HC Deb 17 February 1982 vol 18 cc277-8
12. Mr. Greenway

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will seek to require that vacant and derelict local authority land should be sold at auction if not fully utilised.

Mr. King

My right hon. Friend has power to direct the disposal of under-used public land registered under the Local Government, Planning and Land Act, and he is prepared to exercise that power in any case where he considers that land is being unreasonably retained. Whether disposal in such a case should be by auction would depend on the circumstances.

Mr. Greenway

Do we really need registers for this? Would it not be better and easier to tell local authorities to auction 25 per cent. of vacant land, allowing them to choose which land should be sold?

Mr. King

That approach might be most unfair in some cases. We consider it more satisfactory that the land should be registered so that everyone may see which land has been determined as unused or under-used and consider whether there are purposes for which it could properly be used. An important aspect is that the register does not apply only to local authorities. In some ways this will help local authortities, as in some areas there are major problems with land belonging to nationalised industries—British Rail, the Post Office, electricity boards, and so on—and local authorities have in the past attempted to obtain land from nationalised undertakings but have lacked the power to do so.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Will the Minister direct that vacant, neglected and empty private property should also be put up for public auction? Is he aware that in almost every town there is empty property, but that local authorities cannot deal with it because money has been withdrawn from their municipalisation budgets?

Mr. King

I have already answered that question in part in relation to the pressures on private sector land. However, as the hon. Gentleman knows, local authorities also have powers in that respect.

Mr. Eggar

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that when land is sold, by his direction or otherwise, the proceeds flow direct to the local authority, nationalised industry or other body such as the National Health Service?

Mr. King

That is correct. In many cases there has been willing acceptance of the register and co-operation by local authorities. The majority of undertakings welcome this approach and are willing to co-operate. For example, British Rail disposed of a considerable amount of land before the registers were established, although there are other areas that many people feel could have been disposed of sooner. That is to the financial benefit of the authorities concerned, which otherwise have assets lying idle.

Mr. Cryer

Does that not reveal the double standard of the Tory Government? They and their Back Benchers always want to attack local authorities and public utilities and force them to take action, yet they will not take the same powers to force private sector land to be sold, even though it is under-used, because they are too concerned with the rights of private property. In exactly the same way, they will not force private landlords to sell houses in the way that they are forcing local authorities to sell houses.

Mr. King

That question only indicates the hon. Gentleman's lack of knowledge of the true position regarding the ownership of unused and under-used land in our inner cities. This a major problem which must be tackled. That is why we have set up the registers, and that is why the scheme is already achieving results.