|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 78improve on the value of land by obtaining planning permission or selling with clawback conditions that operate in the event of a future planning permission, the improvements of value will be shared 50-50 between customer and shareholder.
The third purpose of the consent mechanism is to enable the Secretary of State to impose special requirements when there are disposals of land of particular environmental quality. The essential elements are as follows
Within the national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, the broads, and sites of special scientific interest, special environmental controls will apply to any disposal of land. For any such disposal the Secretary of State's consent will be required, and in deciding whether to give that consent he is to be bound by the clause 8 duties, to further conservation, and to have regard to access.
Within those areas, there is to be a range of special conditions which the Secretary of State can impose on any disposal. He can require that the land be offered in the first instance to a conservation body approved for this purpose by the Countryside Commission--a proposal originally put forward by the National Trust and other conservation bodies. He can also require, as a condition of any disposal, that management agreements can be entered with the relevant park authority or local authority, to the satisfaction of the commission. Finally, he can require covenants for the protection of particular features of the land.
The consent procedures will give the Secretary of State a means of ensuring that the special environmental quality of water authority land can be protected indefinitely. That is in addition to the powerful framework of environmental duties already provided for in clauses 8 to 10.
Mr. Wigley : What concerns me and what may concern other hon. Members who listened carefully to the Minister a few moments ago is that the Minister described the structure as one which can encourage holders of land to dispose of land. Surely the whole thrust of what we were looking for in Committee and in the House of Lords was to avoid any encouragement towards disposal, no matter what conditions apply, and to impose conditions only when disposal is for some reason inevitable. Are the Government now claiming that disposal is a mechanism whereby funds may be raised to make up for the shortfall which might otherwise occur?
Mr. Moynihan : I totally reject that analysis. If the hon. Gentleman looked at the small print, he would realise that, no matter who owns national parks land now or the water authorities if they wanted to dispose of land in the national parks, there have never been such rigorous controls as those that will be applied now as a result of this measure. There have never been such rigorous controls on the sale of any land in national parks, let alone on private land which may be held after privatisation. Those rigorous controls are welcomed, as the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) stated, as a victory for conservation and recreation. They are a victory because they go further
Column 79in the protection and enhancement of land for conservation and recreation than anything ever produced before.
Mr. Christopher Hawkins (High Peak) : It is crucial that we get this point clear because, as the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said, some bodies concerned with the environment and access to the countryside are confused about this part of the Bill. It has changed so often that I am not surprised that they are confused. I am confused as well.
Is the Minister saying that voluntary access agreements which exist only in the Peak District national park in my constituency will definitely be protected on the sale of land even to a company other than that which buys from the water board even on transfer of that land to a subsidiary? Or does the Secretary of State have discretionary powers to protect that access? I should like to know that those access agreements will definitely be protected. If they are to be protected, I do not need to speak again on this amendment and I welcome the changes wholeheartedly.
Mr. Moynihan : It is important that the Secretary of State ensures that any change in the use of that land is taken into account and that he considers the options that I have outlined to the House today when he exercises his powers. In clause 8, the Secretary of State has a duty to enhance and protect conservation and recreation. There is an important backcloth to that discretionary power, which goes further than any measure with regard to private land sales inside or outside national parks. The Government have also recognised the importance of bringing SSSIs into the category. That will include a large amount of land. The House should welcome that and it should be celebrated as a victory by hon. Members on both sides.
Mr. Hawkins : There are 70 square miles of voluntary access agreements in the Peak District national park. My constituents and I want to know whether that land will be protected by the Bill. I cannot see why we cannot have it on the face of the Bill that the voluntary access agreements will be protected. Some of those agreements run out very soon, in 1991. It is not enough to say that the Secretary of State has discretion to protect them. I do not like discretionary powers of that kind. I want to know that those agreements are definitely protected.
Mr. Moynihan : I give my hon. Friend a clear assurance that those rights of access are protected by the Bill. I have also outlined to the House the precise position that would occur on the sale of any of that land in future. It is very important for me to repeat what I said at the Dispatch Box a few months ago and to reinforce this point. Voluntary rights of access and the right to roam are continued and are protected by the Bill. The safeguards that I discussed when arguing in support of the major environmental safeguards which have been proposed and debated in the House of Lords and which we are considering today--they
Column 80have been welcomed by the Opposition as a victory for conservation and recreation--apply also to the sale of land.
Dr. Cunningham : Before the Minister slips into the error of saying that the Opposition welcome what has happened in the House of Lords, I remind him that I said that it was a victory in so far as it went, but that the amendments did not go far enough. What would be the circumstances if the Secretary of State--whoever that may be--elects not to use his discretionary powers in those matters? They are, after all, discretionary powers.
Mr. Moynihan : As I have outlined, if the Secretary of State is at odds with the clause 8 duties to which he is subject, he would be clearly out of order in respect of the duties--they are not discretionary--which are outlined in the Bill and are potentially subject to judicial review. That is not a discretion to ignore clause 8 duties. That is right at the heart of the debate and empowers the enhancement of conservation and recreation and the protection of conservation and recreation duties under clause 8.
I have outlined the safeguards for the sales that are being proposed. The hon. Member for Copeland conveniently and completely ignored the clause 8 duties, which are rigorous and were the subject of comprehensive debate. They are absolutely central to what we are debating as the backbone of protection for the land under consideration.
Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme) : Will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that when land is offered for sale at the Secretary of State's direction an opportunity will first be given to a conservation group to buy it? Will he confirm also that it will be at the undeveloped site value?
Mr. Moynihan : It will be at market value. That is obviously important in ensuring that the sale of plc land is at market value. That is recognised to be in the interests of customers and of the company. It is important that there is protection on the 50-50 arrangements that we propose to make sure that customers gain if more than 50 per cent. of the actual value of the land is realised after privatisation. It does not become 100 per cent. It is protection to ensure that we never see the problems that we have sometimes seen in the past with potential windfall profits after privatisation. That cannot happen because of the protection in the Bill. Money will be adjudged, reported on and audited in prospectuses. It is nonsense to say that there will be no knowledge of the value of the land. Of course land must be valued, audited and put before potential investors when it comes to privatisation proceeds and the sale of the water plcs.
The hon. Member for Copeland made a point about the letter of the director general of the National Trust in the press today. According to the hon. Gentleman, as a result of our proposals large areas of what have been described as jewels in the crown will be bereft of protection. The Countryside Commission identified 15 such jewels. Because of the important measures that we have taken today in supporting the Lords amendments, 12 of them are fully covered, one is a proposed area of outstanding natural beauty and another is covered as to 80 per cent. of the total--and most of the remaining one is covered. It would therefore be more accurate to say that the vast majority of land in those jewels in the crown is covered, and that is because of the extension and inclusion of SSSIs.
Column 81Finally, it has been suggested that 7,000 acres of the Elan valley will not qualify for environmental safeguards. That is contrary to what the Government stated in the House of Lords and is not correct. Lord Hesketh stated that inclusion in SSSIs would bring in almost all of the Elan valley. It will bring in about 80 to 90 per cent. My noble Friend's statement was perfectly fair.
Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) : These amendments do not give full protection. The Minister may suggest that there is a victory, but the safeguards that are being offered are hollow. Opposition Members believe that our land--our national
heritage--remains in danger. The Government must decide where their priorities lie. They should ask any of the 2,000 people who follow the activities of the National Trust each day in June what their priorities are. They should ask members of the Ramblers Association and of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds what price they put on that outstanding land--land that is our natural and national heritage. What is most important--the commitment to conservation and environmental inprovement which is shared by the overwhelming majority of the population, or the commitment to shareholders? If there is to be a sell-off of any of the land that is presently owned by the water undertakers, why cannot the House know how much it is worth? If it is to be sold, why cannot the full proceeds be passed on to consumers? Those issues are important.
For Opposition Members--certainly those who were on the Committee--there is a sense of de ja vu about the debate. We are paying and will continue to pay the price of the Minister's error in Committee on the arrangements for the disposal of land. It was not clear in Committee and it is not clear now --it will not be clear after the Bill has gone through Parliament--exactly what will happen about access to the countryside and the disposal of land.
Despite what the Minister has told us, there still remains a gaping loophole in the Bill. At the heart of it is our access to the countryside. Currently, water authorities have recreational duties for the land. The weakness is that that land can be transferred and, on doing so, a subsidiary company can evade recreational duties. We pressed the Minister on that matter time and again in Committee. All that he could do was to give incorrect answers. The Minister and counsel said two different things about the disposal of land. We have the Ramblers Association and other organisations to thank for counsel's opinion. The Minister was wrong then ; the loophole existed. The Lords amendment attempts to plug that loopnole. We criticise it because it gives the Secretary of State great power to which the Minister has referred, but that power is discretionary. There is no duty on the Secretary of State to exercise it.
Mr. Hawkins : The danger is that we will again confuse the public. The hon. Lady's speech was clearly written before the debate. The Minister has said that there is a duty on the Secretary of State in clause 8. I should be delighted if the hon. Lady would clarify that duty for my constituents. To assert that there is no duty is contrary to what the Minister said.
Column 82duty. One depends upon the other. The Secretary of State, the Ramblers Association and other voluntary associations may have to consult further. Matters relating to the disposal of and access to land are not clear at this stage when Parliament is discussing it. I ask the Minister where that duty is.
Mr. Morley : Will my hon. Friend explore clause 8, because it is not enforceable in law and also contains the words "take notice of"? Will she explore, too, whether clause 8 will apply to the holding companies into which the water authorities will put the land?
Our amendment recognises that the Government were wrong. The Lords amendment is nowhere near good enough and does not put matters right, despite what the Minister has said. It is true that the Secretary of State will be given a vast power, but how is it intended that he should use it? What criteria should he be required to use when determining requests for land disposal? Our concern, too, is that no one will know when or whether the Secretary of State is using that power. Will the Minister tell us whether the Secretary of State is under any requirement to consult the public, the local authorities or the organisations which have done so much to make access to the countryside a key issue in the opposition to the sell -off of the water industry? Are we really going to see secret land deals? How shall we know what conditions the Secretary of State has imposed before land is sold off? Will the Minister say why he has confused the issue by referring to protected and designated land, and why in his comments earlier he did not make the situation abundantly clear, as he was requested to do in the letter of the director general of the National Trust to The Independent?
What signposts are the Government following? They say that they are following the conservation signpost, but, in effect, they are following the one marked "shareholders' profits". Is that not why there are no requirements for public consultation when it comes to the sell-off of land transferred to the subsidiary bodies? Is it not the case that that is precisely the place where the Government lost their way before? We have heard much about the general duties that exist to protect the SSSIs. How can we even believe what the Government say when the Minister responsible for water and planning in another place said no substantial damage has been done to SSSIs in the past three years? However, the plain facts are that, in the four years to 1988, 700 have been damaged and 200 substantially damaged. The sell-off of the water industry is one more example of the Government's complete disregard for our national heritage. Will the Minister give us a commitment now to effective public participation over this issue of the disposal of our national heritage? If not, the millions of us who care about the threats facing our countryside and access to the land will have to wait until we have the opportunity to vote with our feet on this matter.
Column 83skilfully through the minefield that has been set by his hon. Friends, but he has not answered any of the questions put to him. His words will not give the type of guarantee that those hon. Gentlemen are seeking on the disposal of land, or the protection of access to land and the existing concessions. If those hon. Gentlemen want to ensure that such protection is safeguarded, they must vote with us for some of our amendments.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) will try to withdraw amendment (a), so that we can vote on amendment (b). It is important that amendment (b) is put to the vote because there will be no reason--
Mr. Moynihan : I should have liked to respond to all the points, and not only those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) to whom I shall reply in full, for example, in drawing out the critical point that it will be an irrelevant consideration to take account of financial benefits towards consumers when determining a planning appeal. There were many other points such as that to which I wanted to respond to my hon. Friend, but I shall do so in writing. I am sure that the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) will appreciate that the reason why I did not do so was to allow the hon. Gentleman and others to contribute to the debate.
Mr. Pike : I also appreciate that the Minister voted for the guillotine that the Government imposed, which prevented us from having sufficient time to debate the issues. If there had not been a guillotine, we would all have had time to make our points to which the Minister could have replied. Once again he is leading us astray. I was making the point that clearly, if there was no financial incentive in selling land, there would be no reason for water authorities wanting to dispose of land. The Minister has said that there have been concessions, and we welcome the fact that the other place has moved in the right direction. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland made clear that those concessions do not go far enough in protecting the land and access to the land that the Opposition would wish to see.
Mr Livsey : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Minister's points have been specifically addressed to the national parks? He has said very little about the areas outside national parks, except perhaps those in the constituency of the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley). That gives us great cause for concern, because there are large tracts of land outside the national parks and SSSIs but about which he has given us little guarantee.
Mr Pike : The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. I accept that we are concerned about land both outside and inside national parks. As with the hon. Gentleman's constituency, the moorland around Burnley and in north-east Lancashire would not be protected by the type of concession that was made in the other place.
We are concerned about how the phrase "surplus land" will be interpreted. I wanted to mention specifically amendment (a), which concerns consultation. If we wrote into the Bill that consultation would be required, that would be a major step forward. The Opposition believe that local authorities and bodies such as the Ramblers Association and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who have given admirable advice to both sides of the House, should be consulted. It must be remembered that those organisations have fought for many of the things that have been achieved.
Much of the access to the lands owned by the water authorities was not conceded readily but has had to be fought for over many years by such organisations as the Ramblers Association. Such organisations fear that, if the Bill goes through in its present form, even with the concessions made in the other House--despite what the Minister has said--those things will be in jeopardy. The Minister knows that he cannot assure us that none of our land will be disposed of and that existing accesses will be maintained. He knows that wherever possible the value of the land will be realised, because that is the way that privatisation will proceed. The Minister knows that the only reason for that being put into the Bill now is that moving the industry from the public to the private sector has introduced a new factor--making a profit. It is only when one needs to make a profit that one starts to look at the sale of land. I hope that the amendment is carried.
Amendment proposed : (b), in line 4, leave out any of the proceeds' and insert all of the proceeds'.-- [Dr. Cunningham.] Question put, That the amendment to the Lords amendment be made :--
The House divided : Ayes 193, Noes 302.
Division No. 273] [7.29 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)
Beith, A. J.
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Cunningham, Dr John
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)