On 31 December 1987 the registers of unused and underused land owned by public bodies contained details of 91,000 acres. Since the first registers were compiled in 1981, 66,000 acres of land have been removed from them.
As the planning process seems to create a situation in which more vacant public land continues to be placed on the register, does my right hon. Friend agree that, even at the present rate of disposal, which is commendable, and even if he speeds it up, which will be better, there will still be many tens of thousands of acres of public land on the register by the turn of the century? Is not some new initiative now required to get rid of surplus public land? I refer to initiatives such as privatising land, handing it over to private companies to market and sell, or handing to public authorities the lion's share of it once it has been disposed of.
I agree with my hon. Friend that there is far too much vacant urban land. He will be encouraged to know that in 1986, 46 per cent. of all new development in England took place on previously used or vacant urban land, which was a good use of that vacant land. I am awaiting the report of the Audit Commission, which is looking into this matter, which may give some suggestions on how to proceed. Further powers that will speed up the operation of the registers are being sought in the Local Government Bill.
Does not the disposal of publicly owned land become absurd if such a policy leads to rapid housing development but the relevant local authorities are prevented from providing schools and other services that such development makes necessary?
If that conjunction of circumstances occurred it would be absurd, but it does not. There are many ways whereby such development can follow from the bringing into use of vacant land.
With regard to the figure of 91,000 acres—much of which is in urban areas but suitable for housing — does my right hon. Friend think that the bringing into use of that land is of great importance, particularly in relieving the huge housing problems and building on rural areas? Will my right hon. Friend take further powers to bring those acres of land into use?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Such powers as are necessary are being taken in the Local Government Bill. However, not all that land is in places where there is a demand for it. Some of it is. There is no point in acquiring land in an area where there is no developer or industrialist who wishes to use it. We must ensure that those who want to use the land can do so. Again, I advertise that if there is any developer, investor, housebuilder or housing association that wishes to use vacant land in the ownership of various authorities, all that he has to do is to apply to my Department and, if it is truly vacant, we will ensure that it is made available to him.