Amendment 258

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Committee (10th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 20 April 2023.

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Lord Berkeley:

Moved by Lord Berkeley

258: After Clause 101, insert the following new Clause—“Application of TCPA 1990 to the Duchy of Cornwall(1) Section 293 of TCPA 1990 (application of Act to Crown land: preliminary definitions) is amended as follows.(2) In subsection (1), in the definition of “Duchy interest” omit “or belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall”.(3) In subsection (2), omit paragraph (d).(4) In subsection (3B), omit paragraph (b).”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment is intended to provided that for the purposes of planning law the Duchy of Cornwall is treated as any private sector entity.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour

I rise to speak to Amendments 258 and 504GJI in my name. Both refer to issues to do with the Duchy of Cornwall. As the Minister will probably know, I live on the island of Bryher in Scilly, and I have been challenging the Duchy of Cornwall on many things for a number of years, including one or two Private Member’s Bills, which only got so far.

Things move on. We have a new Duke of Cornwall, and I welcome him, but if one looks at the website of the Duchy of Cornwall and at much of its publicity, it emphasises that it is in the private sector. My argument is that if you are in the private sector, you have to behave as any other company, estate or whatever that exists in the private sector. Sometimes that is maybe good for the tenants, sometimes it may not be. I will not get into all the other issues that may be affected by changes in the personnel there, but there are two issues that I want to cover tonight.

The first is in Amendment 258 on the application of the Town and Country Planning Act to the Duchy of Cornwall. In other words, why should the Duchy get special treatment for planning applications and everything when other similar organisations do not? That comes back to the question that we had just had now, which is who is the Crown? It is a difficult one. I do not think that the Minister answered my question on this in the previous group. I am sure that he will have a go at doing it again. There are the Crown Estates, which are doing very well in the offshore field, as well as everywhere else, bringing in lots of revenue, and the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall. All of them, apart from the Duchy of Cornwall, are effectively arms, shall we say, in the relationship between the Crown and the Government and in the financial arrangements and control that the Treasury has.

However, the Duchy of Cornwall is slightly different, so in addition to my suggestion that it should not have any special treatment when it comes to planning applications—which affect a lot of people on the Isles of Scilly, in Cornwall and probably in other places as well—there is leasehold reform, which we have been debating for about five years. I have a lot of friends who are leaseholders who want to buy their freehold from the Duchy. It affects many people on the islands and probably on the mainland as well. We have had some very interesting and useful documentation on this. The last major one was the Law Commission’s report on leasehold enfranchisement, which I thought was excellent. I sent in lots of evidence and a lot of other people did. It came up with a very good report in July 2021 recommending the right to buy for many people. I am not going to read out all its recommendations, but they were wide ranging and, I think, generally welcomed by leaseholders.

However, the Duchy argued that it should be exempt from any right to buy on the Isles of Scilly and the off-islands and on certain buildings on the mainland and elsewhere. Its reason was that the areas where these buildings were located were of such enormous importance to the environment and the quality of the life there that it should not be left to the local planning authority to decide whether a lease should be able to be converted into a freehold.

It is all set out in the Law Commission’s report in paragraph 7.166. Noble Lords will be pleased to know I am not going to read it out, but it is well worth a read for the definition of what it calls “excepted areas”. I think it is true to say that the Law Commission’s report doubted the evidence from the Duchy that it really needed exemption for these excepted areas.

People compared the definition of an excepted area to something like Carlton House Terrace in London. Nobody would want somebody to buy that building. It is a national heritage building and should remain that, in my view, whoever owns it. However, what if you live in a three-bedroom house in a very large castle area in St Mary’s with a wall round it—with even no evidence that the Duchy should own the Isles of Scilly at all—and it is nowhere near the castle itself? It seems wrong that these people are not able to buy their freehold, as they have been asking to for about 20 years. Will Ministers, with a bit of urgency, set up to produce a report on when all the missing parts of the Law Commission report which have not been dealt with will be dealt with? In particular, will they also encourage the Duchy, with the Government’s help, to reach agreement as to whether it really is necessary for those in such small and fairly insignificant properties like those which we all live in there, to not be able to buy their freehold? It would be good to hear the Minister’s answer on that.

Some 2,500 residents live on the Isles of Scilly, and I have one other issue to raise relating to transport. We have been lobbying for better transport to the Isles of Scilly for years. There is a 33 year-old ship that trundles across in the summer at a single fare of £89—pedestrians only, and no cars. They do not want cars there, but I am just saying that it is expensive. Getting there is pretty difficult.

I was really pleased that the Government encouraged the Council of the Isles of Scilly to apply for a capital grant from the levelling-up fund to fund new, modern, efficient ships. They would operate all year round with good quality and charges, managed by the Council of the Isles of Scilly with the Department for Transport’s help, to provide a much better service to the mainland. This was going very well; it has not gone that fast, because the local MP and the steamship company, which is the monopoly supplier of services, thought that they would rather get the £45 million grant from the Government and not have to go out to tender. In other words, they wanted what I call a “bun” so they could continue to operate this pretty awful service without any competing services.

On Tuesday, the steamship company announced that it could finance a new ship without any government help—funny, that. It has been asking for the last 10 years for government help and suddenly it has found the money—if you believe it. I want to encourage Ministers, particularly the Levelling Up Minister, who is here, to keep going with the council and the Department for Transport and come to a conclusion which will enable the fares to come down and for a proper service in summer and winter. As is required for all major procurement issues with local authorities, they should put it out to tender. There are at least four shipping lines around the country and Europe that will want to tender. I hope they will also tell the monopoly supplier that he is not going to get his £45 million without that. That is the purpose of my two amendments. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 7:00, 20 April 2023

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Berkeley for once again using his very detailed, particular knowledge and expertise of issues around the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall. As ever, we are grateful to him for speaking up for those communities. The question he asks is an important one: why should anybody be exempt from proposals in this Bill, never mind the Duchy of Cornwall?

I will start with Amendment 504GJI on leasehold. We have had long and protracted discussions around leasehold in the course of discussions on this Bill previously. My noble friend Lord Berkeley referred to the Law Commission report on leasehold and the recommendations that people should be able to buy out freehold. I cannot see any reason that Law Commission report has not been acted on, and I hope the Minister will be able to enlighten us about that.

Certainly, it does not seem to us that there should be exemptions that sit outside of that for any reason. If the Law Commission has looked closely at the rationale for the exemptions that were put forward by the Duchy and not found those to be reasonable, it seems that the Government should treat the Duchy of Cornwall in the same way as they treat everybody else. As we have heard the Secretary of State say number of times now, if the Government intend to end the feudal leasehold system, will the Duchy of Cornwall be exempt from that, too, or will the Duchy of Cornwall’s properties be included in that legislation? If the Minister cannot provide the answer today, I am happy to take an answer in writing to that question.

My noble friend Lord Berkeley was kind enough to provide information about the issue related to the Isles of Scilly steamship company to us in advance of today’s session, and the point that he makes is a very valid one. For the communities on the Isles of Scilly, this really is an issue of levelling up. He has given us information on the very steep fare increases on that steamship company, and I understand the fare is now some £89. People on the Isles of Scilly will need to use that service. Their choice is either to travel by air, which we do not want to encourage, or to use this steamship company. A strange situation has developed here; it is a situation that I wish I had had in my borough, where when you find you have to go into competition to deliver something if you use government funding, you suddenly find, after 10 years of asking for government money, that the money has appeared miraculously. That does seem a very strange situation. There needs to be close attention to the way these issues are treated. They are issues of levelling up, because communities on the Isles of Scilly want to know they are being treated in the same way as other communities in the United Kingdom. I support my noble friend Lord Berkeley’s amendment.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I will start by addressing Amendment 258 and then move on to Amendment 504GJI, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. Amendment 258 would remove land in the Duchy of Cornwall from the definition of “Crown land”, as part of planning law. The noble Lord asked what the definition of “Crown land” was, and I apologise for not answering him in the previous debate. It is set out in Section 293 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, as my noble friend Lord Lansley rightly indicated in the last debate. It is, broadly, land in which there is a Crown or a Duchy interest—I shall expand on that in a second. I appreciate that the noble Lord tabled a number of Private Member’s Bills concerning the treatment of the Crown and the Duchy of Cornwall, and I admire his tenacity in this regard.

For the benefit of the Committee, I will set out some factual and historical background. For a long time, the Crown was not subject to planning control, but, in 2006, provisions within the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 made it subject to planning permission, subject to special modifications. These recognise not only the unique nature of operational Crown land—prisons and military bases, for example—but the uniqueness and importance of the royal estates.

It is important first to understand the complex status of the Duchy of Cornwall. The title “Duke of Cornwall” and the inheritance of the Duchy were created in 1337 by a charter that carries the authority of an Act of Parliament. By virtue of that charter, the Duchy vests in the eldest son of the sovereign, also being heir apparent. Where there is no son and heir, the estate reverts to the Crown. Craies on Legislation notes:

“That is why … the Crown’s prerogative attaches to the lands of the Duchy of Cornwall, for the reason that they never entirely cease to be Crown lands”.

In short, there is always the possibility of the Duchy reverting to the sovereign, as his or her property. For this reason, the Duchy never entirely ceases to be Crown lands. For example, in recent times, King George VI had no son, so, on his accession, there was no Duke of Cornwall and the Duchy remained with King George VI.

Removing the Duchy of Cornwall from the definition of “Crown land” within Section 293 of the Town and Country Planning Act risks disrupting this well-established constitutional arrangement. This could open widespread implications for not just planning but how the Duchy is treated in law more widely. I have enormous respect for the noble Lord, but I am not sure that it is appropriate to open up this debate as part of the Bill. From his previous experience, he will appreciate that it would not be right for a single individual or party to seek to change the law on the way the Duchy of Cornwall is treated. If that is done at all, it has to be done with cross-party support. In addition, a Bill affecting the Duchy requires the King’s consent and sometimes also the Prince’s consent. For the reasons I set out, the Government have no intention to change the definitions of “Crown land” at this time, especially where this concerns changes that could affect His Majesty’s hereditary rights.

Amendment 504GJI addresses the impact that recommendations in the Law Commission’s 2020 report on enfranchisement would have on the Government’s levelling-up and regeneration objectives, including for leaseholders on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. The Government are committed to making it easier and cheaper for leaseholders to purchase their freeholds and extend their leases, and we are grateful to the Law Commission for its detailed report on enfranchisement reform. This report addressed a range of matters relating to the qualifying criteria for enfranchisement and lease extensions, including the applicability of these to leaseholders of the Crown, the Duchy of Cornwall and the Duchy of Lancaster. In January 2022, the Government consulted on Law Commission proposals that would improve access to enfranchisement and the right to manage. I am sure that the noble Lord will appreciate that this is a long-term and complex reform programme with many interdependencies, and it will take time to get the detail right. Once it is enacted, the effect will be felt for generations, so we are determined that this work consider all the implications with care.

We are considering the Law Commission’s recommendations, including those relating to the qualifying criteria for enfranchisement and lease extensions, as well as the applicability of these to the leaseholders of the Duchy of Cornwall, alongside responses to our consultation. The Secretary of State has set out his intention in Parliament to bring the outdated and feudal leasehold system to an end. We are due to bring forward further leasehold reforms later in this Parliament. Details will be published in due course. There will be an impact assessment to accompany any future legislation on leasehold.

Given the extent of government action on leasehold reform set out elsewhere in policy and our intention to legislate in this area, and the detail I have already mentioned on the reasons not to change the definition of Crown land at this time, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw Amendment 258.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour 7:15, 20 April 2023

I am grateful to the Minister for giving us a very interesting history lesson, which I certainly knew about but maybe other noble Lords did not. As he said, this goes back to 1300 or thereabouts, when the Duchy started. Yes, it would cause trouble to make changes; however, there has to be a debate about the Duchy land. Is it in the private ownership of the Duke of Cornwall, or it is in what you might call state ownership, alongside the Crown Estates and the Duchy of Lancaster?

When the Law Commission report came out a couple of years ago, I wrote to the Duchy of Cornwall, the Duchy of Lancaster and the Crown Estates to ask whether they were going to implement the recommendations, in particular for their own land. I got really good answers from the Crown Estates and the Duchy of Lancaster. They said they would follow the recommendations, but in a slightly different way. The Duchy of Cornwall could not make up its mind. It is seen to be trying to be different, and I do not quite know why, because I love it dearly. It is something that probably ought to be looked at, but I will not go any further on that this evening.

There is a democratic deficit, and if the Minister is saying we are going to go ahead and try to complete the process, which I certainly welcome, how is the democratic input from the Duchy of Cornwall’s residents and others, such as stakeholders, going to be put in?

We have had a very interesting debate and I thank the Minister for his helpful answers, and on that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 258 withdrawn.

Amendment 258ZA not moved.