Control of Disposals of Land

Part of New Clause – in the House of Commons at 10:45 pm on 30th July 1984.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:45 pm, 30th July 1984

Consent to disposals of land is as near to planning decisions as any decisions which the right hon. Gentleman is already empowered to make.

The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Holland) referred to the Coin street site, the large bulk of which is in his constituency and the smaller part of which is in mine. If that site is the subject of an application and there is a requirement to dispose of it to community groups for housing purposes, the Secretary of State will, if the amendment is passed, be able to refuse his consent to that disposal. That allows intervention in the decision-making powers of local authorities in respect of land, which is exactly similar to all the interventionist powers which the Secretary of State now has in respect of buildings.

Let me draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to some specific and recent examples which make it quite clear that there is a parallel. Both the London borough of Southwark and the GLC have reached a view about the development of the St. Mary Overy's wharf. That went to a public inquiry, and the inspector recommended that one of the proposals for its development be refused and another be acceded to. In a specific part of his recommendation, the inspector said that there should not be demolition of one of the best buildings of its type on the London riverside —the St. Mary Overy's wharf. However, the Secretary of State overrode the views of the local authorities as reinforced and supported by the inspector.

The same thing has happened recently in relation to Free Trade wharf on the other side of the river. It happens regularly through the powers of the docklands corporation in London, which is the one that I know best, and also on Merseyside. The corporation has powers to intervene in a way that negatives local authority decisions about passing ownership of land.

The Lords amendment deals with consent to the disposal of land and is the reverse of the power which the Secretary of State has already taken to himself in relation to, say, the powers granted to the dockland corporations under the 1980 Act. The corporations are supposedly equally accountable to the electorate through the House, but are not accountable to the local electorate in the same way when land is vested and taken from the ownership of an authority and handed to another.

Various orders have been put before the House for the purpose of taking land from the ownership of the GLC, from the London borough of Southwark and other boroughs, to be handed to the London Dockland Development Corporation, for development by that corporation. The clause exactly reverses that position and adds to the powers that have been vested in the Secretary of State for the past four years.

The clause adds to the powers of the Secretary of State by now charging him with consideration of any disposals of land that come within the definition before us. That is a further measure of interference by the Secretary of State with the rights, responsibilities and traditional duties of local government. It is not in the pattern of British municipal life that decisions about land are dealt with by Secretaries of States, unless that land is owned by the Government. The land in question is not owned by the Government but is owned by and planned for by local government. Nothing in the metropolitan areas and the GLC area differentiates land held there from land that is held by any other authority.

The first objection of my right hon. and hon. Friends is that the measure is clearly selective, but not because of a well-thought-out plan. It was not part of the Secretary of State's proposal when the Bill was first laid before Parliament. It was thought of only at the last moment because it seemed that the seven authorities might take decisions which the Secretary of State did not like, and in which he wished to intervene.

The subsections of Lords amendment No. 10, which I shall not deal with at length, raise the same fundamental objection as the similar clauses which we debated earlier in respect of the 2p rate. The Secretary of State told the House—I did not intervene in that debate because I knew that the matter could be raised here — that he would at some stage, perhaps tomorrow for all we know, tell us what classes or descriptions of land he will specify for deciding how various disposals will be dealt with. He did not lay before us tonight any specific proposals, nor did he tell us how large or how valuable are the parcels of land, or of what type they are.

The right hon. Gentleman is effectively writing himself a blank cheque. He is taking the absolute power to be able to say, without further control by the House or by anybody —there is no suggestion of a mechanism by which the House can debate further legislation of this type—what categories of land he can dispose of. There will be no opportunity of review other than because of his extreme abuse of that power.

Subsection (2) of Lords amendment No. 10 clearly says that the Secretary of State can give consent in respect of a particular disposal"— it might be a controversial site such as Coin street, or a site elsewhere along the London riverside—or he may give or withhold his consent in relation to a class of disposals. We are not told what the criteria will be. Alliance Members will support the amendment that was proposed by the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser). People should know in advance the implications of any decisions. As amendment (a) suggests, the Secretary of State should specify the matters he is to take into consideration so that the local authorities know whether they are likely to fall within the ambit of the new clause when they contemplate how to deal with their land.

12.45 am

Amendments have been tabled to subsection (3), which gives the Secretary of State an additional power. One of the amendments tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends and me—amendment (f)—seeks to give him that power if he wishes to exercise it, but not an additional power. The amendment suggests that the power that the Secretary of State has should "replace" and not "be in addition to" any consent that is already required of him by section 123 of the principal Local Government Act. Some of us try, by debating these matters, to elicit reasons from the Secretary of State, but one of the tragedies is that often we find ourselves sent away empty handed. There has been no prepared and justified rationale behind all these consequential and other amendments. We have heard no reason why the Secretary of State believes that the powers that he now seeks are necessary in addition to those that he already has under section 123.

Subsection (5) makes it clear how wide the amendment goes. It refers to all the types of dealing in land that anybody who has had any experience of it will know about. For example, it deals implicitly—they are not excluded—with easements and rights of way. Included are very small rights of access to and from substantial areas of property, which, elsewhere, are subject to the Secretary of State's decision. The Secretary of State needs to come to the House, if he is to justify any support that he receives at the end of the debate, and persuade us why he requires such comprehensive rights over all contracts in relation to disposals of land.

One of the reasons which the Secretary of State has advanced over the past few clays, and which his colleague in the other place advanced only earlier this month when the new amendments were introduced, was that he anticipated that there would be abuse of powers under existing legislation by present local authorities — the seven metropolitan counties. Why can he not accept an amendment such as amendment (d), which we have tabled? I ask him to consider it again. We ask that he should be subject to administrative law that puts a restraint on the Executive. Many of us make the great complaint about the legal system that the Executive is so unanswerable to the courts.

The proposal is that the Secretary of State's consent shall not unreasonably be withheld, and shall in any event be extended to the disposal of such land a clear intention to dispose of which was evident prior to 13th July 1984. Long before the proposals were laid before Parliament, any metropolitan county or the GLC might have charged its officers to contemplate disposing of some land. It often would be a disposal between the county authority and a borough or district authority, so it would not mean any lessening of the public control of an asset in land, but only a transfer from one authority to another. Why should they not be allowed to justify, through their documentation, that they properly intended to dispose of that land before the Secretary of State suddenly threatened to bring down his guillotine?

There are proper parallels for that. After a divorce, one party might have got rid of a substantial asset explicitly to avoid the other party having his or her rightful dues in the post-marriage settlement. Under section 37 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, the court can direct that that money be brought back into the kitty so that it can be reallocated. It looks at the documents. We are asking for the same fair and traditional principle to be applied here. Where it is clear that the intention to dispose of an asset was not to prohibit the Secretary of State from exercising a legislative power, the Secretary of State must take that into account, and that must restrict the powers that he would otherwise have.

It is not sufficient for the Secretary of State to say that he will give reasons for his decision, but then to say that he will not accept an amendment that requires him to give reasons. One of the most unsatisfactory things about any power taken by any Secretary of State in any Department is when he does not have to justify what he does. Those who have looked at decisions made by Secretaries of State for the Environment will know that when comprehensive investigations have been carried out by an inspector, leading to conclusions, the Secretary of State can blandly, quickly and abruptly say that he has read the submissions, the report of the public inquiry and the inspector's report, and seen the conclusions, but still believes that it will be of economic advantage to the area that the development should take place, and so he ignores what has been said.

The Secretary of State should give reasons for his decisions. How can anyone challenge, if he wishes to do so, the propriety of actions in law, in a country with no constitutional court and no adequate way to deal with the Executive, unless the reasons are specified and set out?

Other amendments have been tabled because they are important, and I ask the Secretary of State to consider them for that reason. In particular, amendment (g) deals with the costs or charges that result from decisions made by the Secretary of State. As a result, the councils and the people in their areas have to pay more. As the Secretary of State reminds us all the time, it is not the councils which have the money, just as the money with which the Government play is not their money, but money which they hold on behalf of the people of the country. The councils hold money on behalf of the people who elected them, and that is why we are so opposed to the idea of suddenly getting rid of elections, without there being any proper responsibility in the exercise of powers to spend money.

The Secretary of State, if he adheres to the principle which it appears has motivated him for so long in pushing this legislation so hard through the House, must say something about the costs or charges that follow as a result of the disposal of land. For example, delays may incur extra interest charges, or a local authority may be bound by contractural obligations, having entered into an agreement to dispose by a certain date of land, which it does not fulfil. As a result it could incur charges that could run into thousands of pounds a week. Why should the Secretary of State not be willing to say that if he takes the power to delay a decision he will at least reimburse to local authorities the costs arising out of what he is doing?

The Secretary of State, his Department and his legislation have regularly eaten into the coffers of local authorities. The net result of all these amendments would be that the local authorities would not have the financial reserves which they had at the beginning eaten away by an additional demand from the Secretary of State which is not of their choosing or making, and is not in their control.

The Secretary of State might impose conditions in granting consent. He might say that a further search needs to be made, or that there must be a period for bids to be put in, or some other eventuality which he foresees as necessary. In that case, it is fair, equitable and only just to the people in the authority in question that his Department, out of central taxpayers' money should reimburse the money that local authorities have to spend.

Two substantial new clauses are being discussed, although in some ways the debate rightly links them. They deal with the Secretary of State's power to intervene in contracts that are entered into by local authorities. The idea has apparently again come rather late in the day from the Secretary of State and his Department. He seems to fear that contracts may be entered into tomorrow or, say, next week by the seven metropolitan counties. He also seems to fear that they will be able to enter into large contracts, so in the amendments approved by the other place he has set down a series of figures above which a contract must go to him for decision.

Why on earth were those figures chosen? They do not seem to come from anywhere. They are totally arbitrary and, as has been said, are probably the first ones that the Secretary of State thought of. They are nice, round figures.

Lords amendment No. 11 shows that the Secretary of State has plucked out a figure to apply to each category of contract. The figure for contracts involving building or engineering works is £250,000; for maintenance work, £100,000; for the supply of goods, £100,000; for administrative services, £100,000, and in relation to the use or purchase of plant or material it is also £100,000.

Those figures are totally arbitrary. Unless the Secretary of State can justify them, he must accept that our amendments to Lords amendment No. 11 are equally valid. They at least have the merit of increasing the amounts involved and thus of reducing the amount of interference by the Secretary of State. There is also an argument of practicality. The GLC's budget is larger than the budgets of 18 sovereign states, so we cannot complain if it often and quite properly enters into such six-figure contracts. It would therefore seem sensible for the right hon. Gentleman to have fewer contracts to scrutinise so that he can deal more closely with those which he does consider.

Conservative Back Benchers are here in such amazing numbers that I can see only one apart from the PPS, the Whip and the junior Minister. Even the Conservative Member present is beyond the Bar of the House and so presumably does not intend to speak. If the amendment is so necessary, why does the Secretary of State not tell us how many extra people will be needed by his Department to process the work?

This Bill, and the Bill which we gather is to come later, are designed primarily, apparently, to save money. The Government said that they wanted to get rid of a wasteful and unnecessary tier of government. We know that no figures have yet been produced, and they say that as yet figures cannot be produced, but the Secretary of State is now giving his Department many new responsibilities which will have to be dealt with by somebody. I hope that he will explain that soon. If he is saying to local authorities and their officers that they are less competent to deal with these matters than are people in his Department, we need to know who they are and at what cost they will be dealt with.

If the new limit were raised, as our amendment suggests, many routine contracts would immediately be exempted. I gather that there are 20 health and safety contracts at the moment, of which 13 would be exempted by raising the limits by the figures suggested. Half of all housing renovations would be exempted. The Secretary of State may say that health and safety contracts or housing renovation contracts will come within the category that he will designate as exempt in any event. He may be able to give us some illumination on what his proposals will be. He may give us, for example, a trailer for the statement that he intends to make later. But we should know why recurrent contracts which it has been the practice of Secretaries of State to keep out of, while the GLC and its predecessor the London county council has got on with them — routine and necessary matters to do with drainage and housing that arise every year — are suddenly required to be dealt with by the Secretary of State.

Some of the subjects that we are dealing with are unexciting. [Interruption.] —— Some are unexciting, no matter who is trying to deal with them. Even the hon Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) could not entertain the House for long on a subject such as waste disposal. However, his hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Cowans) did a good job in raising the quality and humour of the debate earlier.

Recurrent contracts for matters such as the transport of solid waste are bound to be included. Taking solid waste from central London has to be done on a massive scale every year. Such contracts should not have to be the subject of the Secretary of State's intervention. The contracts need to be entered into without delay. Every time there is a delay, either the contractor might increase the amount to the local authority or extra costs will be incurred because interim arrangements will have to be entered into which previously were not necessary because from year to year a recurrent contract was permissible.

The police and fire service in London want a new procedure so that they can purchase equipment, but we understand that under the new procedure the Secretary of State will want to consider whether new fire engines are needed. Those are matters of which there has been no complaint by the Secretary of State or his predecessors at any stage. Most of the departments with which the seven metropolitan counties deal have not been the subject of criticism at all.

The opposition have put to the Secretary of State and his colleagues, particularly the Under -Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), that the desperate crisis that we face needs every possible committed expenditure. For example, there is the housing crisis. Only a year ago the Secretary of State's Department was urging local authorities to spend capital sums on the renovation and improvement of housing stock in the cities. The Secretary of State now wants the right to intervene in that. That has not been and should not be his business.

The problem associated with the ILEA is specific to London. The ILEA's financial commitments are considerable. The Secretary of State will now have power to intervene in contracts that are regularly placed with it. Why is he not satisfied with the Secretary of State for Education and Science's right to intervene? He is best equipped to deal with the ILEA's contracts. There is no logic in the Secretary of State for the Environment being able to control a body that is not to be abolished. Having accepted that the ILEA should continue, there is no reason why it should be subject to the same constraints as the metropolitan counties and the GLC.

What is the Government's estimate of the extra costs that will be incurred by matters being referred to the Department of the Environment? If the Secretary of State refuses a contract, or if unreasonable conditions are imposed, a contractor will lose much time and money. In legal terms, there will be direct and indirect damages. It is important that the Goverment should quantify that cost and make plans to deal with any such loss. Much preparation time is spent on architecture in a contract for any form of local authority. The Secretary of State must say how he will remiburse the person hours that are spent on a contract that is aborted.

Extra documents might be produced and extra staff might have to be recruited to deal with proposed contracts. That means extra cost and local authorities will be under greater constraints because of rate-capping or other means of reducing rate support grant. If the Secretary of State does not specify the criteria by which he will make decisions, many contractors might not be able to make proper business decisions. That might have an effect on money and jobs. Does the Secretary of State claim that he will be able to categorise the decisions that must be made each year by the metropolitan councils and the GLC? If he does, he will find that, like all similar claims, it 'will be disproved.

Will the Secretary of State be able to force those different types of commercial contracts into rigid groups? If Tyne and Wear, West Yorkshire or South Yorkshire decided to purchase a fleet of police cars, would that be governed by general consent? What would happen if the price of the cars increased while the Secretary of State had called the contract in? The citizens of Tyne and Wear, West Yorkshire or South Yorkshire may believe that those cars are necessary for the police to go about their business and keep down the incidence of law breaking, such as burglary and mugging, which happen everywhere.

If the metropolitan councils and the GLC, which often purchase for their district and borough authorities, were told that they could not do that and must rein in that decision because the Secretary of State wants to consider it, the work of the second tier of local government, which the Secretary of State claims he wishes to help through this legislation, will be hindered. It is ironic that the Secretary of State alleges that he wants to bring local government to that lower level, yet will hinder its work by these interventionist measures.

I have dealt with a long and important list of amendments, each of which deserves better attention from the Secretary of State than he has given so far. Does the Secretary of State accept that the only reason why his and his colleagues' proposals will be resisted tonight is that he is determined, whatever the merits, the practicability and workability of the legislation, and whatever its implications for local authorities' staffs, their workloads and the people in the seven areas involved, to get the legislation through Parliament? The right hon. Gentleman will not be responsible for the cost. It will not come from his or his Department's pockets. The financial cost will be born by the ratepayers. If the right hon. Gentleman abolishes the GLC, or if his Department manages to steamroller the cities, as is expected, the local boroughs and districts will have to pick up the tabs. All the delays and additional costs will be passed on to them in the transitional proposals, about which we shall no doubt hear next Session. That is not satisfactory, because these proposals have not been properly argued. They were introduced into the Bill at the last minute when it went to the other place and the Government realised that it was unpopular.

Later, the Secretary of State will ask the House to amend the long title of the Bill so that the Bill can contain these proposals. His final amendment tonight seeks to change the purpose of the original Bill. That is a ludicrous proposition. Such amendments show how shallow, unjustified and prejudiced the Secretary of State's arguments are. They show how amazingly paranoid he and his colleagues have become. They are unwilling to face the electors at the ballot box in the counties in question and. to rely on the legislation that they have piloted through the House. They will not rely on the legislation which set up the GLC and the MCCs, the Local Government Act 1972 which deals with section 137 and local authorities' contracts, or the 1980 legislation, which dealt with those matters.

The Government are not even willing to rely on their Tory colleagues in the councils in question, who, as has been shown in the past few days, have the right and the power, if they believe the law is being broken, to go to court. They do not believe that the judges will be on their side, and they do not believe that they can rely on the integrity of the people who support their party in local government. They do not believe that they can rely on all the experience of the officers in local government until now, or on the Audit Commission and the other bodies set up by the Secretary of State to ensure that local government is accountable and does not waste money.

1.15 am

We gather that in the middle of August — the Secretary of State denies that it is anything but a first draft —when, of course, no one will be here to protest, we shall have a report from the Audit Commission saying that all these proposals cost the ratepayer nothing except for £1·5 million extra, because what the Secretary of State believes is waste by local authorities is waste by central l Government. The balance of the argument has not been made out.

The only recourse open to us is to say that it is not good enough for the Government, two days before the end of a Session and having just put those proposals before the House for debate for the first time, to expect to get them through tonight. I understand that the only procedure open to us is to say that the matters should be adjourned until they can be considered properly. As I understand the Standing Orders of the House and "Erskine May", it is open to me to move that the House do now adjourn.

As I understand the procedures of what "Erskine May" calls dilatory motions, where a new matter comes before the House that was not contemplated in the Bill as originally proposed, nor in the long title of the Bill, and clearly—as was admitted by Lord Bellwin in another place—was a last-minute reaction and simply something thought up by the Government — [Interruption.] It appears that the Government are making last-minute contingency plans of a different sort to try to get some hon. Members into the Chamber to deal with something of which they had not thought.

It must be right that the House has the opportunity to decide whether it should debate this matter further tonight. The proposals before us should not be in the Bill. If they should have been in any Bill, it was the Rates Bill, which is now the Rates Act 1984. If they had to be in this Bill, they should have been introduced at the beginning when the Government had plans for controlling local authority expenditure, because they knew from the beginning that they wanted to save money. They have now decided that their original proposals are ineffective, so they have dreamt up some other unsupported proposals.

I ask for your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on a motion, That this House do now adjourn. The Bill before us is not the Bill presented to us at the beginning. The matter is not properly constitutionally before us. The Standing Orders permit the House to vote on this matter, and I am sure that your learned Clerk will advise you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that "Erskine May" states that it is perfectly proper for such a motion to be made by someone who is called to speak, although it need not be tabled, and must be put at the end of his remarks to the House.

On behalf of all of us in the House who despise the Government for trying to steamroller local government late in the day and in the night, without reasons and simply for spite and malice, I ask that the House adjourns now and that we consider this matter in the next Session of this Parliament when we and the Government have had an opportunity to think about, work out and plan properly the proposals before the House.

I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.