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Housing and Planning Bill - Report (5th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:00 pm on 25th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 10:00 pm, 25th April 2016

Well, my Lords, that was very brief. I, too, will try to be very brief. Before addressing the amendments in this group, I want quickly to update your Lordships on discussions I have had since Committee. In Committee I promised to write to my noble friend Lord Carrington of Fulham to clarify the position of the Corporation of London, given its unique hybrid nature. I take this opportunity to reassure the corporation that our intention is to apply regulations under this part of the Act to the corporation in its capacity as a local authority only, and that the drafting of the Bill allows for this.

Turning to the amendments in this group, I will start with Amendment 129 in the name of my noble friend Lady Williams. Clause 185 provides a power for the Secretary of State, in circumstances to be specified in regulations, to direct a relevant public authority to take steps for the disposal of the body’s freehold or leasehold interest in any land. At present, the regulations setting out these circumstances will be subject to the negative resolution procedure. Amendment 129 amends Clause 185 to require the affirmative procedure to be used instead, as recommended by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee.

I thank my noble friend Lord True—he is indeed a friend—for his arguments and concerns regarding Amendment 129YE. I entirely agree with him and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that surplus land held by public bodies should be brought forward for development without delay, and that local authorities, which are indeed expert on local planning matters, should be able to make their voice heard. That is why we are introducing the duty on Ministers to engage with them under Clause 183.

I assure your Lordships that the Government are equally committed to making sure that more public land is brought forward for development and that surplus land is released for development, including for housing, without delay. I think we all share the impatience for this to happen, and Clauses 184 and 185 will help to deliver it. Clause 184 will ensure that relevant public bodies report any land which has been held as surplus for two years or more—six months for residential land—and the reasons why.

It pains me to say that my noble friend’s amendment could risk undermining this—he himself said it was defective—by giving a local authority the ultimate power, if it does not accept the reasons put forward by the landholding body why the land should not be developed at this time, to force development to proceed. I fully accept that most local authorities would not use this power for mischief making, but the potential would exist. More pertinently, there would be cases in which a fine balance of judgments would need to be made regarding a public authority’s total land asset requirements, at a national level, now and in the future. Given their local focus, however well meaning they may be—and they are well meaning—local authorities are not that well placed to make these judgments. Getting them wrong would undermine carefully planned land disposal strategies across the wider public sector.

The Government’s view is that this power should sit with the Secretary of State, who is best placed to take a balanced judgement on a given public body’s need for the land, taking account of their broader functions, future plans and assets. However, there should be no doubt about our commitment to ensuring that unused public land is put to good use.

My noble friend Lord True has also tabled Amendment 129A—