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Lord Northbourne: I wish to make a brief comment on the proposed new schedule. I wonder whether it would bring the definition up to date. Surely the two factors which limit the usefulness of open space for recreation are, first, that it should not have buildings on it and, secondly, that it should not have motor cars on it. Absolutely no mention is made of motor traffic. For example, is a roundabout on a motorway an open space for the purposes of this proposal?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: This is a very interesting amendmentI like things that interest mebut it is a shame that we cannot have a more general debate. I have a long speaking note and, on reading it through again, I find it fascinating. However, I shall try to restrict my comments to dealing with the detail. I grew up in front of a village green on a common, so I, too, am keen on protecting open spaces.
The noble Baroness has explained that the main thrust of the new clause and paragraphs 3(2) and 5(2) of the proposed new Schedule 5A appears to be an attempt to turn the clock back to a pre-1980 position on the appropriation of open space and, by means of
Under the deregulatory provisions contained in the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980, decisions made by local authorities about development opportunities which included the appropriation of open space required central government consent; indeed, the consent of Parliament was required via the special parliamentary procedure that was required if, broadly speaking, no other land was being given in exchange for that being appropriated. In our view, to impose or reimpose a rather draconian hurdle would be a rather retrograde step. Furthermore, the practical effects could be extremely significant.
The amendments are also directly contrary to the Government's policies on deregulation and putting decision-making about local matters back into the hands of local people. The noble Baroness will be aware, I am sure, that our policy on open spaces is set out in our Planning, Policy and Guidance Note 17, "Planning for Open Space, Sport and Recreation", requiring local planning authorities to protect all open space which communities need and to undertake a rigorous assessment of the existing and future needs of their communities for open spaces, sports and recreation facilities, including an audit of their own existing facilities. These should allow local authorities to identify and plan for specific needs and tackle quantitative and qualitative deficiencies. Additional detailed advice on how to put the policies into practice is given in "Assessing Needs and Opportunities", which acts as a companion guide to PPG 17. It should help authorities to protect and improve their urban green spaces and set better standards for the provision of open spaces, sports and recreational facilities.
We want to reverse the trend of increased centralisation and control over the detailed operation of councilsthat is what this Bill is all aboutand I know that noble Lords are very much in keeping with that spirit. However, the amendment would directly undermine one of the measures we are taking to provide all local authorities with more freedom.
As part of the steps we are taking to reduce the burden of unnecessary bureaucracy, last September we announced that we would deregulate a number of consent regimes. Following consultation in which overwhelming support for those proposals was expressed, shortly we are going to publish a new general disposal consent, allowing local authorities much greater freedom to dispose of land at less than best consideration without seeking government consent. We intend to achieve that by providing a general consent to dispose at less than best consideration, providing that the undervalue does not exceed £2 million and certain other conditions are fulfilled. The amendments proposed by the noble Baroness move in completely the opposite direction to those reforms and, in effect, seek to re-regulate and disempower local councils.
In fact, because paragraph 5(3)(b) of new Schedule 5A seeks to expand the definition of "open space" in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, the amendments would go beyond the pre-1980 position. The consent regimes for appropriation and disposal of open space potentially would apply to a larger area of land than they ever did before. The red tape would not only be revived, but lengthened.
Turning to the issue of the definition of "open space", which paragraph 1 would substitute for that set out in the Open Spaces Act 1906, I have to say that that seems to us to be rather strange. We assume that the basis for its inclusion is that the current definition is thought to be too restrictive, yet the definition includes unoccupied waste land, which the substitute definition would not. The definition of "open space" in the 1906 Act is important because not only does it determine how such land can be disposed of, but also which land can be acquired for permanent preservation. For example, it would prevent a local authority from acquiring waste landsuch as common landas open space for permanent preservation. So I am not sure whether the amendments have been properly thought throughor at least if they have, then that element has not.
The definition of "common" in the Acquisition of Land Act 1981 and the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 would be changed by paragraphs 4 and 5(3)(a) to one which is narrower than the present one, which I do not think is the intention of the noble Baroness. The current definition of common land in the 1981 and 1990 Acts embraces the extremely broad definition given to it in the Inclosure Acts, as well as any town or village green. The amendments would exclude some land which was not registered, or which could not be registered, under the Commons Registration Act 1965, such as regulated pastures.
Therefore the amendment would reduce the extent of the protection afforded to common land against compulsory purchase by Section 19 of the Acquisition of Land Act 1981. Moreover, there is a great deal of uncertainty about which types of land Section 194(3) of the Law of Property Act 1925 applies to. By relying on that provision, the amendment would in fact generate greater uncertainty.
As the noble Baroness may recall, we published the Common Land Policy Statement on 23rd July 2002. It contains a comprehensive package of proposals for reform of the law relating to common land. Those reforms will require legislation, although I cannot give a commitment as to when that will be brought forward.
Overall, we think that the amendments would not improve the scope or understanding of "common land" in compulsory purchase legislation. I hope that the noble Baroness will be patient until we achieve the further effective legislative improvements that we envisage and have very much in mind.
I have given a long and detailed response to this extremely interesting issue. Perhaps this Committee is not the best place to address it, but certainly the points relating to definition that have been made are both important and valid.
Baroness Hamwee: I am grateful to the noble Lord for that response. I am happy to acknowledge that I have not been technically accurate in the amendmentor, in more common parlance, I have not thought it through. This is a highly technical issue and one which is far beyond me. It will be helpful to have that response on record. I am sure that I shall be told soon enough if questions arise from it. I do indeed recall the Commons publication that the noble Lord mentioned.
Of course I agree with the noble Lord's point about deregulation. As I believe I made clear, I included those points in the amendment more because they deserve an answer and not because I am trying to promote a move in a particular direction.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, made a point about motor cars. I shall not begin to try to deal with it in the terms of the amendment, save to say that those who drafted it are far more familiar than I am with the underlying legislation. The noble Lord reminds me, however, that open spaces are too often used by powered two-wheelers, which degrade the open space and present a real problem.
The noble Baroness said: The amendment relates to the clause dealing with delegation to officers, among others, of the Audit Commission. I tabled this, and a similar amendment to Clause 113 dealing with the standards board, simply because I believe that the Government should justify delegation to officers. Delegation to members is one matter, but delegation to officers is another and might be quite significant. It is as simple and short as that. I beg to move.
The Audit Commission is made up of part-time commissioners. The purpose of Clause 112 is to allow the full board of the Audit Commission to operate more efficiently by delegating certain matters so that formal decisions can be made without the need to await a meeting of the full board or to consult all members of the board in writing.
The noble Baroness is concerned about the possibility of decisions being delegated to officers as well as to committees or sub-committees. We need to give the board maximum flexibility. A similar power in relation to the commission's best value functions under Part 1 of the Local Government Act 1999 already exists in Section 22 of that Act.
The power to delegate which Clause 112 would give will be exercised on the basis of a delegation schedule. This schedule will need to be approved by the full board and will describe which matters are to be delegated to a committee or sub-committee of the full board and which are to be delegated to named officers. Only matters which the full board are satisfied are appropriate for delegation to officers will be so delegated.
It will be for the board to decide what those matters should be, but they could be detailed matters such as the composition of an audit team for a particular authority or matters relating to staff conditions or contracts.
Virtually the same points apply to the standards board, because the amendment again seeks to restrict the scope of proposed powers of delegation by preventing the board from delegating functions to an officer or servant of the board. They are designed simply to allow the board to put in place efficient processes for carrying out the various functions given to the board under the Local Government Act 2000.
It would mean, for example, if we were prevented from doing this, that members of the board would have to be involved in every decision whether to investigate an allegation. The board would be unable to put in place sensible procedures for more rapidly dismissing frivolous allegations or for commencing investigations where there was a clear need to do so.
If the intention of the amendment in this case is to ensure that the standards board remains responsible and accountable for its functions, it is completely unnecessary, because the board would continue to be responsible for all the functions carried out under a scheme of delegation. So, again, the matter would have to be approved by the full board.
So the purpose of both amendments is the same. It is reasonable and understandable that the amendments should have been tabled. I hope that the noble Baroness will consider that the answer to both is equally reasonable.
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