Community Rights - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

5  The Community Right to Reclaim Land


51. The provisions in the Community Right to Reclaim Land began life as the Public Request to Order Disposal (PROD), introduced in the Local Government Planning and Land Act 1980. The PROD process was re-launched as a Community Right in February 2011 and involves the following procedures:

·  local groups ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to direct certain public bodies to dispose of their unused or under-used land;[120]

·  the Secretary of State makes an assessment, which includes finding out from the current owner any plans they may have for its use;

·  if the Secretary of State decides the land is vacant and underused and the council has no plans to bring it into use, they issue a disposal notice that requires the public body to dispose of the land; and

·  the land is usually (but not automatically) sold on the open market; there is no first refusal for community groups.[121]

Evidence of awareness and use

52. When the Right was launched, the Rt Hon. Grant Shapps MP, then Housing Minister, said:

    For years communities who have attempted to improve their local area by developing disused public land and buildings have found themselves bouncing off the walls of bureaucratic indifference […] ordinary people who make a case to improve their local area will be listened to.[122]

Between February 2011 and June 2014 there were 47 applications to use the Right, 42 of which were in scope, including 37 which were to bodies covered by the 1980 Act. As of September 2014, two requests were under consideration.[123] The fate of the other 35 applications is unclear.

53. Reflecting on the low uptake of this Right, the Department for Communities and Local Government explained, "As forcing councils to dispose of land is controversial there is a high threshold for deciding whether land is vacant or underused."[124] The Historic Houses Association added, "there are concerns about how 'under-used or unused land' might be defined and without a workable definition the Community Right to Reclaim Land cannot operate successfully".[125] The Minister acknowledged that some guidance on what constituted under-used or unused land would be "logical".[126]

54. The affordability of available land through the Right was also a concern.[127] Locality, which provides support to groups interested in the Community Rights, suggested the Right be adapted to provide a "right to demand discounted asset transfer" for communities.[128] It said this would provide communities with a backstop if the public body proved resistant to their request, although Locality's Tony Armstrong acknowledged that simply "encouraging asset transfer" might be useful, too.[129] The Minister, Stephen Williams MP, pointed out that there were complex legal procedures already in place to assess whether a price lower than market value could be accepted and the Government would have to "carefully consider" whether any legislative changes in that area were needed to make the Right work.[130]

55. We also heard that access to better information on public land could improve uptake. Locality suggested public bodies could be more open about the land on their books.[131] This view was shared by the Minister, who said he was "keen" on more transparency about public land ownership, including that in the possession of local authorities, the Ministry of Defence and NHS bodies.[132]

56. The disposal at less than market value of taxpayer-funded assets raises wider issues than we cover in this inquiry—for example, the structure of the body owning the land after disposal and the obligations on that body in how it uses the land. In the medium term it may be that the Right to Reclaim Land needs to be reconfigured so that a community group can demand or request that the public body dispose of it as a discounted asset transfer. But for now this may be premature. Publicising and encouraging asset transfer would be a more consensual first step than moving straight to a right to demand the transfer of land at below market value. Community groups also need a clearer idea of what unused and underused land is, and of the land public bodies own. Additionally, as with the Rights to Bid and to Challenge, some follow-up work to track the fate of applications not under consideration would help the Government understand the effectiveness of this Right. We recommend that the Government, as part of its review of Community Rights later in 2015, issue draft guidance on what constitutes unused or underused land, and consider how to improve access to information on public landholdings. It should also analyse the applications that have been made to determine what has happened to them, and why.

120   Assets of Community Value, Standard Note, SN0636, House of Commons Library, August 2013, p 8. Requests can also be made of other public bodies which have signed a memorandum of understanding with DCLG. Anyone can send a request, setting out why they consider: that land or property described in the request process is under-used or vacant; that there are no suitable, consulted upon and publicly tested plans in place or likely to be put in place in an acceptable period of time; and that the land should be disposed of by its current owner in order to enable it to be brought back into use. Back

121   Department for Communities and Local Government, 'Giving people more power over what happens in their neighbourhood', accessed 16 December 2014  Back

122   "Communities to be given a Right to Reclaim Land", Department for Communities and Local Government press release, 2 February 2011  Back

123   Department for Communities and Local Government (CRS 039), p 4 Back

124   As above Back

125   Historic Houses Association (CRS 010), para 4(d)(2) Back

126   Q230 Back

127   UK Cohousing Network and National Community Land Trust Network (CRS 019), para Back

128   Locality (CRS 040), para 5.1 Back

129   Qq187, 189 Back

130   Q228 Back

131   Q187 Back

132   Q229 Back

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Prepared 3 February 2015