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Baroness Wilcox: I thank the Minister for his response, particularly in relation to something I had not even read! It related to the information and I apologise that I did not outline the point.

I have had a response but not the response I would have liked. The Bill's weakness as regards information suggests that the Government do not really intend the rail passengers' council to be an independent voice in the same way as the GECC should become. I am sorry about that.

I listened to the Minister's response to my amendment, but at this late hour I shall withdraw it and reserve the right to return.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 316B to 316G not moved.]

Schedule 17 agreed to.

Clause 216 agreed to.

Schedule 18 agreed to.

Clause 217 [Functions relating to Board's property]:

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood moved Amendment No. 317:

("provided that before disposing of any land the Authority shall, in consultation with the local transport authority and other interested persons, consider what potential for rail or other transport related use such land might offer, and protect the land accordingly").

The noble Baroness said: Clause 217 relates to the transfer of property and other rights and liabilities from the board to the Strategic Rail Authority. Before I go further, perhaps I may say that I welcome that transfer because it is possible that the land and other rights will be used in a way which is related to the purposes of the SRA rather than purely to property portfolio purposes.

Nevertheless, in recent years we have seen large-scale and continuing disposal of such property. If we want to expand the rail network, as we discussed earlier, it is important to ensure that nothing is disposed of which could be used at a later date. That is the purpose of the amendments, which, I confess, are rather infelicitously drafted. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, whose almost identical amendment is grouped with mine, has the right end of the stick, drafting-wise.

However, I believe that we should consider these issues seriously. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that my hopes for the role of the SRA, as the holder of the property portfolio, are not misplaced. I beg to move.

Lord Berkeley: I support Amendments Nos. 317 and 318 and speak to my Amendment No. 319. As the noble Baroness says, there is a remarkable similarity between them.

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As many Members of the Committee will be aware, there is a long history of problems with regard to British Rail land. Even if we ignore the fact that a great deal of the land that was of any use probably has now been sold, I believe that as a result of activities in the past two or three years the situation has improved. However, of the land that remains in the ownership of the British Rail Property Board, probably only 10 per cent is of use for passengers or freight. It is to that that I address my remarks.

First, my amendment suggests that Clause 217(4) should be removed because I am not happy that the terms of Clause 217 should not apply to Clause 206, which relates to the manner in which the authority exercises its function. I believe that land which is of use for rail should be used in furtherance of the authority's objectives and functions, and so on.

I was heartened by comments made by my honourable friend the Minister with responsibility for railways in the other place, Keith Hill, who indicated that he believed it right that the SRA should be able to hold land if it was likely to be required for use within approximately a 20-year horizon. That seems to me to be strategic, and I hope that the Minister here will confirm the strategic view that was expressed at that time. Therefore, the first part of my amendment refers to the need for consultation and a little strategy before land is sold.

The second part relates to an issue which I believe can be described in one or two examples. If a piece of land is retained by the SRA and an organisation wishes to acquire it for transport use, be it a car park, a station, a rail freight terminal, a branch line or whatever, the suspicion remains that the SRA, while allowing the organisation to buy it, will require the land to be sold at the highest price that could have been obtained if it had been sold for office or commercial development.

I do not believe that that is confined to transport. I believe that it is a Treasury rule covering all departments that the highest price must be obtained for a piece of land, regardless of its use. Only 100 or so sites may fall within that category, but they are important sites. It would be nice to think that the SRA could agree with the industry and others and get a commitment from Ministers that they would be free to deal with the issue without having to get the highest price relating to commercial development.

I hope that that was a helpful comment. I look forward to hearing what my noble friend has to say.

1.15 a.m.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: I understand noble Lords' concerns to ensure that surplus land is not lost by default. The aim of the amendments is to give some statutory protection to land that will pass from the British Railways Board to the SRA. Amendment No. 319 would have the further effect of permitting the SRA to dispose of land and property required in furtherance of its purposes at prices reflecting its transport use.

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Clause 217 deals with property, rights and liabilities of the British Railways Board that are not needed by the SRA for the exercise of its other functions. In other words, the disposal arrangements under Clause 217 apply only where the SRA considers that land does not have a railway potential. There is therefore no statutory impediment to the SRA retaining land that has a reasonably foreseeable railways use. Clause 217 enables the Secretary of State to give the SRA a direction about how land that could serve a transport use other than railways is to be disposed of or otherwise dealt with by the SRA. That could include a direction to consider alternative transport use before disposal.

There would need to be a strong case for supporting the industry by disposing of land at less than open market value rather than by the more transparent way of using the SRA's broad financial powers under Clause 210. Cases in which there is a conflict between transport use and land value will be considered by the SRA on an individual basis.

I recognise that the sales programme of the British Railways Board caused alarm in some quarters. That is why we suspended sales of remaining BR land in July 1998 and asked BR to undertake a review of its land holdings, which was completed last September.

The review showed 1,400 sites, of which only 200 had physical characteristics that would make them suitable for transport use. Transport groups and local authorities subsequently registered an interest in more than that number of sites. Many of the remainder are small, disparate sites, or ones with development problems such as poor access. A large number are remote from operational railways and have no conceivable transport use.

Following the review, we put in place new procedures that ensure that possible transport uses are identified, give priority to transport use and enable essential transport needs to be safeguarded. BR's Rail Property Limited acts as agent for sales and the shadow SRA scrutinises sites for strategic purposes.

Since we lifted the suspension of land sales, Rail Property Limited has initiated the first phase of sales by issuing formal notification of its intention to market 600 sites. Registrations of interest were invited from transport organisations and local authorities. They are now being considered by the shadow SRA.

Some land sales are going ahead where no transport interest is registered in the land, where the land is being sold for transport use or where the British Railways Board is legally committed to a sale.

The shadow SRA is currently reviewing sites where a potential transport interest has been identified and is consulting, particularly with freight interests. The SRA will consider very carefully any potential freight sites and will not seek to sell them ahead of others in the portfolio, except where there is clear demand from transport operators for freight use.

Land decisions will be taken in the context of the SRA's emerging strategy. The shadow SRA is developing procedures for the rigorous evaluation of

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the potential of sites. I am pleased to announce that the shadow SRA intends to appoint a new advisory board to review sites and advise on potential transport use. The advisory board will have an external chairman and members reflecting freight, passenger and local authority interests. I hope your Lordships will welcome that robust, independent source of advice.

The SRA will withhold sites from the sales process where potential strategic transport use can be established that is consistent with local transport plans. That will allow time for detailed consideration of future ownership and use and for obtaining any necessary planning consents. I hope that those assurances answer the concerns expressed about whether the sales process has identified all relevant sites, and the fear that it could pre-empt this year's local transport plans.

My noble friend Lord Berkeley said on Second Reading that he was not sure that the Minister's message had got through to the shadow SRA. I assure him that it has. That is demonstrated by the careful way in which any disposals are being considered.

I quote a few illustrations. Sites such as Menstrie and the Abbeyhill Loop are being offered for sale to Railtrack, and sales of all sites on the proposed Oxford to Cambridge route have been suspended until a decision is taken on this important proposed new rail scheme. I can assure the Committee that the shadow SRA is taking a strategic approach. The proposed property advisory board will assist this task.

Those arrangements strike the right balance between disposing of surplus land and ensuring that key sites for future transport use are identified and safeguarded. I hope that, in the light of these explanations and assurances, the noble Baroness will not press her amendment.

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