Acquisition of Land

Orders of the Day — Regional Development Agencies Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 1st April 1998.

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Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 6:30 pm, 1st April 1998

I beg to move amendment No. 32, in page 9, line 35, leave out from 'agreement' to end of line 39.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 33, in page 9, line 40, leave out 'or (2)'.

No. 34, in page 9, line 42, leave out from 'acquire' to 'land' in line 43.

No. 35, in page 9, leave out from beginning of line 45 to end of line 6 on page 10.

No. 36, in page 10, leave out lines 11 to 15.

No. 37, in schedule 5, page 29, line 37, leave out from beginning to end of line 24 on page 32.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Like many other amendments moved today, this group has been tabled because of the Government's determination in Committee not to allow any change to their Bill until they were forced to do so by the combination of Opposition pressure and argument, and the weight of opinion outside the House.

Clause 20, which we seek to amend, deals with the powers being given to a regional development agency to acquire land. As the clause gives RDAs powers of compulsory purchase, the Opposition sought in Standing Committee to limit the type of land over which those powers could be exercised. We moved, and subsequently withdrew, an amendment that would have prevented those compulsory powers from being used to acquire land in areas of outstanding natural beauty and in national parks.

The House might consider that such an amendment was entirely inoffensive. It is difficult to see why RDAs should want compulsorily to acquire land in such designated areas. I hope that the RDAs will not go around buying up great chunks of such land in any circumstances, whether compulsorily or by agreement. Nevertheless, the Government argued in Committee against that amendment. They apparently believe that compulsory purchase powers must be available for RDAs to use in respect of any part of England.

Referring to our aim, on 12 February the Minister said: the real aim of the amendment … is to shackle the RDAs and prevent them from doing a reasonable job for rural communities."— [Official Report, Standing Committee E, 12 February 1998; c. 336.] The amendment simply sought to prevent RDAs from acquiring land by compulsory purchase in areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks. The Minister's comment provides an alarming insight into the Government's views of the future activities that RDAs might undertake. It has been suggested that excluding areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks from the areas where RDAs can exercise compulsory purchase powers would prevent RDAs from doing a reasonable job for rural communities.

If the Minister visited a few rural communities, especially ones with areas of outstanding natural beauty in or near them, he might begin to understand that it is possible to do helpful things in those communities without compulsorily purchasing land there. Because of the Government's refusal to listen to reason in Committee, we now seek to return to the issue of compulsion in a slightly different form.

The amendments would remove the compulsory purchase powers from the Bill, leaving RDAs free to acquire land by agreement in any part of England. Provided that they could negotiate a price with the vendor and had the vendor's consent in that respect, RDAs could acquire land even in national parks. The amendments would remove the possibility that compulsion could be used.

My fears about the use to which compulsory purchase powers may be put have been greatly increased by recent planning decisions. With the connivance of the Secretary of State, and sometimes after the direct intervention of the Secretary of State, decisions made have put the green belt under threat as never before. The Minister spoke the truth on Radio 4 last autumn when he warned us all that the green belt was up for grabs, although I doubt whether many of his listeners understood at that time quite how serious the threat to the green belt was.

In Hertfordshire, the threat is up to 10,000 houses on the green belt at Stevenage. In the west midlands, the threat is industrial development of farmland on the green belt. In Newcastle, the threat is 2,500 houses on the green belt, despite the availability of more than 4,000 empty houses in the city.

8 p.m

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Those us who have been intimately involved in planning over the years know that, under the market philosophy of the Thatcher years, local authorities were told, "Do not resist planning permission. You will lose on appeal because the Government believe that market forces must rule." The previous Government destroyed the green belt, and that is what we have inherited.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Unlike his hon. Friend the Minister, I am always happy to take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman. However, his understanding of what happened does not quite reconcile with the facts. The previous Government were rigorous in upholding the protection of the green belt. They refused time and again to sanction the kind of development that the present Government seem to welcome with open arms. In the past few months, we have seen the contempt that the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues have for the green belt.

Photo of Mr Stephen Day Mr Stephen Day Conservative, Cheadle

My hon. Friend will be aware that my consistency of Cheadle is located in the borough of Stockport. Green belt policy is extremely important to my constituents, because the green belt largely forms the western boundary of my constituency. Protection was afforded to that green belt through the local development plan established under the previous Conservative Government and approved by the previous Secretary of State. The proposal for compulsory purchase powers for the regional development agencies directly challenges all that was achieved under the Conservative Government in protecting my local green belt.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

My hon. Friend, as so often, has put his finger on the essential point. He has powerfully and eloquently put the case for the environment in his constituency. Genuine and deeply held anxieties of the sort expressed by my hon. Friend and, I am sure, by his constituents form the background to the amendment. Our fears are that the compulsory purchase powers in the Bill could be abused. Because of the Government's history of appalling planning decisions and of throwing away the protection of half a century for the green belt that we have seen in the past few weeks, those fears become all the greater.

Let us take an example of an area of outstanding natural beauty on the edge of my constituency, the Dedham vale close to my home in East Bergholt. Much of the Dedham vale has been preserved so well that it differs little from the landscape that existed 200 years ago when Constable walked across the meadows there and immortalised its scenes in his paintings, some of which belong to the nation. I am sure that my hon. Friends have similarly valuable sites in their constituencies, but they will forgive me if I speak of the Dedham vale because I know it and love it so well.

Under the Bill, the Dedham vale is under a greater threat than at any time for the past two centuries. If the Eastern regional development agency is established, it will be given powers to acquire land compulsorily in the Dedham vale in an area of outstanding natural beauty. It will be possible to exercise those powers regardless of the wishes of the vendor and regardless of the views of the local community. The Eastern regional development agency will be able to justify its decision by saying that the land was being acquired "for its purposes"—for the purposes of the Eastern regional development agency, as specified in clause 20(1).

The purposes of RDAs are defined in clause 4. They include in clause 4(1)(c) the promotion of employment, so the Eastern RDA might find a private sector partner keen to invest, perhaps in a hotel venture in the Dedham vale. In the name of promoting employment, as the Bill requires, it could then seek to advance such a project.

Planning permission would have to be obtained, although the House should remember that, as drafted, the Bill gives the Secretary of State power to designate the RDA as the planning authority, too. Only the vigilance of Conservative Members, as we shall see in the debate on the next groups of amendments, prevented that power from remaining in the Bill.

The Government's intentions, alas, are all too clear. They want to let RDAs acquire land wherever they want, by agreement or with compulsion. A residual threat to remove planning powers from local authorities would be retained. The RDAs would be able to develop land in pursuit of their statutory aims, regardless of the damage that that might do to the countryside. Never mind the value of the land condemned for ever to the bulldozer. If amendment No. 4 in the next group is approved, that threat will at least be slightly more remote, but it will remain to some extent. The RDA, having bought the land—if planning permission has been applied for and turned down by the local authority—can appeal to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has already shown his willingness to overrule the recommendations of independent planning inspectors.

Recently, in the west midlands, 150 acres of farmland were located in the green belt. That land happened to be owned by Birmingham city council. The House will note that that council is controlled by the Labour party. The Secretary of State overturned the inspector's recommendation to allow development on the green belt. That is an alarming precedent in the context of the powers given to RDAs.

Imagine what the Secretary of State's attitude might be to planning appeals that came before him if the land were owned by an RDA. As the Bill stands, clause 20 constitutes a grave threat to our countryside, the green belt, the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It poses a real, serious and immediate threat, which can at least be partly averted if the compulsory powers set out in the Bill are removed. I warmly commend the amendment.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

There is no real point to clause 20 and the associated clauses. We propose sensible, tidying-up amendments. The Minister has explained that planning powers will be removed. That being so, no one needs the compulsory purchase powers set out in the Bill. A regional development agency will be able to blight, but not to plan. The RDA, through its land acquisition and a determination to implement development in the green belt or in other parts of constituencies, could tie up that land and adjoining properties for years. It is not necessary to do that.

Rightly, the power of compulsory purchase has seldom been used. We know that it is possible for authorities to engage in compulsory purchase in the absence of planning powers. The Civil Aviation Authority, the Housing Corporation and various statutory undertakers, such as gas, electricity and water, along with certain national health trusts, have the power of compulsory purchase. However, that is not what RDAs are about. A commonality runs through the various organisations to which I referred: they are engaged hands on in providing services and facilities in their localities.

We are opposed to RDAs, but we do not want them to fail. They will have an uphill task. We want them to succeed, but that will happen only if they can work in close partnerships with local authorities or with sub-regional providers of economic development.

The RDAs could act as brokers to provide portfolios of development. If the Government are entirely serious—I suspect that they are—about the sequential approach of looking towards brown-field sites, certain hurdles have to be faced. It is much more difficult to develop brown-field sites than green-field sites. That may relate to the condition of the land, but more probably it relates to ownership.

In some difficult inner cities, there is a considerable problem in getting together the owners of land to persuade them to enter into a development. That is often the most difficult thing to achieve. Often, no one knows who owns the land. If RDAs are to go about trying to acquire such land by the process of compulsory purchase, anything that we may be doing in terms of economic development is over. We know that compulsory purchase procedures are slow, cumbersome and rarely used. They are rarely used because they are slow and cumbersome.

8.15 pm

I was once part of an authority that tried to put together various packages for development. We, the members of the authority, were determined not to use compulsory purchase procedures. Local authorities and the new RDAs should seek to involve the public in what they want to do. We have had a debate about decisions made behind closed doors. There is too much secrecy in the way in which local authorities and sub-regional authorities put packages together. I accept the need for commercial confidentiality, but the people must understand the benefits of what needs to be done.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) talked about the importance of the green belt. My constituency lies in the metropolitan green belt, the first green belt created in the country. My constituents and I need to feel sure that our bit of the green belt is protected by the local authorities—in this instance, Brentwood borough council and Epping Forest district council. We feel that they have in mind the interests of our locality, along with Essex county council. We feel that the interests of the locality will be safeguarded by them.

As I said in an earlier contribution, the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee is undertaking a housing inquiry. The Royal Town Planning Institute produced some interesting arguments. I was concerned, however, when it argued, "We have had the green belt for 50 years. It was never intended that it should remain green for ever. Towns must be able to grow. They must be able to designate land and to move green-field sites into the green belt while moving certain aspects of the green belt into green-field sites and thereon into development. Do we want a serious proposition that in 50 years' or 500 years' time the green belt will remain intact?"

My answer is, "Yes, we do." That is exactly what my electors want to say. They want to be able to say that Brentwood will always be separated from Romford. The constituency wants to be separated from London. In many ways, the green belt between the communities holds them together. In those terms, they have something in common. If we are to stop urban sprawl, we must ensure that the powers to protect the green belt remain firmly with the districts and county councils.

If we introduce organisations whose purpose is to bring about economic regeneration—the Minister referred to the various objectives—the possibility that land could be purchased compulsorily by powerful RDAs will be held over my electors. I do not see why an RDA should not work closely with local councils and use their powers of compulsory purchase, should that be necessary as a last resort. In the process, the RDA would at least work closely with a local planning authority. Suppose the local planning authority says no to the acquisition of land and the particular development, who will solve the conflict? The Bill does not deal with that in any way.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk rightly pointed out, such an issue will come to the Minister. We have heard many times that we should trust the Minister and that he will not make a mistake, but we know that this Secretary of State, who has responsibility for planning, has been prepared to overturn a public inquiry and to grant permission against the advice of a planning inspector. If the RDAs are to have any chance of success, it must be on the basis of co-operation with local authorities and sub-regional providers of economic activity and training.

The most sensible thing to do would be to say, "Okay, the planning powers have now gone from the Bill. The logical next step is to say goodbye to compulsory purchase." That would have a certain neatness about it. I do not believe that there would be any loss of face if the Minister accepted the amendments.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Conservative, Meriden

I am pleased to be able to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). His point about RDAs' ability to blight gives me great cause for concern. It reminds us one of the key elements at the heart of the Bill: the centralising powers that lie within it. That ability to blight is, effectively, the means by which the Secretary of State can cast a shadow over a constituency such as mine, which consists largely of green-belt land at the narrowest point between Coventry and Birmingham, the so-called Meriden gap.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) mentioned the Secretary of State's ruling that green-belt land in the west midlands could be used for an industrial purpose. That caused local people concern at many levels. Industrial development on green-belt farm land was opposed by the local council and by the local Member of Parliament. When the public inquiry decided that it should not be used for that purpose, that decision was overturned. That area is close to my constituency. Hon. Members can understand why that case has caused great concern in relation to the sort of power that might be given to RDAs. In fact, it has resulted in a loss of confidence in the planning process.

I shall illustrate that. Currently, there are two planning applications for the building of motorway service areas alongside the M42 in my constituency. Having seen what happened in the Peddimore case, my constituents are concerned that, although the application has gone to and been rejected by the council, the Minister might simply overturn the decision, which was supported by the local community. That has resulted in perhaps a premature presentation of petitions on the part of my constituents to the Minister. The Government have only themselves to blame for that loss of confidence in the planning process.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. I remind the hon. Lady that this is about not the planning process in general, but the compulsory acquisition of land. She should direct her remarks specifically to that.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Conservative, Meriden

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was illustrating merely that that decision has given rise only to concern in relation to RDAs' power of compulsory purchase of green-belt sites.

There is a risk that blight will result from a conflict between the planning authority—the local authority—and the right of compulsory purchase of a future RDA. I should like to illustrate where I believe the tension may arise.

There are several installations and developments of regional significance to the west midlands. There is the airport, Birmingham International railway station and the national exhibition centre. Indeed, they are of national significance. All have gently expanded over time as a result of agreements between the various planning authorities.

My concern arises from the fact that a regional development agency may rule that one of those strategically important sites should be expanded and find itself at loggerheads with the local community and local planning authority. The RDA may indeed make use of a compulsory purchase order and fail to get planning permission from the local authority.

If the compulsory purchase order remains at the disposal of the RDA, we shall see only an increasing number of conflicts between the RDA and the authority that has the power to grant permission, which may result in land compulsorily acquired resting idle. There are already many examples of that in my constituency, where it is difficult to obtain planning approval in a green-belt area. If the clause is not amended, I envisage only increasing conflicts. It would seem logical for the reference to compulsory purchase orders to be deleted.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

Does my hon. Friend agree that blight under these circumstances can also apply the other way round? If a body does not have planning powers, it might none the less seek planning permission in relation to a specific site or collection of sites. That might in effect blight that area because of the knowledge that, at some subsequent point, in pursuance of that planning application on land that it does not own, the body may seek a compulsory purchase order from the Secretary of State, so devaluing the prospects for that particular ownership of land.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Conservative, Meriden

I thank my hon. Friend for that illuminating point. It serves me well as it relates to my next point. Blight is currently tightly defined. In a constituency such as mine, much of which is blighted by the transport network that runs through it—the many motorways and the installations to which I referred earlier—when constituents seek redress for the way in which their property is affected and find themselves just the wrong side of the blight line, they are in an unenviable position. My concern is that that will be only aggravated by the potential conflict between an RDA that has the power to acquire land or that may threaten to acquire land, and its inability to get the matching planning powers from the local authority. It seems more logical to remove the provision than to leave the tension inherent in the Bill.

Photo of Jim Cousins Jim Cousins Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne Central

In this group of amendments there is a double deception, which was substantially given away in the interesting speech of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). The first deception is that the amendments have nothing to do with the protection of the green belt.

I hope that Conservative Members will accept my credentials as a defender of the green belt, as I have spent many years in my political life opposing the proposals of my Labour-controlled city council to remove part of the green-belt status of land in my city of Newcastle. There could be no question of the use of compulsory purchase powers succeeding where there was no planning base that enabled the compulsory purchase order to have credibility and to survive the legal processes that it would go through.

Therefore, there is absolutely no question of this group of amendments being required to protect the green belt. No attack on the green belt could succeed in the absence of a planning base, simply by using powers to make compulsory purchase orders. To say that such an attack could succeed is simply a delusion and a contrivance.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Bill—until we deal with the next group of amendments—would allow the Secretary of State easily to remove a planning problem by designating as the planning authority a regional development agency that wanted to use compulsory purchase powers over the green belt.

Photo of Jim Cousins Jim Cousins Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne Central

That is the type of contrivance that has been used to justify this group of amendments. It is worthy of "Spycatcher", but not a practical debate on planning problems.

8:30 pm

The second deception—the crucial purpose of this group of amendments—was given away by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, who correctly said that the most likely uses of compulsory purchase powers would be precisely to secure and unlock development of brown-field sites, or to enable derelict and underused buildings—which are held by property owners who have made no practical use of them or who are involved in local negotiation—to be returned to sensible use. Those are precisely the situations in which compulsory purchase powers are most likely to be used.

Urban development corporations were created by the previous Administration precisely to deal with such situations. Two former Ministers from that Government are in the Chamber, and they are very familiar with the work of those corporations. They know full well that it was necessary for UDCs to have the back-up of compulsory purchase powers, precisely to secure development of underused and derelict sites and of buildings in urban development areas.

I fear that, if this group of amendments were passed, the ability to protect the green belt, by returning to full use underused brown-field sites and derelict land and buildings, would be weakened.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

The hon. Gentleman is not being precise. Local authorities have the power of compulsory purchase. If necessary, they may compulsorily purchase brown-field sites. There was a logic to the urban development corporations, which had planning powers. RDAs will not have planning powers, and so do not need compulsory purchase powers. They can use local authorities' powers to make such purchases.

Photo of Jim Cousins Jim Cousins Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne Central

I shall come directly to that point. If we examine the actual use—or, perhaps even more significantly, the threat of use—of compulsory purchase powers by UDCs, we find that those powers were very often not exercised with planning powers—they did not have to be, as planning approvals for use of the sites and buildings already existed—but were used to secure property ownership change, to make development possible. The powers are in the Bill, and should remain there, for precisely that reason.

Another simple point is demonstrated by the experience of UDCs—which were, after all, a creature of the Conservative party. I certainly did not advocate or support establishing UDCs. Yesterday, the UDC in my own city ceased to exist. Although I do not agree with everything that it did—I profoundly disagreed with its actions in some critical matters—its achievement over the period of its existence was impressive. One should not forgo UDCs without replacing them with an equivalent format.

Why is it not sufficient to allow compulsory purchase powers to lie solely in the hands of local authorities and not to be available to RDAs? Two quite specific types of situation make it necessary for RDAs to have those reserve powers.

The first is when the power and wealth of property owners whose land or buildings are not being developed and properly used may be such as to deter or inhibit a local authority from engaging in a complex process, which the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar— absolutely correctly, from his own experience as a council leader—mentioned. There are genuine problems for local authorities when they attempt to use those planning powers. It is therefore sensible and right for a larger-scale authority to have access to those powers in its own right, to reinforce the work of local authorities.

Secondly, there are situations in which a complex of underdeveloped sites and buildings is on the borders of two local authorities. I can think of an extremely vivid example in my own city. The area of Newburn Haugh— because of a peculiarity in boundaries formed by the old course and the new course of the River Tyne—straddles two local authorities: the city of Newcastle, and the metropolitan borough of Gateshead. In such situations, it may well be sensible to have a wider authority that covers both local authority areas, harnessing a comprehensive package of powers, to secure comprehensive development that is agreed with those local authorities. Moreover, it could secure such development itself, rather than entrusting the matter to each local authority separately.

For those entirely practical and sensible reasons, it is logical to leave those powers in the Bill, so that they can be deployed—in, admittedly, rare, unusual, difficult and complex circumstances—by the RDA with the local authority.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

It has been helpful to hear the speech made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins), who instanced his objections to what has been said in support of the amendments. In doing so, he highlighted what lies at the heart of the reasoning behind the amendments.

The hon. Gentleman said, first, that there was no threat to the green belt, because compulsory purchase order powers, in the absence of accompanying planning powers, could not be a threat to the green belt, as—by extension— the planning system will protect it. Yes, the planning system offers some protection—not least, thank goodness, because of some of the changes made to planning policy guidance by the previous Conservative Government. None the less, the exercise of compulsory purchase of green-belt land by a regional development agency before planning permission is granted in respect of that green belt poses a specific threat.

It is a matter not simply of the protection offered by planning policy guidance and by the local authority, but of how local people can respond to planning proposals and raise objections to them. The exercise of compulsory purchase powers might limit people's opportunity to object. Furthermore, a regional development agency is likely to apply for planning permission in respect of green-belt land having adduced its own decisions about the strategy for the region as precisely the exceptional circumstances that should give rise to the granting of planning permission.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central must understand that we are not dealing with a body with localised, specific statutory responsibility, such as local authorities and utilities have when they exercise compulsory purchase powers, and English Partnerships used to have. We are dealing with a body that has broad-ranging, strategic policy-making powers, which may be able to influence regional planning guidance and the granting of planning permission by exercising its own strategy as a basis for exceptional circumstances, and then go on to use compulsory purchase powers.

I have presented a hypothetical situation, but given that we are dealing with a new body, we need to exercise the hypothesis to see whether that new body could represent a threat to the green belt. I represent green-belt land around a substantial part of Cambridge city, but we are dealing not just with green belt. In essence, we are dealing with a body, the geographic remit of which is less confined than that of English Partnerships. Ministers will freely admit that they structured the planning and compulsory purchase powers in the Bill on the basis of the previous powers of English Partnerships. That was precisely the basis on which the Minister structured his argument on Second Reading.

The Minister has accepted that granting planning powers to a body with such a wide remit over its region is different from the exercise of that power by English Partnerships. I accept that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central was referring to the specific instances in which an urban development corporation would have exercised compulsory purchase powers in pursuit of physical regeneration, in confined geographical circumstances. However, we are now moving on to debate the question in relation to a body that will exercise a regional strategy—a strategic rather than a precise body. Under what criteria will such a body exercise compulsory purchase powers? I presume that it will do so in pursuance of strategic investments, which are likely to be large inward investments.

I am concerned about the powers that will be granted, because they will not necessarily be applied in respect of brown-field sites. A regional development agency's desire to win the battle for major inward investment might lead it to pursue green-field sites. We all know how attractive green-field sites are. The other day, I was talking to a high-technology company that has a site on green-belt land which it wishes to expand, and it was extolling the virtues of being on green-belt land. High technology requires quiet and a relative lack of pollution, so it is precisely where the company needs to be.

On exactly the same grounds, internationally mobile, footloose companies may come to the regional development agency in Cambridge and say that they are willing to invest in the region, but will not locate in the former sewerage site in north Cambridge. They will want to locate in the green-belt site just south of Cambridge, and the RDA will be presented with the option of pursuing planning permission on green-belt land south of Cambridge and possibly exercising compulsory purchase powers in pursuit of that.

I present that hypothesis because, on the basis of English Partnerships' and urban development corporations' past experience, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central seemed to think that there was no problem. I hope that the House accepts that, given these different bodies' strategic remit and the wider circumstances, those powers will not be used as English Partnerships, the urban development corporations and local authorities used them in the past, but will be used in a much wider and potentially more damaging sense.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) 8:45 pm, 1st April 1998

Thank goodness we have had the traditional rant from the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). I shall miss them when the Bill has completed its parliamentary stages. Perhaps I could get a video of it so that I can refresh my memory when I feel that I am lacking a good rant. He came out with the same fears and scaremongering that we heard in Committee about how the modest compulsory purchase order powers might be used. I am surprised that he can ever sleep at night, being pursued by the furies, doubts and worries about what might happen with the modest powers, which will be exercised within the law on compulsory purchase, with all the usual protections. His lurid scare stories and fears began to upset me.

I do not recognise any aspects of the Bill in what the hon. Gentleman said. There is nothing new about the compulsory purchase powers that the amendments would remove. There is nothing new about how they would be used or the legislation under which they would be used. A Conservative Government gave those powers to English Partnerships and to the urban development corporations. They seemed to have no worries about how they might be used.

I shall deal in more detail later with the hon. Gentleman's worries about areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks. The powers will allow RDAs to acquire land by agreement. However, there is a last resort power of compulsory purchase when authorised by the Secretary of State. The amendments would remove those powers, allowing RDAs to acquire land or rights over land solely by agreement.

Concerns were expressed in Committee about the provisions. I had hoped that I had been able to reassure hon. Members about the fact that the clause will be used as a last resort. However, the same arguments have been made today, so I shall have to rehearse my reassurances.

It is disingenuous of Conservative Members to link the powers of compulsory purchase with reserve planning powers in clauses 24 and 27, which we shall deal with later. The Government have decided to drop those clauses. Planning and land ownership are different matters. Any acquisition by an RDA must be to further its purposes. Nothing can be done with the land unless all plans for it are approved by the usual planning process, with all the considerable protections that that entails.

I agree to some extent with the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that the partnership approach has the best chance of working. That is clearly sensible. Everybody wants the partnership approach to be used. I do not think that English Partnerships has had to use its compulsory purchase powers. However, that does not mean that those powers should not exist as a last resort.

Thank goodness for my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins), who brought some welcome sanity and experience to the debate, which had been veering off into fantasy land before he brought it back on course.

One of the purposes of RDAs is regeneration, which can often include site assembly and development for future investment. RDAs may wish to assemble a site consisting of land that is in diverse ownership—an issue that the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar is familiar with. We expect most of that to be done through agreement with the owners, but RDAs could be hamstrung by a failure to reach agreement with one owner, or there may be sites of unknown ownership—another problem that the hon. Gentleman identified. It is not sensible for an entire development to be jeopardised because one owner refuses to sell, or because the ownership of a site cannot be established.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

The hon. Lady is most persuasive and reasonable. Why cannot the powers of the local authority be used in the circumstances that she has described?

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions)

Simply for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central gave in his thoughtful speech. It may not be practical in some instances for local authorities to use those powers. A site may straddle local authority areas.

The idea is that the power will be used as a last resort, but can be applied in circumstances that we as a legislature cannot at this minute imagine. We must provide flexibility to enable RDAs to assemble a site for regeneration purposes. The exercise of the power would require authorisation by the Secretary of State.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

What is the point of a regional chamber of local authorities if those local authorities are not able to agree on a strategy, which is central to an RDA's work?

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions)

I think that, 99.99 per cent. of the time, they will agree; that is certainly what we hope. The power is one of last resort. As I said, it has not been used by English Partnerships, even though it was given it by the hon. Member for South Suffolk when he was in government, in precisely the way that the Bill provides. We hope that the power will not be needed. Although, as the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar rightly pointed out, compulsory purchase powers are a last resort, we believe that they must be provided in order to deal with awkward situations that occasionally crop up.

I know that people are generally critical of the compulsory purchase system. We all want a fair and efficient system. We have already conducted research into and reviews of the system. It is certainly cumbersome and slow, and the legislation is very old, but it is unlikely that all those matters will be resolved in time to be reflected in the Bill. The Bill can deal only with compulsory purchase by RDAs, not the exercise of such powers more generally.

Conservative Members, especially the hon. Member for South Suffolk, have been concerned about the use of compulsory purchase powers in rural areas, especially national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, about which the hon. Gentleman rightly became quite lyrical. We have already debated at length why RDAs need to exercise their functions throughout their regions, and why rural areas should not be treated as if they existed in isolation. Physical regeneration can be just as important in a rural area as in urban areas. The coalfields initiative is one example where regeneration in a rural area is desperately needed.

We cannot rule out the possibility that there may be areas in national parks that need regenerating. Even so, clause 20 would not give RDAs additional powers to develop such areas. RDAs will have to apply for planning permission in the normal way, and it will have to be granted in the normal way.

As Conservative Members know, planning and countryside legislation contains special provisions which give added protection for national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, and which are unaffected by the Bill. When they were in government, Conservative Members gave English Partnerships a power of compulsory purchase, although it has not had to be used. I hope that RDAs would not need to use it, but would instead reach agreements with landowners.

We debated national parks in Committee and used an example, I seem to recall, of old, disused quarries that may need to be put right before they can be used. The hon. Member for South Suffolk doubted that there was any such area in a national park, so since then, of course, I have done a little research. He is quite right to say that all recent planning permissions for mineral extraction have planning conditions that provide for the restoration of the site, but reviews of old planning permissions are being undertaken to ensure that they come up to modern standards. There is provision for further reviews of conditions.

Research has come up with examples of quarries and mines in national parks that ceased operation and were either not restored or not treated to modern standards. The most recent survey identified 143 hectares of such land in national parks in England that had been affected by past mineral working and fell within the definition of derelict land. In the interests of protecting the countryside, the hon. Member for South Suffolk would take powers from regional development agencies to restore land in national parks. He is arguing to reduce RDAs' ability to regenerate and bring back into sensible use land that happens to be in such areas.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I am perfectly happy to defend our position, because no one in the Opposition has argued for any removal of RDAs' powers to do such restoration work. After all those weeks of research, during which the Minister has discovered 143 hectares, how many examples has she found of quarries for which it was necessary to exercise compulsory purchase powers to achieve the restoration? I should think that the answer is none.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions)

The powers must exist for cases in which ownership has disappeared, or companies have gone into liquidation and there is no owner in existence— for cases in which companies take no responsibility and have in a sense evaded their responsibility for cleaning up after themselves.

The hon. Gentleman's amendments would make it harder in some circumstances for proper and appropriate regeneration work and site assembly to be done in such areas. In view of his lyrical description of the area of outstanding natural beauty close to his house, I do not think that that was his intention. None the less, that is what the amendments would do.

Given those explanations, I hope that the House will see that, although RDAs will not need to use the power all the time, and in the vast majority of cases agreement will be reached with owners of land, we cannot run the risk of omitting the compulsory purchase order powers from the Bill and then finding that particular projects or desperately needed regeneration measures are stopped in their tracks because of one especially difficult landowner, or because the authorities cannot discover who the owner is.

In view of the safeguards that I have outlined, which are already in the law, and the Government's commitment to protection of the countryside as well as to appropriate regeneration, we shall oppose the amendments.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

The House has had a valuable short debate on the amendments. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) rightly stressed the importance of the need for regional development agencies to work in partnership with local authorities—something that we all strongly support. He shrewdly suggested that, where necessary, a regional development agency working in partnership with a local authority could use the compulsory purchase powers already possessed by the local authority. He also spoke with great feeling about the green belt in his constituency, which I recently had the pleasure of visiting.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) rightly described the dangers of all the centralising powers that the Bill contains. Among those many powers is the power effectively to blight areas of the countryside. She is especially familiar with the situation in the west midlands—an example that I cited when I opened the debate.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) attempted to play down the threat constituted by the compulsory purchase powers, and suggested that they would not be used, in the green belt or anywhere else, unless planning permission were available. Obviously the hon. Gentleman was not listening to the debate, because the point was that, since the Government came to power, we have had a Secretary of State who is willing to overrule independent planning inspectors and, against the wishes of local communities, councils and residents, to grant planning permission even for industrial development in the middle of the green belt.

That is what happened in the example I cited from the west midlands, close to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden. It provides a recent example in which the special protection allegedly attached to the green belt has been tossed aside by the Secretary of State.

Photo of Jim Cousins Jim Cousins Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne Central

Does the shadow Minister perhaps know rather too much about the ways of property companies and not enough about the ways of local government? A property company might well go in for a speculative acquisition in green belt, but a public authority of any kind could not.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I am not talking about going in for speculative acquisitions. As the hon. Gentleman knows, an application for planning consent can be made before the land is purchased. We have a pliant Secretary of State who is willing to overrule local opinion and grant permission for industrial development in the middle of the green belt, so goodness knows how easy it would be for a regional development agency that planned to acquire land for which its compulsory powers might be necessary, to clear the matter—on appeal to the Secretary of State, if necessary—and obtain all the consents that would be required.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) drew attention to the unique nature of regional development agencies, and the differences between them and the other bodies that currently exercise compulsory purchase powers.

The Minister seemed to be joining the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central in advancing rather similar arguments about the need for planning consent. We have already dealt with that point. She then referred to the importance of partnerships with local authorities. I give her 10 out of 10 for sheer cheek. She and her ministerial colleague spent 13 sittings in Committee rejecting amendment after amendment tabled by the Opposition to promote such partnerships and to ensure that RDAs consulted and were more accountable to local authorities.

The Minister revived the question of quarries in national parks. I am touched that, after six weeks' research, she has uncovered 143 hectares of such quarries, but she has failed to identify an example in which the process of restoration would have to involve compulsory purchase powers. Against that background, the Opposition must press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 114, Noes 289.

Division No. 242][9 pm
AYES
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Ancram, Rt Hon MichaelCollins, Tim
Arbuthnot, JamesColvin, Michael
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)Cormack, Sir Patrick
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Cran, James
Bercow, JohnCurry, Rt Hon David
Beresford, Sir PaulDavies, Quentin (Grantham)
Blunt, CrispinDavis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Body, Sir RichardDorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Boswell, TimDuncan, Alan
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)Duncan Smith, Iain
Brady, GrahamEvans, Nigel
Brazier, JulianFallon, Michael
Browning, Mrs AngelaFlight, Howard
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Burns, SimonFowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Butterfill, JohnGale, Roger
Chapman, Sir SydneyGibb, Nick
(Chipping Barnet)Gill, Christopher
Chope, ChristopherGillan, Mrs Cheryl
Clappison, JamesGorman, Mrs Teresa
Clarke, Rt Hon KennethGray, James
(Rushcliffe)Greenway, John
Grieve, DominicPaice, James
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir ArchiePickles, Eric
Hammond, PhilipRandall, John
Hawkins, NickRedwood, Rt Hon John
Hayes, JohnRobathan, Andrew
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon DavidRoe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Hogg, Rt Hon DouglasRowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Horam, JohnRuffley, David
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)St Aubyn, Nick
Hunter, AndrewShephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Jackson, Robert (Wantage)Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Key, RobertSpelman, Mrs Caroline
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)Spicer, Sir Michael
Kirkbride, Miss JulieSpring, Richard
Laing, Mrs EleanorSteen, Anthony
Lait, Mrs JacquiSwayne, Desmond
Lansley, AndrewSyms, Robert
Leigh, EdwardTaylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Letwin, OliverTaylor, John M (Solihull)
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)Townend, John
Lidington, DavidTredinnick, David
Lilley, Rt Hon PeterTrend, Michael
Loughton, TimTyrie, Andrew
Luff, PeterWalter, Robert
MacGregor, Rt Hon JohnWardle, Charles
McIntosh, Miss AnneWaterson, Nigel
MacKay, AndrewWells, Bowen
Maclean, Rt Hon DavidWiddecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
McLoughlin, PatrickWilletts, David
Maples, JohnWinterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Maude, Rt Hon FrancisWinterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir BrianWoodward, Shaun
May, Mrs TheresaYeo, Tim
Moss, Malcolm
Norman, ArchieTellers for the Ayes:
Ottaway, RichardMr. Stephen Day and
Page, RichardMr. Oliver Heald.
NOES
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)Campbell-Savours, Dale
Ainger, NickCanavan, Dennis
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Cann, Jamie
Alexander, DouglasCaplin, Ivor
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Casale, Roger
Armstrong, Ms HilaryCaton, Martin
Ashton, JoeChapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Atherton, Ms CandyChisholm, Malcolm
Atkins, CharlotteChurch, Ms Judith
Austin, JohnClapham, Michael
Ballard, Mrs JackieClark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Banks, TonyClark, Dr Lynda
Barnes, Harry(Edinburgh Pentlands)
Battle, JohnClark, Paul (Gillingham)
Bayley, HughClarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Beard, NigelClarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Begg, Miss AnneClwyd, Ann
Benn, Rt Hon TonyCoaker, Vernon
Bennett, Andrew FCoffey, Ms Ann
Bermingham, GeraldCohen, Harry
Betts, CliveColeman, Iain
Blackman, LizColman, Tony
Blears, Ms HazelConnarty, Michael
Boateng, PaulCorbyn, Jeremy
Bradley, Keith (Withington)Corston, Ms Jean
Bradshaw, BenCousins, Jim
Breed, ColinCranston, Ross
Brinton, Mrs HelenCrausby, David
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Browne, DesmondCummings, John
Buck, Ms KarenCunliffe, Lawrence
Burnett, JohnCunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Byers, StephenDavey, Edward (Kingston)
Caborn, RichardDavidson, Ian
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly)Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Dawson, HiltonKaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Dean, Mrs JanetKeen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Denham, JohnKelly, Ms Ruth
Donohoe, Brian HKennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Doran, FrankKhabra, Piara S
Dowd, JimKidney, David
Drown, Ms JuliaKilfoyle, Peter
Dunwoody, Mrs GwynethKing, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)Kingham, Ms Tess
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)Kumar, Dr Ashok
Edwards, HuwLadyman, Dr Stephen
Efford, CliveLaxton, Bob
Ellman, Mrs LouiseLepper, David
Fatchett, DerekLeslie, Christopher
Fearn, RonnieLevitt, Tom
Fisher, MarkLewis, Terry (Worsley)
Fitzpatrick, JimLiddell, Mrs Helen
Fitzsimons, LornaLinton, Martin
Flint, CarolineLivsey, Richard
Flynn, PaulLloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Foster, Rt Hon DerekLove, Andrew
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)McAllion, John
Fyfe, MariaMcAvoy, Thomas
Gardiner, BarryMcCabe, Steve
George, Andrew (St Ives)McDonagh, Siobhain
Gerrard, NeilMcIsaac, Shona
Gibson, Dr IanMcNulty, Tony
Gilroy, Mrs LindaMcWalter, Tony
Godman, Dr Norman AMcWilliam, John
Goggins, PaulMallaber, Judy
Golding, Mrs LlinMarsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Gordon, Mrs EileenMarshall, David (Shettleston)
Gorrie, DonaldMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Martlew, Eric
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)Maxton, John
Grocott, BruceMeale, Alan
Grogan, JohnMerron, Gillian
Hain, PeterMichael, Alun
Hall, Patrick (Bedford)Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)Milburn, Alan
Hanson, DavidMiller, Andrew
Harvey, NickMoffatt, Laura
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hepburn, StephenMoore, Michael
Heppell, JohnMoran, Ms Margaret
Hesford, StephenMorgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Hinchliffe, DavidMorgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)
Hodge, Ms MargaretMorley, Elliot
Home Robertson, JohnMorris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hoon, GeoffreyMudie, George
Hope, PhilMurphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Howarth, Alan (Newport E)Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)Naysmith, Dr Doug
Howells, Dr KimNorris, Dan
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Humble, Mrs JoanO'Neill, Martin
Hurst, AlanÖpik, Lembit
Hutton, JohnOsborne, Ms Sandra
Iddon, Dr BrianPalmer, Dr Nick
Ingram, AdamPearson, Ian
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)Pendry, Tom
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)Perham, Ms Linda
Jamieson, Davidpickthall, Colin
Jenkins, BrianPike, Peter L
Johnson, Miss MelaniePond, Chris
(Welwyn Hatfield)Pope, Greg
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)Pound, Stephen
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)Powell, Sir Raymond
Jones, Helen (Warrington N)Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)Primarolo, Dawn
Prosser, Gwyn
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)Purchase, Ken
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)Rapson, Syd
Raynsford, NickStunell, Andrew
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Rendel, DavidTaylor, David (NW Leics)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Roy, FrankTipping, Paddy
Ruane, ChrisTodd, Mark
Ruddock, Ms JoanTouhig, Don
Russell, Bob (Colchester)Trickett, Jon
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)Truswell, Paul
Salter, MartinTurner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Sanders, AdrianTurner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Savidge, MalcolmTwigg, Derek (Halton)
Sawford, PhilTyler, Paul
Sedgemore, BrianVaz, Keith
Shaw, JonathanVis, Dr Rudi
Sheerman, BarryWallace, James
Sheldon, Rt Hon RobertWalley, Ms Joan
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)Ward, Ms Claire
Skinner, DennisWatts, David
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)Webb, Steve
White Brian
Smith, Angela (Basildon)Whitehead, Dr Alan
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)Williams, Alan W (E Carmathen)
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Soley, CliveWills, Michael
Southworth, Ms HelenWinnick David
Starkey, Dr PhyllisWinterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Steinberg, GerryWise, Audrey
Stevenson, GeorgeWoolas, Phil
Stewart, David (Inverness E)Wray, James
Stinchcombe, PaulWright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Stoate, Dr HowardWyatt, Derek
Stott, Roger
Strang, Rt Hon Dr GavinTellers for the Noes:
Stringer, GrahamMr. David Clelland and
Stuart, Ms GiselaMr. Graham Allen.

Question accordingly negatived.