Extension of Powers to Lease Duchy Land

Part of Duchy of Lancaster Bill – in the House of Commons at 11:45 pm on 21st January 1988.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister of State (Department of Trade and Industry) 11:45 pm, 21st January 1988

I am entirely in sympathy with the spirit and intention of the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). Although I do not go along with the arguments of the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) about field sports on Duchy land, I share his desire to look after its natural beauty.

The amendment seeks to get the approval for every new lease that we enter into of the appropriate national park, the Nature Conservancy Council and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I have been a member of the RSPB for years. I am not sure whether I have got my new status correct, but I think that I am now a fellow — [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] It is an absolute qualification for being Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I am sure that my colleagues on the Duchy Council share a general desire to make sure that we look after the wildlife and preserve the countryside on tracts of land that are owned by the Duchy, inside the national parks. So far as I am aware, the Duchy has never been accused of doing anything to damage sites of scientific interest of national park areas—certainly not in my time in the House. However, I shall look at any complaints, if people can find any, in any part of the County Palatine.

The Acts that we are repealing have not had much to do with that. Previous legislation allowed building leases up to 99 years. During a 99-year lease one can do a lot of damage to a stretch of moorland or to the foreshore that we own. In this case, I do not think that it is legislative protection that has made the Duchy a reasonable custodian of the areas of natural beauty that it owns.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras correctly predicted that I would think that his amendment went too far. In his enthusiasm, he has sought to require that every new lease should require consultation with the three bodies, and that if any one of the three objects to a new lease it should have to come to both Houses of Parliament for an affirmative resolution. In the areas of land that we are discussing, enormous numbers of transactions could be described as new leases. The amendment would mean that every cottage letting, every farm letting and every sporting letting would have to be submitted to each of the three bodies for its opinion.

I am not sure that any of the three bodies concerned would welcome that, because they would require substantial staff to be able to handle the flood of matters on which they would have to report back, and we would have an unnecessary restriction on the whole estate.

12.15 am

In case the House feels that the Duchy Council and I are a band of amateurs for seeking to protect the national parks—the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) understandably doubted my qualifications for being chairman of the Council managing such a large estate—I hasten to assure the House that I receive £2,000 a year, which is probably all that I am worth as Chancellor of the Duchy. My belief when I was appointed that the £2,000 was a bonus extra to my salary as a Cabinet Minister was rapidly shattered: my Cabinet salary is docked by the appropriate amount, to ensure that I am not better paid than any of my colleagues. The hours that I spend on the Duchy each week are therefore not wildly rewarded, but they are rewarding in themselves.

More to the point, there is a professional staff. There is a clerk to the Council, and people with expertise in surveying all the aspects of the estate who carry out a good deal of the management of the Duchy lands, and do so very well.

I hope that the House is persuaded that the Duchy is an extremely reasonable custodian of areas of great natural beauty and interest, and that this proposal would be excessive and probably unworkable.