Clause 29 - Commons and open spaces

High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 1 March 2016.

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Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Minister (Transport) 2:45, 1 March 2016

I beg to move amendment 16, in clause 29, page 12, line 28, at end insert—

“(d) The ownership of any public space which was previously owned by a public body and which is acquired by the nominated undertaker or the Secretary of State for Phase One purposes, and is subsequently returned to use as public space, must be transferred to a public body when that public space is no longer required for Phase One purposes.

“(e) For the purposes of subsection (d), a public body is a local authority, the Greater London Authority, Transport for London or any Metropolitan County Transport Authority.”

This amendment requires the ownership of any public space which was previously owned by a public body and which is acquired by the nominated undertaker or Secretary of State for Phase One purposes, and which is then subsequently returned to use as a public space, to be transferred to a public body when the space is no longer required.

Clause 29 would give the Secretary of State significant and wide-ranging powers over commons and open spaces. The amendment is another attempt from me to put some shackles on the Secretary of State to prevent him or her from overreaching those powers. The clause says:

“No enactment regulating the use of commons, town or village greens, open spaces or allotments, and no enactment specially regulating any land of any of those kinds, prevents or restricts”

the Secretary of State doing all manner of things. That includes

“(a) the doing of anything for Phase One purposes on land held by the Secretary of State or the nominated undertaker for those purposes,

(b) the exercise of any right of entry…or

(c) the doing of anything in exercise of any other power under this Act.”

So the Secretary of State has a pretty free hand to do as he or she pleases. In any other circumstances, there would be chaotic, loud and persistent protests at the infringement of such treasured spaces of public land.

We all recognise that the needs and demands of HS2 change all that. Therefore, the Secretary of State must have these powers. We do not object to that but we would like to see those powers qualified. We are talking about a modest qualification regarding the return of land to a public authority, keeping that land out of the clutches of any potential private entity. We believe that would be entirely appropriate and welcomed by many people.

Commons, village greens and allotments are very much a part of our British culture and heritage. They speak a lot to who we are as a nation and are treasured by all manner of UK citizens, regardless of political affiliation or association. Those lands are worthy of our utmost protection. We attempt to do that by adding to Clause 29 a provision for returning such land, which was previously owned by a public body, back to a public body once HS2 has finished with the land. This amendment seeks to address the concern to ensure that, through the acquiring of public spaces previously owned by a public body by the nominated undertaker or the Secretary of State for phase 1 purposes, public spaces are not then privatised.

Public spaces are an extension of the community and play an important role in civic life, so it is important that the interests of business do not override the needs of communities in the construction of HS2.

Concerns over privatisation of public spaces have been voiced by Euston action group, among others. I need not stress to the Minister that any attempts to acquire public spaces owned by a public body and then privatise them when no longer required for phase 1 purposes would be met with significant opposition from those who live in the affected area and run the risk of undermining public support for HS2 and also of causing considerable reputational damage, which we are all anxious to avoid. This amendment would put into primary legislation a stipulation that the acquiring of land for phase 1 purposes will not be used as a means of back-door privatisation of public spaces, by requiring that:

“The ownership of any public space which was previously owned by a public body and which is acquired by the nominated undertaker or the Secretary of State for Phase One purposes, and is subsequently returned to use as public space, must be transferred to a public body when that…space”

is no longer required.

I do not wish to suggest that there is an anti-public authority agenda, nor that this is a back-door means of privatisation. Nevertheless, the concerns of some that that is a possibility are not unreasonable. I do not want to undermine the spirit of co-operation that we enjoy in the Bill Committee; but UK history is littered with botched and unpopular privatisations. Some are concerned that privatisation of these precious green spaces could be caused inadvertently through the construction of HS2.

If the Minister can give an assurance that public spaces that are acquired from a public body by the Secretary of State or the nominated undertaker for the  purposes of phase 1 will then be returned for use as a public space and transferred to a public body when the space is no longer required, I will be satisfied. I reserve my position, in the hope that the Minister will furnish the Committee with assurances in those respects.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 3:00, 1 March 2016

May I say at the outset that I intend to satisfy the hon. Gentleman completely? We are both in exact accord on this particular aspect. As he mentioned, Clause 29 refers to commons and open spaces and disapplies existing enactments that regulate the use of commons, town or village greens, open spaces or allotments. HS2 has made a number of commitments with regard to the effects of phase 1 of HS2 on open space, which are binding through the environmental minimum requirements. Where there are effects, we have sought to reach agreement with local authorities on how the effects will be mitigated. For example, commitments have been made to the London Borough of Ealing regarding the provision of new open space to mitigate the partial loss of Cerebos Gardens and to minimise land take from Victoria Gardens during construction.

On the assurance that the hon. Gentleman wishes me to give, let me be clear that as part of the HS2 land disposal policy, any public space acquired for HS2 that is to revert back to a public space and is to be disposed of will be offered to the original owning authority for their first refusal. That was always our intention and I make an absolute commitment that it will be the case. We will have cases in which privately held land is used temporarily during the construction process, and we intend to ensure that the private landowner has first refusal on taking that land back into their ownership.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the Secretary of State has significant and wide-ranging powers, so it is important to look at how the land that we cannot return will be replaced. I have already mentioned a couple of instances. The process has already been subject to the petitioning process and people will have had an opportunity to make their case and the Committee will have responded.

I will go further to suggest that the project will deliver additional public space and access. Some of the areas where we are carrying out environmental mitigation may be areas where we would wish the public to have access. There is a difficult balance to be struck between the needs of a local wildlife group that does not want dog walkers and disturbance to the wildlife in a particular nature conservation area, and the members of the public who probably would not understand how ground-nesting birds and other species could be affected by public access, but I am confident that there will be areas where public access is increased, and that will be to the benefit of everybody.

I cannot stress enough how strongly I absolutely understand what the hon. Gentleman has said. The land will be offered to the original owning authority for first refusal, so I hope his concerns have been allayed.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Minister (Transport)

I can declare myself fully satisfied, or almost. I have only two issues. The Minister mentioned the instance in Ealing. If I have heard him correctly, that space will be not traded, but exchanged, and will repose in the local ownership of Ealing Borough Council. He has indicated that that is the case. If I have got that wrong, perhaps he will clarify that for me.

On the wider point of a local authority having held property effectively in trust for its citizens, if in the course of the next several years we see the nature, scope and range of local authorities change, and notwithstanding the fact that the original owning local authority may no longer exist as an entity, I assume that the property will be transferred to a similarly constituted successor local authority or other such public authority that would meet the requirements or description of being publicly owned. As we go through the devolution process, we may see increased powers for local boroughs or combined authorities, and the property rights may repose in bodies we have not yet decided on. Is the Minister able to reassure me about that?

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

The hon. Gentleman is right that local government may be reformed. We may see more combined authorities or local authorities merging, or county and borough councils may become unitary in future. I can reassure him that whatever the structure of local government, the land will repose within a local government structure. A local parish or town council might wish to step in and take over the management of the land, which probably makes control of the land closer to the community. He should have no fears that, however local government changes might be enacted in future years, the basis of the clause as it relates to commons and open spaces is fundamental and will not change .

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am grateful to the Minister. Having been fully satisfied, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 29 ordered to stand part of the Bill.