Bill McKenzie on two unresolved issues in the planning aspects of the Infrastructure Bill
The Infrastructure Bill is back in Committee today, with Peers due to debate clauses on transfers of land to the Homes and Communities Agency and changes to the Land Registry. Since the Bill’s introduction, it has been clear that it represents an incoherent group of measures thrown together rather than the long-term infrastructure planning that our country needs. Indeed, some parts aren’t even written yet.
Matters however, have become even more shambolic with the release yesterday of a written ministerial statement (WMS) on proposed changes to the Land Registry’s business model. Widely understood to be connected to particular clauses in the Bill, this now won’t be going ahead.
These clauses seek to centralise Local Land Charges’ responsibilities with the Land Registry and give it extra powers. From the start, the government’s consultation on this was flawed –conducted by the Land Registry itself (rather than independently) and raising concerns that it had at least half an eye on privatisation.
Although we should be under no misapprehension that the latter threat has gone away, the WMS will come as some relief to those who campaigned against the folly which privatisation would bring. Ministers never made the case for why they believed it necessary, especially after the sale of the Royal Mail was revealed to have cost the taxpayer £1bn. To quote former Chief Land Registrar, John Manthorpe: “The Land Registry is a successful and highly regarded department of government with a 150 year history. It makes no call on the exchequer and has a 97% customer satisfaction rating”.
Today, we will press the government on what prompted its change of plan and to confirm it won’t do so again.
But it isn’t the only provision being debated today with which we have concerns. The proposed transfer of land from public bodies to the Home and Communities Agency doesn’t appear to exclude the Public Forest Estate. Given the Coalition’s short-lived attempts to privatise the nation’s forests earlier on in this parliament, Ministers will need to make explicit that this Bill will have no similar impact.
At Second Reading, the Minister, LibDem Baroness Kramer, offered little clarity: “The measure that we discussed for the HCA is about transferring surplus land from government agencies. The public forest estate and our national parks are in use; they are therefore not surplus and none will therefore be transferred to the Homes and Communities Agency.”
We’ll need more than that today, and our amendments seek definitions of surplus land and a specific, clearly defined exemption for the Public Forest Estate.
Both with this and the uncertain future of the Land Registry, the government needs to offer sufficient reassurances. Should they fail to do so, Labour will return to these issues during the Report stage of the Bill this autumn.
Lord Bill McKenzie of Luton is Shadow Planning Minister in the House of Lords
Published 16th July 2014