Delivering major development is difficult. One of the deterrents is often the need to assemble fragmented land ownerships. The availability of compulsory purchase powers is critically important to give developers some certainty that they will be able to deliver. The powers should be available and should be used more widely.
However, CPOs should only be used as a last resort. In some recent cases there appears to have been a move to treat negotiations and voluntary deals as an irritant rather than a requirement. For example:
- some CPOs are being made before any real approach to significant affected landowners by either the Council and/or the developer. Even if a CPO is inevitable, an early approach to those affected should be a pre-condition of the Order being made;
- if negotiations have been started they have been pro-forma and tick box -designed mainly to ensure that there is a paper record of contact rather than because there has been a genuine effort to agree terms;
- where efforts have been made to deal with landowners there is no real negotiation. Too often sham terms are offered to landowners. They give, effectively, an option to the developer to acquire at a point in the future if the CPO is confirmed and they decide to proceed. That should never be acceptable. If a CPO is being sought, then the acquiring authority/developer should be willing to acquire the land now. After all, the land affected by the CPO is effectively blighted;
- even worse, in some cases the “negotiations” have been limited to offering a present day fixed price for the land, to be paid only as and when the development commences. No-one would accept that in a normal commercial arrangement so why is it thought to be acceptable in the context of a CPO?
- sometimes the lack of negotiation may have, or may be seen to have, equalities complications. Too often the evidence seems to suggest that some minority groups are not being dealt with properly. All parties affected by CPOs should be dealt with equally.
These emerging practices are dangerous. If continued they risk undermining future support for CPOs. That would then undermine development. Everyone involved in a CPO process should treat it as imposing serious public law duties. Land should, if at all possible, be acquired privately; CPOs should, genuinely, be a last resort. Where it is needed those affected should be dealt with fairly and equally and on terms that are commercially sensible.