Amendment 258

Part of 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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Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour 6:45, 20 April 2023

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.