary debate. The plan would be fully updated every 10 years but it would be open to the Government or a new Government to seek earlier reconsideration, again on an open and transparent basis. The assessment would be debated and voted upon in both Houses. If approved, there would then be a 12-month period in which individual government departments would be required to produce sector infrastructure plans outlining the specific schemes and projects that the Government would promote to meet the needs identified in the assessment. Proposed sources of funding, timeframes for project implementation and preferred delivery vehicles will be required in the plans in order to provide real delivery momentum, credibility and confidence for investors.
Before a vote on each sector plan in Parliament, the commission would provide a statement commenting on the consistency of the Government’s proposals with identified infrastructure needs, highlighting areas where departmental sector plans fell short, which together with the 12-month deadline for producing the plans would act as a significant new discipline for Government to get on with implementation and delivery. Together these sector plans would form a national infrastructure plan for the UK—not a wish list like the current national infrastructure plan, but a statement of priority national projects with key milestones, delivery targets and vehicles and sources of funding set out in each case.
We have shown in recent years that we can deliver on major national infrastructure. The Olympics were delivered on time and on budget and the Crossrail project continues to progress well. Financial institutions are generally keen to invest in British infrastructure so long as risk and return are well balanced, but in key areas decisions have not been timely and investment has been poorly planned, inefficient and inadequate. To take just transport, the history of the railway system and airports in the south-east of England over the past 50 years is a running commentary on the failure of long-term strategic planning. There is a real danger that energy, water and flood prevention infrastructure could soon become so. The problem clearly lies with the quality and timeliness of planning and political decision-making as much as with the delivery. The current Davies commission on airports is a kind of mini-infrastructure commission, set up precisely because of the failure to resolve airport capacity issues in south-east England over the past 15 years under both this and the last Labour Government. We are proposing a similar approach applied more broadly.
There is a wide basis of support for evidence- based decision-making in infrastructure planning and delivery, and support specifically from the Armitt review proposals, the LSE Growth Commission, the EEF—the manufacturers’ organisation—and the Institution of Civil Engineers. These proposals will promote better public understanding of the key infrastructure issues facing the country by developing evidence about the condition of the nation’s assets and the projected impact of key economic, environmental and demographic trends, as well as the implications of delayed investment or doing nothing at all.
The proposed commission tackles the problem outlined by one respondent to the Armitt review—that,
“at present, no single body in the UK takes a view of what the picture on the front of the jigsaw box looks like. Rather we hope it comes together, mainly by chance”.
National infrastructure is too important to be treated in this cavalier way. It is time for an independent national infrastructure commission to improve the process. I beg to move.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord for his amendment, which allows us to outline again the Government’s position on national infrastructure. I must admit that when he started talking about the Armitt review, I was concerned for a moment, as I was settling down, as to whether the word was Armitt or Ahmad. That threw me a bit—but we are clear which report we are talking about here.
We believe that the national infrastructure plan already delivers unparalleled levels of investment. The Government recognise—and the noble Lord acknowledged this—that infrastructure projects have been delivered on time and on budget. He referred to the Olympics. It is noteworthy that the person responsible for delivering the Olympics on time and on budget is the current Minister for Infrastructure in our Government, my noble friend Lord Deighton. I believe that all noble Lords will agree that he has great expertise in this area.
Of course the Government recognise the importance of the long term in looking at infrastructure investment. Investing in infrastructure is a central part of the Government’s long-term economic plan to build a stronger and more competitive economy. For this reason, the Government have introduced the national infrastructure plan, which has brought together our approach to investing in energy, transport, telecoms, water and waste networks into one place. This has brought a step change in delivering UK infrastructure. We are introducing an ambitious new energy strategy to incentivise additional electricity capacity for the UK and support low-carbon electricity generation. In road and rail networks, we are seeing new investment at rates not known for several decades. Our plan provides sound justification for infrastructure projects that have secured buy-in from a broad range of stakeholders.
We have set out long-term capital settlements to align with the national infrastructure plan. These commitments have led to new investment out to 2021, in sectors such as roads and flood defences, and long-term funding plans for projects such as High Speed 2. This has all helped to ensure stability and continuity of infrastructure investment in the decades to come.
I turn to the issue of the independent infrastructure body. The Government disagree with this amendment and have reservations about introducing an independent body without a clear understanding of the impacts of the change. Failure to understand this would create greater uncertainty and risk the successful delivery of UK infrastructure. We believe that resourcing requirements to support a commission have not been fully established or costed. Establishing a new authority for infrastructure would involve significant complexities and would distract from the business of providing the infrastructure that the country needs now and in the future.
It is essential that the Government focus on delivery. The central issue is to ensure that the UK has a robust plan to address the challenges facing our networks in the future. The Government have developed a strategy to meet current and future demand through the renewal of existing infrastructure and to grow a global economy with modern infrastructure networks. In doing this, we have sought to address climate change and energy security. This investment is vital for future economic growth. However, it is not clear how introducing a national infrastructure commission would address these pressing issues.
The Government already have a strong track record in major infrastructure delivery. While a national infrastructure commission is an untested and, as yet, unproven idea, the Government take delivering infrastructure extremely seriously. The latest infrastructure pipeline shows that £383 billion of investment is planned for infrastructure networks over the course of the next Parliament and beyond. The noble Lord mentioned specific transport projects. We have had 45 major road and local transport projects since 2010, and the start of construction on flagship projects, such as Northern Hub and the Mersey Gateway Bridge, as well as substantive progress on Crossrail, provides good examples. In addition, more than £45 million has been invested in electricity generation networks between 2010 and 2013 and contracts have already been signed under the electricity market reform, with a further allocation currently under way. The UK is rated as the most energy-secure country in the EU and is fourth in the world.
I believe that we are in a good place when it comes to infrastructure and investment in infrastructure for the current, medium and long term. With the reassurances I have provided, I hope that the noble Lord is minded to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response. He offers me a tantalising prospect that, if we were to rename the Armitt report the Ahmad report, then he might be prepared to accept the amendment. I offer him that potential deal across the Dispatch Box, though Sir John Armitt might want some hybrid name attached to the report in consequence.
I am disappointed by the response of the noble Lord. In many other areas, such as fiscal and competition policy, we have independent bodies which advise Ministers. Looking at the history of this country over the last two generations, it is clear that we have had serious problems in the planning of our national infrastructure. This is not just in bringing objective evidence to bear on the debate, but in the establishment of cross-party consensus in areas of high priority. We believe that a commission of this kind could significantly contribute to the process.
The area I know well—transport—is a testimony to the problems of failure to address long-term infrastructure planning on an independent and consensual basis. Airports policy has been a yo-yo since the 1960s. There has been stop-start on Maplin, then at Heathrow, and it has taken 15 years to make decisions about increased airport capacity in the south-east of England. Electrification of the railways has been delayed for the best part of a generation because of the lack of any long-term plan. The noble Lord mentioned HS2 and I am glad that a cross-party consensus has been reached on it. However, it was only five years ago—a generation after most of continental Europe and large parts of Asia started to develop high-speed rail networks—that we even started to consider the potential for high-speed rail in this country because there was no medium and long-term planning.
The Minister mentioned roads and the roads programme. As many noble Lords with major road developments in their areas know, this is a classic case of stop-go. Every time there is a downturn, there is a massive slashing of projects, only for them to have to be revived again a few years later at significant additional expense because there is no agreed medium-term plan. In 2010, when the present Government came in, there were huge reductions in the roads programme for strategic roads, which have since had to be partly reinstated. A system of national infrastructure planning of the kind that we propose could only strengthen the bringing to bear of objective evidence, strengthen cross- party consensus and give a louder voice to capital spending and infrastructure projects within the government machine itself.
The noble Lord referred to the resourcing requirements of the commissioners, but they would of course be a fraction of the cost of the projects themselves and there are already significant staff who develop infrastructure in individual departments. This would enable them to be pulled together to operate more effectively with some clear central direction.
It is only a matter of time before a commission of this kind is established. As I said, in so many other areas of critical policy, the bringing to bear of expert advice reporting to Ministers and Parliament to provide a basis on which decisions can be taken has been a course that has been followed. I believe it will be followed in due course in the case of infrastructure. I would therefore like to test the opinion of the House.
86B: Before Clause 17, insert the following new Clause—
“National infrastructure projects: new towns
(1) The objects of a development corporation established for the purpose of creating a new town shall be to secure the physical laying out of infrastructure and the long-term sustainable development of the new town.
(2) In this section, “sustainable development” means managing the use, development and protection of land and natural resources in a way which enables people and communities to provide for their legitimate social, economic and cultural wellbeing while sustaining the potential of future generations to meet their own needs.
(3) In achieving sustainable development, development corporations should—
(a) positively identify suitable land for development in line with the economic, social and environmental objectives so as to improve the quality of life, wellbeing and health of people and the community;(b) contribute to the sustainable economic development of the town;(c) contribute to the cultural and artistic development of the town;(d) protect and enhance the natural and historic environment;(e) contribute to mitigation and adaptation of climate change consistent with the objectives of the Climate Change Act 2008;(f) promote high quality and inclusive design;(g) ensure that decision-making is open, transparent, participative and accountable; and(h) ensure that assets are managed in the long-term interest of the community.(4) In this section “infrastructure” includes—
(a) water, electricity, gas, telecommunications, sewerage and other services;(b) roads, railways and other transport facilities;(c) retail and other business facilities;(d) health, educational, employment and training facilities;(e) social, religious, recreational and cultural facilities;(f) green infrastructure and ecosystems;(g) cremation and burial facilities; and(h) community facilities not falling within paragraphs (a) to (f); and“land” is defined as including all the matters set out in the definition of “land” in Schedule 1 to the Interpretation Act 1978, and also housing including (where the context permits) any yard, garden, outhouses and appurtenances belonging to, or usually enjoyed with, the building or part of building concerned.”
My Lords, the building of new towns and major urban extensions is a critical national issue in the face of Britain’s acute housing shortage. The designation of Ebbsfleet as a new town and the recent Wolfson Prize competition for a new town scheme demonstrates the enthusiasm and capacity that there is for developing the concept in modern conditions. All three of the major parties in the House are committed to new town or garden city developments, and I take these to mean the same thing, given the importance of green and sustainable development as part of any new town or urban extension.
This amendment intends to capture the spirit of the post-war rebuilding of the country that was spurred on by the original New Towns Act 1946, creating places that today are part of the fabric of our country, such as Milton Keynes, Stevenage and Welwyn Garden City. However, although previous new town legislation provided powers to deliver new towns, the towns that were built did not always conform to the highest design and quality standards. The objectives set out in this amendment update the existing legislation in the New Towns Act 1981—which has barely been used—to ensure protection for the natural and historic environments, to require high-quality and inclusive design and to contribute towards a low-carbon future. The aim is that no part of a new town will be eligible for the Carbuncle Cup, an annual award from Building Design magazine for the ugliest building in the United Kingdom completed in the last 12 months.
Developing places in which people love to live is a topic gathering increasing attention as we look to substantial new settlements. The winner of this year’s Wolfson Prize, David Rudlin, proposes a six-point “social contract” for the development of garden cities. The participative decision-making proposed in this amendment is reflected in Mr Rudlin’s winning entry, which proposes that existing towns and cities should be able to bid for new garden city status to build substantial high-quality and sustainable urban extensions. This includes not only high quality standards, but the requirements that new garden cities include major institutions of learning; that they be well connected by public transport and cycleways; and that for every acre of land developed, another will be given back to the city as accessible public space, including forests, lakes and country parks.
When my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton raised in Committee this issue of promoting sustainable and liveable communities in new towns, the government response was odd. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, said it was “absolutely essential” that good-quality design and the other key elements of the amendment—open decision-making, cultural and artistic development, and enhancement of the natural and historic environment—be built into new town development, but the Government were worried that to say so explicitly in statute would be “unhelpful”. But how can it be unhelpful to specify things that are so essential but are not in fact contained in the New Towns Act 1981? If they are not specified, that could lead to what David Rudlin calls “mere dormitory suburbs”.
When the Government say it is unhelpful to specify essential features of new towns, I believe they are confusing being concise with being brief. Being concise shows an excellent grasp of the issue, while being brief can demonstrate a lack of understanding of an issue. This amendment clearly and concisely prescribes the factors that development corporations should consider to achieve sustainable development, from environmental considerations to economic ones. The amendment is therefore helpful, not unhelpful. If the Government are to object on the grounds of brevity, I ask them: which factors set out in the amendment do they think should not always be considered when building sustainable new communities? I beg to move.
My Lords, I will be brief. The two amendments—the one we have just voted on and the one just moved by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—are starred amendments. It is treating this House with contempt to raise two serious issues at the very last moment for consideration in today’s business. I am not in the least surprised that in the previous debate only the noble Lord and my noble friend Lord Ahmad spoke. No one had a chance to consider what it was about and take advice. Now we have another one.
This is an important issue. As a former Environment Secretary, I dealt with planning matters, and have lived near some of the post-war new towns. I will not weary the House by repeating what I said in Committee about the appalling mistakes made, for instance in Harlow, which turned out to be a byword for the misery of large numbers of citizens who moved from the city centres out to a town that was full of lakes, parks and everything but failed to have any sense of community at all—certainly for decades. I do not in any way underestimate the need for substantial improvements in the system, and I like to think that in recent developments there have been considerable improvements; we have not had a repetition of those experiences.
However, these are important matters and one has to ask oneself: why did the noble Lord leave it until only yesterday to table this amendment and asking my noble friend to give a considered view of the matters that he raises in it? I say again: it is treating this House with contempt.
I should point out to the noble Lord that this amendment was tabled and debated in Committee.
Why leave it until the last moment on Report? Why did he not put it down it a week or 10 days ago, when most of the other amendments were tabled, so that people would have a chance to look at it and consult? That is my complaint. I have great respect for the noble Lord’s ability, but sometimes he gives the impression that he walks on water.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his intervention and the noble Lord for his amendment. I feel somewhat spiritually awakened by my noble friend’s final comment about walking on water. I hope I can provide clarity on why the Government are not in a position to accept the amendment at this time.
I shall start with our common ground. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, that creating well designed, sustainable communities should be at the heart of any new development. In Amendment 86B, tabled by the noble Lord, two main objectives are proposed for a development corporation to be established for the purpose of creating a new town and for the physical laying-out of infrastructure and long-term sustainable development of the new town.
However, I do not think that prescribing the objects of a new town development corporation in detail would help to achieve that objective in a way that allowed for sufficient flexibility locally. There is much to be said for the simplicity of the current objective of new town development corporations, as indeed set out in statute: to secure the laying out and development of the new town.
The amendment proposes that sustainable development should be included in the objects of new town development corporations. Let me emphasise that the Government strongly support the principle of sustainable development. Indeed, that principle is central to the document National Planning Policy Framework, which provides a clear view of what sustainable development means in practice. We believe that creating an additional statutory definition of sustainable development could serve to reduce that very clarity.
I note that no new town development corporations have been created since 1970. However, I am clear that any future new town development corporations, as well as urban development corporations, such as the one the Government are proposing to establish at Ebbsfleet, should have a strong focus on securing sustainable development in a way that reflects local circumstances and needs. I look forward to Her Majesty’s Opposition supporting the creation of the new town at Ebbsfleet, as we seek to establish it in another Bill.
I hope that the clarity I have provided, with brevity, gives the noble Lord sufficient comfort to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for putting on record the Government’s commitment to sustainable development and high-quality design, which is of key importance.
If I may, I shall respond further to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. The amendments were tabled on Monday, which was the day before yesterday, so there was certainly time for noble Lords to engage fully with the issues—and, indeed, for the noble Lord to have read the Armitt report, which was published some months ago. It is not a recent document, by any means.
They say, “Once a Whip, always a Whip”. We are on Report, and no other interventions would be appropriate.
I was very willing to give way to the noble Lord, because I did mention him. I think that I had a right of reply to his points, given that he said there had been almost no notice of these amendments.
Amendment 86B was tabled by my noble friend Lord McKenzie in Committee—it is exactly the same amendment. The reason we regard it as so important that the law takes account of the issues specified in the amendment, that sustainable development should,
“contribute to the cultural and artistic development of the town … protect and enhance the natural and historic environment … promote high quality and inclusive design … ensure that decision-making is open, transparent, participative and accountable … and ensure that assets are managed in the long-term interest of the community”,
and so on, is precisely because of the point that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, raised: our last experience of developing new towns in this country was not wholly happy. There have been many very positive elements to the new towns and most of them now function extremely well. However, in some cases the quality of the initial design was not high enough. The Minister said that no new town development corporations have been set up since 1970, but we are just about to begin the process of developing new towns and major urban extensions again. The Government have named Ebbsfleet as the first. It is very likely that others will follow, given the need at least to double the rate of national housebuilding. Therefore, it seems to us, and probably to most people in the House, that having a proper set of criteria for the development of new towns is timely. If it cannot be done in this Bill—and we do not intend to press this amendment today—it should be done before we embark on the next new era of garden city development. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 86B withdrawn.
Clause 20: Deemed discharge of planning conditions
Amendment 86C not moved.
87: After Clause 20, insert the following new Clause—
“Sustainable development and design
In section 10(3) of the Planning Act 2008 (sustainable development), omit the words “the desirability of”.”
My Lords, Amendment 87 is in my name and those of the noble Lords, Lord Jenkin of Roding and Lord Tyler, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, who regrets that he is unavoidably absent. I am also honoured to have the support of the Town and Country Planning Association and the Royal Town Planning Institute. We think that this amendment is crucial to realising the aspirations of the national policy statement, which lie behind and above infrastructure development, and to furthering public consent to the essential provision of new transport and energy infrastructure.
First, I welcome the many revisions in the strategic highways company draft licence, in particular paragraph 5.22, which says:
“The Licence holder must have due regard to relevant principles and guidance on good design, such as those set out by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) and the Design Council, to ensure that the development of the network takes account of geographical, environmental and socio-economic context”.
I salute the Minister on this progress. I hope it is not churlish to do an Oliver Twist act and ask for more. Oliver Twist did, after all, ask for more necessary sustenance. The problem is that the licence does not carry nearly the same weight as the statute. It is the national policy statement that is the critical decision-making document. My plea is for explicit recognition of the crucial role of design on the face of the relevant statute, in this case the Planning Act 2008, where it sets out the obligations of the Secretary of State in preparing the national policy statement. The change that we propose is a modest one. While it strengthens and simplifies the obligation with regard to climate change—extremely important, too—and good design, it makes no change to the overarching and heavily qualified obligations in Section 10(2) that govern the section I propose to amend.
We need to look back to see why this amendment is so important. We need to remember those miles of urban highway that have created lasting problems, which my noble friend Lord Adonis referred to, by dividing communities, by ignoring the beauty element and by despoiling some of our most cherished landscapes; these include the M8 in Glasgow and the M3 in Belfast. Closer to the present time, we can think of High Speed 2’s path through the National Trust’s Hardwick Hall. Although this will be dealt with by the hybrid Bill, the issue illustrates the enormous concern we must have to ensure the right design outcomes for infrastructure with a life of many decades.
The purpose of the amendment is in a non-prescriptive way to ensure that design issues are taken more seriously by decision-makers in the preparation of policy. It does that by strengthening the Planning Act 2008’s obligation to consider good design and adaptability to climate change in the achievement of sustainable development. The 2008 Act says only that the Secretary of State must,
“have regard to the desirability of … mitigating, and adapting to, climate change”,
and “achieving good design”. We think that the words “the desirability of” must go. They make good design desirable rather than necessary, which is a misreading of the function of design. The obligation already includes a significant degree of flexibility, because of the words “contribute to” in the primary obligation of achieving sustainable development.
Experience so far shows the value of a change such as this. Both the National Policy Statement for Ports, adopted in 2012, and the most recent National Policy Statement on National Networks have very brief generic statements on good design. Indeed, they are rather depressingly similar, with little or no reference to the specific design indications of differing forms of infra- structure, such as linear road structure compared with a major power plant. It is almost as if there has been a bit of cutting and pasting, and the language is very qualified. I quote the Town and Country Planning Association’s verdict that the national policy statement on design,
“lacks ambition and emphasis and is unlikely to direct decision-makers to prioritise high quality design outcomes.”
Basically, the current legislative provisions provide some rhetorical emphasis for good design, but they do not create the kind of priority for policymakers that could reassure us that our new infrastructure will be of the design quality which Britain needs and deserves. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very happy indeed to add my name to the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness. This is partly because I have long had an admiration for the persistence with which over many years she has pursued this objective of achieving better design for our buildings and structures in this country. She deserves our support.
I referred briefly in my previous intervention to the time when I was Environment Secretary, and as such found on my desk a number of very major projects. Not all of them would have been described as infrastructure, but nevertheless one was very conscious indeed of the enormous importance of design as a criterion for desirability and for making sure that something was going to last. Indeed, there was a view in the department at the time that if a building was really bad, it would not last more than 50 years. However, 50 years is more than half a lifetime—perhaps it is less than that now, but it was then. One needs to do one’s best to avoid those bad buildings.
One particular decision with which I have always been rather pleased—which was not infrastructure except in the broadest sense of that word—concerned what is now the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. That decision turned entirely on the design that had originally been proposed, which was so memorably castigated by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales in a remarkable speech. I must say that it made me very angry at the time, because this planning decision was sitting on my desk and yet I received no advance warning at all that he was going to say anything about it.
When I then had to deal with it, I tried to see whether he was right. I came to the conclusion that, yes, of course he was right. That design was deplorable, as the recent account published by the National Gallery itself has indicated. As a result, we got an entirely new initiative from the Sainsbury brothers, and the Sainsbury Wing is now a very considerable adornment to that part of Trafalgar Square and to the National Gallery itself, based entirely on design. I therefore attach very great importance to this.
One of the important points made by the noble Baroness in her speech concerned the very limited extent to which the criterion of design has been imported into the national planning policy statements. She said that some of them gave the impression of having been cut and pasted, because they simply took the same words. If one looks, for instance, at the National Policy Statement for Ports about this, it really does not add anything to what has been said before about other forms of development. There is nothing specifically regarding ports. From time to time, I have found myself sailing past the Felixstowe dock, which is a tremendous container port. It is actually rather a fine structure when seen from the River Orwell. Then you go further up the River Orwell and there is a perfectly lovely bridge, the Orwell Bridge. We are perfectly capable of choosing first-class designs, but it needs to be at the centre. Sharpening up the obligation to put design at the heart of the planning system and planning criteria, which the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, would achieve, seems to me a very valuable thing to do. I support her amendment and I hope that she will continue to bang away at this issue. She has made great progress in other quarters and she needs to do it in this one as well.
My Lords, I support Amendment 87 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker. As she said, good design is not just desirable but necessary.
The noble Baroness talked about beauty and despoliation of the environment. They are aesthetic concerns which are aspects of wider cultural concerns, themselves a significant and necessary component of good design. I would therefore go further in paragraph 5.22 of the draft licence which the noble Baroness quoted, because I think that the absence of the word “cultural” is an omission. The relevant wording might then state that “the development of the network takes account of geographical, environmental, cultural and socio-economic context”. However, I acknowledge the work that the noble Baroness and others have put in to get as far as they have with the wording as it stands.
This is not about function, operation and maintenance versus culture or design. The precise function or functions of our highways, road networks and the built environment are themselves cultural issues. For instance, if we take into consideration initiatives very different from the norm in this country such as shared space schemes, which are intended to encourage more co-operative rather than competitive spaces, it becomes more objectively clear how form and function reflect each other in a very particular cultural sense. Good design needs to be thought of as central to planning and not as an add-on, not least because there needs to be a wider discussion about what good design is and means in relation to the precise nature of the changes which we have made and continue to make to our environment.
My Lords, I am very happy to support my noble friend Lady Whitaker’s amendment and to support those other noble Lords who have spoken in favour of it. Like the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, I am a great admirer of the way in which my noble friend Lady Whitaker has persistently championed the cause of good design and always the enlightened approach to planning.
As I understand it, the change in wording that is proposed is quite modest, but its impact could be quite profound. The 2008 Act, rather than stating that,
“the Secretary of State must … have regard to the desirability of … achieving good design”,
would state that “the Secretary of State must have regard to achieving good design”. The former, as my noble friend said, suggests that good design is somehow optional. The amendment would make sure that it was not. I hope that the Government are able to accept this small but important amendment.
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment. When I arrived in the East End of London 30 years ago this year, I was very conscious of the poor quality of design of large infrastructure. As you spent time in one of the most challenging housing estates, you saw the effect of some of that on ordinary people’s lives. At the Bromley by Bow Centre, we began to challenge that logic of poor-quality design. When we built the first integrated health centre in Britain, we did so from hand-made bricks—like those used at that time at Glyndebourne opera house. There followed a beautiful cloister facing a park and bringing together health, education and enterprise in what is now a rather beautiful environment, in the middle of a housing estate, that has affected many things around it.
I have noticed over the years how people are the environments that we live, work and play in. If you create certain sorts of environment, you get certain sorts of human behaviour. In our park on the housing estate, we do not have any cameras; local people have taken a lot of ownership of it. We have probably one of the few wooden playgrounds that are not burnt every night. If you put numbers around all that, you see that the value of it to people and the Exchequer is considerable. We are following similar principles in the Olympic Park—where I am a director and sit on the planning committee—and trying to ensure that we do not repeat the tacky stuff that has gone on before but build a very beautiful environment that begins to have a major catalytic effect on the quality of design that is starting to happen in the lower Lea Valley. It is interesting to watch how local people and others, and children running through the beautiful fountains, respond to all that. If one looks at the quality of what is being built and the lack of graffiti and other things, one gets a sense of how these things affect human life and their financial implications.
Yes, I suspect that it is difficult to measure in numbers terms; it is difficult to know which box you tick; but my 30 years of experience suggests that quality of design has a massive impact. I suggest that we ignore it at our peril.
My Lords, I, too, acknowledge the work that the noble Baroness has done in this respect. I agree with what she said about good design being necessary. While she acknowledged the steps that the Government have taken in this regard—for which I thank her—she cited Oliver Twist and said that she might be perceived as being churlish in asking for more. I would never accuse the noble Baroness of being churlish. I recall that the response to Oliver Twist asking for more was, “Do you want more?”. That will certainly not be my response at this juncture, but I wish to set out the Government’s position. I also thank other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Jenkin, for their contributions.
I should stress from the outset that the Government are committed to tackling issues such as climate change and the mitigation of, and adaptation to, the impacts of such change, as well as good design for new developments. Where I suspect we will differ is on the extent to which this amendment would bring any discernible change if an infrastructure project was brought forward for consent under the Planning Act.
Part 2 of the Planning Act sets out the legislative requirements where a Secretary of State brings forward a national policy statement. National policy statements form the prime basis for deciding whether a project should be granted development consent. Given this very important role, such statements, as noble Lords will know, are scrutinised by Parliament and subject to public consultation before being finalised. This process of scrutiny provides the most appropriate means of ensuring that matters such as design and climate change are appropriately covered in a national policy statement.
All national policy statements that have been prepared to date have taken into account the issues set out in Section 10 of the Planning Act. Parliament has been given the opportunity to help shape these before they were finalised. That process of scrutiny will continue when new policy statements come forward and existing ones are reviewed. The final version of the policy statement on national networks will be designated soon and the next policy frameworks to be produced will be after the Davies commission has reported in 2015. I therefore suggest to the noble Baroness that the best place in which to seek the changes and improvements that she proposes is in the wording of national policy statements when they are subject to parliamentary scrutiny before they are designated. With those assurances and the clarity that I have provided, I trust that the noble Baroness will be minded to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have supported this amendment and indeed adding the concept of culture, which was implicit in our amendment but ought to have been explicit. I am grateful for the kind words of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and his encouragement. I am half reassured by the words of the Minister. I can see that the close-woven tapestry of the structure that he has outlined could indeed offer opportunities to push the importance of design. I think that that is not as good as having it on the face of the Bill, but let us suspend judgment until we see the next version of the national networks statement. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 87 withdrawn.
Clause 21: Property etc transfers to the HCA
88: Clause 21, page 22, line 35, at end insert—
“(A1) The Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 is amended in accordance with subsections (1) and (2).”
I beg to move Amendment 88 and shall speak also to Amendments 89 to 95 and Amendment 121. Maximising the release of surplus public sector land is critical to supporting the Government’s ambitions to reduce the deficit, increase the number of houses being built and help to drive economic growth. The new public sector land programme from 2015-16 will mean transferring a significant amount of surplus and developable land from government bodies to the Homes and Communities Agency for onward disposal.
Clause 21 is intended to speed up the transfer of land from arm’s-length bodies to the Homes and Communities Agency by allowing sites to transfer directly using a single transfer scheme, rather than transferring first to the parent department in a separate scheme. However, the Homes and Communities Agency no longer has a remit to operate in London without mayoral delegation. The Greater London Authority therefore has a pivotal role in delivering housing and economic growth in the capital, and we have been working with it to consider how its expertise can best be utilised in the disposal of surplus government land. The GLA has been clear that it wishes to carry out the Homes and Communities Agency’s former functions in London with regard to the disposal of developable land. The Greater London Authority Act 1999 allows for the transfer of central government land to the authority but, as with the Homes and Communities Agency, land from arm’s-length bodies can transfer only via the parent department and not directly in a single scheme.
In Committee, my noble friend Lady Kramer agreed to consider an opposition amendment to enable direct transfers of land from arm’s-length bodies to the GLA. Following our constructive dialogue with the GLA over the past few months, we are now satisfied that there is strong potential for the GLA to have a role in disposing of surplus government land in London. This amendment, which will allow land to be transferred directly to the GLA and its subsidiaries, will help to reduce bureaucracy in the longer term. We are therefore tabling a government amendment to effect this change. Our amendment adds three new sections to the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to allow schemes to be made transferring land to the GLA and for regulations to be made naming the bodies which will be able to transfer land and setting out the tax position for transfers.
We introduced Clause 22 to ensure that appropriate development may happen quickly by bringing the powers of purchasers of land from the Homes and Communities Agency, the Greater London Authority and mayoral development corporations into line with those presently enjoyed by the purchasers of land from local authorities and other public bodies involved in regeneration and development. We have tabled this amendment to ensure that the powers will be fully available in relation to the GLA.
The bulk of GLA land is held and managed by GLA Land and Property Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of the authority. We need to make sure that the amended powers will apply to land which the subsidiary holds or disposes of in the same way as they will apply to land which the HCA, GLA or an MDC hold or dispose of. These amendments clarify that the powers will be available in relation to land which the subsidiary owns or disposes of, provided that it has been carrying out housing and regeneration functions for the GLA in relation to that land.
Amendment 121 refers to new subsection (12) of Clause 22. Clause 40 is concerned with the territorial extent of provisions. Although Clause 22 is effective in England only, there is only one legal system covering England and Wales, and that system will operate in relation to Clause 22. The legal systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland will not operate in relation to the clause. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 93A is in my name. In speaking to his amendments, the Minister referred to an opposition amendment in Committee. The amendment was in my name and, while I understand that the Minister may occasionally feel that I am in opposition, I mostly support the Government in this House and therefore perhaps we could correct that. It was not an opposition amendment; it was an amendment on behalf of the Greater London Authority, moved by a Liberal Democrat Member on the government side of the House.
My Lords, for the record, I fully acknowledge my noble friend’s contribution in that regard.
My Lords, I am grateful and my pride is restored. When I received the open-door response from my noble friend Lady Kramer on that occasion, I think I predicted that the two-word amendment which I moved in Committee would come back at this stage of the Bill as a two-page amendment. I did not anticipate that it would run to eight or nine amendments over five pages, but I am grateful to the Minister and his officials for their work to try to correct what we all recognise was an anomaly.
The Greater London Authority is happy with the amendments to Clause 21 and with Clause 21 when amended, but there are still concerns about Clause 22. The Government’s proposals are welcome, but they do not go quite as far as they need to in order to correct what the Government intend. That is because the protection afforded by the new clause does not completely cover historic disposals. We are trying to correct an omission from the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008. It is the view of the GLA that to be legally robust and clear to prevent unnecessary blocking of planned strategically important developments, the legal operation of the changes made by Clause 22 needs to be retrospective and to cover historic disposals. My Amendment 93A to Clause 22(11) would ensure that the changes in the clause cover relevant developments in London from the time that Section 11 of and Schedule 3 to the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 came into force, which was 1 December 2008. That would mean that all relevant land left unprotected by the defective provisions of that Schedule 3 would be covered by the corrections made by this amended Clause 22. It would also cover the appropriate corresponding provision that applied to the London Development Agency prior to its abolition.
That is entirely consistent with the Government’s intentions. I hope that the Minister will be in a position today to accept Amendment 93A. If he is not in a position to do so today, I hope that he will give a commitment to look at this point, which the Greater London Authority rightly feels to be important, and to correct it at a later stage, preferably at Third Reading in this House so that I can tie up the loose ends, but if that is too quick, then at a further stage of the Bill.
My Lords, we are grateful for the explanation provided by the Minister today and in the letter of 30 October. It follows a commitment made by the Minister when we discussed an amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Tope, which called for the GLA to perform the role of disposal agency in London. This parallels the role designated for the HCA outside London, whereby land from arm’s-length bodies can be transferred directly rather than via the parent department. We support these amendments.
We also support the amendment just spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, about the cut-off point and the date from which these provisions apply. That anomaly was pointed out in Committee. I hope that the Minister is able to give a positive response.
In Committee, we also probed the prospect of one or more local authorities adopting a similar role, particularly given the prospect of releasing substantial sums of publicly owned land to support housing development. This appeared to find some approval from the Minister, who undertook to explore further. Given that we do not have an amendment from the Government on this point, is this issue still under active consideration?
My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend for his amendment and I thank the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. After the various bilaterals that we have had in advance of Report, I also put on record my thanks for their attendance and for the discussions that we have had across a variety of issues. We may not agree in some cases but it has always been done in a spirit of having constructive ways of moving forward on various elements of the Bill.
I turn to the two non-government amendments. Amendment 92A would make provision in Clause 21 to allow land to be transferred directly from the ALBs of central government to the HCA, reducing bureaucracy and accelerating development. Amendment 93A is in the name of my noble friend Lord Tope. I do not believe that it is necessary to amend Clause 22(11) to allow powers to override easements to transfer to sites that have already been disposed of. Our clause aims to accelerate development; the proposed amendment from my noble friend would not help to facilitate this any further. Developers have bought land and entered into agreements clearly aware of what powers were available to them. The conditions that the land was sold with and the price paid will have reflected this. We are satisfied that where the land has been leased but the GLA, HCA and MDCs retain the freehold, the existing powers to override easements already apply and will continue to do so. That is sufficient to support development on most of the sites disposed of. Changing the law now to apply to sites that have previously been sold would be an unusual approach and may have unintended consequences.
I accept that in a small number of cases which I am aware of the freehold may have been disposed of, meaning that the power does not apply. However, there are alternative mechanisms available to address this such as taking out insurance, negotiating with easement owners and making references to the Upper Tribunal Lands Chamber. Given the mechanism already available and the small number of sites that would be affected, we do not believe that this is sufficient to warrant a legislative amendment which may well cause unintended consequences elsewhere.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, talked about local authorities. In our meetings, we said that the situation with local authorities was somewhat different. Beyond the discussions that we have had, the Government are certainly not in a position to provide any further detail or to accept any amendments in that regard.
Amendment 88 agreed.
Amendments 89 and 90
89: Clause 21, page 22, line 36, leave out “of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008”
90: Clause 21, page 22, line 37, leave out “of that Act”
Amendments 89 and 90 agreed.
90A: Clause 21, page 23, line 18, at end insert—
“(8) This section and section 53B do not have effect in relation to property, rights or liabilities comprising the whole or any part of the Public Forest Estate.
(9) The Public Forest Estate comprises all the land, property, rights and liabilities acquired by the Minister under section 39 of the Forestry Act 1967, including all such land not needed, or not used, for the purpose of afforestation or any purpose connected with forestry.”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 90A, I must thank the right reverend prelate the Bishop of St Albans for his support. He is following in the footsteps of Bishop James, the former Bishop of Liverpool, who did so much to safeguard the future of our woods and forests.
We now turn to concerns that powers within Clause 21 would allow the transfer of land from public bodies to the Homes and Communities Agency and could therefore allow the Government to transfer parts of the Public Forest Estate to the HCA for development. The Public Forest Estate is a precious asset providing us with beauty, space for recreation, space in which to walk and breathe, an environment for flora, fauna and wildlife to flourish and a means of preventing floods and slowing the effects of climate change. For those of us whose home is in a forest, they are part of our culture and heritage. They sustain livelihoods and support our local economy; they are the lifeblood of our communities. That is why I am passionate about protecting the Public Forest Estate.
At Second Reading and in Committee, the response to concerns that many people have about the Bill and the Public Forest Estate was confused. Ministers said that the Government had no intention of transferring land from the new body to the Homes and Communities Agency as the Public Forest Estate is currently in use and not declared surplus. I imagine that the Minister will say that it cannot be used because the land that makes up the Public Forest Estate does not constitute an arm’s-length body. However, if your Lordships were to go to the Government’s website, the Forestry Commission sits in the same section as HMRC and other arm’s-length bodies which will, I imagine, be covered by the Bill in the list that will be brought forward and covered in secondary legislation. Can the Minister commit to bringing forward between now and Third Reading a list of bodies that will be covered by the Bill?
We have the thrust of what the Minister is going to say from a Written Ministerial Statement. It is the second time on this topic that the Government have sought to ensure that their views are set out ahead of debate. I am grateful to the Minister for providing me with an advance copy, but my fears have not been assuaged. I hold this Minister in very high regard and do not doubt his intentions but, because of the recent history with respect to this Government’s cavalier attitude to our forests, words are not enough if they are not in a Bill. Indeed, to repeat the words of Viscount Bledisloe in a debate on the Forestry Bill in 1981:
“It is not what you say; it is what is in the Bill itself”.—[Official Report, 11/5/81; col. 370.]
I regret that the two commitments in the Written Ministerial Statement are simply not enough. Indeed, the second commitment on:
“Not including the new Public Forest Estate management body in any future regulations specifying which bodies can transfer land to the Homes and Communities Agency”,
is particularly strange. It depends for compliance upon an institution which does not exist—the new Public Forest Estate management body. Much of the difficulty that the Government find themselves in here rests with the fact that there is some confusion about the legal definition of the Public Forest Estate, but there need not be.
The Government committed to bringing forward a Bill to implement the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry, an important and detailed piece of work led by the former Bishop of Liverpool. The Government have argued in earlier debates that there is not enough legislative time to follow through on their promises. The Written Ministerial Statement repeats the canard that,
“it was not in the end possible to accommodate the necessary legislation within the current parliamentary programme”.—[Official Report, 4/11/14; col. WS 144.]
What a hoot, especially when your Lordships consider the paucity of legislation before us in this Session. I know that officials have been working on proposals, for which I am grateful, so why have the Government not at the very least brought forward a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny? The principal recommendation from the panel was that the Public Forest Estate should be held in trust for the nation; without a Bill, I regret that the legal ambiguity around it will continue.
The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, will no doubt claim that my amendment, which would put his own assurances into the Bill, is otiose yet a recent example from the Forest of Dean clearly demonstrates that words spoken by a Minister do not provide protection. In 2011, Bircham Wood was sold despite the fact that when the Forest of Dean was exempted from the disposals part of the Forestry Act 1981, Hansard recorded the intention also to exempt the associated woodlands. When the Forestry Commission land agent was challenged about the sale, he said that as Bircham Wood was not named in the 1981 Act, the Act did not apply to it. On such small omissions, confusions and accidents do these matters rest.
That is why it is my very firm view and the view of thousands of our citizens that the Government need to accept this amendment. These people were devastated by the Public Bodies Bill; they were delighted by the establishment and report of the independent panel; they were heartened by the Government’s response. Now, they feel totally let down by lack of action and are deeply concerned once more about the future of the Public Forest Estate. A few words in the Bill would alleviate those concerns. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am glad to speak in support of this amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. I am also glad to pay tribute to her persistence on this matter which I, too, believe is crucial. When the discussions about the future of the forestry estate have come before the public they have made their views absolutely clear that trees, woods and forests are a vital part of the make-up of the English countryside. Although they now cover only 9% of the land area of England, trees have an iconic place in our relationship with the landscape. Whether living in towns, cities, villages or hamlets, many people express affection and deep regard for the well-being of trees in the locality. Protecting the Public Forest Estate will bring many benefits to the public and the environment. I will mention three of them briefly.
First, exempting the Public Forest Estate from development and making that clear in the Bill will help secure some of the timber needs of the UK. We need our woods. They are practical things. Secondly, it would help to ensure continual public access and amenity uses. Forests and woodlands are not just places of access and recreation to be consumed but are places of relaxation and renewal, offering an opportunity to reconnect to the natural world in all its diversity. For Christians, this is part of God’s gracious provision for the well-being of humans and wildlife and should be respected as such. For many individuals, whether Christians or not, trees, woodlands and forests play a deep part in their spirituality, offering a sense of peace or well-being. They form a background to the tapestry of everyday life, from creating meeting points or landmarks for navigation to providing shade and improving the view. Whether in a cityscape or landscape, they contribute significantly to the improvement of life. Thirdly, this protection would also contribute to climate change. Trees are vital for the future of the planet in carbon sequestration—one of the things we are going to come to in Amendment 108.
I believe this is not just a peripheral thing. It is fundamental to the thriving of our communities and the environment in which we live. I shall press the Minister further to honour the commitment made following the report from the Independent Panel on Forestry. Will the Minister agree to consult with interested parties prior to Third Reading and consider including an amendment to bring forward legislation to establish that new public body to hold the Public Forest Estate to account?
My Lords, I apologise to the House that I have not participated in the debate on this Bill so far but I have been indisposed. I am now back healthy and prepared to enter the fray once again. I support this amendment from the noble Baroness and the right reverend Prelate because I think it is critical. It also brings back memories. Although I understand that the Minister is very committed to this Bill and to forestry, the coalition does not have the best of records in this respect. I remember this issue being debated during the Public Bodies Bill and the concern that was expressed. I remember the campaigns when thousands of people expressed their views. I do not know what has happened to the signatures that 38 Degrees collected. There is deep concern about forests for the very correct reasons the right reverend Prelate mentioned. I want to pay tribute—like virtually everyone in the House—to James, the former Bishop of Liverpool. He did a tremendous job of re-engaging politicians with the people out there and their love of forests.
I understand that there is a need for the transfer of land, especially for big infrastructure and housing. It would be foolish to deny that. I support this amendment because having read the Bill I am convinced of the intention of the Ministers and have no doubt about their sincerity, but I am not convinced completely that this Bill backs up their intentions. They may not be prepared to transfer land from the Forestry Commission to the HCA, but the Bill, I believe, gives other Ministers, future Ministers and future Governments the powers so to do. It may be a point of dispute or of interpretation. If it is, the amendment from my noble friend Lady Royall makes that quite clear.
As I understand it, one of the assurances that Ministers are giving us is that the forest land is not surplus land, but there is some difficulty with the issue of surplus. When I was chair of the Forestry Commission, I sold quite an amount of forest land, but I did so because I was reshaping the forest estate. In my mind, some of the forest in deep rural areas could be disposed of quite happily to the private sector, which would manage it just as well. On the other hand, we could use the money received to create new forests near the centre of population for reasons such as health, recreation and conservation, as well as for timber. I was very proud that in the time I was there we planted more than 1 million trees in Wigan, more than 1 million trees in St Helens and more than 2 million tress in Warrington because we were reshaping the estate. The argument about surplus is very difficult to define. If we rely on that to safeguard our forests, we could run into difficulties. For that reason, I am very keen to support the amendment proposed by my noble friend this evening.
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment moved so clearly and effectively by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, and supported so strongly by the right reverend Prelate. I declare an interest as a patron of a charity in Coggeshall, Essex which runs a large forestry estate. Indeed, I am lucky enough to have a piece of ancient woodland. What has been said about public concern regarding this aspect of this Bill cannot be overestimated. I dare say many Members of the House have had a huge amount of correspondence from people really anxious to get the public forestry estate and, I believe, forestry charities excluded from the Bill as was successfully done during the passage of the Public Bodies Act 2011. They want to do that not because they view the Homes and Communities Agency as a malignant body but because they know only too well that large bureaucracies can lose touch with public feeling and opinion. Indeed there is a march going on at this very moment down in the West Country in the Forest of Dean about this Bill and the potential people think it brings for despoliation. People are deeply anxious in our wonderful country, which seems little by little to be being concreted over, developed and exploited, that we preserve and give special status to what forestry and woodland is left. I think that is at the root of this.
As a talisman of so many people who have written in, I will read a sentence from a letter written by Brian and Michelle Jones, who run an animal charity in the Forest of Dean. They say a good deal, including:
“For your average Brit, the freedom to roam on the beaches, by the lakes and, especially, in the forests, is sacred. It is what being British is all about”.
That would be a pretty universal sentiment.
Specifically in relation to the language of the Bill, the wording in Clause 21 to introduce into the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 new Clause 53A, entitled:
“Other property etc transfers to the HCA”—
that is, the Home and Communities Agency—is far too wide. It is absolutely right for the noble Baroness who tabled the amendment to make clear beyond peradventure that public forests are not to be subject to that clause’s provisions. It states:
“The Secretary of State may at any time make one or more schemes for the transfer to the HCA of designated property, rights or liabilities of a specified public body”.
That is typical legalese and I am a lawyer, but one wants to know what “designated property” and “a specified public body” are. On those two phrases hang the potential, or lack thereof, of the Bill to wound the public weal.
Further into Clause 21, “designated property” is defined extremely widely. It states that,
“in relation to a scheme”,
it is to be,
“determined in accordance with the scheme”.
It is extraordinarily wide. The scheme that the Secretary of State can make is to transfer property—any property—to the HCA for the purposes of housing. This whole piece of the Bill harks back to the Homes and Regeneration Act 2008, Section 2 of which states that the purpose of the Homes and Communities Agency is,
“to improve the supply and quality of housing in England”.
Very fine, too, but it is a question of how you do it. I am saying that the language in this clause is too wide.
The noble Baroness referred to “specified public body”, because there exists the contemplation that the Minister may say that the public forestry body is not caught within the new addition to the 2008 Act. However, “specified public body” is itself widely defined. It simply says that it shall be defined in accordance with,
“a description specified, by regulations made by the Secretary of State”.
Well, that is good, is it not? We all know the force of regulations in preserving our cherished rights and advantages. We know very well that you cannot amend regulation; you have to reject it in its entirety or it goes through, and the chances of rejecting a regulation in its entirety are slim. We are therefore left with a definition of “specified public body” as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.
“Public body” is defined in subsection (5) of new Section 53A as,
“a person or body with functions of a public nature”.
Well, that is jolly helpful, is it not? You could get 10 lawyers arguing for 10 years about that. I asked a well known Law Lord about this. He is not here this afternoon, or he would confirm that he believes that that definition includes, for example, all woodland charities. Every county of England has a woodland trust. He believes that they are brought within the provisions of this clause. Can you imagine the potential consequences? The charity of which I am a patron is one of thousands of woodland charities.
I anticipate that the Minister will say, “Oh, that is rubbish. ‘Public body’ does not extend that far”, and so on. I will read to your Lordships from the Local Government Act 1972; that is not some little measure, after all, but a measure central to our national life and government. Section 270 of that Act defines “public body”, inter alia, in these terms,
“any trustees … who, for public purposes and not for their own profit, act under any … instrument for the improvement of any place”—
which is also a very wide definition. Then it mentions a number of things, such as the supply of water, providing cemeteries and markets, and so on. It boils down to the fact that the definition of “public bodies” includes, of course, local authorities, parish councils and all the rest of it, but also,
“trustees … who, for public purposes and not for their own profit, act under any … instrument”.
That includes every charity in the land. The definition, the central core of charity, is that it exists exclusively for public benefit. What could be more of a public body than that? Of course, trustees cannot run charities, to use the language of the 1972 Act, “for their own profit”. They cannot charge a penny for their services.
My contention—and I shall be fascinated to know whether the noble Lord disagrees with this—is that Clause 21, introducing new Section 53A into the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, is far too wide for comfort.
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate referred to the importance attached to this issue and the strength of feeling within the church. That is significant. What was so impressive the last time this issue was being discussed, while the church played a critical part in the deliberations, was not only the size of the response to the Government’s proposal but the spontaneity and strength across the community as a whole. This was something about which people cared passionately in our society. It is hardly surprising that, in a country that is so increasingly pressurised in material terms, people take very seriously the balance that is needed for creativity, thought, reflection, and spiritual and physical regeneration.
My point is quite simple. My noble friend has said that the Minister has given assurances and that she respects him. I may also respect the Minister—and I do. However, I never understand this point. The Minister and his Government will not be there for ever. If the assurances on something which is crucial, and on which the Minister feels able to give assurances, mount, why on earth should we not put it in the Bill so that it is there as the clear expression of Parliament for future Governments as well as the present one?
My Lords, I will be brief because I sense that the House wants to reach a decision. In my former constituency of Wanstead and Woodford was quite a large part of Epping Forest. I entirely share the views that have been expressed around the House, by the right reverend Prelate and others, about the extent to which this forms an enormously valuable part of people’s lives and, indeed, is part of their being.
When Winston Churchill fell ill, went into hospital and lost his job—of course, he had a job and therefore had to give up his seat—he ended that chapter of his biography:
“And so I found myself without an office, without a seat … and without an appendix. I came to rest amid the cool glades of Epping Forest”.
Of course, he became the Member for Epping; I inherited part of that constituency.
I listened to the noble Baroness with great interest because I, too, had read the Statement made by my noble friend and published in Hansard on 4 November, and I took comfort from it. However, I have to say to my noble friend that this is what worries me: a Statement, however formally issued, is not the same as an Act of Parliament. The example quoted by the noble Baroness about the particular part of the Forest of Dean, which I had not heard before, has raised doubts in my mind. Whether this or another amendment is necessary to place the intention of the Statement firmly on the statute book, it seems to me that this amendment has a good deal to say for it. I shall listen to my noble friend’s response to this debate with considerable interest.
My Lords, I missed the opening of this debate because I was upstairs at a meeting of the APPG on arts and health, at which a series of experts in mental health said how important people’s surroundings—whether they were in the East End or the countryside—were to their good health and the well oiled working of society. As someone who has the privilege of living a lot of the time in the country and working with foresters, I feel that the transcending quality that people feel the countryside, and forestry in particular, affords them is not something with which we should play fast and loose.
The noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, made some very fair points in recognising what the Government probably want to do here, but I do not think that this is an area where we can take any risks. From what many Members of the House have said, it seems that there is a huge risk attached to the Bill as presently framed, and therefore I would like to support the amendment.
My Lords, I apologise for not having spoken previously on the Bill; at the time, I was out of action as far as the House of Lords is concerned for various reasons. I should remind the House of my registered interests in the areas of local government and countryside recreation.
I was involved in what became the Public Bodies Act, to which I will refer in a minute because there is something about it that is important here. I was very pleased that I tabled the amendments that removed on the forestry commissioners’ clauses from the then Bill. Since then, the Independent Panel on Forestry—to which the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, referred—has made its recommendations and the Government have accepted the recommendation for a new body to look after the forestry estate. That was taken forward within Defra. In particular, my honourable friend David Heath, when he was a Minister there, played an important role in ensuring that happened. It has not been taken forward in legislation in this Parliament, and I think people can come to their own conclusions about why that is the case and the priorities of one of the parties—the Conservative Party—within the coalition. All I can say is that the Liberal Democrat manifesto at the coming election will include a commitment to such a body. I am not saying that is a 100% guarantee that it will happen but if other parties did the same, it would be very helpful.
At Second Reading my noble friend Lady Kramer said that these powers,
“will not be used by bodies such as the Forestry Commission”.—[Official Report, 18/06/2014; col. 840.]
The question is whether it is “will” or “can”? If it is “can”, someone else perhaps could in the future, and people out there certainly think that is a problem. I want to refer to the forestry commissioners. In the then Public Bodies Bill, the forestry commissioners were treated very differently from all the other public bodies mentioned. Those who remember with pleasure debating that Bill three or four years ago will remember that there were pages and pages of schedules that were lists of organisations. The forestry commissioners were not there. They had to have their three separate clauses and be treated differently. If you look at the Forestry Commission website, it says:
“The Forestry Commission is both a Government Department and a statutory body with a board of Commissioners”.
So that sounds as though it is the same. It goes on:
“The board consists of a Chair and up to 10 other Forestry Commissioners”—
I think there are about half a dozen—
“who are appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of Ministers”.
It was very clear that the commissioners were there by some kind of royal appointment or charter, and were different from other public bodies. My question, which I ask the Minister in all honesty and seriousness, is: does this Bill apply to the forestry commissioners or not? When we dealt with the Public Bodies Bill, we were told that they were different and they had to have these separate clauses, so does this apply to them or not? If the Government can say that it does not apply to them, we can all go home.
Finally, why have the Government got themselves into this silly political mess? We, the Government and the Opposition are all saying that we do not want the land that comes under the forestry commissioners—the forestry estate—to be dealt with in this way as a means of transferring it to the Homes and Communities Agency. Everyone is saying that they do not want to do it, so why have the Government got into this? All Governments get into this silly political mess where they write something in legislation and then cannot make simple compromises in the face of opposition when it comes. I think it is institutional stupidity on the part of this Government. It affects all Governments in this way, in that they cannot back down and say they have got something wrong or that they have to clarify it. We all actually agree, so we should put something in the legislation that says what we all agree on and then we can all go home happy.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for tabling the amendment and for the opportunity to discuss this issue. There is a clear consensus around the House in opposition to the sale of our public forestry estate. I say that as someone who lives in the most wooded county in our country, which I suspect is somewhat surprising to some noble Lords—the county of Surrey.
It is a great disappointment that the promised draft legislation for a new body for the public forestry estate has not yet been provided. That is contributing to the genuine concern, to which my noble friend Lord Phillips referred, that is being articulated by the hundreds of constituents around the country who feel unsure about the Government’s intentions. In the early days of the coalition Government, when there was no Liberal Democrat Minister in Defra, it was a great shame that the possibility of selling off the public forestry estate was proposed. It was a great credit to the campaign in which many noble Lords participated that that was overturned. I should be grateful if the Minister could state what the Government’s position is now because in 2013 we had the Government’s forestry and woodlands policy statement.
In Committee, the Minister clearly set out the settled position of the coalition Government that the forestry estate is not for sale and that we will not transfer the public forestry estate to the HCA. That is the clear intention of this Government. However, future Governments could bring in new pieces of legislation and no one can speak for future Governments. Like my noble friend Lord Greaves, I know that so far the Liberal Democrat party is the only party that has committed to make developments in this area in the future.
In conclusion, I am not entirely persuaded of the need for the amendment. I can see why a belt and braces argument works in one sense, but my worry is that if we accept the amendment there will be a perception among the general public out there that this House does not believe the Government’s intentions for the public forestry estate. Although I am very happy not to agree with my Government and not to accept their position on many, many issues, I feel that on this issue they are acting in good faith. I would therefore be unhappy if the House sent out that message to the general public. Like my noble friend Lord Jenkin, I will listen very carefully to the remarks of my noble friend the Minister and hope that he can reassure us about the intentions of the Government and reassure us that this amendment is not necessary.
My Lords, first, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this important debate and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for tabling the amendment.
The public sector land programme is about bringing disused land currently owned by central government back into productive economic use, supporting homes and jobs, an objective to which I am sure all noble Lords adhere. Where land is no longer needed by government, it will be transferred to the Homes and Communities Agency, which will prepare the land for release to the market and work with local planning authorities to ensure that the land is used in a way that best benefits the community—for example, by supporting local housing needs. We have had many debates, and I am sure that we will continue to have them, about the importance of housing and housebuilding to boost economic growth.
Better reuse of disused land will in turn support our desire—I make it clear that it is the Government’s desire—to protect the green belt and amenity land, such as forests, woodlands and open spaces. Disused government land can and does already transfer to the HCA, but the process is often more bureaucratic than is necessary. This clause is simply about increasing the rate of delivery and efficiency by streamlining internal government procedures.
Let me be clear. The intention behind Clause 21 is not to sell off the nation’s forests. You know what—I have been to a forest or two and I enjoyed a woodland or two as a child, and I want my children to continue to enjoy those very things, as I did. I have made this clear repeatedly, in my meetings with noble Lords—with the noble Baroness in particular—and most recently in a Written Ministerial Statement, published yesterday. I assure all noble Lords that the Government have no plans to dispose of the public forest estate and the powers contained in Clause 21 of the Infrastructure Bill do not present a threat to the future of the estate in public hands. The estate is not surplus, and it is not owned by an arm’s-length body. The Homes and Communities Agency’s objectives are to work with the Government and other public bodies to unlock and accelerate the release of surplus public land for the creation of new homes and employment opportunities, in line with designated government policy. The aim is to make best use of previously used and brownfield land, protecting green belt and amenity land that create and support great places to live.
I have been listening very carefully to what the Minister said, but did he say that the estate was not owned by an arm’s-length body? I wonder whether, at some stage, he will answer the question that I asked. Does Clause 21 apply to the forestry commissioners and the forestry estate, or does it not?
Several questions were raised, and I know that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, although he has tabled some other amendments, said that we could all go home once I had answered that question. Perhaps that means that he will not move his other amendments. However, he has asked the question again, and let me put the matter to rest. The Bill applies to public bodies. He asked whether it applied to forestry commissioners. The forestry commissioners do not own any land and the PFE is owned by the Government. I trust that that point is clear.
This is extremely important. The public forest estate is owned by the Government, but the question I am asking is whether Clause 21 applies to the public forest estate.
I would ask my noble friend to allow me to finish. Once I have concluded my remarks, his question and other questions may have been answered.
Much of the public forest estate is already protected. Many of the sites are, for example, in national parks and the estate contains almost 200 sites of special scientific interest as well as more than 800 scheduled ancient monuments. However, the Government recognise the strength of people’s concerns about the future security of the public forest estate. Indeed, I know that my honourable friend Mark Harper and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, hosted an event recently about the Forest of Dean. That is why we have made the following commitments, which I shall reiterate. The Government will not transfer any part of the public forest estate to the Homes and Communities Agency. We are amending our guidance to departments on the transfer of public land to make it clear that the public forest estate is exempted from transfer to the Homes and Communities Agency. We will not include the new public forest estate management body in any future regulations specifying which bodies can transfer land to the Homes and Communities Agency.
I hope that that clear public commitment by the Government provides a degree of certainty and reassurance to noble Lords. Having made these commitments, I must also be clear that the intention of Clause 21 of the Infrastructure Bill was simply to allow the direct transfer of land from central government arm’s-length bodies to the HCA. The noble Baroness asked about the list of arm’s-length bodies. I would be happy to share that with her and the rest of your Lordships’ House. The public forest estate is not owned by any arm’s-length body and, as such, is not covered by the aims or purpose of this policy.
Various questions were asked and my noble friend Lord Phillips raised some specific questions. If I may, in the interests of brevity and to move issues on, I shall write to him specifically on the issues that he raised.
I have listened very carefully to what has been said in the Chamber today and listened attentively to the sentiments expressed by your Lordships’ House. It has become increasingly clear to me during the course of the debate that there is still strong feeling in the House that this is an important issue on which the Government need to reflect further. Therefore, I shall seek to bring an amendment back to the House at Third Reading that will seek to exempt the public forest estate from transfer to the Homes and Communities Agency. I hope that, with that assurance, and the faith that the noble Baroness has in me, for which I am grateful, she will be minded to withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister for that very conciliatory answer. Will he be as good as to confirm that if, on reflection, he comes to the view that it is not clear that charitable woodland and forests are excluded from the Bill, that too will be covered by the Third Reading amendment?
My Lords, I feel that I have charity in abundance myself, personally. I gave an assurance to my noble friend about a detailed answer and perhaps we can take that up in the letter. If he has any concerns after that letter, I shall be happy to speak to him.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for listening. As he knows, words are simply not enough. I hold him in good faith, and I know what he wants to do. I look forward to him coming back to put an amendment in the Bill that ensures the protection of the public forests. I am extremely grateful to the Minister.
Amendment 90A withdrawn.
91: Clause 21, page 24, line 19, leave out “of that Act”
Amendment 91 agreed.
92: Clause 21, page 24, line 26, at end insert—
“(3) The Greater London Authority Act 1999 is amended in accordance with subsections (4) and (5).
(4) After section 333D insert—
“333DA Transfer schemes
(1) The Secretary of State may at any time make one or more schemes for the transfer of designated property, rights or liabilities of a specified public body to—
(a) the Authority, or(b) a company or body through which the Authority exercises functions in relation to housing or regeneration.(2) In subsection (1) “specified public body” means a public body which is for the time being specified, or of a description specified, by regulations made by the Secretary of State.
(3) On the date specified by a scheme as the date on which the scheme is to have effect, the designated property, rights or liabilities are transferred and vest in accordance with the scheme.
(4) In this section—
“designated”, in relation to a scheme, means specified in or determined in accordance with the scheme;
“public body” means a person or body with functions of a public nature.
(5) This section and sections 333DB and 333DC bind the Crown, but do not have effect in relation to property, rights or liabilities belonging to—
(a) Her Majesty in right of the Crown,(b) Her Majesty in right of Her private estates,(c) Her Majesty in right of the Duchy of Lancaster, or (d) the Duchy of Cornwall.(6) The reference in subsection (5) to Her Majesty’s private estates is to be construed in accordance with section 1 of the Crown Private Estates Act 1862.
333DB Further provisions about transfer schemes
(1) A transfer scheme may—
(a) create for the transferor interests in, or rights over, property transferred by virtue of the scheme,(b) create for a transferee interests in, or rights over, property retained by the transferor or transferred to another transferee,(c) create rights or liabilities between the transferor and a transferee or between transferees.(2) A transfer scheme may provide for the transfer of property, rights or liabilities that would not otherwise be capable of being transferred or assigned.
(3) In particular, a transfer scheme may provide for the transfer to take effect regardless of a contravention, liability or interference with an interest or right that would otherwise exist by reason of a provision having effect in relation to the terms on which the transferor is entitled to the property or right, or subject to the liability, in question.
(4) It does not matter whether the provision referred to in subsection (3) has effect under an enactment or an agreement or in any other way.
(5) A certificate by the Secretary of State that anything specified in the certificate has vested in any person by virtue of a transfer scheme is conclusive evidence for all purposes of that fact.
(6) A transfer scheme may contain provision for the payment of compensation by the Secretary of State to any person whose interests are adversely affected by it.
(7) A transfer by virtue of a transfer scheme does not affect the validity of anything done by or in relation to the transferor before the transfer takes effect.
(8) Anything which—
(a) is done by the transferor for the purposes of, or otherwise in connection with, anything transferred by virtue of a transfer scheme, and(b) is in effect immediately before the transfer date,is to be treated as done by the transferee.(9) There may be continued by or in relation to the transferee anything (including legal proceedings)—
(a) which relates to anything transferred by virtue of a transfer scheme, and(b) which is in the process of being done by or in relation to the transferor immediately before the transfer date.(10) Subsection (11) applies to any document—
(a) which relates to anything transferred by virtue of a transfer scheme, and(b) which is in effect immediately before the transfer date.(11) Any references in the document to the transferor are to be read as references to the transferee.
(12) A transfer scheme may include supplementary, incidental, transitional and consequential provision.
(13) In this section—
“enactment” includes subordinate legislation within the meaning of the Interpretation Act 1978;
“transfer scheme” means a transfer scheme under section 333DA;
“transfer date” means a date specified by a transfer scheme as the date on which the scheme is to have effect.
333DC Tax consequences of transfers under section 333DA
(1) The Treasury may by regulations make provision for varying the way in which a relevant tax has effect from time to time in relation to—
(a) any property, rights or liabilities transferred in accordance with a transfer scheme, or(b) anything done for the purposes of, or in relation to, or in consequence of, the transfer of any property, rights or liabilities in accordance with such a transfer scheme. (2) The provision that may be made under subsection (1)(a) includes, in particular, provision for—
(a) a tax provision not to apply, or to apply with modifications, in relation to any property, rights or liabilities transferred;(b) any property, rights or liabilities transferred to be treated in a specified way for the purposes of a tax provision;(c) the Secretary of State to be required or permitted, with the consent of the Treasury, to determine, or to specify the method for determining, anything which needs to be determined for the purposes of any tax provision so far as relating to any property, rights or liabilities transferred.(3) The provision that may be made under subsection (1)(b) includes, in particular, provision for—
(a) a tax provision not to apply, or to apply with modifications, in relation to anything done for the purposes of, or in relation to, or in consequence of, the transfer;(b) anything done for the purposes of, or in relation to, or in consequence of, the transfer to have or not have a specified consequence or be treated in a specified way;(c) the Secretary of State to be required or permitted, with the consent of the Treasury, to determine, or to specify the method for determining, anything which needs to be determined for the purposes of any tax provision so far as relating to anything done for the purposes of, or in relation to, or in consequence of, the transfer.(4) In this section—
“enactment” includes subordinate legislation within the meaning of the Interpretation Act 1978;
“relevant tax” means income tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax, stamp duty, stamp duty land tax or stamp duty reserve tax;
“tax provision” means a provision of an enactment about a relevant tax;
“transfer scheme” means a transfer scheme under section 333DA.
(5) References in this section to the transfer of property, rights or liabilities in accordance with a transfer scheme include references to—
(a) the creation of interests, rights or liabilities under the scheme, and(b) the modification of interests, rights or liabilities under the scheme, (and “transferred”, in relation to property, rights or liabilities, is to be read accordingly).”(5) In section 420 (regulations and orders)—
(a) in subsection (7) (instruments subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament) after the entry for section 243(7) insert—“section 333DA(2);”, and
(b) after subsection (8) insert—“(8A) A statutory instrument which contains regulations under section 333DC shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the House of Commons.””
Amendment 92A (to Amendment 92) not moved.
Amendment 92 agreed.
Clause 22: Easements etc affecting land
93: Clause 22, page 25, line 15, leave out from “Authority” to end of line 17 and insert “exercises functions in relation to housing or regeneration.”
Amendment 93 agreed.
Amendment 93A not moved.
Amendments 94 and 95
94: Clause 22, page 25, line 36, after “Authority” insert “, a company or body through which the Authority exercises functions in relation to housing or regeneration”
95: Clause 22, page 25, line 37, at end insert—
“(12) The reference in subsection (11) to land disposed of by the Greater London Authority does not include land disposed of to a company or body through which the Authority exercises functions in relation to housing or regeneration.”
Amendments 94 and 95 agreed.
Clause 23: Transfer of responsibility for local land charges to Land Registry
95A: Clause 23, page 26, line 2, at end insert—
“(3) This section shall not come into force until the Secretary of State has laid a report before both Houses of Parliament on the effects of the transferral of responsibility for local land charges to the Land Registry, and the report shall include—
(a) an implementation plan;(b) an assessment of the impact it will have on local authorities.”
My Lords, Amendment 95 would preclude Clause 23 coming into effect until a report had been prepared and submitted to both Houses of Parliament on the effects of the proposed transfer of responsibilities to the Land Registry. In doing so, I shall say more widely why we consider the proposals for the local land charges register to be misguided. We do not object to government Amendments 97, 98 and 99, which are yet to be moved, and we support Amendment 95B tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves.
When we debated the issues of local land charges in Committee, it was very much in the shadow of a parallel proposition concerning a new delivery company for the Land Registry which was widely believed to be a step along the way to the privatisation of the service. The proposals for local land charges were seen as part of a strategy to fatten up the Land Registry to make it a much more attractive commercial proposition. However, just before our Committee deliberations, the Government announced that the Land Registry model would not be changed “at this time”. In the words of the Minister, there would be no change,
“for the rest of this Parliament”.—[Official Report, 15/7/14; col. GC 242.]
We accept this assurance, but it does not go very far; it takes us until only next May.
While our analysis of why the Government are misguided in their proposals for local land charges stands separate from this thread, we would be foolish to disregard the revival of that privatisation risk, should the coalition get its chance. We note that the departure of the current Chief Land Registrar has been announced. What can the Minister tell us about successor arrangements: does a change of leadership signal a different approach? Will the Minister share with us the terms of the job advert and whether it will be part of the role of the appointee to lead a privatised service? Is the aspiration to appoint someone with a background in the Land Registry or, like the departing chief, with privatisation experience? When is the new appointment expected to be made?
That aside, what the Minister has proposed is that, as part of acquiring wider powers, the Land Registry should take over statutory responsibility for holding and maintaining a composite local land charges register. It would be the sole registering authority for local land charges in England and Wales and the sole provider of local land charge official search results. Unofficial searches would continue as now to be provided by personal search companies. The Government’s rationale for the change includes the supposed benefits of standardisation of fees and format of results, improving processing times and our international rating for registering properties and supporting the Government’s Digital by Default agenda.
The Government have consulted on these proposals and have drawn significant opposition. This has come from the Law Society, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, the Local Government Association, the District Councils’ Network and the Local Land Charges Institute, as well as from private search companies from the SME sector. An important consideration is that the Government are arguing the benefits of a centralised approach, but they are actually creating further fragmentation.
Local authorities currently have responsibility in respect of two local searches— the local land charges searches and what is known as CON29. The former is divided into 12 parts and includes registering charges or encumbrances to property arising from such matters as planning conditions, Section 106 agreements, tree preservation orders, listed buildings and the like. The information on these charges is included on the register as and when the documentation which creates the charge arises. Such charges might originate in a range of council departments and it is the job of local land charges staff to update the register as soon as notified. Staff also help resolve queries where, for example, property descriptions are imprecise.
CON29 searches have been in operation for about 50 years. They are a non-statutory list of questions agreed between Government, local authorities and the Law Society. They cover a wide range of matters which may affect a potential purchaser of property, such as any pending planning applications, whether the area is about to be declared a conservation area, or if the access road is adopted. These are prospective matters which might affect somebody’s enjoyment of a property. There is no register as such but responses are provided when requests are made. Information may be held in a number of different council departments or, in the case of two-tier authorities, in different authorities.
The task of the local land charges staff is typically to peruse local information sources, including council reports, to keep abreast of developments. Local knowledge is vital and the District Councils’ Network has expressed particular concern that insufficient weight has been given to this. At present, there are 20 million entries on the local land charges register, with 65,000 changes being made each month. We also know that, for some 92% of searches, the inquiry is in respect of local land charges and CON29 searches together. The proposition is for the local Land Registry to receive updates from some 350 local authorities for incorporation on to their sole register—covering only local land charges. CON29 searches would be left as now, with local authorities. It was the intention that the Land Registry would take over both elements but, as the Local Land Charges Institute pointed out, years of trying to work out how this could be accomplished have apparently proved fruitless—unless the Minister could tell us by when these proposals could proceed. It is expected that CON29 searches will be undertaken by the Land Registry. What work is currently being undertaken to this effect?
As far as local land charges are concerned, we have no knowledge as to how often the information received from local authorities will be incorporated on to the register, the process for doing so and the format in which the information is to be supplied. What consideration has been given to data cleansing? When will there be a delivery plan for what the Government propose? What are the expected transitional arrangements in respect of local land charges? In arguing for centralisation, the Government have made much of the varying state of digitalisation of the land charges provision of local authorities. A range of different systems is apparently used by local authorities. Have all these to be standardised—presumably to a new system—before there is any transfer of the local land charges register to the Land Registry? Who is to bear the cost of this? Will it be a new burden on local authorities? Will local authorities be recompensed for investment made to date? Should they put on hold any planned new investment to digitalise their system? How is the Land Registry to cope with all this when they are in the throes of instigating complex online applications and automated processes in respect of their existing business?
The Government have also made much of the variable response times and charging arrangements of local authorities. Responding to the Government’s consultation, the Law Society stated that solicitors were broadly satisfied with the process of obtaining local land charges and other search information. They suggested that there were other issues—for example, consistent processes for discharging charges—which might be more beneficial to conveyancing arrangements.
As for lawyers’ irritation with turnaround times, they point out that the research related to the entire conveyancing process, not just the local land charge information. They say that variation in turnaround times will obviously be affected by the number and the nature of queries in each case. Of course, there will be no overall impact on turnaround times in circumstances where the later piece of the jigsaw is the CON29 process. A recent survey indicated that turnaround times for 96% of local land charge-only searches is less than 10 days, with three-quarters being returned in five days. There may be those outside this range, but surely the focus should be to help the minority of councils improve rather than turn all existing arrangements upside down. As for the variation in the level of charging, it is difficult to believe that it is the most important issue in the conveyancing process, but in any event there was a standard charge until the mid-2000s and there is no inherent reason why that could not be reconsidered for the future.
Where does this leave local authorities? The LGA expressed its opposition to this because it will leave councils with the expense of adjusting systems, breaking existing contracts and paying redundancy costs. The LGA is concerned that the longer-term cost to councils of compiling, checking and verifying data has not been properly accounted for. Of course, some local land charge staff have other duties as well, such as electoral registration, and the knock-on costs of staffing issues need to be considered. As part of this, it is planned to uplift all the existing local authority land charges register to the Land Registry for free, at a time when the Land Registry is seeking wider powers to market services. Has any value been placed on the local authority databases?
Unless there are clear plans to encompass the CON29 process into the arrangement, and there seems to be no prospect of that, all that is on offer from this proposition is a worse service and disruption to the existing arrangements. While there is always room for improvement—and the service has improved, on the testimony of those who use it and know best—why on earth fix something that is not broken and for which there is no support?
Despite the engagement of some local authorities in pilots to see the how this might work—seemingly Merton has not volunteered for this—it is obvious that there is no clear implementation plan and no comprehension of what this will mean for local authorities. These proposed changes to a vital service—vital to the health of the property market—should not proceed unless and until these matters are sorted out. I beg to move.
My Lords, I tabled amendments in this group on Monday. Had the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, put down his amendment a day earlier, I would simply have added my name to that because it covers the issues.
My interest in local land registers is very recent—a matter of days. This part of the Bill was drawn to my attention by my council officers and particularly by Richard Townson, the democratic and legal services manager, who gave me a quick tutorial. I am not terribly upset that I did not become an expert in the subject a lot earlier, but needs must. I have a number of questions that the Minister may not be able to answer today, but if he cannot, I would be grateful for a reply in writing. I am aware that I should have made this speech in Grand Committee, but as I said earlier today, I was not available for House of Lords duties at the time.
The national Land Registry deals with the register of title—ownership issues—and does not go beyond that. We are told that it is run extremely efficiently and that is certainly my experience of using it. There are then local land registers that tell you that charges on a particular parcel of land exist. Those charges may be a requirement to pay money to someone, but most of them nowadays are constraints on the use of the land due to planning decisions or highways decisions.
The LLC1 search is a simple search to know what is on the local land register. I have a copy of the form—it is a simple one-sided form. That will produce, for example, information that the house in which I live is situated in the Winewall and Cotton Tree conservation area, which is something that you would want to know if you were buying my house, which is not for sale. Then there is a search to which noble Lords have referred that is known—this is a Law Society form—as CON29, and I have a copy of that form. I am tempted to read the whole thing out to prove a point, but that would test the patience of the House even by my standards. The points that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, made are good examples of what is on the form.
The form starts with planning and building regulation involvement with that property and ends with argon gas, and there is a whole series of things in between. This is a complicated form that requires quite a lot of research. I understand that all the information required for that form is not on the local land register, which is why the second search has to take place. We are told by the LGA that in more than 90% of cases the two requests are made together. In my authority the figure is around 99%, so it is a joint job, but not simple or straightforward.
Schedule 4 provides for local land registers to be replaced by a single national register of local land charges on the grounds of centralisation, efficiency and economies of scale. Those are arguments that we hear many times—sometimes they are true and sometimes they are very untrue. But for each area this will consist of the information already in the local register for that area plus each local land charge that is subsequently registered. The originating authority for a new or amended local land charge or cancellation will in future have a duty to apply to the Chief Land Registrar—the National Land Registry—for its registration on that central register. It seems to a lot of us that that process has not been properly thought out, has not been costed properly and will lead to a lot of difficulties.
As far as the transitional period is concerned, will local authorities be able to continue to set their own charges for this service during the transitional period? What assessment has been made of the additional costs to local authorities for the transfer of records to the national register, because all the records on the existing local registers will have to be transferred to the national register? Some councils still have manual systems, believe it or not. I am told that there are 40 or 50 out of the 350-odd. What assessment has been made of the costs and the process of digitalising these manual records for the authorities that still keep them in dusty files down in the cellar? What is the timescale for the complete transfer to the national system? Has a proper timescale been worked out or is it back-of-the-fag-packet stuff?
As far as the future system is concerned, will the originating local authorities send the new amended or cancelled registrations—all the CON29 stuff and the ordinary registrations—to the Chief Land Registrar to be entered on to the system or will the local authorities have to do it themselves through their computers? Will they put it on directly or will they send it off nationally so that it is put on nationally? I am asking these questions because people are going round from the Land Registry and/or the department talking to local authorities. The local authorities I know about are no wiser when these people have gone round about what they are saying, because they do not really know.
What assessment has been made of the cost to local authorities of having to provide the updated information to the national system or put it on themselves? How will it be different from the present position? If a local authority is simply putting it on its own computer system and in future it has to put it on the national system, what is new?
What will be the future system for CON29 searches? As I have already said, at the moment most are combined with the LLC1 searches. What will be the future system for this? Will the request for CON29 searches be sent to the national system—to the Chief Land Registrar—who will then have to contact each local authority separately or each originating authority separately? If so, who will be responsible for dealing with it? Will it be dealt with nationally or locally? It seems impossible that the system will work unless it is dealt with locally; in that case, what is different from the present system and where is the saving?
Has an assessment been made of the cost to local authorities in the future? Will it be the same? Will it be less than now? Will it perhaps be even more than now because of the additional bureaucratic complications? How will local knowledge be catered for in the new system? One of the very important things about Land Registry searches at the moment is that the people dealing with them are dealing with them every day and they keep in touch with what is happening in planning, in highways and everything else in their local area. They will often say to applicants for a search, “You ought to know about this. You haven’t asked about this, but it’s important and you should know about it”. How will that sort of local knowledge and local information be provided for in a national system?
How will personal search companies fit into the new system? At the moment they go in and relate directly to local authorities. This applies to routine searches and, as I understand it, it applies to searches under the environmental information register system. Has any assessment been made of potential delays due to the fact that national and local bodies will both be involved in the CON29 searches? If there is to be a substantial transfer of work from local to national, will the TUPE regulations apply to the staff who are at the moment involved in the local work? Finally, where the existing service is outsourced, have any of the potential costs involved in ending the contract with the outsourced companies been taken into account? Will the Government compensate local authorities which have to end contracts prematurely if they have to pay compensation?
I know that I have asked a lot of complicated questions. I do not expect the Minister to answer them all today, but I would be very grateful if I could have answers within the next week.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for his support for the government amendments. I turn specifically to Amendments 95A, 95B and 99A, which impact on Clause 23 and Schedule 4, and the questions raised. Clause 23 and Schedule 4 provide for Her Majesty’s Land Registry to maintain a single digital local land charges register for England and Wales. There has been a good deal of discussion on the merits of the government proposals and the perceived drawbacks. I will come to those in a moment, but first we should be clear that maintaining the status quo is not an option.
Many of those noble Lords who have—as I have—served in local government know that some local councils provide a very good local land charges service today. I pay tribute to their staff’s efforts and, as my noble friend Lord Greaves said, to the local expertise that they possess. However, many local authorities continue to operate a system that is wholly, or in part, reliant on paper records. Over time, those records will decay and we need to ensure that these are replaced or the information they contain will be lost. What is the solution? The question is not, “Should the current system change?”; it must do so. The question is whether there should be 348 different changes to develop 348 different digital systems that perpetuate the current inconsistencies in levels of service and cost for the public.
In some authorities a digital service is already available. Bolton Council holds a fully digital register and returns searches within one day. Its aim is to provide an,
“end to end process where every customer has the same experience and that is what we now offer”.
The Land Registry ran a successful year-long prototype with seven local authorities. There is no need to rely on the Government’s word that the prototype was a success. Liverpool City Council has been clear that:
“Together we demonstrated that this could work and that if Land Registry were to roll this out then there could be benefits to the conveyancing process in the UK”.
One need only look at the data currently published by local authorities themselves—for example, Bath and North East Somerset and Castle Point currently quote up to a 20-day turnaround time on their websites for a full search—to see that there is scope for improvement. Customers expect to be able to access government information online without delay or complication. Therefore, the Government are committed to meeting those expectations, and creating a single, digital local land register would be another step towards doing so.
Various questions were raised. I fully understand noble Lords’ interest in how the Government’s proposal would affect local authorities and what the implementation plan would be. I am happy to provide some details this evening.
We have recognised the need to ensure that the new system takes account of local authorities from the start. That is why we have been working with a small number of local authorities, as I have already illustrated, throughout the programme, including prototyping the service with seven of them last year. While I can set out the steps the Government are taking to phase implementation and help local authorities to manage the impact, I reassure your Lordships’ House that those local authorities we have been working with are content with the steps we have taken, as can be seen from the comments by Bolton Council and Liverpool Council, which I quoted a few moments ago.
Turning to the steps we are taking to help local authorities manage the impact, it is important to understand the service they offer at present. Local authorities, we know, will remain best placed to be aware of any changes to charges on land within their area. That is why, under the Government proposals, they will continue to be responsible, as my noble friend Lord Greaves asked, for entering information into the single register and keeping it up to date. They will no longer need to provide the searches, however. There will be no loss of local knowledge under our proposals, simply a more modern, efficient process to help members of the public access that local knowledge. None the less we recognise that there may be some costs that arise because of these proposals, and—to answer a question asked by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie—the DCLG is in conversation with local authorities on how these are best met.
Turning to the implementation plan—again the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked what the Government’s intention is here—implementation will be phased. For each local authority, the first step will be collating the data it holds and checking that they are accurate. The checked data sets will then need to be transformed into a digital format before being transferred into the central land registry that will be created. The local land charges service will transfer from individual local authorities to the Land Registry only once this process has been completed and is functioning.
On Amendment 99B, which seeks to amend Clause 24, the other proposal we are discussing today is in Clause 24 of the Bill, which gives wider powers to the Land Registry to enable it to play a greater role in the property sector. Our aim is simple: to make the conveyancing process quicker, cheaper, more transparent and easier to complete. For reasons that I shall explain, the Land Registry is well placed to achieve that goal, but at present it is limited in the services it can offer, not by what is in the public interest or by what its customers want, but by its limited powers under the Land Registration Act 2002. This clause corrects that. At present, the Land Registry can undertake functions and provide services relating only to land registration. But while it can provide services in relation to register of title information, it is not permitted to in relation to other property information. And while it maintains an electronic register of title, it would not have the power to maintain a register of other property interests. These limitations are not in either the Land Registry’s or the wider public’s interests.
What more could the Land Registry do? The Land Registry is already the single largest source of property information. Where it already has the power to do so, the Land Registry has used this information and experience to develop new services, including the release of free price paid data. Giving wider powers to the Land Registry will enable it to utilise its expertise to provide a broader range of property information services for businesses and citizens, where that is what they want.
I turn to some of the questions that have been asked. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, talked about successor arrangements and the individual being recruited. The advert is available online. I believe that it also features in the Sunday Times. Our intent is quite clear—I am sure the noble Lord shares this intent—namely, to appoint the best candidate, whether that is an internal or external candidate. The appointment is expected to be made early next year.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, and, I believe, my noble friend Lord Greaves, asked about local land charges and CON29. Modernising the local land charges service will provide benefits to both the conveyancing process and the wider economy, as I said. In the long term, the Land Registry may well look at the potential for providing a CON29 service. Currently, it is examining the policy and feasibility of providing the service, albeit this may to limited to arranging a single point of electronic access as a first stage. No significant change will take place in the near future. The ultimate objective of modernising the local land charges service is a step worth taking towards improving the conveyancing process.
My noble friend Lord Greaves asked whether there was sufficient knowledge to provide a local land charges service. I believe that I have already alluded to how the local expertise would be retained. The Land Registry will play a central role in the conveyancing process and is already familiar with the types of interest protected by local land charges. As my noble friend will know, it already administers a large and complex register of title and handles large volumes of applications and searches on a daily basis.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about a project plan. As I said, the Land Registry will share its project plan with local authorities and the LGA once it has completed its profiles of each local authority. I believe that I have already answered the question about data entry which my noble friend Lord Greaves raised.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about the Law Society and local land charges and about the pressing concern with regard to the conveyancing process. I think we all accept that the Land Registry cannot improve all areas of conveyancing and so is concentrating on local land charges—an area where we believe it can offer considerable benefits to the conveyancing industry. Data will be more easily accessible. There will be reductions in cost and ongoing improvements in delivery times. Access will be through one central point in one format and the quality and integrity of data will be maintained. This policy supports wider government priorities to facilitate easier property transactions by bringing efficiencies to the property sector and making public data more easily accessible to the benefit of the wider economy.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about the value being placed on local authorities’ land charges databases. I shall write to him on that, if I may. On the issue of assistance to local authorities, as I said, we believe that the cost of 348 platforms does not provide an efficient way of providing data records for that service.
We believe that the Land Registry will be able to combine data presently held by different bodies in a readily accessible form and will be able to enhance data or process it—for example, by using existing Land Registry data to identify or provide further information on properties. That will produce an information infrastructure on which businesses, including SMEs, can build to offer new commercial services. In short, this will allow the Land Registry to meet the changing needs of its customers and stakeholders and benefit the property sector and economy overall.
I have already talked about CON29 searches. We will not consider the issues around CON29 searches provided by local authorities. However, if consideration is given to them, we will, of course, report back to the House on it.
I reiterate that these powers are enabling only; they cannot be used to take on services from other bodies against their will. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, alluded to privatisation. This is another misconception. I would like to address the question: is this a step towards privatisation of the Land Registry or should it wait until a future Government look at the Land Registry’s structure? First, the Government have made it clear, including in the remarks of my noble friend Lady Kramer at Second Reading, and in Committee, that we will not change the Land Registry’s commercial model. Secondly, regardless of the structure of the Land Registry, it makes sense that, where people want it to provide a service, it has the capability to do so. The legislation should permit it to do just that. These powers are a sensible step to let the Land Registry provide the services its customers ultimately want.
In short, the provisions of Clause 23 and Schedule 4 will enable the Land Registry to create a single digital service that eliminates the current regional variations, a standard digital service that reduces delays for those buying and investing in property. This will modernise the local land charges service. Clause 24 is about building on the excellent service that the Land Registry already provides. Where its customers want the Land Registry to provide a service, and where its expertise in digitisation and the management and reuse of land and property data mean that it is well placed to do so, these provisions will enable the Land Registry to act. That, in turn, will benefit the property sector and the wider economy overall, and these are things I am sure the whole House welcomes.
I hope that I have been clear, if somewhat detailed, in my response. I will read Hansard and, if there are questions that I have not answered, I will write to noble Lords. Based on the clarity which I hope I have provided on some, if not, all the questions that were asked, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, will be minded to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for his contribution. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, “Welcome to the world of local land charges”. He has mastered his brief on that subject, as he normally does, and asked an entirely pertinent series of questions. We have had answers to some, but not all, those questions. The noble Lord stressed local knowledge, which is absolutely key to this.
I do not think that the Minister dealt with the key point that what is proposed to happen will be a fragmentation of a service. We know that currently most people undertake searches of CON29 and local land charges together. It is proposed to peel part of this off to the Land Registry, while the rest stays with local authorities. That seems to me to be the makings of a worse service, not a better one. We await very important information, certainly around the value of the database that local authorities have, which is to be taken over. The noble Lord reiterated the point about privatisation but did not deal with the point about the remit of the successor to the current chief of the Land Registry, the process for which is now under way. Clearly, if it is intended that the service be privatised, the service will be looking for someone with different qualifications from someone who will just administer the register as it is.
There is a beguiling issue about it all being digitised and all on one platform. That looks aside from the complexities of how it will be done and whether it is possible to get there with 348 authorities undertaking their daily work with some 60,000 entries each day. That really has not been addressed. We know that the process is struggling and has effectively given up on trying to take in CON29 as part of it. There are many unanswered questions. I am sure that the Minister will, as usual, be very diligent and look at the record and follow up where we have not had answers tonight. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 95A withdrawn.
Amendment 95B not moved.
Amendment 96 not moved.
Schedule 4: Transfer of responsibility for local land charges to Land Registry
Amendments 97 to 99
97: Schedule 4, page 83, line 39, leave out sub-paragraph (4) and insert—
“(4) Sub-paragraphs (5) and (6) apply to the function of the Lord Chancellor under section 14(1) of the Local Land Charges Act 1975 as amended by this paragraph so far as it relates to the power to make rules for prescribing fees and the manner of payment of fees (“the new function”).
(5) The new function is to be treated as having been transferred to the Welsh Ministers by—
(a) the National Assembly for Wales (Transfer of Functions) Order 2004 (S.I. 2004/3044), and (b) Schedule 11 to the Government of Wales Act 2006, in the same way as the equivalent function of the Lord Chancellor under that section as it had effect apart from this paragraph (“the old function”).(6) A provision made by that Order or that Act in respect of the old function continues to apply to the new function.”
98: Schedule 4, page 87, line 17, after “Schedule” insert “—
99: Schedule 4, page 87, line 18, after “Part;” insert “or
(b) in relation to the operation of any other statutory provision by virtue of which any matter is registrable in the local land charges register,”
Amendments 97 to 99 agreed.
Amendment 99A not moved.
Clause 24: Conferral of additional powers on Land Registry
Amendment 99B not moved.
Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 8.30 pm.