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The Earl of Caithness: I rise to support my noble friend on these amendments, in particular Amendments Nos. 496 and 497ZA. With regard to Amendment No. 496, I agree with my noble friend that compulsory purchase should be very much a last resort. If we are to have nationalisation by the Government, or by a quango appointed by the Government, it should be very much a last-ditch performance. Therefore, a reasonable offer should have been made beforehand by the council. I am one
Amendment No. 497ZA is, as my noble friend has rightly said, the Crichel Down principle. That is engraved in every surveyor's heart as an important principle. I see the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, nodding. Perhaps it is already covered under other sections. I hope that he will be able to confirm that that is the case.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: Given the contention that compulsory orders always engender, we are grateful to the Conservative Front Bench for putting down these amendments in order that the position may be clarified in principle. Although we are not sure that all the amendments are entirely necessary, we feel that they are helpful in ensuring that the situation is just and fair.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Perhaps I may start by confirming that we fully accept the spirit of the amendments, although we think, as I shall show, that they are already provided for. Secondly, we agree with the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. Compulsory purchase orders are a matter of last resort. I say that not because of any philosophical views we may hold about public or private ownership of land, and why there should be public or private ownership of land, but because compulsory purchase is expensive and takes a long time and one does not do it unless one has to. Having said that, I want to attempt to show that the amendments are not necessary.
Amendment No. 495 deals with the actions which the agency should take prior to considering the compulsory acquisition of land. The only powers that the agency has to enter into these agreements are indeed those under Section 16 of the 1949 Act and Section 15 of the 1960 Act. But there is no need for the clause to repeat them. It is a fact of legislation, as any lawyer will confirm. It does not need to go on the face of the Bill.
Turning to Amendment No. 496, I am also clear that the matter of good practice where the agency fails to secure an agreement and remains deeply concerned about the condition of an SSSI is that it will try to negotiate voluntary purchase of the land. The agency sets aside a small amount of its grant-in-aid to support land purchase by voluntary conservation organisations. Compulsory purchase is an expensive and over-lengthy process. It would be inappropriate for public bodies to enter that process lightly, although in some cases, as is generally recognised, it may be the only option.
I turn to Amendment No. 497ZA. It seems unlikely that land in an SSSI purchased compulsorily will no longer be needed in future for that purpose. But a major disaster or catastrophe could occur so that the land at some point is no longer of SSSI quality. If that were the case, and there was no prospect of the special interest being restored, we would expect a public body to follow normal practice and offer the land back to the original owner or his heirs for purchase. That does not go quite as far as the Crichel Down commitment for which noble Lords asked me, but the question of whether the Crichel Down rules should be statutorily applied to bodies such as the conservation agencies forms part of a government review of compulsory purchase and compensation. A policy paper on that matter is due in the new year. We do not think it would be appropriate to amend this legislation pending a decision on whether the rules should be statutorily applied more widely.
The Earl of Caithness: I regret to say that I am not very reassured by the Minister's answer to Amendment No. 497ZA. I did not like the word "expect" when he said that he would "expect" the agency to offer back the land. I would want a stronger commitment than that. I am worried about the review of compulsory purchase as a whole. It would seem sensible that all conservation bodies and other bodies
Lord Jopling: I wrote down precisely the same words as my noble friend Lord Caithness; namely, "we would expect" that the Crichel Down rules would be followed. I do not think that that is strong enough. I am very alarmed indeed by the Minister's use of those words. I am also alarmed that new guidelines covering the Crichel Down arrangements may come out within the next few months. I am filled with foreboding about that. I am old enough to remember all the fuss over the Crichel Down affair and the situation which emerged when the father of my noble friend Lord Crathorne was in charge of the Ministry of Agriculture and resigned because of the Crichel Down arrangements. It was the actions of the Official Opposition in another place which led to the resignation of Sir Thomas Dugdale. I am horrified to think that something may happen to erode those rules.
I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will not be satisfied with the Minister's explanation on Amendment No. 497ZA. I shall not be in the least disappointed if my noble friend decides to test the opinion of the Committee on the matter because, in view of the Minister's words, I think it is time to fire a warning shot.
Lord Williamson of Horton: When I started my career as a young officer in the Ministry of Agriculture two sets of principles had to be respected--the principles of Magna Carta and the principles of the Crichel Down case. Therefore, I am sympathetic to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. It is important that we should not allow a situation to arise where government and ministries are bound by the Crichel Down rules following that case. But the creation of more and more agencies, which is what is happening, means that the rules risk being diluted or even not respected outside government. I realise that there will be a review but I think that we need a fairly firm commitment in this case that the Crichel Down rules will be respected if land which has been compulsorily purchased is after all disposed of by an agency.
Lord Marlesford: The Government have got themselves into a slight timetable muddle. Unfortunately, the review will be published after the Bill is enacted. If that were not the case, I presume that the Government would take account in this legislation of the results of that review. Therefore, between now and Report, the Government should find some way of ensuring that, if the review decides that the Crichel Down rules should have some statutory backing, the Bill can be amended to give effect to that.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I should like to make two points in response to the contributions from the last few speakers. First, I should not want Members of the Committee to get the wrong idea about the review. It will not review the Crichel Down rules as applied to
Secondly, in response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, I do not think that it would ever be appropriate for myself or any other Minister to attempt to anticipate the eventual results of a review and further to make advance commitments as regards the Government's response. However, it is of course a matter of common sense that, if the review recommended that the Crichel Down rules should be extended statutorily to the conservation agencies and if the Government agreed with that view, then the Government would seek legislative means of achieving that.
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