§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. MacKay.]
§ 10.4 am
§ Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)
I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the sale of British Coal's non-operational land. This is a timely debate because only last month British Coal announced the method and the timetable for the disposal of that land.
The issues are important for coalfield communities. British Coal is a large landowner; it is sometimes said that after the Church it is the largest landowner in the country. I do not know about that, but I know that the company intends to sell 150,000 acres of non-operational land over the next year or so.
British Coal's press announcement last month revealed that agricultural and housing land would be sold in regional packages, that announcements would soon be made about the means and the timetable for the disposal of other property and land, and that the land would be sold to the private sector for the best possible price. I understand that British Coal has a timetable in mind for disposing of all the property by March 1996.
The disposal of that land has enormous consequences for coalfield communities as well as for the taxpayer. Coalfield communities have lived with the dust, dirt and dereliction of coal mining for centuries. They aspire to something better. Coal miners have always wanted better for their sons, and now they want better for their communities. They want new job opportunities and improved social and recreational facilities, a brighter landscape and a cleaner environment.
However, there is a feeling that the process is being rushed and hurried so much that it may be botched. In coalfield communities there is a strong view that the Government want to see the back of British Coal, to bury it deep and to walk away from the landscape.
The proposed sale involves several problems, and I shall spell some of them out. The first question to ask is whether the process that British Coal has announced will achieve the best value for money for the taxpayer. The completion date that the company has in mind is March 1996, so in a real sense it is a forced seller. Perhaps under instruction from Ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry, British Coal intends to complete the sale by March next year, and that means selling an enormous amount of land.
For example, the disposal of 110,000 acres of agricultural land will be the biggest sale of the century. Without doubt it will distort the market and diminish the proceeds. Some agricultural land has development potential, but the process of gaining that potential is not complete because the necessary planning permissions are not yet in place. The difference between agricultural value 262 and, for example, retail value is enormous. The land may be sold with hope aspiration, with the real price becoming available only when the land is transferred into the private sector.
Members of Parliament from mining communities and the communities themselves will follow developments closely to see whether the best value for money is obtained. I expect that, as with previous sell-offs, there will be enormous press interest and that if a subsequent buyer makes a lot of cash from a sale there will be controversy.
The consequences of disposing of agricultural land in that way are already becoming apparent. Commitments were given that 600 tenant farmers would be treated reasonably; the Minister will remember that during the passage of the Coal Industry Act 1994 the issue of tenants was frequently raised. The indication was that their position would—as far as possible—be safeguarded. Recent events have unfortunately suggested that that is not to be. It is essential that realistic negotiations take place with tenants within an acceptable timetable so that they have time to get their financing arrangements into place.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
I hope that my hon. Friend will excuse me for interrupting, but there is concurrent Scottish business and this may be my only chance to make the point that what he is saying is desperately important. In West Lothian, a constituent has built up a dog-handling business and works for the police, but all of his premises and facilities look like being sold by the coal board above his head. He has invested his life and work in that property, which is crucial to his business. I am sure that that situation applies in many other cases.
§ Mr. Tipping
My hon. Friend makes a very strong point, and one of the themes which I expect to emerge from this debate is that the coalfield communities want to benefit economically from the sale of land. They do not want third parties such as insurance companies or pension funds to benefit. They want to see the rewards from their own landscape, and tenant farmers want that too.
Tenant farmers want the opportunity to buy, and many of them have received a letter from British Coal which tells them that if they want to treat on this land, they must reply by 13 February. That is an indication of the speed of the process, and shows the potential for mishandling it.
Meaningful discussions must also take place about price, and those must take into account the cost of subsidence and the price of contamination, as a lot of the farmlands are badly affected. There is a strong feeling that British Coal's attitude to the sell-off is, "Take it quickly at our price, or leave it". I seek a commitment from the Minister today that he will return to the matter if difficulties arise between British Coal and the tenants. I hope that he will assure us that the commitment given to tenant farmers will be honoured.
The second problem of the process lies in the fact that although the 150,000 acres of land has value—I believe that it may be worth up to £200 million—it also has liabilities. It could well be that those liabilities approach £150 million, leaving a net gain of £50 million. The liabilities spring from a number of sources—unrestored tips, Moynihan agreements and the need to rehabilitate former opencast land for agriculture. Contaminated land needs clearing up, which will cost money.
263 There may be a temptation for the Treasury to push the liabilities on to the private sector, but I shall point out to the Minister the dangers in doing that. If that were to happen, the private sector would either seek a discount on the price or demand a dowry in cash terms. I expect the price for the regional packages to be dropped during negotiations because of the liabilities, as that happened during the sale of the core business.
The priorities of the private sector may well be to exploit greenfield sites to avoid tackling the liabilities. There is a possibility that the private sector will seek to put the liabilities into separate companies which, because their asset base will be limited, could well go into receivership. We could be faced with a situation where the public sector pays twice—once by discounting the sale and once by being left with contamination to clear up later.
Let me put the issue into a Nottinghamshire context. In the Nottinghamshire coalfield, there are nine derelict collieries, associated spoil tips and a series of derelict railway lines connecting them. There is some very valuable British Coal land in Nottinghamshire in which the private sector will be interested; for example, the Babbington colliery site close to the M1, some valuable farming land, and a new golf course at Hucknall which is owned by British Coal.
Those assets will attract the private sector, but I am not sure that the private sector will be interested in derelict tips and collieries, although I believe that they have challenges and opportunities as well. Many of us in Nottinghamshire want to see Sherwood forest recreated, and there is a plan for a new community forest in the area. A swathe of tree-planting across north Nottinghamshire could create an attractive place in which to live and work. How will that happen? It will not be created by the private sector, but it may be done by transferring the derelict land to the ownership of the local authorities.
Local authorities have the professionalism, but not the resources, to do the job. I hope that the Minister will look closely at giving local authorities the opportunity to help the landscape in their area. I hope that any land sold to local authorities will not just be waste or derelict land. In Nottinghamshire, we need some good land for car parking and for access.
My third concern is about the process of getting key regeneration sites going as quickly as possible. I understand that there are about 200 sites which could be put on the market to create new job opportunities. What people in the coalfield communities want is new investment, new jobs and a new future as quickly as possible, but there are problems in regenerating the sites.
The private sector clearly will be attracted by greenfield sites first. The derelict former colliery sites will require costly infrastructure and the private sector will not be eligible for grants, for example European regional development fund grants or RECHAR grants. We must look closely at those sites where work has begun by British Coal and which have had the benefit of such grants. If those sites are transferred to the private sector, there is a real possibility that those grants will be repayable.
I want to ask the Minister directly about enterprise zones. He will remember that the President of the Board of Trade announced in 1993 that enterprise zones were 264 to create new investment and new jobs in the coalfield communities, and that there was to be a flagship business park in north Nottinghamshire. Where is it? It appears to have sunk on Victoria street. After three years, we are still waiting for the first enterprise zone. Nothing has happened, and the coalfield communities have a right to know what the problems are. Perhaps the Minister will use this opportunity to tell us.
The lack of action is costing jobs. I know of many firms that want to relocate, but it is clearly to their advantage to go to an enterprise zone. Those firms are waiting for the zone to be created, and we are waiting for the new jobs.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Deane valley—an area of absolutely desperate economic need—is also waiting for such an enterprise zone. My suspicion, which my hon. Friend might share, is that the delay is meant to assist the Government to ensure that outside interests obtain the land and reap the benefit from this so-called advantage, rather than the people who live in the area and who need it.
§ Mr. Tipping
I remember the promises to the coalfield communities that new jobs would come. The industry might close, but there would be new opportunities for our people. In the Dearne valley, in Nottinghamshire and across the country, those jobs are still sadly lacking.
§ Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem goes wider than just the coalfield communities? Nottinghamshire, which the hon. Gentleman and I represent, has more problems than just the closure of the coal industry. Military depots have closed, and there are other problems. The Minister has been incredibly helpful in the representations which I have made to him, and he has also made himself available to local councils which have, to varying degrees, made representations to see how best the land in their areas can be developed. I welcome the debate, and also the speech that my neighbour is making. I also feel that there are wider issues which affect more than just the coalfield communities.
§ Mr. Tipping
It is important to recognise that, contrary to the national average, unemployment in small pockets of the coalfield continues to go up rather than down. The gap between the affluent areas and the poor areas of dereliction is increasing. That is a recipe for social and economic disaster.
I have talked about the process of sale. I want to explain how I believe that it should be altered. The timetable of sell-off by March 1996 ought to be relaxed, particularly for agricultural land. An extension of the March 1996 deadline would allow better prices to be obtained and provide more time for consultation. We should consider using public bodies to manage the liabilities. They have the professionalism. They do not have the resources, but they are committed. They are attached to their local communities. They share the desire to get things done.
Perhaps most important, there should be a package of key regeneration sites. It should not be sold off into the private sector, but meaningful discussions should take place with bodies such as English Partnerships to create new jobs in the area. One of the potential partners is British Coal Enterprise. Perhaps the Minister will say a word or two today to give us some succour on the future of that organisation.
265 British Coal still owns 800 houses and tenants live in them. The Minister will remember the enormous outrage in the mid-1980s when British Coal houses were sold at auctions in hotels in London. That was not acceptable then and it is not acceptable now. I seek a commitment that those 800 tenants, who up to now have not taken the opportunity to buy their home from British Coal, will be given another chance to do so. I hope that if sales occur, efforts will be made to bring housing associations and social landlords into the sale process.
I should also like to mention allotments. It is perhaps a small point, but allotments are vital to local communities. If the Minister wants to cause outrage and provoke a real fight, he should pick on the allotment holders of England. They will be out with their pitchforks and dung to campaign for their case. He should give them a fair chance.
Will the Minister and British Coal consider closely the matter of waste disposal? At present, British Coal disposes of its own waste on its own colliery sites, to regenerate them and put them back into use. There is a shortage of sites for waste. There must be a real danger that if those sites are sold off into the private sector, it will seek to maximise its gain by extending the planning permission for the site so that it can bring all sorts of waste to the site. Coalfield communities want a better and brighter environment. They have had the pits. They have had the spoil heaps. Now they do not want rubbish dumps.
British Coal's announcement last month made no mention of the important recreational and social land that it owns. Not only Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation land is involved. Across the coalfields there are huts where brownies, scouts and branches of St. John Ambulance meet. They want to know their future. The press announcement said nothing about such facilities. The Minister and my hon. Friends will remember the promises that were made during the passage of the Coal Industry Bill. Ministers promised that such recreational facilities would be protected. My hon. Friends tabled amendments, but withdrew them on the strength of those assurances.
Some 215 sites are involved. There are 50 acres of sporting and recreational land just within my constituency. The coalfield communities want to know what is happening to that land. There is a rumour that most of it will go to CISWO on a long leasehold. The story is that some land will go to the National Playing Fields Association. Can the Minister confirm that? Can he confirm that those leases will be transferred at no cost? The facilities are public. Organisations such as CISWO and the National Playing Fields Association, which are publicly funded, ought to receive the leasehold for little.
To put the whole discussion into context, I want to give a case example. In my community, the former Newstead Colliery village is now called Newstead village. The colliery closed in 1987 and the community decided that it wanted a new future. It changed its name to Newstead village. When the colliery closed, 1,400 jobs were lost locally.
A partnership led by Gedling borough council has tried to change the social conditions in the area and build an economic base in Newstead village. Some £2 million has been invested, housing has been improved, open space has been reclaimed and a new water supply has been put in. The Robin Hood line has come to the village and a new railway station has been built. Much more has been done.
266 British Coal owns a large parcel of land in the centre of the village. It has had planning permission for five years. New housing is needed to bring new life to Newstead.
We have talked to British Coal about selling the land in partnership with other landholders. I am astonished that British Coal now refuses to sell. It says that it would like to help in the regeneration of Newstead. In a letter to me British Coal said:the reality is that it would not be possible for us to achieve the objectives set by the Government unless we concentrate on the privatisation work.The big sell-off and the big packages are causing delay on the ground. They are working against regeneration. The letter concludes:I am sorry I cannot be more helpful as I know that Gedling have been very positive in aiding the regeneration process in their district".In May last year, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, as the president of Business in the Community, came to Newstead, liked what he saw and called for more partnership. Is it not a pity that because British Coal has a timetable driven by the desire to bury it and get it out of the way, it cannot create new housing and new jobs in Newstead village? Is it not a shame that the people who are unemployed there cannot build the houses under the training scheme that has already been set up?
The example of Newstead shows that people do not look to the past. People in coalfield communities want a new future; they want the land to be their land. They were born in this British Coal land that is to be sold; they grew up in it; they walked in it. In Nottinghamshire, it is the landscape of Lawrence. They have put up with dirt and dereliction and now they aspire to something better. Above everything else, they want the sell-off to ensure that they have new jobs, that their recreational facilities are safeguarded and that the environment in their area is lifted.
The coalfield communities have been betrayed. Promises were made to them. The sale of this land is an opportunity. Let us make sure that they are not betrayed again. This time, let them benefit from their land being sold.
§ Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)
The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping), who represents a coal mining area, has probably forgotten more about coal mining than I shall ever know; I recognise that. Conservative Members also have great experience of the coal mining industry. The debate is important and touches on issues that range wider than the specific issue of coal mining. I am delighted to make a brief contribution about the proposed sale by British Coal of non-operational and former mining sites.
A point that needs to be made is that we are discussing a much underrated benefit of privatisation. Privatisation has received a bad press in the past few months—perhaps deservedly—because of massive pay awards to directors of newly privatised companies. We should not, however, lose sight of the fact that, as a concept, privatisation has been enormously successful in terms of its major thrust for efficiency savings, profit and economic regeneration. That is an underrated advantage of privatisation. We need to ask ourselves whether, if British Coal was remaining in Government hands, we would be debating today the 267 release of this important land which can help in economic regeneration. I suspect that, sadly, the answer is that we would not.
Before coming into the House, when I was doing a real job, I spent much of my time advising companies on the purchase of other companies. From time to time, we came across companies, perhaps poorly managed or perhaps in the hands of one family for far too long, that did not even know what they owned. At completion meetings, when one started to delve into the asset register, it was obvious that some organisations did not know what they owned and did not use it properly. I suspect that that may have been the case with some of our nationalised industries. They did not maximise their assets and, in some cases, they did not even know what assets they had. That is fine if one is in Canada or Russia where land is plentiful. However, we live in a small island.
It is, therefore, important to recognise that we have a responsibility to maximise the use of our land wherever it may be. I believe that the proposals that we are debating today will enable us to make maximum use, for economic regeneration and for the advantage of our citizens, of land that has been in the ownership of British Coal for many generations. We should not lose sight of the fact that this opportunity would not be happening without privatisation.
This spring, we shall see the marketing of a huge portfolio of land and buildings. As the hon. Member for Sherwood said, 150,000 acres is a substantial amount of land. It is not chicken feed; it is, as my son would say, big cheese. There is housing land, agricultural land, office and commercial land and investment land and property. Some is tenanted and some comes with vacant possession. The land is in many areas where coal mining has been important for many generations. As the hon. Member for Sherwood said, it is important that we give fair terms to those who are currently tenants of the properties. I am all for value for money and for cracking down on public spending, but it is important, where the Government have an involvement, to play fair with people who are already involved in those properties.
I represent an area where the release of former Ministry of Defence land is a huge issue. It is important that the region benefits from the release of that land into the private sector. I urge the Minister to go the extra mile, where possible, to ensure that local people benefit. It would be a great shame if people coming from London or elsewhere snapped up all the bargains. We must let local people have a fair crack of the whip.
I hope that the release of land by British Coal will be a model that nationalised industries, privatised industries, Government Departments and next steps agencies can follow. I think especially of British Rail, which is going down a similar route towards privatisation. We know that vast areas of land and buildings currently owned by British Rail could be released into the private sector for the economic benefit of the nation. I have had some dealings with British Rail lawyers. It was pretty obvious to me that they did not know what they owned or what use could be made of it. It is important to maximise the assets of Government Departments and nationalised industries.
British Coal proposes to sell three categories of property, of which the first is housing. We often hear cries for 100,000 houses to be built each year. I repeat the point 268 that we are a small island. It behoves all of us to ensure, before we start building 100,000 houses a year—I reject the need for such numbers—to maximise the use of existing houses. Some of the houses that are to be released have tenants, which is an important point. I hope, however, that some of the houses that are currently vacant will be made available to local people to help to resolve the residential housing problems in the areas concerned.
The second category is agricultural land, some of which is tenanted. I make a plea to my hon. Friend the Minister. We must respect existing tenancies; that is a matter of law. However, we must also bend over backwards to help tenants who wish to acquire the freehold on advantageous terms. It is a happy coincidence that the release of the agricultural land is happening at the same time as the Government are introducing the Agricultural Tenancies Bill which will release enterprise in rural communities and allow far greater flexibility in the use of land. That will bring some of those regions to life.
There are sometimes hidden nuggets of gold. In the mining industry, one may tend to write off car parks and storage areas as unimportant. None the less, those areas can be released for important rural businesses, such as small factories, which fit nicely into the economic community and which create jobs. These areas are not exploited at the moment. Let the entrepreneurs come forward and make use of the Agricultural Tenancies Bill.
The third category is the 13,000 acres of land and buildings for commercial, office or investment use. Some 200 sites have a recognised development potential. That will be a great boost to the economy of the regions concerned and a great opportunity for inward investment. My part of the world is keen to have inward investment. One has, however, to make available land and buildings for inward investment. Here is an opportunity for former coal mining areas to attract inward investment which will create jobs for local people.
The timing is excellent because the economy is now going forward in a way that it has not done for a number of years. We had growth last year of 4 per cent., and we have low inflation, low interest rates, a competitive pound and falling unemployment. We have a great framework within which the land will be released to attract entrepreneurs, to attract inward investment and to create jobs for local people, especially for those who have been made redundant and who are looking for real jobs in which they can have a career.
After a few difficult years, enterprise is stirring again. People are thinking of setting up businesses again and more small businesses are being created. The release of British Coal land will help small businesses to get started. As the hon. Member for Sherwood said, it is important that small businesses are helped by the release of land because they are the life blood of any economic community. They have the answers to our unemployment problems in their hands. I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to make available special measures for small businesses.
We have all been concerned about the decline of the coal industry. I represent an area in which there has never been coal mining, yet I speak in the debate without apology because coal mining is in the national psyche of the United Kingdom. It is in our blood, as is fishing. When we debated the future of the coal mining industry a few years ago, there was much concern in my part of the world, as there was in every other part of the country.
269 Coal mining is dear to our hearts. But at least there is a silver lining in that cloud because the release of British Coal land will be of economic benefit to those regions.
I do not agree with the hon. Member for Sherwood about speed. I have had experience of other Departments releasing land into the private sector and I am bound to say that the Ministry of Defence in Plymouth is extremely slow in releasing sites. We have been calling for the release of south yard at Devonport dockyard for years, and it has still not been released.
British Coal is driving the matter forward and setting the pace, which is important if economic regeneration is to take place.
Mr. Eric Insley (Barnsley, Central)
It might occur to the hon. Gentleman that British Coal sold land throughout the 1970s and 1980s. When Ian MacGregor was chairman of the National Coal Board, he decided that all British Coal property would be sold off. He set an 18-month timetable, but nobody could keep up with it. Tenants could not raise the money to buy, so were excluded from the sales. The hon. Gentleman says that there should be a longer time scale. I doubt it, because British Coal is pushing this forward rather quickly.
§ Mr. Streeter
I am glad to hear that British Coal has been selling assets for the past 20 years, but the hon. Gentleman will recognise that this is a substantial package, the like of which we have not seen before. I simply meant that, if we have too long a time scale, nothing will happen. It is important that the matter is driven through.
I hope that the release of land by British Coal will be a model for other Departments and nationalised industries to follow. It is a hidden benefit of privatisation and is much underrated. I wish it well.
§ Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)
I am extremely grateful to be called in this important debate. Unlike the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter), I have had a number of pits and tenanted licensee farms in my constituency.
The first paragraph of a letter that I received from a constituent says:You will no doubt be aware of the controversy caused by the proposed sell off of British Coal's non-operational land. My family have been British Coal tenants and licensees for 50 years, and I would like to think that we have been good custodians of the land in the Dearne Valley, as have other tenants and licensees.A problem arises because of certain assumptions that British Coal makes in terms of patches of land in the Dearne valley.
The British Coal chairman began with a large number of coal mines and employees. The industry has now been devastated, but the chairman continues to enjoy the salary that he had at that time. Will the Minister explain why?
Farmers are struggling to make a living, given all the problems associated with the agricultural world. British Coal is a publicly owned asset, so it is not for British Coal Enterprise to do as it pleases. The Minister must assume responsibility for ensuring that British Coal acts in a manner that befits the nation. I tabled a written question asking what action the President of the Board of Trade proposed to protect tenant farmers. The Minister replied:The sale of British Coal's property is a matter for the Corporation.270 But it is not when it causes problems for people who have been tenants for many years. I hope that he will instruct British Coal, in its negotiations, not to assume that certain portions of land are up for development. A number of farms on my patch are in the unitary plan but have no purpose other than farming. There are no proposals whatever to allow other developments on them. It is wrong for British Coal to hold a gun at those farmers' heads. I hope that the Minister will assure us, when he replies to the debate, that he will instruct British Coal to sell the land to those farmers who have expressed an interest.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
Has the hon. Gentleman encountered the same concerns as I have encountered in Scotland? Tenant farmers are worried that the agents appointed by the board to sell farms may have an interest, after the sale, in factoring for a new purchaser rather than selling to the sitting tenant. As a result, the factor or agent will make more profit in the long term, but it is not in the interests of good farming and certainly not in the interests of the loyal tenants who have been there for many years.
§ Mr. Redmond
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but whether there is sleaze in Scotland, I do not know. I speak only for my patch.
Where we have good agricultural or coal land, it should be left. Many coal sites in south Yorkshire could be developed for housing or industry. One example, which the Minister is most welcome to visit, is the innovative Earth centre, which has been conceived on the old Cadeby pit site and is unique in Britain, and perhaps the world. Steps are now being taken to get it going. So there is potential in south Yorkshire for developments on derelict sites, and grants are available.
I hope that the Minister will assure us that tenants will be protected, because, under the unitary plan, their land continues to be designated for agriculture.
§ Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
As the Minister is aware, the total land package to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) referred is estimated to be 150,000 acres. It comprises 110,000 acres of agricultural land; about 9,000 acres of land that will go for regeneration; and some 806 houses, 500 lock-up garages and 1,000 allotments valued, it is rumoured, at well over £100 million. Will the Minister clarify that when he replies?
During the passage of the Coal Industry Bill, we were given to understand that British Coal would pass residual land, together with all other liabilities, to the Coal Authority for administration. Clearly, that has not happened with the land. Why has it been decided that the land will not be administered by the Coal Authority but left to British Coal Properties to dispose of?
It is extremely important to mining communities that land available for potential industrial redevelopment should be developed in those areas. Had the land been passed to the Coal Authority, that body would have been in a much better position to consider passing the land on, in Scotland and Wales to the enterprise agencies, and in England to English Enterprise. The land could then have been developed with a view to creating jobs in mining 271 communities. That has not happened. Will the Minister consider whether some of the 9,000 acres of land of industrial development quality could be passed to agencies and perhaps also to local authorities, so that it could be developed to create jobs in mining communities?
§ Mr. Illsley
Does my hon. Friend share my fear that some of the development companies to which Conservative Members have referred, which want to buy British Coal land, will quote for greenfield agricultural sites rather than try to redevelop the old colliery sites which my hon. Friend and I have known throughout our careers in mining?
§ Mr. Clapham
My hon. Friend has made an important point. If that happened it would be a tragedy because a great deal of land in the coalfield communities could be regenerated without having to resort to greenfield sites.
I recently wrote to the Minister for Energy and Industry about 20 acres of woodland in Woolley colliery village. That village, like many others where collieries have been closed, has tended to be forgotten. Shops have closed, as has the community centre, and there is nowhere for people to meet. If that woodland was handed to the community there would be a real possibility of developing it into a nature reserve with nature trails, which would attract schools. It could also be used by social services and the probation services. That could be a viable project to regenerate the village and it would probably attract shops back to it. I hope that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary will say whether he would support that project. Given that many old colliery villages outside Yorkshire are close to similar land, would he be prepared to consider community involvement, perhaps in partnership with private interests, to develop it for the community?
Three welfare issues cause great concern to hon. Members who represent mining communities. First, what will happen to land that has been leased from British Coal by miners' welfare organisations? When we scrutinised the Coal Industry Bill in Committee, we were given to understand that those welfare organisations would be given the opportunity to receive that land or that it would be handed to the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation. I hope that the Minister can clarify those arrangements and tell us whether he will ensure that land leased from British Coal by miners' welfare organisations is handed over to the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation.
I shall not dwell on the 806 houses to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood referred. However, I would expect the Minister to ensure that tenants are given the opportunity to buy those houses and, where they are unable to buy them, that housing associations and local authorities will step into the breach. I hope that he will encourage that, so that the effects of the earlier huge sell-offs by British Coal are not repeated.
I am also concerned about the future of allotments, but I shall leave that to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington), who has a great knowledge of them.
My final concern relates to the proceeds of the sales. I hope that some of the money will be used to clean up the mining communities, especially pollution caused by mine 272 water. That money should be used for major regeneration projects in mining communities. I hope that the Minister will also be able to tell us that some of that money will be used to extend the pneumoconiosis compensation scheme, which the Government introduced in 1974, to make payments to men who have been awarded disablement benefit for chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The Minister will be aware of the great discrimination between people who suffer from those two diseases, which are caused by the same dust. That discrimination is quite illogical and the money would help to alleviate the problem.
§ Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)
This has been a short debate and, in some respects, it has been a rerun of the one that we had in Standing Committee when we considered the Coal Industry Bill. The only difference is that this morning we have heard from a Conservative Member, whereas in Committee no Conservative sought to intervene. I do not think that today's proceedings were greatly enhanced by the speech of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter), which betrayed his ignorance of the subject.
We are considering the disposal of a sizeable parcel of land—the biggest since the dissolution of the monasteries. I agree with the moving words of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) that many of British Coal's tenant farmers have fulfilled their responsibilities and are entitled to expect not only the right to buy, if appropriate, but the flexibility that will be required to obtain the money to purchase their properties.
§ Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North)
My hon. Friend and I spent many hours in Committee considering the Coal Industry Bill. Does he agree that allotment holders, who have been referred to briefly, have also given great service to the industry, because they are invariably employees or former employees of the coal board? Is it not important that they are given the same security of tenure as tenant farmers because, in many cases, they are not only unemployed but impoverished and if they lost their allotments they would lose a great deal of the quality of their lives?
§ Mr. O'Neill
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. I had intended to speak about allotments and to give anecdotal evidence of their importance to our former colleague, Mick Welsh, who represented Doncaster, North for many years. He would spend the Easter recess at his allotment. He and I shared an office for 10 years and I used to get day-to-day reports on the condition of the various vegetables that he grew over 12 months.
I know that a great many miners, with great ingenuity, have devoted much of their leisure time to the development of their allotments. In some respects, they exemplified the old dictum of digging for victory. Many of those former miners are now quite old and those allotments are one of their last interests. It would be extremely unfortunate if they had to sacrifice their lives' work on the altar of commercialism.
A number of agricultural holdings are up for sale. I made representations to the Minister on behalf of Mr. Scobbie of Shannockhill farm in my constituency, and his 273 response was constructive. He should go a little further today and confirm that deals will not be subject to the current tight framework.
§ Ms Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that British Coal has more tenant farmers in County Durham than anywhere else. On Monday night, 65 British Coal tenants of the county met and expressed their grave concerns about the sale prices and the means of sale employed by agents. The Minister for Energy and Industry and the chairman of British Coal have made it clear that tenants who have expressed serious interest in purchasing their freehold will be given first choice. Tenants in the county are anxious about what that means, because people who may have been unsure about the terms of sale and who held back from expressing an interest may be excluded. I hope that my hon. Friend will seek assurances from the Minister about those tenants.
§ Mr. O'Neill
My hon. Friend made the argument strongly. We all share that anxiety, because we have been approached by people who, in the main, are not wealthy and do not fit into any Euro-profile of agricultural fat cats. They are working tenant farmers, probably employing two or three people, perhaps only their family. They do not have considerable resources. They are taking one of the biggest financial steps in their lives. They wish to be reassured that they can do so in an orderly way, and they wish to be able to make proper financial provision. It would be foolhardy if, in pursuit of a fast buck, agricultural agents were to rush the process and farmers consequently took on financial commitments that they could not meet in the longer term.
Most hon. Members who represent mining constituencies have one overriding anxiety—unemployment and the under-use of resources locally. We are most disturbed lest a land bank is dispersed in a way that could be careless and open to mistiming, and we want several aspects to be taken into account.
British Coal Properties has nursed many parcels of land through the planning process, and has obtained money from Europe, from the European regional development fund and the like, through RECHAR, and so on. It has worked with local authorities. Those efforts could be blown to smithereens if the life-blood of public sector Euro-funding were to be cut off because land was transferred to the private sector. That is a worry.
We are anxious that we, as taxpayers, will not obtain a reasonable return for the money that has been spent on our behalf by the staff of British Coal Properties in nursing properties through the planning process. Properties might be at the stage immediately before the granting of planning permission, and therefore the land might not currently attract the proper value that it would as soon as planning permission was granted. We want an assurance from the Minister that clawback arrangements will be written into any contracts of sale, whereby we, as taxpayers, will be able to benefit from the improvements that we have already helped to fund, and so will provide us with a rich harvest in the future.
Our worry is that those parcels of land will be bought at an unrealistically low price because no planning permission has been granted, that permission will be quickly and easily obtained as a result of the work that 274 has already been done and that money will go into the pockets of developers rather than of those who have undertaken long-term programmes.
Arguments have been made about housing. Most of the 800 units would not fall into an estate agent's definition of desirable residences because they have already been sold off or are too expensive. We should like local authorities or housing associations to be given priority in improving those houses.
Other land falls into the category of miscellaneous open spaces. Hon. Friends have already referred to the importance of the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation and the National Playing Fields Association being involved in sports and social clubs. Many representations were made from Nottingham, especially in Committee.
We have discussed allotments, but we need to consider other land that may not be attractive to commercial purchasers—unrestored tips and spoils that have not been properly dealt with but which should be given to people who know how to treat them. In the main, those are public sector authorities or local authorities. If they are to be given that land, they should be given proper financial help to enable them to meet their environmental responsibilities.
Some land is obviously contaminated and is being used for tipping and so on. Whoever assumes ownership of that land—I imagine that it would be attractive only to local authorities and the public sector in general—should be given proper resources to ensure that the monitoring of that polluted and contaminated land is conducted properly.
Some land will be dealt with according to the Moynihan guidelines. That undertaking was given by a previous Minister, and we want to ensure that the land will be properly accounted for.
This sale of land is one of the biggest sales that we have experienced in this country. It covers the agricultural sector, and working farmers who plan to continue their activities for some time need time to tackle their contractual problems.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) has identified another small group—elderly farmers who perhaps want only another four or five years on the land before they retire. British Coal Properties and the Government owe a responsibility to those men. They should be treated appropriately and should not be hounded into making a decision. They are a special case, and should be given an extension of the lease to allow them to finish their working lives, to contribute to the agricultural well-being of the country.
We also want to ensure that tenant farmers, on whose land opencast mining is taking place, are given proper protection and guarantees that the rehabilitation of that land will be carried through with the rigour that was characteristic of the former owner, British Coal. People tend to forget that many of the tenancies were granted on the basis that opencast mining would take place. Opencast mining is being carried out in several places at the moment, but people are worried that, when it is completed, there will not be proper provision to ensure that the rehabilitation is to the standards that British Coal used to set.
275 I mentioned industrial development, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) gave examples from his region. Throughout the United Kingdom, there are anxieties about profiteering and about lost opportunities for the public sector to carry on the work that would attract RECHAR and ERDF funding, which would not be open to the private sector.
We want guarantees about the miscellaneous open spaces that could be swept under the carpet, the sports and social facilities, the allotments and the land that no one wants but which will require care and treatment beyond the responsibilities that the Coal Authority will have when it assumes ownership—no doubt when British Coal Properties and British Coal have washed their hands of it.
We welcome the opportunity that we have had for a debate this morning. In some respects, such debates are ideally suited to this format, although I wish that there had been more constructive comments from both sides of the House on the issue.
We are discussing communities that have suffered as a consequence of the run-down of the coal industry—a run-down of which the Government are at the centre, and for which they are largely to blame. We want to ensure that the last stages of disposal of the land are carried out humanely, in a way that will result in the economic regeneration of those communities, which have been scarred by the way in which the Government have run away from their responsibilities to coalfield communities.
This is the Government's chance. This is the Minister's opportunity, and we wait with interest to hear what he has to say.
§ 11.8 am
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Energy (Mr. Charles Wardle)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) on obtaining the debate. I agree that it is an important subject, as was obvious from the contributions to the debate. I share the feeling that there is much to discuss in such a short debate. I shall try to answer hon. Members' arguments in my general remarks, but if I do not answer all of them I shall write as soon as possible to hon. Members.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) for his thoughtful contribution. I am aware of the interest of my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) and for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) and of the interest of many Opposition Members, who have intervened or made contributions.
I shall begin by putting the issue of British Coal's remaining property portfolio in the more general context of the privatisation of the coal industry. For several years, it has been the Government's intention that the industry should return to the private sector—after expenditure of taxpayers' money of £20,000 million since 1979, either to cover losses or to help restructure the industry. We believe that in the private sector the industry will best be able to build on British Coal's substantial progress in productivity and efficiency in recent years and to secure its place in the competitive energy market.
As the House will know, the Government completed the sale of mining businesses last December. That represents a significant achievement in returning one of 276 our major industries to the private sector. The sale of British Coal's mining assets has laid firm foundations for the industry's future, but a number of other activities remain in British Coal's ownership for the time being. The residual property portfolio is only one among a number of what one might call the ancillary undertakings of the corporation, and British Coal has been pursuing a policy of disposing of its subsidiary businesses and activities with some success. I could explain what they are, but I shall move on because time is pressing.
Privatisation—whether of the mining businesses by the Government or of its own undertakings by British Coal—is bringing to an end a period of nearly 50 years in which coal has been a nationalised industry. The history of coal in this country goes back, of course, much further than that. In the course of its long life, the coal industry has acquired property for a variety of purposes, in many different areas across the country.
The property portfolio is extremely diverse, and hon. Members may find it interesting to take a look at the background of British Coal's current holdings. Some land that the corporation still owns was acquired as the property of the existing colliery companies at the time of nationalisation. Many sites have been acquired by British Coal with a view to possible future operational use. Some of the land is affected by subsidence, contamination or dereliction. Offices and other buildings, farms, woodland and recreational land are just some of the other categories of property that the corporation has built up over the years.
The portfolio has not been static. Some land, closely associated with continuing mining operations, has already transferred to the successor mining companies as part of the sale. Some land, which is likely to be used for, or in connection with, coal mining operations has been transferred to the Coal Authority. The Coal Authority, of course, is the newly established public sector organisation which, in addition to handling certain historic liabilities such as subsidence, deals with the licensing of future coal mining operations, and it will be able to make its land available for that purpose.
In addition to those properties that have already been transferred elsewhere, British Coal Properties has, for a number of years and with a good deal of success, pursued commercial sales of land that the corporation has not needed for operational purposes. In each of the past three years, sales have amounted to £30 million. However, even after that exercise, there is a large and diverse portfolio for which British Coal remains responsible. Altogether 7,000 properties remain in British Coal's ownership—making, in total, holdings of almost 150,000 acres. Opposition Members have emphasised the importance of carefully assessing the options for the portfolio's future. That is precisely what British Coal and the Government are doing, in the light of the many factors at work—not least of which is the need to ensure that value for money is obtained when properties are sold.
§ Mr. Redmond
Will the Minister make it clear that the value of the land is the current value, not what it might be in future? If it is agricultural land, it must be sold at agricultural prices, not at prices based on the prospect of any possible development plans, and it must be clearly defined as green belt land.
§ Mr. Wardle
I hope to make that distinction because as soon as I have dealt with the background I want to turn 277 to agricultural land, housing and recreational land—many of the issues that the hon. Member for Sherwood and other Labour Members rightly raised.
The need for continuing responsible ownership and management is clearly crucial to existing tenants of British Coal Properties who will want to be assured that the change in British Coal's status does not threaten the performance of obligations and duties which they would rightly expect of their landlord. That is equally important where there are liabilities attached to certain categories of land that require continuing management or where restoration and rehabilitation is still in progress. It is also of great importance for local communities where the land in question has development potential. There are many sites with potential for development, and it is important—as a number of Opposition Members have emphasised—that they should be brought back into productive use in the private sector as soon as possible, thus boosting local communities and encouraging businesses in those areas. In addition, British Coal has many properties of recreational value to local communities, on which I should like to say a few words.
I am in no doubt about the importance that people in coalfield areas attach to land which, over the years, has been leased by British Coal for sport and recreation. We are looking at more than 200 sites in towns and villages throughout England, Scotland and Wales. The issue involves not only miners' welfare schemes—to which the hon. Members for Sherwood and for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) alluded—but a host of other organisations and uses. The uses range from football pitches, cricket pitches, tennis courts and bowling greens, to the scouts, the guides and—as has been mentioned more than once—allotments. That matter is being given careful consideration—the importance of allotments is certainly not lost on me, and it will not be lost on British Coal.
§ Mr. Etherington
All that we are asking is that the Minister use his good offices with the coal board to ensure that allotment holders are given first choice of purchase of the facilities and the chance to join together—perhaps with their local district councils—to obtain the land rather than having it sold over their heads to private enterprise, which has, unfortunately, happened in the past.
§ Mr. Wardle
I recognise the importance of allotments. We are actively pursuing with British Coal options for the future of allotments. I shall ensure that the remarks made in today's debate are conveyed to the relevant parties—they will already have been noted by British Coal. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about that issue.
We are committed to preserving the nation's stock of recreational facilities wherever possible and ensuring that they are used. Hon. Members have mentioned the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation and the National Playing Fields Association—conversations continue with both organisations.
We have made it clear from the outset that we want to deal as sensitively as we can with recreational facilities that are now in the corporation's ownership. It is therefore our objective that land that is currently in active use for sport or recreation in its broadest sense should be retained for those purposes. We are continuing to discuss with British Coal how best to achieve that objective. Those detailed discussions on the possible mechanisms for 278 achieving our overall objective have yet to be concluded, but I hope that what I have said clarifies our position on that subject.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
The Minister said that we are talking about Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation land, as well as other land, and that consultations were still taking place. He mentioned the land, but I did not hear him say all the land. We would like the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation to remain intact—not just the land and the sports pitches, but all the other welfare facilities and those for the disabled that are administered by CISWO. Will the Minister ensure that he is consulted about all the facilities and organisational aspects of CISWO, not just part of it?
§ Mr. Wardle
I am absolutely certain that CISWO will make exactly the representations that the hon. Gentleman has made. I shall not predict the outcome of those discussions, but I have said that talks are continuing with CISWO and with the National Playing Fields Association.
A further category of property that does not form part of the current packages is that controlled by British Coal Enterprise. That includes managed workshops, light industrial units and office space throughout the coalfield areas. I recognise that those have played an important part in the regeneration of the coalfield districts, and British Coal Enterprise's job creation and regeneration activities have achieved much.
As the House will be aware, the long-term future of BCE is under review. We and British Coal are continuing to explore the options for the full range of services that it provides, and no final decisions have yet been taken. It is a matter that requires careful thought and deliberation. As Opposition Members have said, it is important to deliberate carefully, and not rush the decisions.
§ Mr. Tipping
British Coal Enterprise works in partnership with others. When seeking a partner, one looks for a long-term relationship, and early decisions about the future of British Coal Enterprise must focus on coalfield regeneration.
§ Mr. Wardle
It is important to have discussions early in the process. They are taking place now and I believe that sensible decisions will flow from them. I will pick up the pace slightly in view of the time and turn to housing.
In the light of its new functions, British Coal must make early progress with plans for the disposal of its holdings. Hon. Members will be aware of British Coal's press release of 11 January, which sets out its broad plans, but it might be helpful if I highlight the main points of the corporation's proposals.
British Coal is to dispose of its residual non-mining properties under three separate portfolios, which I would like to discuss briefly in turn. I hope that it will allow me to address the points that a number of hon. Members have raised this morning.
Those portfolios consist of housing, agricultural land and what British Coal has termed the commercial and development portfolio, which includes the vast majority of the rest of the corporation's properties. British Coal has announced its intention to sell the agricultural and housing 279 portfolios in broadly regional packages. No decisions have yet been taken about the packaging and disposal of the commercial and development land.
In the past, British Coal has owned huge numbers of houses. Many hon. Members will recall what were virtually "coal board villages". Over a number of years, some 80,000 of them have been sold, in large part as a result of British Coal's policy of selling to sitting tenants. I understand that, in the past, houses where there were full statutory tenants were offered for sale to those tenants, and that only a tiny number of expressions of interest—fewer than 10—remain outstanding. They are being attended to.
However, significant numbers of houses—up to 800—remain in British Coal's possession. Some of them are in vacant possession, but many are tenanted by miners, ex-miners and their dependants. British Coal intends to offer those houses to the market this spring in a number of regional packages, with a view to completing all the sales within a year.
It is important that those tenants continue to have the protection of responsible landlords as British Coal approaches the end of its life. I believe that the corporation's proposals to sell off the houses in broadly regional blocks will offer the best guarantee of early transfer to continued responsible management.
In that context, I welcome the assurances that the corporation has given me that, in assessing bids, it will take every step to satisfy itself that purchasers meet appropriate tests on viability and commitment to the future of the property which they are purchasing. In addition, it will consider carefully the approach adopted by those purchasers in the context of the interest that tenants may have in acquiring their freehold in future.
Agricultural land has been the subject of many hon. Members' remarks this morning. British Coal has a total of 110,000 acres of agricultural land, 85,000 of which is farmland, including farm buildings. That represents a substantial holding across the nation as a whole, not just in England, and the disposal of such a large portfolio is naturally of great interest to many people throughout the country. Some land is in British Coal's vacant possession, but much of it is occupied by sitting tenants.
As with its housing portfolio, it is British Coal's intention to offer that portfolio to the market in broadly regional packages. The precise composition of the packages is subject to finalisation in the light of advice from specialist property and agricultural advisers, but I understand that the corporation hopes to offer the first packages for sale this spring and to conclude all sales by the spring of 1996.
§ Mr. Wardle
I am coming to precisely the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised.
I am aware of the concerns that were raised in many quarters while the corporation was considering the options for the future of that land. It is natural that many existing farming tenants will feel anxious about their position, but I hope that the announcements that have been made will largely remove that anxiety.
280 It is worth noting the protection that existing tenants have under statute. Under agricultural holdings legislation, full agricultural tenants have security of tenure, subject to the provisions of that legislation. In some cases, succession provisions apply that allow two further generations to succeed to the tenancy. There is no question of their legal rights under legislation being diminished in any way in the course of the disposal process through a change of landlord.
I can equally assure hon. Members that the Agricultural Tenancies Bill, which is before the House, does not affect the rights of existing tenants as it will apply only to new tenancies granted after its commencement.
Nevertheless, as the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) said, there is an understandable desire among some tenants to achieve additional security and independence by purchasing their own freeholds. As one would expect, the Government have sympathy with that view, but it is important to bear in mind the needs of tenants who do not wish to do so, and for whom the overriding priority must be to continue to have responsible landlords who have a long-term interest in the properties they own and who are responsive to the needs of their sitting tenants. I believe that the policy that British Coal is pursuing strikes a satisfactory balance in responding to the needs and wishes of all its existing tenants.
As hon. Members know, those tenants who have already expressed an interest in purchasing their properties are being offered the opportunity to do so by British Coal. The hon. Members for Sherwood and for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) referred to that point. I know that British Coal has now written to all of those who expressed an interest in purchasing properties seeking confirmation of their position. When tenants confirm that they wish to proceed with the purchase of their property, in the majority of cases British Coal will take forward the process of sale. Of course, management of that process is a matter for British Coal, but I am aware that the corporation is anxious to make progress with the sales, and it is clearly in tenants' interests to assist it wherever possible.
The corporation's commercial and development portfolio includes a great variety of properties of various types, including sites with potential for early industrial or residential development, freehold offices, leisure properties, non-coal mineral extraction, waste disposal sites and others.
Some of those properties are still in the process of restoration or rehabilitation and others carry liabilities that may require on-going management. Ensuring that the treatment of those liabilities is not hindered in any way by the disposal process is clearly a key consideration, and one which is borne very much in mind.
I know that the corporation will have detailed negotiations with prospective purchasers about the sale of those properties. As part of its assessment of the bidders, it will take account of their suitability and it will want to be satisfied that the bidders have sufficient resources to meet the requirements. Local authorities and other bodies have wide-ranging powers to deal with any failure to comply with statutory requirements relating to liabilities, by which any purchasers will of course be bound.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
I am sorry that I have not been able to attend for the whole debate. Kiveton 281 colliery in my constituency closed just before Christmas. Will British Coal lay down conditions about the development of that site—whether it be by the public or private sector—so that regeneration will be firmly fixed and, on that basis, there will be a clear price for the disposal of the land?
§ Mr. Wardle
The appropriate safeguards relating to identified development potential will be part of British Coal's consideration.
At this stage it is not possible to be more concrete about the proposals for the future of the property in the commercial and development portfolio, but I hope that I have been able to give some clarification about the nature of the corporation's plan on a broad level, and to explain some of the factors which we are currently considering where decisions have not yet been taken.
§ Mr. O'Neill
We suggested clawback arrangements because almost excessive profits would be achieved in relation to the original price. Will the Minister give an assurance that the contracts will take proper account of that?
§ Mr. Wardle
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point and I can assure him and the House that the need for clawback arrangements will be considered carefully in all cases.
In the time available I have not been able to respond to every question. I repeat my assurance that I shall write to hon. Members when I have read the debate and seen which points need specific answers. I carefully noted the views that were expressed and the House has had the opportunity of hearing a careful deliberation about a most important subject.