Concern is rising that provisions in the Infrastructure Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, could lead to the wholesale privatisation of swathes of former publicly owned land and with it the damage to the historic and natural environment through the weakening or removal of traditional rights such as the public access to land and public footpaths. Critics, which includes the Heritage Alliance, also argue that the Bill will lead to the curtailing of the rights of local authorities to monitor and control planning decisions, including archaeological conditions imposed as part of the planning process. Campaigners argue the threat lies in an apparently bland and innocuous enabling clause in Schedule 3 of the Bill, which is designed to facilitate the transfer of public land to the Government’s “Homes and Communities Agency” and from the Agency to private developers.
The Bill was flagged up in the Queens Speech on 4 June, as an opportunity to sell off “high value” Government Land for development, including the development of garden cities, and it underwent its Second Reading in the House of Lords on 18 June. The contentious clause states
“The property, rights and liabilities that may be transferred by a scheme include: property, rights and liabilities that would not otherwise be capable of being transferred or assigned.”and continues stating that these transfers of public land to private developers “”are to take effect irrespective of any requirement to obtain a person’s consent or concurrence, any liability in respect of a contravention of another requirement, or any interference with an interest or right, which would otherwise apply”.
Writing in the Guardian, leading environmental campaigner George Monbiot stated that the enabling clause was
“The kind of obscure, innocuous wording from which, in those days, the entire grandiloquent flummery of the proceeding pages was designed to distract. In schedule 3 there are a couple of lines, noticed by some campaigners but not by the press, which could, if they have been interpreted correctly, license the government to sell off any public land it chooses, while cancelling, without process or debate, public access and use.”
It can be argued that the provisions in the Bill are a roundabout way of achieving the same goal of privatising Government and Local Government land holdings which was first attempted in a piecemeal way with the proposals to sell off the Forests portfolio in 2011. A proposal which resulted in furious grass roots campaign of opposition which united figures as diverse as the Archbishop of Canterbury, poet Carol Ann Duffy and Dame Judy Dench and led to a rapid Government U-turn at the cost of the career of then Environment Minister Caroline Spelman. In a warning to Ministers who take on the kind of alliances the Environmental movement can command and lose, Ms Spelman was forced to make a humiliating apology for the failed policy in the House of Commons and was subsequently sacked in Prime Minister David Cameron’s September 2012 reshuffle having, in the words of the Daily Telegraph eaten “such a huge helping of humble pie there is none left for David Cameron.”
Coming on top of what will be the effective privatisation of the English Heritage historic property portfolio and the proposed privatisation of the profitable Land Registry, there is a suspicion that the Government wants to remove as much public control and ownership of the UK land bank as possible, preferably before the May 2015 General Election. An important political calculation in this for the Prime Minister and Chancellor, will be keeping the the big financial donors from the construction industry onside and keeping the financial donations flowing in the build up to what promises to be a closely fought and expensive election campaign in the Spring of 2015.
However, moving the second reading of the bill, the Minister of State at the Department for Transport, Liberal Democrat Baroness Kramer, attempted to reassure those who are concerned at the powers granted by the Bill, stating
“The Bill also corrects what was frankly an oversight in the legislation that set up the Homes and Communities Agency, the Greater London Authority and the mayoral development corporations. At present when these bodies purchase land they, like every other government body, override existing easements. However, unlike every other government body they cannot sell the land with the override in place. This Bill eliminates this anomaly, although it will not be used by bodies such as the Forestry Commission or National Parks, contrary to some recent, wholly unfounded, speculation. This applies only to private rights and not to those that are public.”
In spite of Baroness Kramer’s assurances not all were convinced that the Bill is a piece of benign, bureaucratic, tidying up. Campaigners point out that while Baroness Kramer specifically excluded the Forestry Commission and National Parks from the Bill’s provisions, the actual wording in the Bill does not. It seems that the note of scepticism is also shared by others even within Westminster. Responding to the debate for Labour, Tony Blair’s former advisor Lord Adonis, while broadly supportive of the development agenda, concluded
“As the Minister said, concerns have been raised in respect of protected environments and public amenities; for example, the status of forests and land for recreational use. That is a vital issue. I noted what the noble Baroness said about that in her speech. I hope that her assurances are watertight. Otherwise we may need to propose exemptions at a later stage to safeguard vital public interests.”
The Infrastructure Bill entered its Committee Stage in July and it is likely that unless specific amendments and exclusions are included opposition to the Bill will grow.