Orders of the Day — Land Commission

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

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Photo of Mr Niall MacDermot Mr Niall MacDermot , Derby North 12:00 am, 24th July 1968

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.