Anthony Steen – 1978 Speech on Inner City Land

Below is the text of the speech made by Anthony Steen, the then Conservative MP for Liverpool Wavertree, in the House of Commons on 4 April 1978.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make it compulsory for local authorities, nationalised industries, other public bodies and statutory undertakings to dispose of vacant land in their ownership in certain circumstances; and for connected purposes.

The aim of the Bill is to compel those local authorities guilty of land hoarding either genuinely to develop vacant land in their possession within a limited period or to put it on the open market by way of public auction so that others can do just that.

The scale of land hoarding by local authorities and nationalised industries is not fully known. Suffice it to say that ​ 250,000 acres of prime land, mostly in the city centres, lie dormant. There are over 16,000 acres of derelict or vacant land in London. There are over 2,000 vacant acres in Liverpool and 1,100 in Birmingham. In Liverpool 60 per cent, of the vacant land in the inner city belongs to the local authority, and a further 20 per cent, is in the ownership of British Rail, the water authority or other public undertakings. Much of this vacant land has come about as a result of massive demolition programmes and the failure of the public authorities to rebuild on it.

The consequences of this land remaining dormant are far-reaching. It creates an artificial demand for what is left in the inner city. It sends land prices soaring, and rents with them.

Secondly, as a consequence, new factories and offices are preferred to be built on the green field sites on the edge of the city, where land is cheaper.

Thirdly, the failure to create jobs or to provide homes in the inner city results in a mass exodus of population. Between 1966 and 1976, Liverpool lost 22 per cent, of its population—150,000 people; Manchester lost 18 per cent.—110,000 people; and Birmingham lost 8 per cent.—85,000 people.

Fourthly, by reducing the rate base, the city councils have inadequate funds to provide services for the businesses that remain. The small firm is, therefore, penalised by massive commercial rate demands, and often loading on top of it for refuse collection.

Fifthly, inadequate rate income in the inner areas means that domestic ratepayers in the middle and outer bands of our cities are increasingly subsidising the provision of services in the city centres. If wealth is to be created in our cities, a prerequisite is that the dormant land there must be used to the full. So long as it lies idle, it attracts an artificial value which, as it continues to rise, makes it less and less possible, for anyone to buy.​

The Bill would therefore force public authorities to make up their minds. Either they can develop their land and build homes and factories on it, creating new jobs and providing accommodation to tempt back skilled workers who left many years ago, or, if they prefer not to develop the land themselves, it will automatically be auctioned at the market value to the highest bidder and with a covenant that the buyer must develop it within a limited period.

If vacant land remains tied up with public authorities, our cities must continue to die. Small businesses will continue to be driven out and the domestic ratepayer will get less and less value for his money.

The nation’s attention is focused on the revival of our cities, yet without the release of dormant land there can be no such revival. It is the cornerstone of our return to prosperity, but there is no hint of such a plan in the current Government legislative programme. That is why I seek leave to introduce this Bill.