Orders of the Day — Land Commission

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th July 1968.

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5.26 a.m.

Photo of Sir John Foster Sir John Foster , Northwich

I wish to address the House upon the function of the Land Commission. You will be relieved to hear, Mr. Speaker, that my speech deals with only a very narrow point. I am not concerned with the criticisms that the Conservative Party made of the establishment of the Land Commission—that it would send up the price of land and create an unnecessary establishment of extra civil servants.

I am a director of a company which entered into a transaction, and it received a communication from the Commission saying that it had been notified of the event described in the letter which accompanied the note and was considering: whether you may be liable to betterment levy in respect of that event, and in order to arrive at a preliminary decision as to liability it is necessary to have further information. Will you, accordingly, answer the questions in the letter, which are of a factual nature. For your guidance notes on the questions are printed on the reverse side of the perforated sheet which may be detached and used for your reply. Members of the Commission's staff will be glad to assist you in answering these questions if you are to call at the regional office (preferably by appointment)". It adds that if one seeks professional advice, the Commission will pay the fees incurred, only if liability to levy is established.

What was the transaction? The rather formidable questionnaire which accompanies this is headed: Betterment LevySection 43 Land Commission Act, 1967". There is a long reference with about 12 letters and numbers, and it says: The Commission have been notified of the transaction described below as required by Section 37 of the Land Commission Act 1967. As you may be liable for betterment levy in respect of this transaction will you please give the information requested below quoting in your reply the reference shown at the head of this letter.… The details of the notification are as follows:Transfer of fee simple of 29·5 square yards, land off the easterly side of Audlem Road, and forming part of the Parkfield Estate, Nantwich, on 28th May 1968 to Merseyside and North Wales Electricity Board for the sum of £25. I hasten to add that I have the permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris)—and his support—for raising the matter. At this late hour his constituency might be confused with mine—Northwich.

The 29·5 sq. yds. is about 18 ft. by 15 ft. It is the size of a smallish office. The land was sold as the site of a pylon for £25.

The questions which must be answered are formidable. I will not weary the House be detailing all of them, but some are worth reading. Question 3 asks, Was any part of the sum mentioned above—

  1. (i) paid in respect of severance or other injurious affection of any other land in which you own an interest, or
  2. (ii) paid to any person other than yourself?
Does the sum mentioned above take into account any increase in value, consequent upon this transaction, of any other land in which you own an interest? If so, please give particulars.Did you acquire your interest in the land on or after 1st July 1948?Please give particulars of any income received from the property …What was the land being used for before the transaction? In fact, cows were using it for the needs of nature. Do you claim an allowance in respect of Estate Duty paid? If so, please state the name and the date of death of the person in respect of whose estate the duty was paid …Do you claim a deduction in respect of Capital Gains Tax or Corporation Tax …?If you own an interest in any other land for which no compensation for severance or other injurious affection has been paid and which you claim has been depreciated in value in consequence of the acquisition, please give brief particulars including sufficient details to enable such land to be identified. This is a scandal. It cannot be said that it was a mistake because at the top it states what the transaction was— Transfer of fee simple of 29·5 square yards … for the sum of £25. If we assume that the land was worth nothing—not an assumption which was true in fact—the maximum which the Land Commission would be entitled to receive would be 40 per cent. of £25. But many other considerations enter into it.

I understand that this is not an isolated instance. The Land Commission takes notice of any betterment levy of more than £5. It is rather like the exemption from Capital Gains Tax for a gain of £50. One has to calculate the amount of the betterment levy to see whether one falls below the exemption limit of £5.

I do not want to be petulant at this hour. The scandal speaks for itself. It must have cost a lot of money to send out this form and for civil servants to look at the notification under Section 37 of the Act and to establish what was the assessment. Suppose we took this seriously—and we have to do so—and filled in all the particulars. All this is merely leading up to a preliminary decision whether there is liability, and after that preliminary decision comes the fight between us and the Land Commission whether any amount is due at all. A point of law could be just as vigorously maintained on each side as if the amount were £25,000. The amount concerned does not make any less the validity or otherwise of the points of law.

I raise this matter because it shows bureaucracy gone mad. One of the criticisms which we make of the Government is that they have increased the number of civil servants beyond reason and that the way in which legislation has been drafted in many cases leads to a plethora of form filling and questionnaires. Some 17 or 18 years ago in my constituency I was criticising the then Labour Government saying that the advent of that Labour Government had meant that many forms had to be filled in and that the time of fanners was taken up in form filling instead of in agriculture. A voice at the back of the hall said, "As a farmer I have so many forms to fill in that I have had to engage two new shorthorn typists." That comment was received well by the agricultural community.

I am sure that the Minister will say that it must be ascertained whether any amount is due and that there are bound to be borderline cases. But surely there should be a rule whereby an official at a certain level in the Land Commission is empowered to draw a pencil stroke through a case where it is obvious to him that the amount to be recovered is not worth fighting for. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman really think that we should fill in all these answers and continue with the correspondence in such cases? One is tempted to fill them up facetiously in such trivial transactions.

There are many cases where the local authority is responsible for delay. For example, preliminary consent may have been given but final consent comes after the due date. The result is that the man finds he has to pay a big sum in betterment levy perhaps only because the relevant committee of the local council met on a Thursday instead of a Tuesday.

In a case in my constituency, the Chairman of the Commission wrote to say that this was the luck of the draw, that it was rather like taxation in that a particular date was fixed and there was nothing to be done about it. But it is hard that a betterment levy should depend not on anything the man himself does but on whether the local council's action takes place slowly or quickly.

We are justified in bringing to the attention of the House the work of the Land Commission in this small particular, which is symptomatic of the way of bureaucracy. It is rumoured that the Land Commission has not enough to do and these cases indicate that this is true. While the hon. and learned Gentleman may not be able to give satisfaction in this debate, I hope that he will take these things to heart and see whether some reform cannot be made in the functioning of the Commission.

5.39 p.m.

Photo of Mr Hugh Rossi Mr Hugh Rossi , Hornsey

The House is indebted to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-wich (Sir J. Foster) for drawing its attention to the madness of bureaucracy under the Land Commission. He should not view this madness with surprise, because it is a natural corollary of Socialist legislation that the country should be encumbered with bureaucratic processes of this kind. Those of us who are practitioners in the law are only too painfully aware of this. Our professional experience is that, whenever we have a Socialist Government, bureaucracy and red tape abound and it becomes a burden and nightmare for practitioners in many cases to advise their clients. My hon. Friends have criticised the creation of the Land Commission from the outset. We doubted whether it was capable of achieving the objectives set for it; of making land available for development purposes and the lowering of the price of land. We were told in the White Paper that those were the main objectives.

Photo of Mr Niall MacDermot Mr Niall MacDermot , Derby North

Would the hon. Gentleman point out where in the White Paper it was said that the Land Commission would lower the price of land?

Photo of Mr Hugh Rossi Mr Hugh Rossi , Hornsey

That point was made by the Labour Party throughout the General Election campaign.

When the Measure establishing the Land Commission was being debated, my hon. Friends became amazed at the complexity of the new law that was being proposed. We doubted its intelligibility and we forecast grave problems of interpretation and practice. My hon. and learned Friend gave a classic example of this.

I have been handed a file by a firm of estate agents in Leeds. This firm was engaged in negotiations with the district valuer there for the sale to Leeds Corporation of three houses for the total price of £35. When completed, that transaction was followed by a letter and questionnaire of the kind quoted by my hon. and learned Friend. Not unnaturally, when the estate agents received this communication, the firm doubted the necessity for it and wrote to the Land Commission accordingly. The company received a reply from the regional controller saying: … the District Valuer has informed me that there may be realisation of development value in the sale of the above land. To that the estate agents replied: … will you please ask the District Valuer to state his reasons for assuming that there may be 'realisation of development value in the sale of the above land'". To that the firm received what I can only describe as this classic reply: … the District Valuer … is unable to say at this stage whether development value arises; on the other hand he is unable to say that it does not. The estate agents, prompted to reply, answered in these terms: Thank you for your letter … from which it appears that the District Valuer's uncertainty as to whether or not development value arises in this case is the basic reason why we (and yourselves) must waste our time on this matter … Will you please point out to the District Valuer that the sum of £35 paid by the Corporation for the land in question was based on a figure of 4s. per sq. yd., which is an arbitrary price fixed by the District Valuer himself for compensation purposes in those cases where the site is zoned for residential re-development and is incapable of such development by reason of the By-Laws. If the district valuer himself fixed this arbitrary price for this land, how was he to advise the Land Commission that he was unable to say whether or not the price contained an element of development value?

The correspondence continued along these lines for a few weeks and ultimately the firm of estate agents thought that it might as well communicate direct with the district valuer, and this it did, quoting the previous correspondence it had had with the Land Commission. The district valuer replied on 22nd December saying: In reply to your letter of the 19th December, the quotation you give from the regional controller's letter does not state the position correctly. Apparently the regional controller had not understood the position.

This was followed by an apology from the regional controller who said: I can only apologise and say that this arose through my unfamiliarity with the valuation terms. The correspondence continues further in this vein, until the firm, feeling that it had wasted enough time and effort, filled in the form. It pointed out that it had received a number of other forms, for other clients, in respect of other land. It then received the somewhat curious reply from the regional controller that although it was not returning the forms for that other land, no liability for the levy arose in respect of those other claims. The firm terminated the correspondence with this letter: We are interested to note that the Commission is of the opinion that no liability to levy arises in respect of the sale of the above premises to the Corporation, in view of the information at present before it. We find this of particular interest in view of the fact that we told you in our letter of 1st February that we had your form concerning this transaction in our possession, and did not propose to complete it until the Commission had dealt with the houses which were the subject of that letter, and of the completed form which we sent in. It would appear, therefore, that the Commission is able to form an opinion without requiring the information called for in your forms, and we presume, therefore, that there will be no need to complete them in future. Will the Minister say whether it is necessary, in view of this lamentable case, for practitioners to have to waste their time, and their client's money, filling up forms for transactions of £35, when the district valuer has fixed the price of the land, and yet is uncertain whether there is any development value contained in the price, and when the regional controller does not know what the terms mean?

How do the Government expect normal commercial transactions to proceed when ordinary people are to be tied and trammelled with red tape over fiddling little transactions that can produce only a minimal amount of revenue? Is it any wonder that in 1967–68, £463,000 was collected in betterment levy, at a total collecting cost of £2·3 million? It cost £5 for every £1 of levy collected and it required something in the region of 1,500 civil servants to do the work.

Photo of Dr Michael Winstanley Dr Michael Winstanley , Cheadle

Perhaps the hon. Member would point out that, in addition to this figure, the cost of collection does not include the cost of wages of staff in the Revenue Department?

Photo of Mr Hugh Rossi Mr Hugh Rossi , Hornsey

This is very reminiscent of the ill-fated land tax of Lloyd George. It cost approximately the same to collect £5 million for £1·5 million, and was abandoned after a time, in 1930. The hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley) is not on very strong ground here—the Liberal Party criticising the Labour Party on a matter of this sort.

Photo of Mr Niall MacDermot Mr Niall MacDermot , Derby North

The hon. Member is wrong anyway.

Photo of Mr Hugh Rossi Mr Hugh Rossi , Hornsey

I will leave the Minister and the hon. Gentleman to fight that one out. I have given him enough to answer. How can he justify an imposition of this kind on the country, and to what good purpose is it?

That is not an end of the matter. Other anomalies are arising all the time. There was the recent example of the reference to the Parliamentary Commissioner by my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave). A £460 levy was charged in two cases when there was a net profit on the sale of land of only £40. How can that be justified? The Minister had to make an extra-statutory concession. He has waived part of the levy. But one doubts the legality of this matter. Has he the power to do these things? One wonders whether it would be correct to bring forward amending legislation to deal with the anomalies.

There are other examples of frustration being caused by the operation of the Land Commission Act. An example was brought to my attention the other day concerning the simple question of a change of user of premises. There was no question of material development under the town planning Acts. It was merely a question of a series of leases and the final tenant wishing to change the user. Owing to the way in which the leases were drawn, he could not do this without a variation being made in the terms of his lease, and this had to be followed through the line of several under-leases and head leases back to the freeholder. As the Minister knows, this would involve a Case F charge, which in turn would require an assessment of levy under Case B as though a new lease were being granted. The freeholder, the head lessor and the sub-lessor refused to entertain the idea, because if they agreed to meet the sub-sub-tenant, who was no concerns of theirs, and granted the permission for which he asked they would be charged the levy and no benefit would result for them. The property has been rendered sterile because of the way in which the Land Commission Act is operating.

One hears complaints from developers concerning Case C. One cannot but feel that much useful development is being discouraged through uncertainty about the way in which the levy is likely to affect the finances of a particular transaction. Far from releasing land for development, the Act is having the opposite effect, because it is discouraging people from bringing forward land for development purposes. All the while the fear of the betterment levy, the prospect of the charge, is causing land prices to soar. This has been the subject of Parliamentary Questions, but the Minister has been singularly uncommunicative. The evidence from estate agents, the financial Press and the property gazettes shows that land prices have risen 20 per cent. as a direct result of the imposition of the levy. In addition, there is the appalling waste of manpower in the Civil Service having to deal with all these forms and in the estate agents and legal professions having to try to meet the complexities of this entirely unnecessary legislation.

A nastier situation is arising which was the subject of a Question only two days ago, when the Minister admitted that there were coming to his attention cases in which the Land Commission Act was being used for blackmail purposes. Developers have been saying to people with a little land attached to their houses which could be developed, "We want to buy your land and our price is so much". Perhaps the owner does not want to sell, or he may think that the price is nonsensical. It may be a large garden attached to a house. When he refuses the offer, the developer says, "If you do not sell to me, I shall say to the Land Commission, 'Here is land ripe for development which the owner is holding back', and the Land Commission can compulsorily purchase the land from you at its own price. So you had better accept my offer while the going is good". The Minister knows that this is happening. He has deplored it on the Floor of the House. This is the type of situation that the Act is bringing about.

The case for the abolition of the Land Commission is becoming overwhelming. If the Minister will not do anything about it, if he will not have second thoughts, we will when the country gives us the opportunity to do this.

Photo of Dr Michael Winstanley Dr Michael Winstanley , Cheadle

I had not intended to intervene. I do so on one point only. I am perhaps unwise to rise to try to assist the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), who repudiated my help and then turned in a rather extraordinary fashion on the late Mr. Lloyd George, for reasons which were not immediately apparent.

Photo of Sir Eric Fletcher Sir Eric Fletcher , Islington East

Order. The hon. Gentleman has already spoken. He cannot speak twice on a Second Reading.

5.56 a.m.

Photo of Mr Niall MacDermot Mr Niall MacDermot , Derby North

However many times the hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley) intervenes, and we always like hearing from him, he would still be wrong on this point. What was being discussed was the cost of collecting the levy. The figure quoted by the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) was about £2½ million. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that figure includes both the apportioned costs of the Land Commission itself attributable to the levy and the costs of services provided by other Departments, which includes those services provided by the Inland Revenue. The fig ares, taken from the Civil Estimates, for 1968–69, are as follows: Land Commission, £1·3 million; other Government Departments, £1·2 million; total £2·5 million. I hope that that answers the point which was worrying the hon. Gentleman, even though he did not have the chance to make it.

Photo of Dr Michael Winstanley Dr Michael Winstanley , Cheadle

When I asked in a Parliamentary Question which was the cost of the work done by the Inland Revenue, I was told that the information was not available. I gather that it now is available. I am grateful for the information.

Photo of Mr Niall MacDermot Mr Niall MacDermot , Derby North

The hon. Gentleman asserted in his earlier intervention that the figure quoted by the hon. Member for Hornsey did not include the cost of the services provided by the Inland Revenue. I am pointing out that the hon. Gentleman was mistaken. This is something that can happen to all of us. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is glad, that he now has the facts.

In view of the hour, it is not surprising that the criticisms raised by hon. Members opposite of the Land Commission should have been what I hope they will not mind my describing as relatively trivial points. It was not until the last few moments of his peroration that the hon. Member for Hornsey managed to bring himself to challenege some of the serious matters with which the Commission deals and to suggest that the Commission was not performing a useful function and should be abolished. I propose in the short time available to me to confine most of my remarks to the more serious aspect of the hon. Gentleman's speech.

The hon. and learned Member for Northwich (Sir J. Foster) dealt with a case which I suspect he would hardly regard as typical—the sale of 29 sq. yards of land for £25. I hardly think that that is a typical land transaction. The hon. Member for Hornsey spent the greater part of his speech telling us that some correspondence had taken place relating to the sale of a parcel of land for £35. These are hardly ordinary commercial transactions in land.

Photo of Mr Hugh Rossi Mr Hugh Rossi , Hornsey

These are very typical transactions. The case I quoted was that of the compulsory purchase of three small properties in Leeds at site value. That is going on up and down the country the whole time. Until the law of compulsory purchase compensation is changed, these small sums will continue to be paid; property is being expropriated for next to nothing; and then the owners suffer the added insult of having to fill up these forms, with the danger of having a betterment levy charged. This is the complaint, and it is more than a small, insignificant matter.

Photo of Mr Niall MacDermot Mr Niall MacDermot , Derby North

I repeat, the size of the transaction referred to by the hon. Gentleman is hardly typical of transactions in the sale of land that are taking place.

The hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Northwich recognised that whatever one draws as the dividing line and says that it is not worth collecting sums below that amount, one gets cases at the borderline where there will be nuisance involved for people in having to fill up forms to establish which side of the borderline a particular transaction falls. I do not know what the hon. and learned Gentleman suggests should be the appropriate borderline, but he indicated that the Land Commission does not proceed to levy in cases where it appears that the amount concerned will be less than £5. I think that is a fairly reasonable approach. If there is any evidence of hardship being caused by having a figure at that level, certainly I will be prepared to consider that evidence. I do not feel that the particular case to which the hon. and learned Gentleman drew the attention of the House is likely to cause any hardship or would support an argument for altering that level.

On the more important and major issues, the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) said that from the start the Opposition had challenged the objectives of the Land Commission and doubted whether the Land Commission would be able to help to realise those objectives.

The first objective was to secure for the community a share of the realised betterment in land, that betterment having been created by the community rather than by the land owner. We are still not clear whether the Opposition accept that as a laudable objective that should be maintained. We know that some hon. Gentlemen opposite have expressed support for it and have said that they thought it right, but we have not yet had any official statement from the Opposition. If the hon. Gentleman is in a position to state now and commit his party on whether they believe that it is right to have a system of collection of betterment, I will gladly give way.

Photo of Mr Hugh Rossi Mr Hugh Rossi , Hornsey

I thought that the position had been made abundantly clear, that this was a matter that could be dealt with in the capital gains system as a matter of taxation as capital gains; and not in the way and under the concept and philosphy of hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Photo of Mr Niall MacDermot Mr Niall MacDermot , Derby North

It has not been made clear that that is the intention. There have been suggestions by particular hon. Gentlemen opposite, but there has been no statement that that is the official policy of the party opposite. If it is, it would mean exceedingly wide loopholes, because many of the transactions which are dealt with and which give rise to the to the realisation of betterment are not occasions of charge on Capital Gams Tax. Also, the rate of Capital Gains Tax is lower than that of betterment levy and lower than what people who have given thought to the matter have generally recognised to be the sort of reasonable rate at which there should be any collection of betterment.

The second objective was that that the Land Commission should help to bring land forward for development to help reduce the land shortage and to help restrain prices of land.

I will deal with each of those in turn. First, recovery of betterment. The attacks of the Opposition are directed to the fact that in the initial stages of the betterment levy relatively small sums are being collected and that the costs of collection, therefore, are high. It is wholly unfair and unreasonable to make a false comparison between the cost of collection of a tax in its initial stages and the cost of collection of other taxes which have been established for some time and are in full operation.

In the first year the amount that is collected will be very small, and all the more is that so when, as in this case, very generous transitional provisions were written into the Bill, and indeed were pressed for by the Opposition. One reason for that was to prevent any sudden effect on the land market which could hold up and influence the supply of land. Those transitional provisions have had their effect, and the supply of land has continued smoothly without being clogged up as hon. Gentlemen opposite predicted it would be by the introduction of the betterment levy, so it does not lie in the mouths of hon. Gentlemen opposite to seek to make this false point about the cost of collection.

We had, of course, to set up the machinery to collect, and the levy is now proceeding to come forward at a steadily increasing rate.

Photo of Mr Niall MacDermot Mr Niall MacDermot , Derby North

I do not propose to give way until I have finished this.

Receipts to date have totalled about £1½ million, and outstanding assessments amount to about a similar sum. The estimates for 1968–69 are receipts of £8·3 million, and assessments of £10·8 million. Inevitably these assessments can be only a very general estimate. There are so many imponderable factors, and in particular the receipts will depend on the percentage of cases on which the assessments are contested.

It will be some years before the levy builds up to its full rate, the reason being that virtually all stocks of land held by builders at the time of the introduction of the levy are covered by the exemption provisions. But it should build up steadily, and when the levy reaches its full estimated rate of about £80 million a year the costs of collection ought not to be appreciably different from those at present. On that basis the cost of collection will then be a little over 7d. in the pound, which cannot be regarded as an unreasonable rate, and it compares favourably with the costs of collection of other taxes. One should bear in mind in this connection that taxes which are levied—as betterment levy is—for social purposes every bit as much as for purposes of revenue collection often tend to be higher in their cost of collection than taxes which are levied purely for the purpose of revenue raising.

I turn, now, to the second objective, which is; to bring land forward for development. I have been struck by the silence of the Opposition in recent weeks on the subject of the Land Commission's land acquisition programme. I used to be pestered with Questions about how many acres the Land Commission had acquired here, there and everywhere, at a time when hon. Gentlemen opposite knew that the land acquisition programme had not got under way, land acquisition being a lengthy process, and the Land Commission naturally having to take stock of the position and find out the facts before it proceeded to acquire land. But since the Opposition have realised that the position is changing, Questions have ceased and the attacks have ceased. Now, suddenly, they swing their attack and say how unfairly this is operating on the owners of land who are being blackmailed to sell their back gardens.

I shall come to that in a moment, but let us first get a few of the facts about the land acquisition programme. As 1 told the House the other day, more than 1,100 acres of land have been acquired, or are subject to binding contract, or are subject to compulsory purchase procedures which have been launched. It might be of interest to put on record some analysis of the type of cases in which land is being acquired so that one can see the useful purposes which the Land Commission is serving.

First, there are cases where land ripe for development is being withheld from the market by an owner who is not developing for himself—what is sometimes called, perhaps emotively, land hoarding. An example of that among the land being acquired is a farm in Essex on which the Commission have put a draft compulsory purchase order. It is about 51½ acres in extent. The Commission is doing that because although the land is ripe for development the principal landowner refuses to sell and the Commission is proposing to acquire it to enable it to be developed by private builders. The Commission is even prepared in exceptional cases to use its powers where land is held by a builder who is not bringing it forward at what the Commission regards as a satisfactory rate. That is the case with a site at Killearn, Stirlingshire, where it is launching compulsory purchase procedures in relation to the 52 acres held by a builder.

Perhaps more frequently there are cases where the land is in many different ownerships and where the Commission, by assembling several sites together, is able to ensure a good and properly planned development instead of piecemeal development. There is a site at Canal Lane, Stanley, Yorkshire, where about 34½ acres are being acquired by the Commission for that purpose. Again, at Earls Barton, in Northamptonshire, it has launched compulsory purchase procedures in relation to 24½ acres to be assembled in that way.

At Congleton, Cheshire, similarly, about 13½ acres are being acquired. This is a case of some interest, because it is one where the local planning authority had previously refused planning permission for piecemeal development by the owners of the property but is now willing to give permission for the orderly development of the whole area—something which could not have been achieved without the intervention of an agency such as the Commission. Similarly, at Lichfield, Staffordshire, a much larger site of 230 acres has been made subject to a draft compulsory purchase order with a view to comprehensive development — again where the local authority had refused permission for piecemeal development.

Then there are cases where the Commission, by assembling the larger sites, can ensure the proper phasing as well as the proper planning of development. This may be an extremely important matter for local authorities, with implications that phasing can have for them in the provision of services. An example of that is 169 acres at Oaktree Lane, Mansfield, which the Commission is assembling, mostly by agreement but in part by compulsory purchase procedures.

Another interesting case is a site of about 99 acres at Poplars Farm, Bradford—a site for which the local authority had previously been negotiating but had abandoned its interest in the site. The local authority's planning permission for flat development had inhibited any alternative private development of the site, but the Commission was able to negotiate a new planning permission for a form of development more acceptable to the builders, who were interested in the land thus enabling the land to be brought forward for development.

Then there are cases where the Commission can step in and preserve for the public purse the development value of the land being disposed of by a public authority. I told the House a short time ago of one example of this—Horn-church Airfield, Essex—where about 194 acres of land are surplus to Ministry of Defence requirements. Eventually that land will be required for housing and schools, but for some years it will be required for gravel extraction, and the development can take place only after the gravel extraction. The Commission was able to step in and acquire the land, and it can lease the land out for gravel extraction and will in that way retain for the public purse the benefit of the later realisation of the development value of the land for building purposes. Another example is in East Craig, Edinburgh, where 95 acres in the ownership of the Secretary of State for Scotland are being disposed of, and by taking over the Commission will be able to release parts of the site in stages for development in an orderly way.

Finally, there are cases where the Commission can perform important agency functions. It is clearing, or seeking to clear, under a draft C.P.O., some 94 acres at Shostock Farm, Walsall, the land being required for Aston University, which has itself no powers of compulsory purchase. At Houghton-le-Spring, 14 acres are subject to a compulsory purchase order to acquire and assemble land on behalf of the local authority which did not itself have the staff to handle the acquisition of the large numbers of houses and shops involved.

Again, at Erskine, the Commission is being able to help on the staff side in assembling and acquiring some 600 acres of land, which is subject to a draft C.P.O., required for town development being undertaken by the Renfrewshire County Council for Glasgow overspill. The Commission has offered to help in that way on an agency basis authorities which want to acquire derelict sites in order to improve them with the benefit of the grants that are available to them.

These examples I am giving and the figures I have quoted represent only a small part of the Land Commission's work. A large number of other cases are being investigated, involving over 500 other sites and more than 20,000 acres. It does not follow, of course, that all these will go forward to acquisition. It often happens that as the result of the Commission's inquiries land is brought on to the market which would not otherwise have come forward for development. I saw some figures the other day relating to the West Midlands Region where they estimate that there are some 25 such cases, where 145 acres, valued at about £1·7 million, have been brought forward for development in that way.

Another most useful function which the Commission has been performing is helping to find out the true situation of land supply in this country. Builders have often been complaining, particularly in areas of high demand, that one of the factors restricting the supply of land is the shortage of land available in planning terms. It is the necessary controls over land use which, to some extent, are in this way themselves causing difficulties in the supply of land.

The difficulty up to now has been that there has not been any machinery by which the facts can be ascertained and the contentions of the planning authority on the matter can be challenged. The planning authorities have in general been able to point to planning consents, and say that for a given number of years ahead there is sufficient land available with planning consents, but it does not follow in practice that all the land for which planning consent has been given is, in a real sense, available for development. Some of it may be back gardens, parts of it may be areas for which there are no services and facilities available. Others may be land on which builders judge they cannot build houses economically and be able to dispose of them.

What the Land Commission has been able to do, and is doing, is to examine the land-availability position. Following that, the Commission is engaged in discussion with local planning authorities to see where land can best be made available and brought forward for development. By working with the local planning authorities and programming the release of such land it should help to maintain an even flow of land for builders and to counteract to some extent the dangers of increases in prices which shortage of land can otherwise bring.

There has to be a national body to do this. It is not the job of local authorities to buy land and sell it to private builders phasing release in accordance with good planning. This is a major rôle for the Land Commission and one in which we are asking the local authorities to cooperate with it. Some of the instances I have given show that local authorities have realised the advantages for them in thus getting more orderly planning and the advantages for the builders in being able to get made available land which otherwise they would not be able to get, as a result of the Land Commission. That is in sharp contrast to what happened during the years when members of the Opposition were in power. They removed the development levy and put it back to the free market and this caused one of the biggest booms in land prices we have ever seen.

Whatever increases there have been in prices of land since this Government have been in office, they have been nothing to compare with the boom in the early 1960s when the price of land was doubled, and doubled directly as a result of measures instigated by the Government of hon. Members opposite and which they did nothing to restrain. We have tackled this and set up the Land Commission. The hon. Member said that everyone was agreed that the effect of betterment levy has been to push up land prices by at least 20 per cent. I prefer to rely on more accurate information on the Land Commission given in a conference, held I think by the R.I.B.A., where a person who had written a book on the levy— speaking from memory, I think it was by Professor Hilton—it was said that there was no evidence as yet to suggest that such increases in prices as have been taking place have been due to the imposition of betterment levy.

As hon. Members know, there are limited statistics available of increases in land prices, but certainly all the indications are that in the last two years increases in land prices have moderated and they are nothing like the rate there was in the early years of this decade. I do not want to make extravagant claims for the achievements yet of the Land Commission. It is early days to judge of its success, but I think that I have shown in the figures I have given how the Land Commission is tackling the problems given to it and how that compares with the long years of inaction by the parry opposite.

Photo of Dr Michael Winstanley Dr Michael Winstanley , Cheadle

For the sake of the record, would the hon. and learned Gentleman accept that the information he gave on the cost of the Land Commission is wholly accepted but is contrary to the Written Answers to Questions given by him, by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and by the Minister of Public Building and Works on 12th December, 1967?

Photo of Mr Niall MacDermot Mr Niall MacDermot , Derby North

No, I would not accept that. If the hon. Member will send me those Answers, I will give him a considered reply.